Thursday, June 28, 2007

Thursday Meme: Has American Culture Ruined You?

No surprise here! I'm off to Virginia and the Red States tomorrow. Pray for my soul in case I'm ambushed by either a right wing militia or wandering band of pentecostals.

You Have Not Been Ruined by American Culture

You're nothing like the typical American. In fact, you may not be American at all.
You have a broad view of the world, and you're very well informed.
And while you certainly have been influenced by American culture (who hasn't?), it's not your primary influence.
You take a more global philosophy with your politics, taste, and life. And you're always expanding and revising what you believe.

"Nixonian Stonewalling"

From The New York Times today:

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush, moving toward a constitutional showdown with Congress, asserted executive privilege Thursday and rejected lawmakers' demands for documents that could shed light on the firings of federal prosecutors. Bush's attorney told Congress the White House would not turn over subpoenaed documents for former presidential counsel Harriet Miers and former political director Sara Taylor. In reaction, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy accused the administration of shifting "into Nixonian stonewalling" and revealing "disdain for our system of checks and balances."

The Bush administration's refusal to turn over documents or allow Harriet Miers to testify is tantamount to an admission of guilt. Moreover, Senator Leahy is entirely correct when he suggests that the Bush administration's actions are analogous to the tactics of Nixon during the Watergate scandal. The doctrine of "executive privilege," which has always rested on a shaky legal foundation, is merely a tool employed by the Bush White House to avoid revealing potentially damning evidence. And as for the "disdain for our system of checks and balances," Bush and his cronies have long been explicit in their contempt for Constitutionally-defined limitations on executive power.

With no issues of national security at stake in the fight over federal prosecutors, the Bush administration simply must allow some degree of transparency to preserve Americans' faith in the morality of their government. Unfortunately, Bush and his lap dogs have given the nation a thoroughly amoral government in which the only principle to which there is signal loyalty is the doctrine of power and its aggrandizement. The decisions yielding the fraudulent war in Iraq notwithstanding, the conduct of the White House and attorney general in this case are worthy of the most thorough investigation and articles of impeachment for the president and vice president. (And to think we almost had Harriet Miers as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court. I think we really dodged a bullet on that one!)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Building Restorations

Yesterday I mentioned that in Manhattan - unlike many areas in suburbia - buildings are more often refurbished and restored than torn down. This is particularly true when one is working in an architecturally significant section of the city in which razing a landmark structure in favor of a glass and steel tower would only invite controversy and public outrage. More sensitive developers have realized that by gutting an existing but blighted architectural gem, especially one that has been under-utilized or semi-derelict for years, they can preserve the aesthetic continuity of a neighborhood while banking some goodwill among residents and potential patrons.

On 6th Avenue, for example, from about 18th to 23rd Street, there's an old retail district defined by some architectural beauties that date to the late 19th century. When new they often housed large, multi-floored department stores, one of the mercantile innovations of an era that gave us Montgomery Ward and Sears & Roebuck. Now quite a few have been rescued and redeveloped. Who cares if a model of Victorian design now houses an Old Navy, Bed Bath & Beyond, and a Marshall's? They were constructed originally to house stores and they're certainly preferable to the characterless boxes of the strip mall or bland storefronts of the average mall! (There's a section of Broadway from approximately Ninth Street to Madison Square and the Flatiron Building that is very similar to this part of 6th Avenue. Often referred to as the "Ladies" Mile" because of its retail focus, this area was a focal point of Gilded Age New York . . . the city seen in the works of Edith Wharton, for example.)

I find it interesting how many of these buildings exist as organic structures: they evolve, enjoy good times, fall into disrepair and neglect, are rescued, restored, and rejoin the vibrant life of the city in life cycle that in some cases spans well over 100 years. All too often, buildings in suburbia are bulldozed within less than 20 years of their construction. But this harsh reality isn't surprising when one considers how little thought went into their design. In contrast, this building on 6th Avenue has been used for retail pursuits for more than a century. Most recently its ground floor held shoe and clothing stores, while its rather sad looking upper floors apparently housed a rabbit warren of odd offices and apartments. A couple of years ago a board went up outside the building displaying a developer's plans to return the structure to its Victorian splendor, including restoration of two gold domes that anchored the north and south corners of the facade. Who knew the building had gold domes? I guess at some point several decades ago they had fallen into such a derelict state that they had been removed altogether. Now the restoration is nearly complete. And like so many New York buildings, this will be used for a combination of retail and residential interests. (I suspect that the condos will be astronomically priced, given the skyrocketing prices for housing stock in Chelsea. I think a duplex that includes one of the turreted rooms under the domes would make a nice home studio!)

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Monday, June 25, 2007

"Affluenza" and My Red State Adventure

"Dissatisfaction itself becomes a commodity as soon as the economy of affluence develops the capacity to process boredom." Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

This Friday I drive down to Virginia for an eight-day visit with the parents and other family members, the first time I've been South since last Thanksgiving. Living in the petri dish that is New York City, I'm always struck by the rapidity of change in the landscape once one enters suburbia.

Sure, New York City changes quickly too: Business start and fail in rapid fire order and slowly but surely some of the institutions most often associated with the exurban milieu creep into the Manhattan landscape. We finally have Olive Garden, Hooters, Red Lobster, Outback and, I believe, Applebee's. Mind you, Manhattanites don't actually patronize these establishments; they were imported for the tourist trade. When scores of waddling visitors from Ohio or Texas are disgorged from their air-conditioned buses, they want to be pleasantly surprised by the realization that there will be no surprises. Rather than take a chance on New York's innumerable non-chain restaurants, tourists prefer the predictable. And after a full day of wandering around no more than a 10-block area from Times Square to Rockefeller Center, taking in the Empire State Building and Madame Tussuad's Wax Museum, they crave the homogeneity that defines their non-vacation lives.

Frankly, it's this homogeneity that scares me a little when I leave New York. Between the cretinization of the media and the paralyzing sameness of our consumer culture, it's not surprising that so many Americans, experiencing something of an existential meltdown, have either run shrieking into the arms of the religious right or immersed themselves fully in the orgiastic worship of the commodity.

Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic defines the condition of "affluenza" in almost medical terms, as "a painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more." And 99.99% of Americans, myself included, suffer from this disease. My weird perspective on this problem is doubtless skewed by the often surreal nature of living in New York City. But when I drive into Virginia - indeed, when I confront the prospect of having to drive everywhere for everything - I just find the obsession with material gain altogether more tangible.

And this brings me back to that theme of rapid change, because I'm invariably shocked at the degree to which our farms, forests, and wetlands are bulldozed to make way for yet more "big box" retailers and strip malls. At least in New York City developers largely recycle and reuse the extant building stock. All too often in suburbia, this is not the case. For example, near my parents' home, there's a vacant Lowe's sitting not more than a mile from a brand new Lowe's, the newer site having been secured because it promised a bigger parking lot and greater square footage. The vacant Lowe's has been sitting for at least three years, and it's just one example among many in that area.

I love visiting my family . . . but I don't think I could live in that landscape of exit ramps, feeder roads and vast parking lots again. Conversely, my family - and most Americans - would never consent to live in Manhattan. Nevertheless, New York City has been cited as one of the "greenest" cities in the U.S., in part because of the "mixed use" of land by retail and residential entities and the propensity of residents to walk or take public transportation.

One of my plans for this visit to Virginia is a day of snapping photos of the worst examples of sprawl. Given the economic growth around my parents' home, examples will not be hard to find. I'll share the results here!

"The loudest sound in the land was the oink and grunt of private hoggishness;
this was the age of the slob." William V. Shannon, on life in the Eisenhower years

Fire Escape Redux

I know, I know . . . I've painted fire escapes before and posted them to this blog. Like water towers and roof gardens, they're ubiquitous features of New York City architectural landscape and I do enjoy photographing and painting them. Particularly in older buildings like this example on Bond Street at Broadway, they add a nice angular geometry to an already interesting structure. And, in another reflection of "first principles" in my artistic mind, the fire escape acts as a great filter for the light, changing the nature of the image entirely. The carved faces which frame all of the windows on this very large building - probably 1870s or 1880s given the history of development along this section of Broadway - lend it extra character in an area often defined architecturally by neo-classical facades.

Of course, I always wonder if anyone has actually had to use them as an escape route or, in the days before air-conditioning, slept on them to escape the oppressive heat of a stifling apartment. (In this context, I'm always reminded of the 1938 "Heatspell" picture, shown left, by noted photographer Weegee.)

As always, I'm unhappy with the quality of the scan in terms of accurate color reproduction. Still don't know what to do about that issue.

And to think that I was worried about getting a paltry PG rating!

Online Dating

Mingle2 - Online Dating

Gay Pride

The largest Gay Pride parade in the world ends about a block from my doorstep here in Greenwich Village, and we're just around the corner from Sheridan Square and the site of the famous June 1969 Stonewall Riots, considered a watershed event in the gay rights movement. To observe that there is a "gay presence" in our neighborhood would be an understatement. Gay and lesbian residents in the West Village are as much a part of the heterogeneous fabric of our community as anyone else . . . African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or fat WASPs like me. Nearly 40 years after Stonewall, "gay pride" is a daily cause célèbre in our neighborhood, woven into the very fabric of our lives. Life in the West Village - albeit not without its tensions and hot button political issues - reveals just how far our society has come since Stonewall.

Still, for most of America, this is an exception rather than the rule. The popularity of "Will and Grace" or other gay media figures notwithstanding, gay pride in many communities remains a clandestine affair because of the fear of persecution borne of bigotry and intolerance. Religious conservatives in particular still love to rail against the homosexual community, scapegoating it for society's promiscuity, AIDS, alcoholism, violent crime, and just about any other "ill" one can identify in the U.S. When Jerry Falwell suggested that 9/11 was God's punishment for a "sinful" America, he included homosexuals in an enumeration of our sins. Although the front lines in the gay rights movement currently focus on the issues of gay marriage and domestic partnerships with their attendant legal ramifications, for many gay and lesbian Americans, life hasn't progressed much beyond 1969 . . . which brings me back to the issue of the annual Pride Parade in New York City.

Officially the parade is a celebration of Stonewall and the significant gains made since that example of civil disobedience. Unfortunately, the parade itself has degenerated into a Mardis Gras-like orgy of irresponsible behavior. The vast majority of groups marching to Christopher Street take the Pride Parade as an opportunity to participate in the public life of the community, celebrate the significance of Stonewall, and/or support friends and family affected by the gay rights movement and its issues. Unfortunately, there are also numerous participants who assume the occasion gives them a license to be rude or engage in behaviors just not acceptable on city streets, whether the day is about gay, straight, or whatever. Although parade organizers doubtless want to allow participants to express themselves and their "pride" as openly as possible, I don't think my 7 and 8-year old boys need to see a phalanx of scantily clad men dressed to look like penises and hairy scrotums . . . or the drag queen dressed like Marie Antoinette sporting a towering 18th-century French-like wig constructed from tampons.

It's this kind of behavior that has prompted many of our gay and lesbian neighbors - people who have been "out" and "proud" for decades and understand the historic significance of Stonewall - to pack up and leave for the weekend. One friend derisively refers to the parade as "amateur night" because it attracts revelers who are "gay for a day" but have no understanding of the context of the gay rights movement in a post-Stonewall society.

As an outside observer familiar with the movement's issues - and the charges leveled against it by conservatives - I have to conclude that the Pride Parade is detrimental to the success of the larger movement. Film crews from some of the hate-mongering groups in this country attend the parade just so they can "confirm" what they've been preaching from their pulpits for decades. They select the most controversial elements of the spectacle, pull them from the context of the larger event, and use these vignettes in their propaganda campaign to incite homophobia in those media markets that have not experienced the effects of Stonewall and the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian society.

Since the 1960s spokespersons for the gay rights movement have justifiably drawn parallels between their cause and that of African Americans in the civil rights movement. Yet what if some of those marching with Dr. King in Alabama had donned minstrel costumes or pantomimed the Hollywood stereotypes of the day in an effort to draw attention to their actions? Would so many Americans have recognized the justness of their cause or accepted the moral leadership of Dr. King? One suspects that civil rights leaders would have very quickly recognized the disconnect in such tactics and moved to preserve the dignity of their marches. Organizers of the Pride Parade in New York City need to do the same, recognizing the seriousness of their cause while still celebrating the progress made since 1969. And, by toning down some of the more sexually overt behavior of the occasion, they'll likely succeed in restoring the support of those older members of the gay and lesbian community who can actually remember Stonewall (or even participated in the event) but feel alienated by the current "Carnivale" character of the parade.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky (1875-1957)

Back in early May I had shared a post on the early 20th century Russian artist, Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva. Again, I've been doing some reading on 20th century Russian art history and have stumbled upon a painter, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky (self portrait, left), whose images really resonate for me. His early works tended to focus on urban scenes, particularly in and around St. Petersburg. His urban paintings usually depicted the bleakness and ugliness of urban life, sometimes offered in contrast to the beauty of surrounding neo-classical architecture. In addition, Dobuzhinsky provided illustrations for many books and magazines (including images for an edition of Dostoyevsky's White Nights). In 1924 he immigrated to Lithuania, and in 1939 to the U.S., where he worked primarily as a stage designer (with which he had experience during his time in Russia and Lithuania). I've included works below which illustrate the breadth of his work.

Courtyard in St. Petersburg. 1920. Blacklead on paper.

Illustration for Dostoyevsky's White Nights.

Man with Spectacles. Portrait of the Art Critic and Poet Constantin Sunnerberg. 1905-06. Charcoal and watercolor on paper.

Omnibus in Vilno. 1907. Pastel on paper.

Vitebsk. 1919. Watercolor, ink on paper.

"A Grief Observed"

My mother-in-law passed away suddenly Wednesday night. To say that our family was devastated by the news would be an understatement. After the initial shock my wife has been amazingly strong, in part to lessen the trauma for our boys. In private, however, she lets it out and I've had to assume this new role in our marriage, grief counselor. Telling the kids was arguably the most difficult part of the process, because they were close to Grandma and, having never experienced it quite so close to home, will have a more difficult time understanding death. Still, I was surprised at their resilience after the initial moments of crying and loss.

(I actually shed more tears over the prospect of telling the kids than anything else. As an adult I can take the news and compartmentalize it, addressing it within the parameters of my own belief system and past experiences with grief and the loss of a loved one. But trying to measure emotionally how they might handle the news was just too much for the barrier I had erected against tears. I was particularly saddened for my older son who had spent a great deal of time with Grandma, including week-long visits to her home in Connecticut. Having had a similar relationship with my maternal grandfather, I knew this would be difficult for my son. In that sense, I guess, my tears were as much a product of my own loss of a grandparent twenty years ago.)

Thankfully we have a strong support network of friends and family who have stepped up with offers of food, help, you name it. For that we are very lucky - and very grateful. My wife in particular, always the "people person" and much more outgoing than me, has an army of friends who stand ready to assist. I think for her the most difficult time will come later, during the months in which she will have to address the myriad legal questions, as well as figuring out what to do about Grandma's house and possessions. Luckily there's no rush to deal with any of that, no internal family battles over wills and property.

At times like this I tend to return to some of the more sage voices on the subject of death and grief. C.S. Lewis's examination of his own grief following the death of his wife, A Grief Observed (the book that inspired the play and film Shadowlands), stands as the "thinking person's" self-study on loss, albeit in a Christian context. At a more visceral level is Act 3 from Thornton Wilder's Our Town, a play which occupies a critical position in the canon of American literature. Not relying explicitly on Christian symbolism in his treatment of death, Wilder instead seems more universalist in perspective.

What does this all mean in terms of our own family's loss? It's too early to tell. But if we're like most people, eventually the wound will heal over and we'll recall the happy memories of Grandma and recognize how lucky we were to have her with us. For now, however, my usual tendency towards verbosity escapes me.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Calla Lily

A good friend recently asked if I ever paint flowers, given my penchant for photographing them. At this point, I have to offer an emphatic "no." I tried, of course, during the earliest period of my self-imposed apprenticeship with brushes and tubes of color. I usually attempted roses, but my last effort was the calla lily, a favorite since having grown them in my Tennessee gardens. They're fairly idiot proof and the results are always so incredible . . . the subtlety of their colors, the graceful taper of their long stems, fading from green into the dominant color of each bloom. With that shape they're very elegant. Alas, I was not happy with the results, primarily because I just didn't feel as if I had captured their grace. So thereafter I abandoned flowers for the hard-edged reality of architecture and urban scenes.

Normally I wouldn't photograph flowers in a shop window. But these callas (and an interesting rose of variegated red and white) were just too stunning to pass up. We're lucky that one of the best flower shops in the city (not counting the wholesale places in the west side's "flower district") is right around the corner from our home. Their regular displays of flowers are always stunning - and no doubt expensive. So we admire from afar. I'm surprised these images turned out ok, since they were shot at night, through the glass windows of the shop.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Homer simpson and steak

Growing up on Virginia's Eastern Shore, my father attended a little Methodist Church that for about 120 years has held an annual 4th of July seafood dinner. It's the church's primary fundraiser for the year and attracts people from a pretty wide area, including many former residents and members like my father.

Every summer I drive down to VA for the holiday and we always end up making the pilgrimage back to the church to enjoy some of the best seafood I've ever had. Of course, it's all you can eat, which is an incredible proposition when one is in the presence of limitless crabcakes, oyster and clam fritters, fried chicken, and groaning tables of side dishes. Each year as I pile my plate high with all of that fried seafood bounty, my mother always asks, "Brian, don't you want some of the other things?" . . . the other things being cornbread, salad, dinner rolls, mac'n'cheese, baked beans, and a table full of desserts. Whenever she asks that, I'm reminded of the great "Simpsons" episode in which Homer, having just started a steak-eating contest, is admonished by Marge, "Don't fill up on bread." That's the way I feel every year on July 4th.

"Brian, don't fill up on bread," is sage advice if one has a choice between ordinary dinner fare and crab cakes. Obviously I love those other things. To be honest, I never met a starch I didn't like. But dinner rolls or macaroni versus seafood is no contest. Perhaps the only thing that could make me cut back on the crab cakes on this occasion would be another southern favorite - deep-fried biscuits. Haven't heard of them? Take a can of regular Pillsbury biscuits, fire up the "Fry Daddy" and drop each biscuit in the boiling oil for a few seconds until it's golden brown. Now I do consider myself a hush-puppy connoisseur; it's hard-wired into one's southern gastronomic DNA. But in a contest with fried biscuits, hush-puppies just don't stand a chance. At this point I'm salivating like Homer Simpson . . . and waiting eagerly for July 4th. I'll report on the experience during my 8-day "red state" adventure.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Monday Flowers

As usual, here are Monday flowers, found over the Father's Day weekend. My younger son and I discovered this hibiscus and sunflower during a brief walk yesterday. I'm especially fond of sunflowers for both their beauty and the memories they induce. They're likely the first thing I ever tried to grow . . . What school child hasn't tried to grow a sunflower that was started in a paper cup with a measure of dirt and way too much water? They're also pretty sturdy as cut flowers and brighten any room in which they're displayed. Of course, I prefer them uncut, anchoring the back of a vegetable garden (which is how my grandmother grew them, along with gourds and cucumbers, on the Eastern Shore) or rising up along quiet back roads in the Virginia Tidewater where I grew up. Now there are so many hybridized varieties of sunflowers that one can find everything from miniatures to the more traditional giants, and bright yellow to variegated types with stripes of yellow, orange and red. One day I'd like to see the vast fields of sunflowers in a place like Spain, where they sometimes grow as far as one can see . . . for example, along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.

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Volkswagon Observatories and Telescope Dreams

My father had a 1964 Volkswagon Beetle, purchased new just a couple of months after I was born. (The fact that he selected a VW bug in an age of cars still characterized by the gas-guzzling behemoths of Detroit says a lot about his personality and is worthy of its own blog entry.) If you're familiar with the old Bugs, you'll recall a small area - ostensibly for storage - just behind the back seat. No doubt this tiny area, carpeted in a fabric comparable to a penitent's hair shirt, was a product of the VW's rear-engine design. Actually, however, I think the designers had the storage of small children in mind when they added that space to the Bug's layout. For me, at an early age, it was a perfect retreat on lengthy car trips. I recall many hours prostrate back their, lulled to sleep by the characteristic noise and vibration of that air-cooled engine.

Yet I also remember lying in the rear looking up at the stars through the VW's oval window, a site made more spectacular on those monthly occasions when we'd visit my grandparents on the Eastern Shore. We would stay until dark, and then head for home on what was usually a 2 or 2 1/2 hour drive, down the Shore and across the Chesapeake Bay. With so little light pollution, the view was always striking.

My parents have noted that these occasions usually sparked a barrage of questions about planets, stars and astronauts. Remember, this was a golden age for NASA and our space program, years punctuated by the successes of the Apollo program. And as I noted in a previous entry, my homage to the late Wally Schirra, these guys were my heroes! Sure, I was interested in the usual 7-year old stuff: G.I. Joes, Matchbox cars, and baseball. But already I was establishing my geek credentials with an interest in history and astronomy.

The interest in history was not a surprise, given our family habit of taking Sunday drives to Williamsburg, Jamestown, and local Civil War battlefields. Frequent trips to Washington, D.C. only solidified this passion. When the Smithsonian opened its new Air and Space Museum I was hooked. If one had asked me at 10, "What do you want to be when you grow up, Brian," I would have answered either an "astronomer" or "archaeologist." Upon reflection I realize that I was also starting to ask questions about the "nature" of the universe and its creation, and wondering if it would be possible to reach any of these celestial objects if one had a rocket fast enough. I'm still fascinated by those questions today, hence my continued interest in astrophysics, quantum mechanics, and space travel. (Polling my 7 and 8-year old sons recently I learned that they both want to be professional baseball players. My younger son added that he also wants to be a children's book illustrator. My older son wants to sing in musicals when he's not playing ball. Faced with that range of interests, I have no doubts about their paternity!)

It wasn't long before I started begging for a telescope so I could see first-hand some of the wonders encountered in dog-eared issues of Sky and Telescope. At 11 I took my first earnings from a summer of cutting lawns and purchased a 3-inch refractor. It was ok; I had incredible views of the moon, could see the rings of Saturn and resolve some of the fuzziness of the Orion nebula. Like countless generations of amateur astronomers before me, I would note the changing positions of Jupiter's Galilean moons from night to night. Nevertheless, I had already set my sights on bigger scopes, and remember leafing through copies of Astronomy magazine, salivating over the latest Celestron and Meade scopes, usually the big Schmidt-Cassegrain reflectors on fork mounts. But at well over $1,000, I knew these were out of reach. So I waited, and waited, until 1994, when I decided to reward myself for completing my Ph.D. by purchasing my dream telescope. I scanned the ads at Astromart for a used 8-inch Celestron (like the one pictured above), found one I liked, and spent the money without hesitation.

All too often long-deferred dreams are tempered by the reality of experience. Desire clouds our judgment and the adrenaline-fueled anticipation sets us up for a letdown. At 30 I had the awe and giddiness of a child and, thankfully, was not disappointed on this occasion. The reality matched the anticipation. After pointing the telescope at some pretty obvious naked-eye objects like the moon and Jupiter, I set the scope up to find an object so faint that one had to rely only on coordinates to locate it. Much to my surprise, I succeeded in finding the Ring Nebula, which even in an 8-inch scope appears as a faint, donut-like gaseous cloud. (The false-color image of the Ring Nebula above was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The colors correspond to the presence of different gasses. For example, blue indicates helium, while green indicates oxygen.) From there I trained my sights on galaxies, globular clusters, and other nebulae. Galaxies are particularly stunning because I'm always compelled to reflect on their immensity, with billions of stars swirling in a beautiful elliptical pattern, while contemplating our minuscule size in the universe. The Andromeda Galaxy (pictured below), visible as a faint smudge with binoculars, is particularly arresting because it is thought to be similar in size and shape to our own galactic home. It's the astronmer's equivalent of gazing in a mirror.

When I moved to New York City I had to sell the telescope, realizing that I would have neither the space for it nor viewing conditions worthy of such an instrument. I still look skyward, picking out constellations when they're visible and, under the right conditions, pointing out fuzzy patches that would reveal themselves as nebulae or clusters even with binoculars. And again I'm waiting . . . waiting for an opportunity to share the hobby with my boys and purchase a new telescope. This time I doubt it will be as serious a setup as my Celestron. So now I salivate over 8 and 10-inch Newtonians on Dobsonian mounts, biding my time.

Friday, June 15, 2007

"Harison's Yellow"

I found this lovely yellow rose on Charles St. in the West Village on Wednesday.

Whenever I see yellow roses I'm reminded of the gardens at Andrew Jackson's home in Middle Tennessee, The Hermitage. A garden there has the most beautiful yellow roses of an old, once-blooming, fragrant variety, with very thorny canes and numerous tiny blossoms. If I remember correctly, the variety at the Hermitage is known as Harison's Yellow, initially found as a chance hybrid in the gardens of George F. Harison, an attorney who lived between 8th and 9th Avenues on 32nd Street, not far from my office! It was first sold commercially from cuttings in 1830 and was so popular that it was frequently carried westward by settlers heading for California and Oregon. As a result, it is often found growing wild along these western migration routes and is sometimes referred to as the "Oregon Trail Rose." It can also be found at the sites of long abandoned gardens and derelict homes.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

And the Schuyler Colfax Memorial "Graft in Government Award" goes to . . .

. . . Vice President Dick Cheney.

Do we really have to wait until March 2009 to witness the exit of Bush, Cheney, and their cronies? The more I read about the web of deceit and the veil of secrecy which define this administration, the more I fear for the health of the Republic. Average citizens need to rise up and march on Washington, demanding an end to this war and removal of this "axis of evil." I'd recommend impeachment, but Congress would have to impeach both Bush and Cheney, since the Vice President has compiled a record of complicity in the administration's crimes matched only by some of his Gilded Age peers . . . Schuyler Colfax (pictured left), for example. (At least Colfax, who left office in 1873 having failed to secure the nomination for Vice President in Grant's second term, was guilty of mere graft in connection with the infamous Crédit Mobilier scandal. Cheney's crimes violate the Constitution and his oath of office.)

Having been a presidential historian, I have to predict that scholars will not be kind to the Bush administration, if the details of his presidency are ever allowed to see the light of day. No doubt Bush will try to control his legacy - by controlling access to the documents that define his presidency - in the same way he has tried to manipulate the dissemination of information to the public in the last six years. Ultimately I think that the Iraq fiasco will overshadow Vietnam as the worst defeat for the United States in its history. Here's what Al Gore has to say about it in his new book, The Assault on Reason:

"The historic misjudgments that let to the tragedy of America's invasion of Iraq
were all easily avoidable. The administration's arrogant control of
information and the massive deception perpetrated on the American people in
order to gain approval for a dishonest policy had to the worst strategic mistake
in the history of the United States. But the damage they have done to our
country is not limited to the misallocation of military and economic and
political resources. Nor is it limited even to the loss of blood and
treasure. Whenever a chief executive spends prodigious amounts of energy
in an effort to convince the American people of a falsehood, he damages the
fabric of democracy and the belief in the fundamental integrity of our
Amen, brother!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Reunion Redux

On April 18th I wrote a post on our family's tradition of holding a large reunion each summer, usually in August, when my mother's clan would encamp en masse for a day of gastronomical debauchery (and a bit of reminiscing in between biting, chewing and swallowing large quantities of fried food). My favorite part of a reunion was probably the obligatory trek to one of the family cemeteries. This would usually involve either a) a drive down a dirt road, muddy or dusty depending on recent weather; b) a hike through the woods; c) a walk through tobacco fields; or d) all of the above. (I suspect that the remoteness of these burial plots corresponds directly to the location of ancient family homesteads . . . and, in fact, some of the headstones date to the 18th century.)

Here's a photo from my first reunion, August 1964. I'm about eight months old in this photo. My grandfather would have been 57, my mother 29, and my great-grandmother 82. My father, of course, was holding the camera. (Isn't that the fate of so many fathers? I'm never in any photos with my kids because I'm snapping the picture.)

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Greek Revival

Here's the sort of architectural detail I like to find in my walks around the Village. Thankfully there are still plenty of 19th century (and even a few 18th century) buildings in the neighborhood and they will often surprise the careful observer with little details like this Ionic column with its distinctive capital framing a townhouse doorway. And, in an age when this sort of thing is replicated in molded plastic, it's nice to see the hand-made variety surviving. Although this example could use a fresh coat of paint - or perhaps just a good cleaning - it's nice to see that successive owners have preserved a detail so easily - and often - removed from older homes. First seen in 6th century BC Ionia and Greece, the Ionic column was a favorite among mid-19th century architects of the Greek Revival. This townhouse looks to be a late antebellum structure, so the detail is "spot-on" appropriate.

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Monday Flowers

In my weekend rambles with the kids to and from sport commitments I discovered some new wonders among the spring flowers. This rose, part of a massive planting (probably "The Fairy," a popular, low maintenance rose) along the Hudson waterfront in my neighborhood, sat close to a spruce. I just thought the color contrast was interesting. The daylillies are of the Stella D'Oro variety, an early bloomer among the daylillies with a more compact habit. (I prefer Stella D'Oros - which means "star of gold" in Italian - over the more common orange daylillies that most of us spy along highways . . . They get a bit "leggy" and ugly after blooming.) Finally, I'm not sure what these last flowers are. Any guesses? My 6-year old informs me that they could be "pipecleaner" flowers, and announces that he read about them recently. Even if he's incorrect, I give him an "A" for that analogy! Knowing Sam, however, the identification is likely correct.

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Friday, June 8, 2007

Royksopp - Remind Me

Ok, if you watched more than 15 minutes of television in the last year, you've no doubt seen the Geico caveman commercial that features this song. Here's the video that originally went with the song, "Remind Me," by Norwegian group Röyksopp. It's a catchy song, in a very 80s, synth, dance-pop way . . . a 21st century step-child of A Flock of Seagulls. The version used in the original video is actually a dance club remix.(Can you believe that these "caveman" spots were so popular that ABC has decided to produce a "caveman" sitcom for the Fall 2007 season? I give it about three episodes before cancellation.)

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Take Me Out to the Ballgame . . .

Last night was our first trip to a ballgame this season. We saw the Mets and Phillies at Shea (and watched the bullpen blow a two run lead in the seventh to lose the game!). Our family usually attends several Mets games each season, one or two Yankee games and several for the Brooklyn Cyclones (the Mets' A-level minor league team) out at Coney Island. The evening was perfect for baseball, albeit a little cool by the late innings. Of course we sat in the upper deck, but the view from behind home plate, where we usually sit, was great. Who needs to secure a bank loan and pay for the closer seats?? The kids certainly don't care where we sit; they're just happy to be at a ballgame.

In the first photo one can see the construction of the Met's new stadium, Citi Field, which is schedule to be ready for the 2009 season. In the second photo look for the 7 Train in the cluttered Queens background. The third photo is the view of Manhattan from the upper level of the stadium. Quite a shot of the Empire State Building and the skyline to the west! We had a good time, ate hotdogs and cracker jacks, and got home at 11:30, well past the boys' bedtime. Thankfully there was no school today because of a "teacher work day." (What happens on those days anyway??)

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Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Thomas Jefferson and the Revolutionary Moment

"An enlightened people, and an energetic public opinion . . . will control and
enchain the aristocratic spirit of the government."

"Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day;
but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period and pursued
unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate,
systematic plan of reducing [a people] to slavery."

And my favorite . . .

"The tree of liberty must from time to time be refreshed with the blood of
patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."

Isn't it amazing how relevant Thomas Jefferson can still be, nearly 200 years after his Presidency? It's no wonder that he was sometimes heralded as the "Sage of Monticello." Sure, he had obvious flaws, particularly noticeable when one turns the microscope of historical analysis to his views on slavery and race. Jefferson himself even recognized the conflict in his own personal life. Yet as the quotes above suggest, Jefferson rarely exhibited ambiguity in his views on the more abstract concepts of liberty, "inalienable rights," and the necessity of periodic revolution.

Given our society's present anti-intellectual bent and its unnerving embrace of the "cult of celebrity," I'm deeply troubled by the implications of Jefferson's remark on the role of "an enlightened people" as a safeguard against tyranny. In 2007 the United States does not shelter an enlightened populace, at least in the context of matters of import. We're woefully ignorant of our history, and average citizens routinely display a shocking lack of knowledge or interest in current events, domestic or foreign. Instead, Americans are more apt to know what Paris Hilton had for breakfast or recognize "American Idol" contestants, than identify any of the Democratic or Republican aspirants to the White House. Even more troubling, the principal shapers of mass public opinion - television networks - have abdicated their journalistic role as reporters of serious news in favor of the more lucrative business of disseminating "infotainment."

Conservatives, of course, have long disdained the concept of an informed electorate. They prefer voters who are either disinterested or have had their opinions refracted through the prejudicial prism of the Anne Coulters and Bill O'Reilly's of the media. The Christian Right has proved equally adept at leading its adherents down the path of tyranny, preaching the apocalyptic hermeneutics of an Armageddon popularized in the scripturally unsound Left Behind series of books and movies.

An ill-informed electorate is a pliable electorate, susceptible to the politics of intolerance and violence. And, as a natural consequence, debate - Jefferson's "energetic public opinion" - is either limited or altogether stifled. Witness the dearth of public and governmental debate over the decision to invade Iraq. In an age so enamored of the printed word, Jefferson possessed a prescient understanding of mass communication and its ability to inform or misinform the public. The lessons of his era stand as sage examples for the 21st century.

As for Jefferson's proclamation that "single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day," I wish our current situation could be that innocently benign. Clearly, however, the behavior of the Bush administration highlights a much larger conspiracy to subvert the Constitution and destroy our traditional separation of powers. Although voters ostensibly rejected the Bush agenda in last year's elections, the result appears to have generated no appreciable change in course. At the crux of this assault on American liberty is a chief executive ideologically myopic and woefully limited in intelligence and a capacity for reason. Supplement stupidity with demagoguery, corporate greed, and chiliastic prophecy, and the United States sits poised at the abyss of fascism.

Of course, Jefferson's prescription for the threat of tyranny would be revolution. Witness to the revolutionary power of an informed - and ultimately enfranchised - citizenry, Jefferson observed first-hand the results of both violent conflicts (in the form of the American and French revolutions) and peaceful reformations (as embodied in his victory in the momentous presidential contest of 1800) . Although one might wish for a similarly "revolutionary" overthrow of the Bush world view, the monolithic corporatist structure of American society will prevent that course of action for the time being. As pessimistic as this might seem, the United States and its democratic institutions will continue to decay from within, compromised and weakened until a truly monumental disaster - whether natural or manmade - cripples the Republic so fundamentally that its citizens surrender to the siren song of totalitarianism.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Cupola, St. John's Lutheran Church

I haven't painted much in the last month because we've spent so much time with outside activities like baseball and soccer. In the evenings - my usual painting time - I've just been too tired and uninspired to pick up a brush. Finally went back to my easel this past weekend when I spied the cupola of St. John's Lutheran Church in the West Village bathed in a great afternoon light. Can't say I'm entirely happy with the results, particularly since this was a pretty quick pencil and watercolor sketch. And I'm still trying to figure out the best choices for scanning these images . . . color reproduction still isn't as accurate as I'd like. The sky, for example, is a colder blue on the painting itself. Any suggestions?

An SAT Meme

Ok, this one's pretty silly. At least mine was higher than that of President Bush!

Your SAT Score of 1390 Means:

You Scored Higher Than Howard Stern
You Scored Higher Than George W. Bush
You Scored Higher Than Al Gore
You Scored Higher Than David Duchovny
You Scored Lower Than Natalie Portman
You Scored Lower Than Bill Gates

Your IQ is most likely in the 130-140 range

Equivalent ACT score: 31

Schools that Fit Your SAT Score:
Brown University
Northwestern University
Carnegie Mellon University
Cornell University
Reed College

Monday, June 4, 2007

Christo-Fascism and the Failure of Reason

I just finished reading Chris Hedges' American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America and have to admit that I'm scared shitless. Conservative Americans have been so thoroughly duped by the Bush war machine - and eased into the belief that anyone critical of the administration is un-patriotic and potentially dangerous - that they've effectively discarded any semblance of a rational thought process or decision-making ability. Toss in Chris Hedges' discussion of the ways in which Christian conservatives are slowly hijacking the political system and the language of reason, and one realizes that the United States is clearly building a nascent fascist state that will eventually rival Hitler's Germany if unchecked by more rational citizens. Heeding the lessons of history, realize that Hitler's opponents didn't take the Nazi threat seriously until it was too late for Germany. We are running that same risk.

Nevertheless, we live in an age in which the preconditions for fascism's success are pretty evident. The U.S. has large portions of its population that feel alienated by the rapidity of socio-economic change in the digital society. In addition, the country is marching through a period of obvious crisis, punctuated by war in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as large-scale natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. If that weren't enough, realize that the amorphously defined idea of the American Dream, the benchmark of our society's notions of "success" for the last half-century, has become increasingly unattainable for many middle class citizens.

The Christian Right exploits these crises, these assaults on the national psyche, by scapegoating liberals, immigrants, Democrats, homosexuals, academics, Darwinists, supporters of the United Nations, and anyone else who doesn't subscribe unquestioningly to the right wing world view. Some of the most strident voices of the Christo-fascist right - for example, Pat Robertson - have even gone so far as to suggest that 9/11 and even Hurricane Katrina were god's punishments visited upon a sinful nation. Hold out the promise of salvation - and the concomitant violent retribution against one's enemies - to the disaffected masses, and the Christian Right has a ready-made base of supporters willing to surrender their liberties and reason.

Trying to learn more about this failure of "reason" in our society, I've just started reading Al Gore's new book, The Assault on Reason. It will be interesting to see how he addresses this grave problem. Gore is one of the few recent critics of the right wing willing to excoriate the Bush administration in the harshest terms possible. Frankly, I wish Gore would run in 2008. I've seen him in several interviews since he re-emerged with An Inconvenient Truth last year, and he really does possess a presidential mien, a gravitas, that wasn't evident in 2000. He's obviously matured, and having been a victim of the right wing's corruption, and witnessed its failed stewardship of the American state, seems more engaged with the "big picture" issues than in the past. According to some observers, a Gore/Obama ticket next year would resonate with voters distraught over the Bush administration's assault on the Constitution and our national reputation.

Unfortunately, it looks as if Gore will eschew the political arena and continue to serve as an outspoken figure in the initiative to alert the world on issues of global warming and impending climate change . . . certainly an admirable alternative to the dirtier milieu of politics . We can only hope that his effort to shed light on some of the Bush administration's abuses of power will have an impact on the Democratic candidates currently scrambling to secure their party's nomination in 2008.

If I Could Be a Cat . . .

. . . I'd be a cat that lives in a shop in Greenwich Village. Then, like the sleeping feline in this photo, I could watch the world stumble by, choose to snooze, or rub the legs of customers and accept the ministrations of my admirers. (Actually, there are many cats that live in businesses in our neighborhood. And of course most of them spend the day like this, sleeping in a window. This contented cat has lived on Bleecker Street for several years. There are even a few dogs that come to work with their shopkeeper families. Unlike the cats, however, they usually sit at the stoop, watching carefully for other dogs or the potential wielders of treats.)

Flowers and Rose Advice on a Rainy Monday

It's such a rainy, dark day here - with the darkness exacerbated by the tall buildings of midtown - that I couldn't resist posting some photos from my weekend travels. These photos are from two public gardens at 6th Avenue and Downing Street in the West Village. Great morning light certainly enhanced my efforts. How about the stamens and anthers on that second rose! They just scream to the insect world: "Take me, I'm yours!" The white rose is one of the nicest I've seen this year (although I think I spy a hint of powdery mildew on some of the unopened buds . . . in this case a product of a little too much shade).

White roses, just as they start to open, are very susceptible to thrips, tiny insects that feed on the juicy ends of immature petals. Apparently there's something about the white color that induces a stronger attraction. If not treated, thrips-infested white roses will open with damaged petals that often display brownish, curled edges. In severe cases of thrips, the buds will simply fail to open, having been damaged so badly. Spray unopen buds with a mixture of mild soapy water (Ivory Liquid, for example, is gentle enough) and repeat over several days as the buds start to open. If aphids have also been a problem, the soapy water is good for combatting them as well!




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Friday, June 1, 2007

Kakistocracy and the Bush administration

Our family always enjoys watching the National Spelling Bee finals, which were held last night in Washington, D.C. My sons in particular are always in awe of the poise - and knowledge - of these 12- and 13-year old spellers. Last night we learned a new word that has heightened relevance right now for the United States: kakistocracy.

kak·is·toc·ra·cy [kak-uh-stok-ruh-see] –noun, plural -cies.

Government by the worst persons; a form of government in which the worst persons are in power. Government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens.

[Origin: 1820–30; < Gk kákisto(s), superl. of kakós bad]

In addition to hearing a definition and the etymology of a word, spellers could also request that the word be used in a sentence. How about this example:

"The Bush administration precipitated the decline of America to a mere kakistocracy amidst its democratic neighbors." Or how about . . .

"Embracing the forms and practices of a kakistocracy, the Bush administration hastened the destruction of the American republic."

Use the word while you can. The Christian Right is engaged in a very conscious war against words and their traditional meanings in our society. Words like "patriotism," "truth," "American," "justice" and "tolerance" are victims of a Christo-fascist logocide (another good spelling bee word!) in which definitions are rewritten or reinterpreted through the prism of Christian conservatism. They're hijacking the language of the Republic and 99% of Americans don't even realize it. The forces of totalitarianism did the exact same thing in Nazi Germany, Mussolini's Italy, and Stalinist Russia.