Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Movie Review: "Shopgirl"

Last night my wife and I finally got around to watching Shopgirl, based on Steve Martin's novella of the same title. This is one of those movies that we had planned on seeing when it hit theaters, but with two little kids, those hopeful intentions aren't always realized. In fact, unless it's a movie for kids (like the recent Ratatouille) or a big action movie that we think won't translate well to television (like the Harry Potter films), we usually just wait until they hit Netflix or Blockbuster. And in the end, most films aren't good enough to warrant the $11 ticket price and $50-$60 on a baby sitter.

Shopgirl was extremely well done, from the acting and cinematography to the score. (Watching the DVD extras after finishing Shopgirl, we learned that the entire color scheme of the film was based on the flow of the relationships in the story. It obviously made a difference in the visual quality of the film.) Claire Danes was luminous - as always - and Steve Martin, as his character demanded, proved atypically reserved and detached. It would be easy to label Shopgirl as "just another good date movie." No doubt it would serve ably in that role for an audience of twenty-somethings or fans of Jason Schwartzman and his turn in Rushmore. Nor is the story a classic May-December romance. Indeed, the age issue doesn't really play a role in the romantic relationships. Shopgirl is more about the nature of romantic relationships and the ways in which we process the emotions - including love - attendant in those liaisons.

Understand that the story flowed from the pen of Martin, and thus carries an emotional gravitas that reflects its origins. In fact, wanting more of the depth of the original story, my wife and I both wouldn't mind reading the novella, which doubtless reveals more detail vis-a-vis character development. Then I think we should watch the film again and see how Martin's screenplay compares to the novella. If you haven't seen Shopgirl, check it out. It's a perfect movie for a glass of wine and a good friend. And yes, even a date.

Ball Jar Memory

The last day of July and it's shocking how quickly the summer is passing. One month to go and the kids will be back in school. Two months plus a few days and we'll be in Vermont for our family's annual trek through the mountains. According to Einstein's theories of relativity there's the phenomenon of time dilation in which the passage of time seems to slow down for an object moving near light speed. For example, if one had a twin sibling who rocketed into space at near light speed, upon their return they might perceive the passage of only a year according to their clock, but to the stationary observer ten years might have passed by their clock. It's actually been tested in particle accelerators! My point is . . . as one approaches middle age, doesn't the passage of time seem to move more quickly? In fact, the whole of 2007 feels as if it has just zipped by. Yesterday we were celebrating its start - and I was beginning this blog - and here we are poised to start the eighth month. Wow!

But enough brooding . . . It's time for a final image for July, an image inspired by one of the blogs I read regularly, Chronicles of Me, by BohoGirl. Seeing her photograph of a Ball canning jar and an old patent medicine bottle reminded me of my paternal grandmother's bottle collection and prompted me to paint that image, again tackling the difficult exercise of pulling glass from the paper with a few brushes and watercolors.

Visiting my grandmother in her Eastern Shore home, I remember seeing her collection of antique bottles that she kept on shelves in the windows. Like stained-glass in a church, they would capture the sunlight and scatter the colors in a riot of hues. When the glass was clear, she would fill the bottle with water and add food coloring to continue the patterns of greens, reds, and blues.

The Ball canning jar of course reminds one of a time when families actually canned everything, from produce to meats - yes meats! They've also been appropriated for storing just about anything one can imagine, from paint and motor oil (like my father), to iced tea or formaldehyde-preserved lab specimens. I even remember in the 1980s there was one of those faux-"country" restaurant chains - "The Black-Eyed Pea" - that served all of its drinks in Ball jars. Sadly, the Ball Corporation no longer produces glass jars, having sold off the glass-making arm of the company and moved out of its long-time headquarters in Muncie, Indiana.

In the end, I'm fairly happy with the final product, despite my ever-present misgivings about the quality of scan vis-a-vis color reproduction. In addition, I tried something different this time, tweaking the painting with two photoshop macros just to see how the original would look given a posterized and sepia treatment. Obviously I have too much time on my hands.

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Monday, July 30, 2007

The Tyranny of Religion

Concluding last night, PBS here in New York ran a three-part series by English polymath Jonathan Miller on the "history of disbelief" - in short, an examination of disbelief in god from the ancient world to the present. It was thought-provoking, funny, disconcerting, and for me, highlighted some of my own philosophical conundrums vis-a-vis faith and religion.

Having been raised a Southern Baptist - before the denomination allied itself with the politics of fascism - I reluctantly carry the baggage of years spent in Sunday School learning the basic Bible stories to which even the most irreligious of skeptics is exposed. And although I don't believe in the literal truth of the Genesis creation, the flood of Noah, or Moses parting the Red Sea, I recognize their allegorical significance in terms of our society's philosophical evolution. Adam and Eve in the garden simply represent one more attempt by our ancient antecedents to explain the origins of the world in which they found themselves. Moreover, given the plethora of creation myths, one might assume that this effort to explain our creation is an act for which we're uniquely hard-wired thanks to genetic mutation and biological development of the intellect. Whether or not that intellect is endowed with a soul, however, remains the most difficult puzzle for me.

One can most likely trace the roots of my theistic uncertainty to the examples of scholarly inquiry to which I was exposed in academe. We were taught to dig, to doubt, and dig some more, until we found answers which might withstand the challenge of reason. (No doubt this admission would gladden the heart of the anti-intellectual apologist who equates education with the secular world's attempt to undermine faith, as if it were an explicitly avowed goal.) Thomas Jefferson even went so far as to examine the Bible itself using the criteria of rational inquiry. The end product, sometimes referred to as the "Jefferson Bible," exalts the ethical system outlined by Christ, but strips the Old and New Testaments of the supernatural and references that fail the test of reason.

As a historian, I think part of my problem has been the documented examples of organized religions - or the states that embrace them - using that religion to justify racism, conquest, genocide and governmental tyranny. English political pamphleteer Thomas Paine (pictured below) perhaps said it most succinctly, and with a touch of humor:

"Of all the tyrannies that afflict mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst.
Every other species of tyranny is limited to the world we live in, but this
attempts a stride beyond the grave and seeks to pursue us into eternity."
And, as I've stated on this site in numerous entries, I'm especially troubled by the latest efforts to use Christianity - embodied in the ideology of the "Religious Right" - as a means to define governmental authority and wield political power in the U.S. Ever-insightful H. L. Mencken correctly suggested that "the urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it."

In the end, I'd have to call myself a theist - as opposed to deist , and there is a difference - who largely distrusts the institutions, rituals, and machinery associated with organized religions. "I am a sect by myself, as far as I know," Thomas Jefferson concluded in a letter to a friend, and I'm increasingly of a mind with Jefferson in that regard. To be sure, Buddhism and Quakerism, as I've noted before, do offer some palatable alternatives to the religious outlets to which I've previously allied my attention. Additionally, I must tender a nod to the palliative effects of C. S. Lewis's Christian apologetics. Nevertheless, I find it unlikely that these adjuncts to monolithic faith will entirely allay that gnawing doubt that steals into one's thoughts on belief in the "almighty" or a "hereafter."

Doubt, rather than Jonathan Miller's outright disbelief, will likely shape my own theistic musings until I draw my last breath. I want to believe, and will try to believe, but I think it's also fundamentally human to remain skeptical. Some might argue that I'm merely hedging my bets. Quite the contrary; I'm only reflecting human nature's incapacity to understand clearly transcendence and the divine. Sure, imagining god as a benevolent George Burns or Morgan Freeman may offer the movie-going masses a grandfatherly deity who quiets our misgivings. Frankly, I'm more inclined to imagine the more humorous image of god offered by Gary Larsen in his Far Side cartoon, "God at his computer": God sits at his computer with a finger poised above a key labled "Smite," as he watches a man walking under a suspended grand piano. But all of these images still do nothing to resolve the issue of belief.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Self-Portrait: Shorts

I think I've mentioned before that sartorially I'm of decidedly polarized positions. One part of me loves classic "English country" clothes. If I lived in Scotland or Yorkshire, I'd never wear anything but tweeds . . . particularly tweed suits and bow ties, looking like an extra in a Masterpiece Theatre costume drama. Throw in a Barbour wax jacket (which I've had for about 15 years) for rainy, blustery days - common in the Yorkshire Dales - and I'd never need another article of clothing.

Alas, I don't live in the UK and the weather here warrants tweeds and a wax jacket for only a few months each year. More often than not, it's fairly warm and humid, and that trend is increasingly evident during our winters. So I spend much of each year in shorts, the threshold for the comfortable wearing of shorts being somewhere around 50-55 degrees. I know that sounds a bit chilly for some, but remember I'm from the South where shorts are de rigeur for more than just the summer months. I'll typically wear them from March until October and longer if the weather allows. If I could wear them all the time, I would . . . baggy, long, and comfortable, in linen (pictured here), seersucker, or madras.

"What's Good for General Motors is Good for the U.S."

Yesterday's post started me thinking about why some people become wed to specific automobile brands in the way that my family gave their heart to Ford. I honestly think that if my father had won a Pontiac or even a Cadillac in a contest, he'd run down to the Ford dealership and trade it in on a new Taurus. What inspires that kind of devotion and, in many cases, a visceral response? Why do I go weak in the knees when I pass an Austin-Healey or Triumph? I'm not familiar with the psychological analyses of car ownership, but no doubt there's a significant body of literature out there addressing the subject.

What we're more likely familiar with, however, are the "class" connotations inherent in owning a particular brand of car. Here in money-crazed Manhattan, that's especially true; one regularly sees the newest, flashiest and sportiest cars available. It's not unusual to see a Ferrari, Aston-Martin, Bentley, or even a Maybach. But what force "drives" these purchases?

Looking back to the 1950s and 60s when there were fewer choices for American consumers, the new car spectrum tended to be more stratified, often defined by where one lived and worked. At the time, General Motors was the largest industrial corporation in the world and sold the lion's share of cars in the U.S. (GM was so large, in fact, that impressions of the company in the 1950s are usually shaped by the oft misquoted words of Charles E. Wilson, who served as CEO of GM from 1941 to 1953, and as Secretary of Defense under Eisenhower from 1953 to 1957: "What's good for General Motors is good for the United States," he said.) In his wonderful book The Fifties, David Halberstam addresses this topic and points out that one usually bought a GM car based on one's position in the class system of the day. Blue-collar workers, for example, drove Chevys; white-collar families bought Pontiacs and, with a promotion or pay raise, might move up to a Buick. Oldsmobile tended to be the car of choice for doctors and lawyers, while executives opted for Cadillacs.

Today, with easier credit terms, the option of leases, and wider model selection, the auto-buying scene is a bit more fluid. Still, those old loyalties continue to play a role in our purchasing habits in the same way we develop brand loyalty to more mundane consumer goods. Just last month my father went out and bought a Ford Fusion, in the same color as the Taurus he traded in . . . despite my advice that he look into a more reliable Honda Civic or Accord. (Note my own brand loyalty and prejudice that a Honda would automatically prove "more reliable.")

My wife and I recently started talking about purchasing a new car at some point in late 2007 or early 2008. We need something that will hold the kids as they get bigger and allow us to take longer and more frequent car trips in comfort. Naturally I suggested a Honda, perhaps a CRV or Element. My wife, however, grew up with Volvos and suggested a Volvo Cross Country station wagon. (She even gave one a test-drive earlier this week!) It'll be interesting and fun to see what we eventually drive home. Some people loathe the car-buying experience . . . people like my parents. But I actually enjoy it . . . the hunt for just the right vehicle, one that will satisfy one's practical nature and elicit that visceral response.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

That New Car Smell

There's an article in the New York Times this week about the old Auburn, Cord, and Duesenberg autos, marques which fell victim to the economic disaster of the Great Depression. These were impressive cars with designs that still elicit sighs and envious longings at car shows around the country. Held up for comparison against today's more expensive models - just about anything from the BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar, or high-end Japanese automakers - these cars ooze originality and innovation. Even Maybach's, Aston-Martins, and the sportier Bentley's seem flatly boring next to a stylish Duesenberg. And although made in the 1930s, the Duesenberg would have given these new models a run for their money as far as performance is concerned.

Surveying these icons of American auto design, I started thinking about my family's history of car ownership. And, alas, I realized we had never owned anything more exciting and unique than a 1964 Volkswagon Beetle. But chronicling our parade of cars one learns a great deal about our family and its habits, which I'm guessing would be true of most families if one were to write the clan saga based only on car ownership. Looking back I wish I could say that our garage welcomed Beemers and Jags. Yet with only occasional but noteworthy aberrations, we were a Ford family.

The early models of my childhood are really a blur. I can remember a green Rambler station wagon and a white 1970 Dodge Dart (which I've mentioned before simply because my dad brought it home from the dealership with an oil leak). Normally my parents would keep a car for a decade on average and always pass the 100,000 mile mark on the odometer. With the Dodge Dart, however, my parents were so disgusted by the experience that they traded it in after only two years for a brown Gran Torino station wagon. The Gran Torino would prove the dominant car of my childhood - the vehicle for vacations, groceries, hardware, garden supplies, and, in its last years, trips to college. The VW Beetle, purchased new in 1964, was my dad's car for commuting and errands around town. He finally sold it after about 15 years and over 200,000 miles. (I was so sad to see it go before I got my driver's license in 1980.)

In the mid-70s my parents made one of those car purchases that still leaves some members of the family puzzled: a white Ford Pinto. It was such a cheap and craptacular model that it didn't even have carpet; the floor was covered in that black vinyl that was given a pebbled surface to resemble carpet. If there ever was car that embodied the wisdom that white cars show dirt more readily, this was it. Within days of leaving the showroom it looked like one of my dad's dingy t-shirts. Still it was the car on which I learned to drive a manual transmission.

The next twenty years gave us a parade of Ford Tauruses, Mercury Sables, an Escort (which I inherited after completing college), and a Windstar minivan. The only oddity in the group was a used, yellow Datsun 710, bought for my mother as a commuter car. This vehicle holds special memories for me because it's the car in which I learned to drive, first went 100 m.p.h., and had sex. It also occupies a humorous place in family lore because of my dad's decision to have the Datsun repainted. No, Earl Scheib's claims that he could paint a car for only $39.99 weren't cheap enough for my father. He went to the hardware store, bought several cans of yellow Krylon and spray painted the car! My mother was mortified but continued to drive the Datsun to her office each day.

One thing is clear from this catalog of family transportation: cars were viewed in strictly utilitarian terms. Anything flashy, sporty or performance-oriented simply wasn't considered. My father's most recent car purchase? A beige Ford Focus. I vowed that when I was old enough to afford a car, I'd have at least one fun vehicle . . . while sticking to more practical cars for daily driving. (I at least learned that important lesson from my accountant parents.) Since buying my first new car in 1990 I've stuck with Hondas which have been nearly flawless. Still, I managed to pick up an MG while I was in grad school (a fantastic car to drive and not nearly as unreliable as their reputation), and a BMW 2002 before I moved to New York City. Although I don't have a fun car right now - parenthood and practicality winning the day - I'm already thinking about what kind of sports car I can pick up when my sons are older. It can be our project car, something we tinker with on weekends and through which they learn about the basic mechanical systems of a car. I'm thinking perhaps an old Triumph, MG, or possibly Porsche. My younger son in particular has started to show an interest in auto aesthetics and his tastes thankfully mirror my own. If I'm lucky in just a few years we'll be adjusting a pair of Zenith-Stromberg carburetors under the hood of an MG.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Self-Portrait Test

On a rainy Monday after a beautiful weekend, this is how I feel: caught between light and dark, the brightness of Saturday in Massachusetts and the dreariness of sitting in this office entirely alone on a miserable Monday. On Monday's I'm the only person around . . . which can be a good thing during most weeks. A quiet Monday gives me the chance to write, catch up on email, and plot out the rest of my week. But sometimes the silence becomes a little too oppressive, particularly if I don't wander out for lunch. (I'm not sure if I like the goatee upon reflection. Can't decide if the field of white hair makes me look distinguished or just old.)

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Shaker Saturday

On Saturday we drove up into western Massachusetts for a quick trip through the Berkshires. It's a beautiful area with several picturesque towns, including Stockbridge, which served as Norman Rockwell's home and source of inspiration for years. Our primary destination, however, was the Hancock Shaker Village, a once thriving Shaker community that was sold and turned into a museum in the early 1960s. The grounds include a working farm, complete with cows, chickens, sheep, and pigs. (My kids had recently watched Charlotte's Web, so they were amused to discover four little pink piglets running about. They are awfully cute . . . although they won't convince me to abandon my love of bacon, ham, and pork chops.)

The boys had a hard time grasping the idea that this was a religious community in which about 100 people had lived and worked together. "Why aren't they here anymore," my younger son asked, but wasn't satisfied with the explanation about how their numbers dwindled until there weren't any Shakers left at Hancock by the late 1950s. "Hands to work and hearts to God," was a basic Shaker creed and its significance to their lives is evident throughout the grounds, with various buildings and workshops devoted to their daily labors. That concept the kids could readily understand, even as they still puzzled over the Shakers' rule of celibacy.

During the acme of Shaker membership in the mid-19th century there were communities scattered throughout the eastern U.S. and they could rely on sufficient adult converts and adoptions from orphanages to maintain their numbers. Now, only one Shaker community remains with a handful of members at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, remnants of a movement started in England in the mid-1700s and brought to America in 1774.

The most notable feature at Hancock is its famous "round barn," constructed in 1826. It's still considered an architectural marvel and reflected the Shakers' exceptional design and construction skills, the creative process itself considered an "act of prayer." Its design also underscores an emphasis on efficiency, seen in everything from their furniture to their tools. I've visited Hancock several times and still stand in awe of the barn's beauty. The interior, with its elaborate skeleton of wood posts and beams, really reminds one of a cathedral, which is a fair analogy given the Shakers' regard for work as another form of worship. If you're ever in western Massachusetts, I strongly recommend a visit. It's just outside of Pittsfield and only a few minutes away from the Massachusetts Turnpike.

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The Passing of Tammy Faye, Patron Saint of Religious Kitsch

The death of Tammy Faye on Friday prompted me to pause and recall one of the most colorful personalities of American popular culture in the last 40 years. Most people only remember Tammy Faye for her connection to Jim Bakker, the PTL Network, and the scandal that destroyed their Heritage USA amusement park scheme. And even if one managed to miss her turn as a prima facie icon of 80s greed and religious cynicism, one could scarcely have avoided her role as mascara-challenged patron saint of vacuous kitsch in recent years.

Yet growing up in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area I more vividly remember Tammy and her simpering husband from their first television endeavor, "The Jim and Tammy Show," which aired on Pat Robertson's fledgling CBN network from 1968 until 1973. Broadcast on a weak UHF signal at the time, CBN featured little more than Robertson's signature "700 Club" program, bad reruns, cartoons, and "The Jim and Tammy Show." A children's program constructed around a Christian message, "The Jim and Tammy Show" resembled a televised Sunday School class and spotlighted Tammy's "talents" as a singer and puppeteer.

Nearly 40 years later I can still recall Tammy singing a song that began "One, two, three, the devil's after me," as she used her puppets Allie the Alligator and Susie Moppet (pictured, right). Filmed daily in front of a live audience, kids sat on small bleachers, arranged like an evangelical answer to Howdy Doody's "Peanut Gallery." I remember that the children would receive a gift of Marva-Maid milk at the end of each show. When I was in first grade (1971) one of my classmates attended a taping of the show. The next day he arrived at school displaying his little Marva-Maid carton to the collective "ooohhhs" and "aaahhhs" of our class. There was even a club one could join from which one received coloring pages, photos, and encoded Christian messages from Jim and Tammy.

A couple of years ago I saw a clip from one of these programs and was amazed that a show like that could have been so wildly popular. And it's hard to believe that at the height of its popularity, ca. 1970, Jim and Tammy were receiving up to 1,000 fan letters a week! It's no surprise that they left CBN in 1973 for "bigger and better" opportunities. Nevertheless, watching those clips one can see in Tammy the earnest, small-town Minnesota girl before the makeup, orgiastic excess, scandal, and downfall.

Having encountered that first incarnation of Tammy's onscreen persona, I'm just a little saddened by the news of her death, in part because one has to wonder how she would have fared away from the attention and spotlights, stationed in Minnesota for the duration. In that sense, one finds a resonant similarity between Tammy Faye and that other symbol of celebrity tragicomedy, fellow Minnesotan Judy Garland.

Still, Tammy Faye did embody much that is misguided and corrupt in the culture of Christian televangelism and will forever be linked to the scandalous PTL empire. To the masses who blindly pledged their meager dollars and "widow's mite" to the construction of Jim and Tammy's dream, the eulogizing that has accompanied Tammy's demise has probably served to reopen old wounds. To be fair, however, she seemed a bit more tolerant and forgiving than some of her peers. For example, I would never include her in the company of more malevolent figures like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, to whom she was linked at critical times in her public life. In the end, given our Dickensian fascination with the grotesque, I'm guessing that society's long-term memory of Tammy Faye will be shaped primarily by the final act in the drama of her sordid life. We'll likely forget the scandals and remember the mascara and the bravura.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Friday Flowers

Just a few flowers from my travels yesterday: a Moon flower (a favorite for me, which usually blooms only at night . . . perhaps the shade prompted it to open), a butterfly on a butterfly bush, some black-eyed Susans, and an interesting variety of sunflower.

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Self-Portrait Friday?

I always marvel at the number of self-portraits in the blogging world: There's "self-portrait Friday" and "self-portrait Monday" and some self-portraits that beg a "not safe for work" warning or "explicit content advisory." Although some critics of the practice may argue that vanity drives this compulsion to turn our digital cameras back at ourselves, for the great majority of self-portraits displayed on blogs, I have to disagree with the conclusion.

These aren't people vamping for the camera, pouting, striking languidly casual poses, and smiling for Annie Liebovitz or Lord Snowdon. They're not shouting, "Look at me - Here I am at my latest book signing/gallery opening/movie premier!" More often than not, they're chronicling their mood, marking a birthday, or simply capturing their evolution as a person. They're scarcely different from the plethora of vintage documentary snapshots that now crowd into "found photo" websites. They tell a story. (The first two photos here were taken from my favorite "found" photo site, "Look at Me.")

Of the myriad blogs I regularly check on, Chronicles of Me by Bohemian Girl has really struck a chord of late with its openness and the quality of self-portraits. She's beautiful in a very natural way, "easy on the eyes" one could say, and I'm particularly captivated by how remarkably different one person can look in so many photos. In that sense, her self-portraits do seem to be about evolution and growth.

To date I haven't been a participant in these self-portrait exercises beyond the obligatory profile photo. Still, I've managed to toss in a few childhood photos that give one a sense of my development over the years . . . from geeky child to geeky teen to geeky adult. One could argue that these photos represent an elegiac exercise in mourning the passage of one's youth. There are certainly days when I feel that way. Nevertheless, I'm starting to think it might be "ok" if I upload the occasional self-portrait. After I'm gone, they'll give my kids additional fodder for laughter in the way they now chuckle over my childhood photos. So consider yourselves forewarned; the occasional self-portrait may find its way into these pages. (For now, here I am on the way to my high school graduation in 1982. Can you believe that patchwork madras jacket?!)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Politics of Fear and the Rise of an American Fascist State

From the New York Times:

"Yesterday, the director of national intelligence released a report with the politically helpful title of “The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland,” and Fran Townsend, the president’s homeland security adviser, held a news conference to trumpet its findings. The message, as always: Be very afraid. And don’t question the president. . . .

The White House denied that the report was timed to the Senate debate. But the administration controls the timing of such releases and the truth is that fear of terrorism is the only shard remaining of Mr. Bush’s justification for invading Iraq.

This administration has never hesitated to play on fear for political gain, starting with the first homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge, and his Popsicle-coded threat charts. It is a breathtakingly cynical ploy, but in the past it has worked to cow Democrats into silence, if not always submission, and herd Republicans back onto the party line.

That must not happen this time. By now, Congress surely can see through the president’s fear-mongering and show Mr. Bush the exit from Iraq that he refuses to find for himself."

One of the hallmarks of the fascist or totalitarian state is the use of fear to shape public opinion and stifle dissent. Under Hitler, for example, the Nazis manufactured a fear of communists and Jews as a means of uniting popular opinion and quelling moderate opposition. The ultimate by-product of this fear-mongering was of course the Holocaust.

The Bush administration mirrors the Nazis' tactics by warning Americans at politically opportune times about unpatriotic liberals and a perceived terrorist threat - a threat it has only magnified thanks to the war in Iraq. In addition, like the the Nazi's, the Bush White House exploits this fear to justify the suspension of basic human rights and the rule of law. Add the administration's religious zeal, backed by the "Christian Right," and the nation is poised at the brink of an anti-Muslim campaign that bears the ideological baggage of a Medieval crusade marching on Constantinople. Like the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, the Bush administration's crusade hides an undercurrent of economic imperialism. This time, however, oil has replaced spices and silk as the currency of choice.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Carnival Colors

On Saturday we drove out to Connecticut to take care of some business at Grandma's house. As a "thank you" to neighbors who have done so much for my wife in recent weeks, we went to their annual church carnival. We bought raffle tickets and the kids played games and rode the usual carnival rides. Probably the most striking feature of the carnival was the hyper-brightness of the colors. No doubt after dark these would have been even more vivid under the bright, racing lights that adorned all of the amusements.

I've never been a big fan of these little carnivals, probably because of the reputation of "carnie" games, and these fit most of the stereotypes. Still, it was an enjoyable afternoon for the kids and my wife and I got our funnel cake fix. When I was a kid our family rarely went to carnivals . . . which isn't to say we didn't enjoy amusement parks. We made the obligatory trips to Disneyland and Disney World, Six Flags, Busch Gardens, and Hershey Park. Yet the only small-scale carnival I can remember visiting was the Firemen's Carnival in the Eastern Shore town where my father grew up.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Memory Monday

When I was down in Virginia for the July 4th holiday, I had a chance to visit my maternal grandmother who, at 93, is still a pistol. Having grown up only about 15 minutes from her and my grandfather, I saw them a great deal and consider myself extremely lucky to have had grandparents who played such a direct role in my upbringing. My grandfather in particular was a dynamic influence and, with my own dad often away on business travel, sometimes performed some of those "dad" duties like cheering at ball games, sitting through concerts and recitals, and even "babysitting" me and my brother during summer vacations. He pitched to us, shot hoops, played cards, and ferried us to the club so we could swim. He also took me on his fishing trips from a pretty early age and taught me the finer points of baiting a hook and casting.

Given the historic and geographic context of his birth, my grandfather's story is quite interesting actually. He was born in 1907 in the south-central part of Virginia, a poor rural area long dominated by tobacco farms. He was the eldest of eight children in a family that was land rich but cash poor. A smart boy who did well in school, he wanted to go to college but the family's limited means prevented higher education. Although the family suffered setbacks during the Great Depression, the did benefit from New Deal programs, including running a sawmill that supplied lumber to nearby Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) operations.

But by 1941 he found himself at age 34 with a wife and daughter and increasingly limited opportunities. So he packed up their belongings and moved to Portsmouth, Virginia, and started working in defense plants. By 1951 he had saved enough to build a nice little two-story house, the home in which my grandmother still lives. Over the years he worked in several jobs, including a dry-cleaning business and, in the last decade or so of his employment, as a sheet metal press operator in one of the local shipyards. If one ended right there by saying that he eventually retired to a life of leisure until his death in 1988 at age 80, the story wouldn't hold much interest.

Given his conservative rural background, limited education, and job history, one might conclude that he was a rough, working-class guy with typical, pedestrian interests. That picture certainly offers an apt description of some of the family members I encountered at family reunions over the years. My grandfather, however, never let his circumstances prove limiting. He may not have earned a college education, but as a life-long voracious reader, he possessed a surprising breadth of knowledge and always preached the virtues of education to me and my brother. He was a stellar cook (even coming up with his own recipes), made himself a serious gardener who tackled everything from the exotic to the ordinary, and was a humorous raconteur who charmed those around him, even strangers. I think he was at his happiest when piloting his Ford Galaxy 500 along the mountain miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway, or casting a line into a favorite fishing hole, whether the fish were biting or not. The pleasure of a fishing trip was the conversation and relaxation; actually catching fish was simply icing on the cake.

From him I learned that a man can do many things and have many interests, even when those interests and activities might deviate from the stereotypical roles prescribed for a husband and father of his generation and socio-economic circumstances. He possessed a gentlemanly bearing to the very end, when emphysema made each day a trial. Dying just days before I graduated with my Masters degree, his last words to me were to congratulate me and note how proud he was.

As my sons have tried to make sense of their grandmother's recent death, I've used stories of my grandfather to help them understand loss. Indeed, I've pointed out that rather than focus on grandma's death, we should remember all of the fun times and happy memories, because we carry them with us always, and can recall those moments whenever we need a smile.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Westward Ho! Part 2: Childhood Journeys

Yesterday I mentioned the idea of loading the family up for our own version of the "Great American Vacation," with a cross-country drive taking in the highlights of Americana and roadside kitsch. Although our family never made the coast-to-coast auto trek, we did manage several epic trips, including a couple of drives around the periphery of the old Confederacy, first in 1970 Dodge Dart that leaked oil on the first day home from the dealership, and later in a gargantuan 1972 Ford Gran Torino station wagon. The justification for these roadtrips was always a visit to my dad's older brother, who lived in Houston and worked for NASA. But in reality these excursions gave my history-obsessed parents an excuse to stop at every battlefield, roadside marker, Indian reservation, and restored plantation along the way. And, never in a big hurry to get there, we'd take about three weeks to complete the circle, stopping in southern burgs large and small if they met one simple requirement: they had to have a Holiday Inn.

In the era before myriad lodging franchises screamed at motorists from interstate billboards, one could rely on only a couple of national franchises or countless - and for my mother, unpredictable - "mom and pop" motels. Thanks to Memphis innovator Kemmons Wilson, Holiday Inns offered my mother predictability, cleanliness, easy advance booking, and a "kids stay free" policy, which wasn't always the case back then. Holiday Inn also provided one of the great moments in our family lore, an event still laughed about today. On our first trip to Houston in 1970, we had booked a room at a Holiday Inn in New Orleans. Remember the old Holiday Inn signs like the one pictured above on the Time cover featuring Kemmons Wilson? As we pulled into the motel we looked up to find the white message section of the sign heralding our arrival in large red letters: "Welcome Mr. and Mrs. Crowson."

For the outgoing leg of the journey we would hug the coast on old Route 17, stopping in Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, and St. Augustine, until turning inland (for our 1975 trip) to make the necessary pilgrimage to Disney World, then in its infancy. Then we'd head for the Gulf Coast, taking in Mobile, Biloxi, and New Orleans before pushing on to Houston. Aside from trips to the Johnson Space Center, the Astrodome, and Galveston, all I remember of Houston is heat, humidity, and my cousin's vile tempered black cat.

After a week of Houston we'd backtrack to New Orleans (always one of my father's favorite cities) then turn north onto I-55, bound for Memphis. With detours to "attractions" along the Mississippi, including a full day in Vicksburg enjoying our own Civil "War-gasm" (to borrow Tony Horwitz's term from Confederates in the Attic), the drive to Memphis would take two full days. (I should point out that we never got close to the garish gates of Graceland because my parents loathed Elvis. Their disdain for "the King" doubtless influenced me: I still think he was one of the most over-rated "stars" in the pantheon of post-war pop culture. I'm convinced that his death in 1977 did more to preserve his long-term reputation and rescue his image from the self-caricaturization that was already defining his public appearances.)

From Memphis we'd turn back to the east, passing through Nashville as quickly as possible to avoid any exposure to country music, detouring through Chattanooga to "see Rock City," Lookout Mountain, and, of course, the local Civil War sites. Then on to Gatlinburg, through the Smokies to Cherokee, Asheville (still one of my favorite cities), and a final sprint across North Carolina to Rocky Mount, where we'd turn northward on I-95 briefly before staggering back into Tidewater. Oddly, I can still remember returning to knee-high grass and a hot, stale house. Isn't it funny the things that can stick with us decades later - and we can't remember what we had for lunch yesterday. But that's one of the reasons why I want our family to embark on this kind of trip next year, so when my kids are adults they'll possess the same kinds of memories that so often define one's childhood. I also think it's important for them to see as much of the country as possible. That rationale was certainly an important part of my parents' thinking and obviously influenced my development and outlook.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Echinacea - Purple Cone Flowers

Once again, Madison Square Park yields some beautiful flowers. You'll recall that the Spring had featured tulips and allium. Now wearing its midsummer colors, the Park's beds are dominated by hostas, hydrangea, and these echinacea (or purple cone flowers). I find the purple cone flowers - and the similar black-eyed susans - are among my summer favorites . . . certainly more than the ubiquitous day-lillies. It was my lucky day to spot this butterfly (a "Red Admiral"?) enjoying one of the echinacea.

I'm still hoping to see some gerbera daisies, perhaps summer-blooming roses, and poppies. I know that in Central Park and up in Riverside Park one can find Delphinium, Digitalis and Hollyhocks, all of which are favorite summer bloomers. (When I lived in the South I would venture into forests to find Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Trillium, and numerous other wildflowers. I miss those!)

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Westward Ho! - Thoughts on the "Great American Vacation"

It's high summer in New York City which means tourists in Central Park, the Philharmonic in the Park, Shakespeare in the Park, and daycamp kids in the Park. But with August in view I'm starting to get that itch . . . that urge to pack the wife and kids in the car and drive westward.

For years I've had this vision - doubtless romanticized and enlarged in scope by travel literature - of taking the mythic "great American vacation." We would drive across I-80 or I-40, stopping to see the remnants of the kitsch Americana once ubiquitous along our pre-interstate highways. "The World's Largest Bison," numerous fiberglass "muffler men," and Paul Bunyan statues beckon, urging us to eschew the sterile interstates for an older network of arteries that includes remnants of the old Lincoln Highway and Route 66. Devil's Tower, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, the Corn Palace, Little Big Horn, and the Tetons call to us from the northern plains and the approaches to the Rockies. As silly as it must seem, we need to experience "Carhenge" in Nebraska. I want my kids to walk in the ruts carved by wagons along the Oregon Trail, to see the route traveled by Lewis and Clark, and experience the vastness of the trans-Mississippi West.

It won't happen this summer, but 2008 may be the year for the "Trip." I'm especially anxious to head west because so many areas are being stripped of their timber and coal resources, or they're being paved over thanks to the homogenizing advance of "sprawl." Sure, pundits and scholars have been trumpeting the West's demise as a distinct region since Horace Greeley urged Americans to move westward in the 19th century. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner, concluding that westward migrations had provided an outlet for American energy and a lab for America's democratic experiment, proclaimed the closing of the frontier in 1893 and inspired a generation of scholars to speculate about our country's fate. Although Turner's "frontier thesis" has been largely discredited as a too simplistic means of explaining the republic's evolution, one has to wonder if a residual "pull" of the West still inspires travelers. Even with its myriad problems, for example, California still draws hordes of people trying to realize the elusive "American Dream." Even more compelling is the attraction of Las Vegas, one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S.

But this isn't the West I want my family to experience. My boys in particular need to wade into that "openness," in the way they might wade into the surf at Coney Island, while there's some of it left that hasn't been paved over or stripped bare. I'm still trying to decide if we'll spend our nights at cheap motels or do some "car camping," stopping at campsites and pitching a family tent. Several friends have tried the camping route for vacations, so I'll have to survey them for obvious do's and don'ts before setting out.
Since watching Robin Williams in the movie "RV," my kids have been suggesting that we should rent an RV and hit the road. I refuse to get one of the full-size vehicles like the ones featured in the movie, but there are some smaller, more manageable options that one can rent through CruiseAmerica.com. That might be a viable option too! In fact, there's a small part of me that would love to just drop out for about six months and drive around the country. I know, I know . . . this is the sort of thing retirees do. My parents' neighbors spent their retirement years driving a Winnebago around America until they were to old to go anymore. My father rolled his eyes over their decision. But I'd bet a pile of money that their retirement was far more rewarding and satisfying than his. So wouldn't it be even more fun to try this while we and the kids are still young enough to do it without killing ourselves? If we make any decisions, I'll let everyone know!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Perpetuating the Climate of Politicized Ignorance

From the New York Times:
WASHINGTON, July 10 — Former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona told a Congressional panel Tuesday that top Bush administration officials repeatedly tried to weaken or suppress important public health reports because of political considerations. The administration, Dr. Carmona said, would not allow him to speak or issue reports about stem cells, emergency contraception, sex education, or prison, mental and global health issues. Top officials delayed for years and tried to “water down” a landmark report on secondhand smoke, he said. . . .

Dr. Carmona said he was ordered to mention President Bush three times on every page of his speeches. He also said he was asked to make speeches to support Republican political candidates and to attend political briefings.

And administration officials even discouraged him from attending the Special Olympics because, he said, of that charitable organization’s longtime ties to a “prominent family” that he refused to name. “I was specifically told by a senior person, ‘Why would you want to help those people?’ ” Dr. Carmona said. The Special Olympics is one of the nation’s premier charitable organizations to benefit disabled people, and the Kennedys have long been deeply involved in it. . . .

Dr. Carmona is one of a growing list of present and former administration officials to charge that politics often trumped science within what had previously been largely
nonpartisan government health and scientific agencies. . . .

In his testimony, Dr. Carmona said that at first he was so politically naïve that he
had little idea how inappropriate the administration’s actions were. He eventually consulted six previous surgeons general, Republican and Democratic, and all agreed, he said, that he faced more political interference than they had.

On issue after issue, Dr. Carmona said, the administration made decisions about important public health issues based solely on political considerations, not scientific ones. “I was told to stay away from those because we’ve already decided which way we want to go,” Dr. Carmona said. He described attending a meeting of top officials in which the subject of global warming was discussed. The officials concluded that global warming was a liberal cause and dismissed it, he said.
Just further proof that the Bush administration has used politics to trump reason. We're already familiar with the White House's refusal to address the stem cell issue. But most infuriating here is the administration's dismissal of the Special Olympics program simply because the Kennedy family plays a prominent role in this charity. How can one's political prejudices overshadow the great work of Special Olympics?? This behavior only underscores further the climate of politicized ignorance that defines the Bush administration at every level and on every issue. Moreover, its assault on the supposed independence of the Surgeon General's position merely confirms the administration's documented disdain for the health and welfare of American citizens. "The problem with this approach is that in public health, as in a democracy, there is nothing worse than ignoring science, or marginalizing the voice of science for reasons driven by changing political winds. The job of surgeon general is to be the doctor of the nation, not the doctor of a political party," Carmona added. The revelation that administration officials even censored Carmona's speeches and ordered him to remain silent on certain issues again highlights the eery parallel between the Bush White House and the historical model of the nascent fascist state. Surveying the work of this administration, Hitler would be proud. As Americans, however, we should be outraged and ashamed.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


I've been tired and out of sorts for several weeks now . . . just not feeling normal, which must be an oxymoron for a person diagnosed with clinical depression. No doubt the sudden death of my mother-in-law has exacerbated my mood. The heat and humidity don't help either. I also think part of my problem may be the aftermath of a visit to my parents' home in Virginia.

I enjoy visiting but the environment down there is just too depressing. The auto-crazy, mall-centric life seems so sterile now. Having been away from the land of sprawl for ten years, I can now see why critics have so thoroughly discounted suburbia as a suitable living arrangement for most humans. Moreover, the degree to which I encountered people so conservative and provincial in their outlook, as well as so out of touch with the nation's beleaguered state, is bewildering. And this doesn't even begin to address how wasteful our society has become in its attempts to maintain that "American Dream." Neither fully urban nor entirely rural, the decentralized life of exurbia also precipitates a depressive state borne of mobility issues, status anxiety, and isolation. If I had to live that way for very long, I'd shrivel up and waste away, which is essentially what my parents are doing. In the city I usually feel challenged, jostled, awake. But even that hasn't been enough of late.

Do I turn back to meds to stabilize the moods? Change my diet (unhealthy at best right now)? Exercise more? Vitamins? Sleep more? Sleep less? My preschool photo, above, pretty much sums it up. I was obviously scared and unhappy when the photo was taken in 1968.

Family Histories

Sitting with our extended family on July 4th, listening to the stories about life on the Eastern Shore going back to the 1930s, I started thinking about the ways in which families preserve their history - whether through oral tradition or written records. Historians, of course, learn to layer their analyses of the past with as much documentation as possible. For example, when I was a political historian at the University of Tennessee I had to support my work with data from myriad sources: newspapers, first-person accounts, voting records, governmental records, and a selection of secondary sources. From that mass of information one would try to distill the essence of an event or period and draw appropriate conclusions.

But unless one is the scion of a prominent family for which there are voluminous records, how does the average person interpret the often spotty family history beyond the bare-bones data provided by genealogical records? Moreover, in the case of exposure to oral histories, to what extent does one accept the veracity of that information and thereafter pass it along to children and grandchildren as family gospel? Has one's family history been cleaned up, whitewashed, or sanitized for our protection, with the uglier chapters and characters air-brushed from the picture like a doctored Soviet photograph?

Sure, these are weighty questions to ponder at a family reunion. Still, I found them intriguing given some family members' genealogical bent. My mother, for example, has used her retirement to probe the genealogical records to support her membership in the DAR, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), and, more recently, the Jamestowne Society. It turns out we're lucky enough to have a fairly colorful family history that includes a panoply of Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers, Confederate politicians, slave owners, tobacco planters, and even a few eccentrics. My father's family tended to be a more staid and bookish lot, with plenty of ministers, school teachers, and carpenters filling out the ranks. (Naturally, I'm most interested in the eccentrics, since I'll doubtless fall into that category when my behavior is recalled decades from now.)

In the end, I was heartened by the brutal honesty of some of the stories told on July 4th. Most I had heard before, but I was gladdened to hear some details corroborated by other family members. All agreed, for example, that a long-deceased Uncle Lloyd was as racist as the day is long. His claim to notorious family fame was his practice of lending money to friends and family at usurious rates of interest. Over the years my father has often told the story of a day in the 1950s when his grandfather Charles and Uncle Lloyd sat on the porch chatting. Looking across a wide expanse of fields at the comfortable cottages of some African-American residents, Lloyd turned to Charles, my great-grandfather, and remarked in disgust, "Charlie, those n-----s have houses as nice as yours and mine." To my father, who has never tolerated even the merest hint of racism, this was doubtless a cautionary tale for the rest of us. Uncle Lloyd was held up as the example of how not to conduct oneself as a member of the family.

Surveying the cast of characters in our family, Uncle Lloyd seems to be the mean-spirited anomaly, if the stories are to be believed. Sure, as a southern clan wed to the land our family carries the baggage of slavery and racism. It would be unrealistic to suggest otherwise. But given the liberal outlook of much of the family today, I'd like to believe that we've at least learned from that experience and evolved in our outlook. That's certainly the legacy I'm going to try and pass on to my sons.

(Photo info: The first photo shows a group of children in the village of Justisville, VA, circa 1935. My father, age 5, is in the front row, far left. The second photo is my mother at 16, taken in 1951. Photo #3 is me in my father's lap, with my grandfather and grandmother flanking us. This was taken about 1968, when I was 4. The final photo shows my grandmother and grandfather with my father, left, his older brother, center, and younger brother, right. Probably taken around 1938. )