Monday, April 30, 2007

Random Weekend Photos

I'm in no mood to ruminate on matters serious today, preferring instead to recover from a hectic weekend of ferrying the kids to various practices and games. I say "ferrying," and if you live in suburbia that will instantly conjure images of me shuttling kids about in a minivan or station wagon. However, a) this is New York, and b) I refuse to become a minivan parent. We walked or took the subway and bus. In fact, on Saturday, when the boys had baseball in the morning and soccer in the afternoon, we walked everywhere . . . in the end, probably several miles. Luckily the boys are accustomed to walking long distances in the city and didn't complain. Indeed, they're usually pretty curious about walking through the different neighborhoods - almost like little villages - that make up the city.

One never knows what one might encounter . . . a street fair, a crime scene, and in our neighborhood in particular, celebrities. This weekend it was Elvis Costello and his wife Diana Krall, each pushing a stroller with their several-month-old twins. Also, Julianne Moore, who's a regular in the 'hood and is just so sweet and down to earth - not to mention gorgeous - was out at the little league games with daughter Olivia watching her son play baseball. Luckily no paparazzi caught up with them, an occurrence that's happening with greater frequency in the West Village.

So here are a few random shots from the weekend's walks. Thankfully the weather turned warmer and sunnier on Sunday, thus improving the light. I include the first photo from my walk home on Friday, just to underscore the point about encountering the unexpected, even when it comes to architecture. This was a terracotta building number in the Flatiron District. Most people keep their eyes glued to the pavement when they walk in the City. I tend to look up just so I can spot interesting stuff on buildings, in part because I'm also looking for subjects for painting. As noted before, I enjoy painting architectural details and usually choose subjects based on the play of geometry and light in a scene. The photo of old cameras in a window was taken on Hudson Street. They reside in this little gallery that recently featured a series of paintings on famous Jewish boxers of the early 20th century. I know . . . how obscurantist is that?! The remainder of the images - none really artful or noteworthy - just continue to show the neighborhood in its Spring wakeup. I love the contrast between the green of the tree leaves (which just unfolded in the last week) and the blue sky. Sunday was a nice afternoon for staring at the sky.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Rainy Fridays and the "Corporatist Synthesis"

Ok, ok, I won't get into the debate about whether we need the rain or not. In neighboring New Jersey, residents are likely cursing the skies, particularly in those districts recently declared "disaster zones" because of recent flooding. Here in the City, however, a day of rain is good because it knocks some of the pollen out of air and washes down the sidewalks a bit. (Despite "curb your dog" laws, not everyone is vigilant about cleaning up.) Still, a chilly rainy day like this, with May in sight, is a bit depressing. It also didn't help that I didn't leave the house with my umbrella . . . and of course, it was raining by the time I exited the subway. Dashing from the subway at 33rd Street to the office, I had a chance to wash my hair a second time today and arrived looking and feeling like a damp dishrag in my kitchen.

When I lived in Virginia and Tennessee, we were already in full spring, with some days already resembling summer. Of course, it doesn't help one's state of mind when the sinuses are excruciating and my knees burn from the change in barometric pressure. (And I'm supposed to run around coaching Little League baseball tomorrow and Sunday??)

There's virtually no one in the building today and I'm the lone soul in my office, which is actually a good thing. I can generally work without interruption, taking breaks to scribble sentences here. In fact, much of my blog is written at work, usually first thing in the morning before things get busy. Nearly all of my entries are spur of the moment, off-the-top-of-my-head affairs. If I actually had time to research some of the stuff on which I write, I'd likely never complete an entry. Sometimes that gets me in trouble.

A recent comment, for example, pointed out that I had incorrectly identified the current head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which is adjunct to the Interior Department. I double-checked, which in my previous life as a historian would have been automatic, and found that I had, in fact, made a mistake. Alas, we're not perfect. I did, however, learn that the mentioned head of MSHA had resigned amidst a cloud of scandal in 2004, and, naturally, landed a high-paying job as a consultant to the mining industry shortly thereafter. This discovery only underscored my conclusion.

This little episode - an epilogue to yesterday's post on "Bush the Terrorist" - highlights an interesting historiographical debate that actually started in the way scholars tried to explain the history of American foreign policy. Some historians (think William Appleman Williams' The Tragedy of American Diplomacy and the "New Left") argued that U.S. foreign policy was primarily influenced by economics. These "economic determinists" - channeling the ethos of historian Charles Beard - suggested that a relentless drive for markets and natural resources had shaped foreign policy, from our first acquisition of "empire" to our Cold War with the Soviets . Critics of Williams, on the other hand, argued that American foreign policy had been shaped primarily by ideology, particularly in terms of the notion of spreading democratic ideals vis-a-vis Manifest Destiny or anti-communism.

Scholarship in the last 20 years, however, has brought these two competing ideas together in what is sometimes called the "corporatist synthesis": both ideology and economics shape foreign policy. One certainly sees some of this at play in Iraq. Bush's drive to war was no doubt shaped by his party's anti-Islamic, right-wing Christian, jingoistic world view. At the same time, America's corporate monolith, particularly the oil companies which funneled millions into Republican coffers, needed to maintain America's ties to the oil-rich Middle East. And, examining the ranks of State Department personnel in recent years, one finds a revolving door between corporate boards and governmental office. Rather reminds me of the oft-quoted line from the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s: "What's good for General Motors is good for America." Whether that was ever actually said is still open for debate, but it accurately reflected the mentality of the time. One could argue that the same applies today, amended to read: "What's good for Exxon-Mobil is good for America."


See how crowded my mind is? And on days like this, when I'm trying not to think about work, or what it's doing outside, the "stuff" that swirls around in there bubbles out.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

George W. Bush: Homegrown Terrorist

I've read two interesting stories this week about the Bush administration's treatment of working people in America, and both stories lead me to one conclusion: Bush and his cronies are terrorists. Indeed, between the unnecessary deaths of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and the unnecessary deaths of workers in American industry, Bush and his operatives are responsible for killing more people than any of the terrorists of 9/11 or thereafter.

Take, for example, a story in the New York Times this week about how Bush appointees in OSHA have gutted the system of regulations that protect workers from job-related injuries and force employers to provide a safe working environment for employees. According to the Times, "Across Washington, political appointees — often former officials of the industries they now oversee — have eased regulations or weakened enforcement of rules on issues like driving hours for truckers, logging in forests and corporate mergers. . . . 'The people at OSHA have no interest in running a regulatory agency,' said Dr. David Michaels, an occupational health expert at George Washington University who has written extensively about workplace safety. 'If they ever knew how to issue regulations, they’ve forgotten. The concern about protecting workers has gone out the window.' "

I was also reading a great book - Big Coal - which examines the U.S. coal industry in terms of safety, environmental impact, labor practices, and energy consumption. Once again, the Bush administration has gone out of its way to place a former coal industry lobbyist in charge of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) . In fact, the head of MSHA from 2001 until 2004, Dave Lauriski, spent years lobbying the government to loosen the rules against dangerous levels of coal dust - the main cause of black lung - in underground mines. Huh?! The coal industry already has a long history of lax safety enforcement. Shouldn't Lauriski have been the last person considered for this position?

It's just another example of Bush and the Republicans "letting the wolf guard the henhouse." How can American workers accept this kind of behavior? Yet even when injured workers try to change conditions in the workplace, corporate lawyers and Bush appointees in governmental agencies muster their considerable resources and influence to derail court battles and stifle bad publicity.

And the ultimate goal? Profit is more important than human lives. Sure, a pro-regulatory climate is good for worker safety and productivity. Yet more strict regulation of industry lowers profits. And unfortunately, we've become a society more interested in how a company's stock performs on Wall Street than in how a corporation benefits society through its products and innovations or treats its employees. The problem is only exacerbated when a president hands the keys to government to the corporations.

We've had corrupt or ineffectual presidents before. Unfortunately, the American people have a bad habit of elevating mediocre politicians to the nation's highest office. Look to the late 19th century, for example. The administration of Ulysses S. Grant was punctuated by scandal and graft. Yet Grant himself could scarcely be regarded as a malevolent or consciously corrupt chief executive. Most of the administration's failures can be attributed to Grant's ignorance and lack of experience. Move forward to the early 1920s and one finds a complex web of corruption surrounding the administration of Warren G. Harding.

The difference today is that the Bush administration - specifically Bush, Cheney, Rove and Rice - represents an "axis of evil" no less dangerous than Fascist Germany or Stalinist Russia. It is aggressive, corrupt, dismissive of citizens' most basic liberties, and ideologically myopic. Bush and his cronies display a poor understanding of history's lessons and act with a seeming disregard for the long-term consequences of their actions. Moreover, in its efforts to subvert the freedoms and protections guaranteed citizens, the Bush administration has violated the Constitution - and the rule of law - time and time again. Bush the terrorist is a cancer on the body politic and should be excised the way one removes a life-threatening tumor. Then, after committing the Bush administration to the dustbin of history, our nation can begin to right the wrongs and abuses of eight miserable years. Unfortunately, it will take far longer than eight years to restore Americans' faith in their government and the world's faith in the United States.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Freshwater Ghost Towns and the Promise of Desalination

This piece is a first draft of an editorial I'm penning for a friend.
Does the "American Dream" automatically include a green lawn fed by the rhythmic clatter of sprinklers across our "crabgrass frontier?" If you live out West, you've likely already addressed this question . . . and probably endured restrictions on watering your lawn! In some parts of the country a lush, green yard, resembling those featured in annoying Scott's commercials for fertilizers and anti-weed treatments, may soon be a thing of the past. In fact, in western states, concern has obviously moved beyond the silly aesthetics of lawn care to the more serious issue of having sufficient water supplies for human consumption and agricultural production.

For decades the response to growing demand has been the construction of canals and pipelines to tap the resources of the region's more water-rich areas. (And, as Marc Reisner detailed in Cadillac Desert, this drive for water was not always accomplished through friendly or entirely legal means.) But as long as rain and snowfall amounts remained relatively constant, supply met demand. Nevertheless, after decades of unrestrained development, increased demand for water, and several years of severe drought, the water supply and demand equation is not so easily balanced. Factor in the admonitions of scientists studying the myriad effects of global warming and attendant climate change, and one faces the likelihood of dire consequences for large sections of the United States, particularly the West.

Emerging from this debate over dwindling water resources is renewed interest in the potential of desalination. To most Americans, desalination is associated with Israel, Saudi Arabia and neighboring, largely desert nations. Surprisingly, desalination of brackish water has been undertaken for decades in the U.S., particularly in the treatment of water entering Mexico. In the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government actually funded desalination research and, through the Army Corps of Engineers, built a number of plants, most in the West. With adequate rainfall, as well as greater investment in canals and pipelines, however, funding for desalination technologies dried up and federally-run plants were mothballed.
Yet with water shortages a reality and alarmist predictions of future shortfalls sounding more likely, desalination processes now attract greater attention and capital. Although desalination can be accomplished by several means, including evaporation/condensation, vacuum distillation, and electrodialysis, reverse osmosis remains the dominant technology worldwide. With reverse osmosis, high-pressure pumps force water through semi-permeable membranes which filter out the dissolved solids. For ocean proximate communities threatened by imminent water crisis, these desalination technologies offer an enticing response to predictions of dryer years ahead.

Still, what about land-locked cities - Denver, for example - that do not have the option of establishing desalination plants to solve their future water consumption needs? For those communities that do not have access to an ocean or significant agricultural runoff, the painful reality will likely reflect two scenarios: localities will face substantially slowed growth or even population and commercial decline as water becomes more scarce, or, they will find themselves shopping for water resources from those lucky municipalities that have a marketable water surplus, in the way some local utilities now shop the national electric grid for power. Except water, unlike electricity, is not an easy commodity to transport in large quantities. Not every city or town facing water shortages will possess the capital to invest in pipelines or other modes of transport. Moreover, large cities will face significant opposition from environmentalists - and competing communities - in their efforts to alter further the western landscape with dams, pipelines and canals. Las Vegas, for example, faces serious legal battles in its efforts to tap the springs and rivers of northern Nevada.

Assuming the mantle of historical geographer and studying a map of the West, one sees a landscape dotted with ghost towns. Yet they're not of the mythic "Old West" variety; they are towns that sprang up in response to the discovery of gold, silver, copper and uranium, or flourished when the first roads spidered westward to California. Today, there are countless exit ramps along the east-west highways that lead to abandoned mining communities and once prosperous towns with derelict truck stops, gas stations, garages and warehouses. Fifty to 75 years from now, we may have a new breed of ghost towns - communities that emerged around the burgeoning agribusinesses that took advantage of post-Depression irrigation efforts, but dried up as their access to inexpensive water evaporated. Even larger interior cities like Denver may face significant contraction if their diminished water supplies, dependent on the shrinking snow pack of the Rockies, can not be supplemented by other sources. Water-stressed urban areas may become the West's equivalent of decaying, post-industrial "Rust Belt" cities, their economic hearts on life support as businesses and citizens leave for - literally - greener climes. And one suspects that these new ghost towns of strip malls and convenience stores will prove neither as picturesque nor as attractive to tourists as Bodie, California, and similarly "historic" mining communities.

And the prospects for those areas which ultimately embrace desalination technologies? Although a promising alternative, desalination offers no "silver bullet" in the drive to supplement dwindling water resources. Indeed, for some environmentalists and investors alike, current desalination methods promise as many headaches as solutions.

Desalination is, in fact, a high cost process. (Oil rich countries in the Middle East simply use their petroleum profits to fund desalination plants.) How will California and neighboring states meet this expense? Higher taxes? Surcharges for increased water use? Neither alternative will prove popular among residents already clamoring for tax reform and relief from high energy costs.

In addition, desalination plants are big power consumers. In a region struggling to meet current power demands, how will an overburdened energy infrastructure meet the needs of communities that invest in desalination plants? Do we secure adequate water supplies with a concomitant increase in the consumption of fossil fuels? And, since the U.S. is allegedly the "Saudi Arabia of coal," are new coal-fired plants brought online to feed our energy needs and power new desalination plants? One potential solution is investment in nuclear-powered desalination, an effort currently being tried in the former Soviet Union. Australians have taken the innovative step of powering desalination plants with wind-driven turbines, as a recent New York Times article reveals (New York Times, April 3, 2007). Yet both nuclear and wind power technologies will doubtless prove controversial options vis-a-vis their possible environmental impact in the West.

Finally, one must consider the environmental impact of the desalination process. How do communities dispose of the hypersaline brine, classified as industrial waste by the EPA? Uncontrolled discharge into oceans invites environmental disaster. And, given growing public concern over the tenuous health of the Pacific ecosystem - in the much-studied area of Monterrey Bay, for example - it is unlikely that localities will embrace the promise of clean water at the expense of local fisheries and marine life.

Study a 19th century map of America's trans-Mississippi West and one finds much of it labeled as the "Great American Desert." In the 1850s, settlers heading westward for California and Oregon saw this region as an obstacle no less imposing than the Rockies - an area to be traversed as quickly as possible to reach the promise of prosperity on the coast. Thanks to irrigation, however, regions like California's Imperial Valley became veritable "Edens" coaxed from desert soils. Tapping the seemingly limitless Ogallala Aquifer, farmers in the semi-arid High Plains from Nebraska to Texas transformed a grass-covered prairie into one of the most productive regions for growing corn, wheat and soybeans.

What happens if the increasingly burdened Colorado River, which feeds the Imperial Valley's All-American Canal, can no longer meet the needs of the region's cities and agricultural producers? What are the consequences when drought and demand so severely attenuate the primary source of water for more than 20 million people? (And, just as the Colorado is threatened, heightened agricultural demand now depletes the Ogallala Aquifer at a speed far exceeding the replacement rate.) With drought conditions and an impending battle over how western water resources are apportioned, desalination plants with pipelines supplying the interior may be the only means to forestall an economic disaster. Without adequate water, areas such as the Imperial Valley and the High Plains may quickly resemble that label of "Great American Desert" once erroneously attached to much of the West.

Desalination may represent the most viable answer to the conundrum of meeting the United States' water needs. Yet clearly it's an answer wrapped in a matrix of complex political, economic and environmental issues. With several western states preparing to square off in court over disputed water rights, the prospect of an acrimonious and extended legal battle would appear to necessitate aggressive exploration of desalination's potential. Communities in California and Arizona, for example, fearing future water shortages, have already reopened old plants and begun studying construction of new desalination facilities. Moreover, for green-minded investors, desalination technologies would seem a logical magnet for capital.

Still, unless one is directly affected by water shortages, it may prove difficult to galvanize popular interest in the debate over the efficacy of desalination programs, particularly when the media pay so much attention to the Middle East and its role in feeding our fossil fuel diet. Think of it in these terms, however. In 1999, the Saudi Arabian oil minister, Sheik Ahmed Yamani, offered an ironic conclusion when asked about the significance of oil to his nation's development. "All in all, I wish we had discovered water," he remarked, a telling observation in a world so often assessed through the refracted politics of oil. In the end, water may be the 21st century's oil, and could prove even more expensive. Desalination will doubtless play a role in mitigating predicted water shortages. Nevertheless, the extent to which this process will offer a panacea to thirsty communities remains to be seen.

Monday, April 23, 2007

More Spring photos . . .

Here are more Spring photos from the neighborhood.

Friday, April 20, 2007

"spring is like a perhaps hand"

"spring is like a perhaps hand" e e cummings

Has Spring finally arrived in New York City? It's still a bit chilly, although the weekend promises sunshine and warm temps in the 70s. One of our warm-weather rituals is to gather the kids and assemble on one of the piers that juts into the Hudson from the area around West 12th Street. One has a recessed play area covered in artificial turf and a raised picnic area at the very end. We have about four or five families with kids in the 5-7 range . . . they attend school together, play sports together, and on these occasions, suffer through their parents' attempts to secure a tiny bit of adult conversation that by doesn't automatically focus on vomit, parent-teacher conferences or the woes of apartment living.

Indeed, since we're a thoroughly nerdy lot - a couple of artists, photographers, an architect, an historian, and two teachers - we usually end up chatting about politics, the war, global warming, art, or matters historical. Our latest chat-fest focused on the growing "underclass" of working poor in America and the increasingly unattainable "American Dream." And understand that we're not consciously picking topics; these discussions tend to reflect our genuine concerns and current reading selections. (For example, I've recently run through Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch.) I always emerge from these sessions refreshed, believe it or not, infused with energy. So after several chilly months of quick meetings at our kids' playground, plus a few dinners at neighborhood restaurants, we're celebrating the arrival of warm weather and looking forward to a pier outing, perhaps even this Saturday evening.

On these occasions, one of us usually remarks, "It's times like this that make me happy to live in New York." And I have to agree. Moreover, I think we enjoy more occasions like this - with an incredible level of intellectual intimacy and social camaraderie - than my friends who live in suburbia. Suburbanites, for example, with far more private space to which they can retreat, tend to be more insular - one of the more unfortunate byproducts of the middle class realizing its "American Dream," according to sociologists. (At least, that seems to be true of the adults. Kids will always congregate in some permutation of informal communal play whether it's in sandlot sports or sitting in clumps glued to the X-box. I experienced this growing up and I've witnessed this reality for my brother and his family in one of those "McMansion" suburbs of northern Virginia.) Our lack of private space in New York City tends to force us out and prompts us to be more social animals, unless one prefers detachment and isolation. (Our urban infrastructure is set up to handle that reality too!)

So here's to the promise of spring and renewal.

(A note about the photos: Both are digital shots, taken in my neighborhood. The flowering white tree and red-brick apartment building are across the street from my home. With a better camera perhaps I could have framed this sans street lights and traffic signals. Hmmm, I'll have to play with the image in photoshop and see what a little cropping and perspective work will do.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Family Reunions

For southerners, a large-scale family reunion is an event - the Jerry Springer Show and Jeff Foxworthy's redneck family jokes notwithstanding - that can rival a county fair for groaning tables of food and animal exhibits. And whether "Baptist dry" or punctuated by worries over alcohol poisoning, these affairs, particularly when measured out over decades, take on an organic life that echoes the births, deaths, and divorces of the actual participants.

That's certainly true of my mother's family, which has held a yearly late-summer reunion since the 1920s. (My mother hasn't missed one since 1941.) Started by my great-grandparents' generation but nurtured carefully by my grandparents and a gaggle of nearly two dozen siblings, these day-long spectacles draw family members from the isolated corners of Virginia to Halifax County, an area south of Lynchburg in the heart of one of the oldest tobacco producing regions in the country. (The maternal side of my family has been farming the land there since the 1730s.) We would converge on a local community center or, most often, on the spacious grounds of the home of the lone, openly gay member of the family. His hospitality knew no bounds, nor did his sense of humor, although I think he began to worry some of the family when, in his dotage, he began to take great pleasure in announcing loudly that he wasn't sporting underwear.

I remember all of this because naturally I was dragged to the reunion each year from birth until I left home for college . . . and for most of my childhood the event was a very ritualized affair, as if my grandfather had drafted a liturgy, interspersed with hymns of "when will we get there" and "I need to go to the bathroom." For example, each year he and my grandmother would arrive at our home on the appointed Sunday at 5:00 a.m. sharp, his Ford Galaxy 500 packed like one of those brain-teaser puzzles with coolers and tupperware and plates and everything but the kitchen sink. My parents would pack their car quickly while my brother and I would fight over the best spot to sleep in the Gran Torino station wagon. And off we'd go, a few car lengths apart, in a family caravan of four hours, driving across Route 58 through little towns like Disputanta and Appomattox.

Although far from summer and those cicada Sunday afternoons, I'm reminded of these reunions and their characters because the ancient wife of a long-deceased great-uncle passed away recently, leaving this world in the child-like stupor of Alzheimer's. Aunt IdaMae was famous in family circles for her biscuits and the perpetual uncleanliness of her home. We loved the biscuits but preferred not to contemplate their provenance. IdaMae was also what the elderly ladies of the clan called "pixillated," a term which refers to someone who is overly eccentric or whimsical . . . "inhabited by pixies."

IdaMae's passing reminded me of the more colorful characters who would show up each August to eat and reminisce. No doubt every family has its personalities: the law of averages dictates that all families need to have at least one convicted felon, one "drunk," one "dirty old man," one prankster, one religious zealot, and one suspiciously effeminate uncle. My family, to the great delight of those of us who take note of such things, has managed to cover all of these bases, including the convicted felon, who now arrives in a BMW roadster.

There was Uncle Clyde, for example, who was in charge of lemonade each year. He would arrive with two massive 10-gallon stoneware crocks - one for super sweet and one for pucker-inducing sour - and set about making batch after batch for those who eschewed iced tea for a mason jar full of icy lemonade. He was also renowned for policing the lemonade against dirty hands trying to reach over the lip of the crock to steal ice or lemons. As if swatting insects with a flyswatter, he'd smack the fingers of transgressors with the long aluminum ladles used to fill the glasses. (His son, Clyde, Jr., would delight the boys by removing his glass eye, the product of a July 4th fireworks accident in the 1940s.)

Aunt Nancy, a member of the Pentecostal Holiness Church was the permanent bearer of responsibility to "say grace" and bless the food at the start of each reunion. Nancy would announce her presence with shouts of "Amen!" and "Who loves the Lord?!" Her blessing, offered over tables of rapidly cooling food, took on the character of sermons and one always wondered if she would spice it up with some "speaking in tongues," which happened on quite a few occasions. (One of the more irreverent and colorful cousins would invariably add after Nancy's loudly prayerful disquisition on the resurrection and "saving grace of god": "Good bread, good meat, good god, let's eat." I always chuckled and was always smacked for it. My father, never a keen participant or observer of the more "charismatic" displays of religious fervor, would predictably remember at the start of Nancy's exhortations some item "forgotten in the car."

Finally, we also enjoyed seeing the jovial Uncle Edgar and Aunt Edna, because they always arrived with their little chihuahua "Ladybug" who delighted the children with tricks. Edna always seemed painfully thin and frail, a condition likely exacerbated by the parade of Benson & Hedges cigarettes that passed her lips nonstop from the instant she stepped from her Buick to the late afternoon moment when, rising from her folding chair, she theatrically announced "I'm goin' to the potty one more time before we leave!" Her husband, Edgar, perpetually carried around an erection the way some 8-year olds carry No. 2 pencils, tucked neatly into his pants but clearly visible. We would try in vain not to stare but usually excused ourselves quickly to join other cousins in a game of softball or a clandestine climb through one of the tobacco curing barns on the edge of the estate. Still, despite his evident priapism, Edgar could be counted on for funny anecdotes and mildly dirty jokes acceptable to a largely Baptist crowd.

(As an aside, I remember once visiting their home in South Boston, Virginia. Unlike IdaMae's home, Edna's was spotless. But every piece of furniture in the house, all of it vintage 1950s, was covered in those clear vinyl slipcovers. Edgar and Edna died, childless, about 15 years ago within just a few months of each other, which was probably a blessing given their devotion to each other. As Aunt Nancy liked to say about deceased family members, "They've gone on to glory!" My mother and grandmother were among the family members invited to pick over the remains of Edna's estate before everything was sold in a public auction on the front lawn. I was given a gleaming chrome 50s-style Sunbeam toaster, which I used for years thereafter, invoking the memory of Edgar and Edna on each occasion.)

The family gathered again last September, my 93-year old grandmother the last of the generation that had built up the reunion during the lean years of the 1930s and 40s when the ethos of "close-knit family" actually meant something. Their numbers no longer legion, around 30 people gathered at a cousin's home for another day of eating and storytelling. Mind you, the family is no less numerous than it was 50 or 75 years ago. But the connection to "place" and "history" isn't as strong, nor is the generations-old bond to the land. The family has dispersed, leaving the red clay soil of the Virginia Piedmont for more prosperous climes. Only a few cousins, in fact, still grow tobacco, holding on to some closely-measured Jeffersonian agrarian ideal in a threatened market they no longer understand.

My grandfather, eldest of 10 and tired of being "land rich and cash poor," departed in 1941. I still remember vividly the stark contrast between his prosperity and the privations of his siblings who remained in Halifax County. I've not returned in about 20 years, but plan a visit this July when visiting my parents in Virginia. I won't get to experience the reunion itself, but it will be reunion enough.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Monty Python Upperclass Twit of the Year

For those of you not familiar with the Monty Python sketch mentioned in the previous post, here it is. If you appreciate English humor, you'll enjoy this.

Where are you, Newton Minow??

So my wife and I are flipping channels last night and she insists on stopping at "The Bachelor" for a few minutes. I protest, but ok, it can't be that bad. We've seen snippets of previous years' "contestants" and they were fairly innocuous. But last night's brief encounter with "The Bachelor" reconfirmed my general horror over the vast majority of reality television. The current "Bachelor" series should be retitled "The Bimbo Olympics," which is altogether more polite than "Whores on Parade." These women are all alike . . . except for a couple of brunettes tossed into the mix in a nod to "diversity." Otherwise they're largely vapid "starlets" who've had their teeth whitened and hair straightened for the show. They oooohhh and aaaahhhhh or laugh giddily when the "Bachelor" walks into the room. And they are convinced that there's a "connection" or sense of "I'm falling for him" ten minutes after they've met him. Please!

As for the "Bachelor" himself? From a socio-economic standpoint I guess he would be what's called a "catch." As a naval surgeon with potential for private practice after leaving the service, there's obvious income potential. But as soon as he opens his mouth, viewers discover that he's just as vacuous as the potential brides. He may be smart when it comes to medicine. But one hopes there's a little more depth than last night's scenario reveals. When he gushes that "women in fast cars" (a paraphrase) are soooooo sexy, you know that there's little hope for our civilization . . . or at least any offspring produced by this guy and any of these receptacles for his genetic material. The US Navy should be embarrassed . . . but the officers who greenlighted the "Bachelor's" participation are likely beaming like proud dads over their clean-cut, macho, party boy.

As the "Bachelor" hopped into a Ford Mustang for a trip around a driving course with each woman, I was reminded of the old Monty Python sketch, "The Upperclass Twit of the Year Competition." A group of twits (imbeciles) is given a set of seemingly easy but stupid tasks to complete. The winner is the one who manages to kill himself first.

No doubt I'm in a tiny minority of viewers who express revulsion when watching (as little as possible) this kind of television. But broadcasters don't care about those who share my demographic profile. In the end, it's "lowest common denominator" television for the masses, which is a shame given the educational potential of the medium. I'm reminded of JFK's chairman of the FCC, Newton Minow (pictured above), who addressed the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961, declaring that television programming offered a "vast wasteland" for viewers. Naturally he was criticized as being "elitist" and "snobbish." Personally, I'll proudly assume the mantle of "elitist" if network executives and producers accept the criticism of being "vacuous" and "irresponsible."

Monday, April 16, 2007

Argus C3 - "The Brick"

A couple of weeks ago I posted some "toy digital camera" photos and noted that on the same day I had been playing with the "toys" I had also been trying out a vintage 1950s Argus C-3, during its heyday one of the most popular cameras in the U.S. While the Germans and Japanese were manufacturing some beautiful cameras during the 50s - works of engineering art with beautiful chrome, precision mechanics and top-notch lenses, American camera manufacturers were responding to a postwar surge in the number of people buying cameras. And realize that the average American was not going to go out and spend a small fortune on a Leica or Zeiss camera. Indeed, most Americans didn't even have access to these brands. They wanted access to inexpensive, easy-to-use cameras that would give them acceptable photos of the family and friends, enjoying themselves amidst the middle class prosperity of the period. Particularly widespread were the cheaply made, largely plastic, twin lens reflex and box cameras that typically shot 120 or the now obsolete 127 or 620 formats.

Arguably the biggest seller in the 20 years after World War II was the Argus C-3, produced with minor variations from 1939 until 1966. Talk about a production run! Some photography historians even suggest that the C-3 sold Americans on the 35mm format. Yet one would think that, in an era in which product design garnered inspiration from the "streamlining" craze of the 1930s to the Harley Earl-inspired bulbous fenders and rounded curves of postwar American autos, a camera manufactured for the masses would have incorporated something of that design ethos. Yet the C-3 is anything but an ergonomic masterpiece. Its nickname is "the Brick" and its appearance certainly gives that impression. It's surprisingly heavy for a largely Bakelite contraption, and obviously it doesn't fit neatly into the contours of one's hand. Its winding and cocking components are awkward. In some versions the aperature/speed settings are cryptic. And its interchangeable lens system is cumbersome.

But there's something oddly appealing about it. It's fun to use . . . and for me is doubly attractive because it represents the absolute antithesis of the poorly-made, throwaway digital cameras which now flood the market. The C-3's rangefinder is pretty accurate and the lenses produce surprisingly sharp images with nice contrast. Sure, it's not a Leica M3 or Contax IIa, contemporary rangefinders. But in a camera sold to the masses at department stores, the Argus C-3 belongs in the pantheon of mass-produced, utilitarian, well-made consumer products of the postwar economic boom. They're so popular that that there are numerous webpages devoted to the C-3 and Argus cameras in general. Naturally I had to have one . . . and so many have survived - in working condition - that they're still inexpensive. Mine is a "Matchmatic" variety, pictured above, which had an uncoupled selenium light meter and two-tone leatherette. (This same model was used by the school photographer in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.)

So how did my experiment with the C-3 turn out. The photo at the head of this entry and here at the end are among the best. I wasn't shooting as an artistic endeavor; this was an attempt to reveal the sharpness of the C-3's lens and the extent to which it produced a nicely contrasted image. I think the results were excellent for a 50-year old camera. (The first image is from Washington Square Park, detail from a statue's pedestal. I liked the contrast revealed on a sunny day. The second image was taken at a park on Horatio Street in the West Village after our last bit of snow. I like the detail from the wood on the park bench. Not bad on such a closely focused image. On both images I think the lens was stopped down to f16. Film was Kodak 400CV, the black and white film which processes in c-41 chemicals. It would be interesting to see how this camera performs with the much slower ASA 25 or 50 film which were the standard film speeds during the C-3's heyday.)

Friday, April 13, 2007


The debate - on occasions rancorous - pitting faith and religion versus science and reason is innumerable centuries old. March back to the Middle Ages, for example, and one finds it at the center of intellectual inquiry during that period. Indeed, Medieval scholars took the brilliant position of using the Hellenistic rationalism of Plato, et al., to explain the existence of God and "proof" basic tenets of Christianity. Think Thomas Aquinas and the doctrine of Scholasticism. One can also look to the late Medieval and Renaissance efforts of the Catholic Church to suppress scientific inquiry, particularly when the conclusions of those inquiries departed from the orthodoxy of a world view still rooted in the Ptolemaic cosmology (see picture at left) of the ancient world. Galileo discovered all too quickly the cost of scientific heresy.

Perhaps because we tend to be more religiously zealous - one could argue fanatical - than our European antecedents, Americans tend to expend an inordinate amount of energy on these questions. One suspects that a few of those early Puritan and Baptist genes have latched on to our intellectual DNA and refuse to succumb to the prospect of evolutionary obscurity. So here we are at the genesis of the 21st century and the fight shows no signs of abating. In fact, surveying the "faith vs. reason" issue over the last century, one could conclude that the debate has grown nastier with each passing decade. Of course, I'm biased. Having emerged from a science-friendly childhood and a career that started in academe, I find the "faith" camp - usually represented by generic evangelical Protestants, Pentecostals, Southern Baptists and other non-descript Christian conservatives - excessively anti-intellectual and mean-spirited. I had students at the University of Tennessee who sneered at me and shook their heads when I talked about the 18th century Scientific Revolution or Darwin and the advancements of 19th century scientists.

Typically, the arguments swirl around Darwin and evolution and the ways in which Darwin's ideas contradict the creation story of Genesis. We've even argued about it in court, most notably in the "Scopes Monkey Trial" of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. Noted trial attorney Clarence Darrow and politician William Jennings Bryan, pictured at right, stood sweating in a small-town Tennessee courtroom and argued over the "inerrancy" of the Bible and the "truth" of science. Obviously a case like this could never settle the issue. And year after year, the teaching of evolution or creationism is brought up in countless U.S. school districts. More recently, creationists have tried to reshape the tenor of the debate and add intellectual luster to their arguments by renaming their ideas "intelligent design." Let's just say their basic theology hasn't changed.

So why am I bringing this up? First, I'm in the rather unique position of working for a religious-based non-profit while serving as a freelance editor for the New York Academy of Sciences and Columbia's Center for the Study of Science and Religion. In short, I can't escape the debate; it swirls around me on a daily basis. More recently, however, my interest in the topic has been sparked by a promising new biography of Albert Einstein: Walter Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe.

Isaacson apparently has taken more time than previous biographers to examine Einstein's Weltanschauung vis-a-vis his thoughts on matters spiritual. If one knew Einstein only in the context of his scientific ideas, one might justifiably conclude that he was an atheist. Many of his contemporaries, in fact, proved outspoken critics of the very idea of "god." Yet Einstein was by no means an atheist. In fact, he exerted considerable energy to the process of explaining his understanding of "god" - a god that doubtless existed but did not intervene in the day-to-day affairs of people - both in print and in public addresses. It will be interesting to learn how Einstein ultimately dealt with his Jewish heritage, particularly in the wake of the Holocaust and his relocation to the United States. (His religious background as a child was decidedly eclectic. He was raised by atheist parents, attended a Catholic school, and for a time in his youth embraced Jewish orthodoxy.)

I'm also hoping that Isaacson's biography will help me in my own attempts to incorporate the spiritual and the scientific into a coherent belief system. Obviously I'm a disciple of the post-Newtonian cosmology. I get excited about things like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Quantum Mechanics and String Theory. I remember being thrilled when my college physics professor showed us the math behind Einstein's concept of time-space dilation.

But I also get excited about issues of faith, particularly when expressed by C. S. Lewis or Henri Nouwen. For me, the two sides of the coin don't represent incompatible ideas. Indeed, I think it's possible to believe in god and Darwin and would ask creationists who believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis how evolution diminishes god? And even if we take Genesis and place it in the context of numerous other, often similar, creation stories, does that negate god? Frankly, I think the concept of creation is too complex for humans to understand. Certainly the present state of conflicting ideas and hypotheses in physics suggests this conclusion. Creation stories are simply our feeble-minded attempts to explain something clearly beyond our grasp. To humans in the ancient world, a story like that found in Genesis represented a rational response to questions like "how did we get here." The "stories" told by physicists today simply represent an effort to craft a new "Genesis."

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Sifting through the files . . . some random photos and thoughts

Was going through some photos, trying to cull a few and reduce the number - several hundred - on the hard drive at home. There were so many in one directory that the access speed reminded me of the old disk drives that barely held a megabyte. Remember those and how slowly they performed? Here are a couple of photos that I'd forgotten about but captured my attention anew. These were scans of either prints or negatives . . . all taken on vintage cameras from the 1950s.

The organ pipe photo above appeared in an art/photo show sponsored by the Episcopal Church a couple of years ago. These pipes belong to an organ in one of the oldest churches in the U.S. The parish, located near Jamestown in Virginia, dates to about 1619 (just twelve years after Jamestown's founding).

The tombstone image is from a very old graveyard attached to the burned out brick shell of an 18th century Episcopal Church near Bacon's Castle in Isle of Wight County, Virginia. This area, on the south side of the James River across from Jamestown, was a last outpost for rebels who tried to overthrow the Virginia colonial government in 1676. For a long time historians liked to highlight Bacon's Rebellion as a harbinger of the American Revolution. Coming exactly a century earlier, it was easy - although incorrect, it turns out - to make the analogy and suggest that Bacon and his backcountry supporters - most of them former indentured servants - somehow presaged the later colonial opposition to royal authority.

This final photograph shows detail from St. Luke's Episcopal Church, another 17th century church located in Isle of Wight County (not far from Smithfield . . . think ham, bacon and anything pork-related). Although not used for regular services now, it's open daily for tours, is a popular destination for school field trips, and is used for occasional services by the nearby Episcopal parish in Smithfield. Only a few minutes from my parents' home, I always stop by to stroll the grounds when visiting Virginia. (My oldest friend, India, who still lives in the area and teaches high school social studies, can correct me if any of my history proves incorrect.)

Easter Images

I'm stoned on antihistamines - de rigueur at this time of year - and have been skulking about since Sunday, trying to avoid significant human contact . . . which is a bit difficult when one spends the better part of two days at a playground with the kids. But at least there were a couple of my favorite adult playground denizens in attendance, equally shell-shocked after more than a week of spring break and unruly children. I think our primary topic was "how can we get away" or "I wish I was in (insert your favorite fantasy destination here)" . . . which for me usually elicited thoughts of solitude . . . laying low for a month on an island in the Hebrides, occupying a remote cabin in the Adirondacks, or driving through Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, cameras loaded, looking for "ghost towns" (not the stereotypical "wild west" variety) and the dried bones of long-closed motels and gas stations, the remnants of a pre-Interstate era punctuated by small town optimism and the reality of boom/bust economic cycles. (For some spectacular photography in this region, check out the Lost America website. It has been one of my favorites for several years.)

For now, however, here are a few digital photos from Easter. Nothing spectacular here . . . but a couple are interesting in terms of lighting. They're interiors from historic St. John's Lutheran Church in the West Village.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Happy Easter?

How can the high temperature today, Easter, be the same as the high temperature recorded for Christmas? Only 45 and snow flurries on April 8th? For those of us who definitely suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, today is a rude insult, made all the more potent by the tease of warm weather we had a couple of weeks ago. The silver lining . . . for those of us working in religious-based non-profits, the passing of Holy Week and Easter promises a slight easing of the workload. And, I have a couple of days off. (The image is a "polaroid image transfer" which involves taking the old "shoot-wait-peel" film, shooting a photo, and instead of waiting the usual minute or so after yanking the film from the camera, peel within 10 seconds, toss the part that would have been the finished photo, then press the wet negative onto wet watercolor paper. Use a brayer to smooth out the contact between the surfaces, then gently peel away the negative, leaving the wet polaroid emulsion on the paper. The finished product - unpredictable in terms of the results one gets - often has a painting-like quality or resembles a 19th century photo. I use a 1970-model polaroid camera . . . the kind with the large bellows out front. It's a fun process, but not cheap, given the expense of polaroid film. This is a large church on Manhattan's upper east side.)

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

"East Side, West Side . . ."

Ok, so it's not always easy to go between the East and West sides in Manhattan. There's the Shuttle and the L line, and a couple of uptown/downtown lines that zig-zag through the City, but the quickest option for crosstown trips when you're not near one of these lines is still a bus (or a cab if you have deeper pockets). I ride the subway every day and, honestly, I enjoy it! Sure New Yorkers complain incessantly about it and the Straphangers Association regularly releases reports about the declining quality and quantity of service. Weekends can be nightmarish for subway riders because of maintenance on several key lines. Indeed, considering the service disruptions and rerouting, I don't see how tourists - particularly those without a great command of English - find their way around. We complain about the cost, but it's still easier and cheaper than either taking a cab or driving and finding parking.

Thus when one considers the volume of ridership and the number of stations to maintain, the MTA does a pretty good job of making the system work. My kids, of course, love riding the subway - and all trains. And I've learned that my younger son, nearly 7 now, enjoys hearing about the history of the subway, particularly when it comes to abandoned stations. (For more information about old stations, abandoned platforms, etc., check out the boatload - seriously! - of information on the Forgotten New York website.) We also visit the Transit Museum in Brooklyn and climb aboard the numerous surviving examples of long-retired subway cars, including some from the earliest days of the system. (If you ever wondered how subway riders came to be called "straphangers," visit the Transit Museum and check out the canvas straps on those early cars!)

Naturally, I'm interested in the architecture of the stations and the artistic effort that went into constructing the original system. Indeed, when one looks at photographs of original stations and finds surviving bits and pieces in today's system, one has to be amazed at the aesthetic appeal of the subway, even while admiring it as an engineering feat. The tile work and terra cotta medallions in particular are stunning. Luckily some of the station renovations of the last decade have included attempts to save these old architectural elements, or the designers have tried to echo some of that hundred-year-old artistic energy.

I've painted images from the subway before, including an early series on the station medallions, but this latest effort - from the Borough Hall station in Brooklyn - is the best, I think. In addition to using watercolor, I added some pen and ink accents (a new element in my painting, to be used sparingly as I experiment).

Monday, April 2, 2007


Will Spring ever arrive? (Of course it will. But on a drizzly, overcast Monday in April, it's easy to wonder.) I walked across Central Park yesterday and spent some time at the zoo with family and friends. (It's always fun to watch Gus the polar bear lolling on a rock.) The Park only had the tiniest bits of green showing at the tips of branches. A few forlorn crocus and daffodils peered out, but likely worried that they'd get burned again as they had in the falsely warm days of December and January. How depressing, particularly when family in Virginia inform me that the redbud and camellia are blooming, while the dogwood are just starting to open. I love Central Park, even in winter, but it was so disheartening yesterday to see it still slumbering - in April! No doubt this is the southerner in me, crying out in revolt against the longer winters. "You're wishing your life away," my mom would say to me - as she has for years. But I do long for May and warmer days. If the Purgatory of Catholicism is true, I'm sure there's a place in which it's perpetually late winter. One can sense Spring's approach . . . but it never arrives. (Of course, I don't believe in this bit of Catholic doctrine. Yet references to Purgatory always remind me of a bit of Reformation-era doggerel attached to the Church's practice of selling papal indulgences to secure forgiveness of sins for oneself or departed loved ones: "When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs." Frankly, I think we do a fine job creating our own Hell and Purgatory right here!)

Not having access to any Spring photos at my office, I've included a couple of twilight photos from the neighborhood. I love the light at this time of day and have taken some of my best photos (and these are not among the best) as that low sunlight sweeps across the Hudson and lights the west-facing buildings of Manhattan. They rather reflect my "sunset" mood right now.