Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Faulkner, Bush, and the Romance of War

I was writing a comment on a friend's blog, responding to a quotation from William Faulkner, and I started to think about my own favorite Faulkner passage. I had included it on this site back in January, during the first weeks of the blog. In that context, I was addressing the continued Southern fascination with the Civil War and the ways in which that conflict played such a central role in the formation of the region's identity. Here it is again:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.
William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust

I should explain that I don't like this passage in the sense that it romanticizes or condones the Southern cause in the Civil War. No, I like it because it explains so much vis-a-vis the South's tragically flawed vision of history and its destiny. Moreover, I'm attracted to this bit of Faulkner because if one knows what happens next - that pivotal event of the war, Pickett's charge - and understands the consequences, one can see this as an exercise by the author in sweeping away romantic notions of war, no less moving than Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" or Wilfred Owens' "Dulce Et Decorum Est" from World War I. Faulkner understood the pathos of the moment and the tragedy of the history that followed.

But I have to wonder, reflecting on these words, do President Bush and his minions understand the lessons of war, or is it still early in the day of July 3rd, 1863, for them? Tragically, I think not. Addressing the Bush administration's sense of divinely guided mission for the U.S., I believe the White House has adopted the same kind of flawed vision for this country and is now leading us up our own Cemetery Ridge. At Gettysburg, Lee was neither ideologue nor apostle for the Confederacy. His primary allegiance was to Virginia, his home state. Bush, unfortunately, is both ideologue and apostle, ready to proselytize around the world with the idea that the U.S. enjoys some divinely sanctioned status as a bearer of democratic ideals. It embodies a chauvinism no less bankrupt than European colonialism in the 19th century.

Now I'm hardly an isolationist. Indeed, I believe the United States has a responsibility to play a prominent role around the world, particularly in the context of the United Nations and its peace-keeping efforts. And naturally we're going to play a global role in terms of commerce. But exporting democracy shouldn't necessarily be on our national "to do" list. And as history has demonstrated time and time again, the imposition of "democracy" in a top down fashion rarely proves successful.

Sadly, Bush and his disciples are soon going to find themselves, figuratively, at the top of Cemetery Ridge, conveyed to the slaughter and this utter waste of human lives by a myopic vision far more tragic than that embodied in Robert E. Lee. Like the 14-year old boys of Faulkner's passage, Bush would rather think about the fantasy rather than the reality of the charge. Having stood for hours at attention in the 19th century-style uniforms of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), I can understand how easy it is to get swept up in romantic visions of war, with shined shoes, glinting brass and steel, and regimental banners billowing in the breeze of an idyllic parade ground atmosphere. I was that idealistic and naive at 18. Most of us grow up and recognize the inherent flaws in that vision. Perhaps if Bush and Cheney had some personal experience with the horror of warfare, they would proved less reluctant to follow the bugler's call into battle.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks"

Few of you probably notice when I change the "What I'm Listening To" or "What I'm Reading" items in the sidebar of this blog. Today I changed the music selection to Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, a familiar work for lovers of Baroque music - and long a personal favorite for me. Parts of it, particularly the opening overture, are often played on classical music radio stations and, having been used in commercials, it's recognizable even by people who don't listen to classical music. With the Water Music, it's among the most familiar works by Handel (pictured at left). The piece was composed by Handel under contract to England's King George II for the fireworks in London's Green Park on 27 April 1749. It was to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle.

Like so many works from the Baroque period, it's been re-scored for different instrumental combinations, with orchestrations for groups from massive orchestras down to smaller ensembles like The Canadian Brass. Also, too many conductors over the years have had the tendency to slow the piece down to an almost ponderous pace. (The same thing has been done, for example to Handel's Messiah, most notably by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which is notorious for rendering the Messiah nearly lifeless with an interpretation that can only be described as "glacial" in its pacing. About 15 years ago I discovered a recording of Messiah that was based on the original score and Handel's personal notes about early performances. With a smaller orchestra more closely matching the instrumentation of Handel's era, as well as a smaller choir, the result was a piece that was so much lighter and "cleaner" than the more typical overweight productions. I was lucky enough to hear this version performed in Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre - a hall in which Handel himself had performed - with Trevor Pinnock leading the English Concert and the Choir of King's College, Cambridge. The experience was like being transported back 250 years.)

Thankfully that effort to interpret Baroque music with period instruments and access to original scores has continued in recent years. So I come back to Music for the Royal Fireworks. I just found a recording by Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert that was based on Handel's original 1749 version. The contrast to other recordings I've heard is remarkable. First, the drums seems so much clearer, and more varied than the ubiquitous tympani employed by other orchestras. Also, reflecting Handel's original instrumentation, the whole piece has a much more "reedy" feel, with oboes and bassoons featured prominently alongside the obvious brass. As an old woodwind player it was nice to hear the winds singing out with the trumpets and horns, particularly as they did their runs in the final measures of the overture. The recording, which I downloaded from iTunes, was so clear that I could hear the clicking of the woodwinds' keys. Some people might find this distracting - like hearing Glenn Gould's humming in recordings of Bach's preludes and fugues - but as a musician I think it adds to the charm of the interpretation.

Friday, October 26, 2007


I walked by Bryant Park yesterday afternoon and thought of that much-honored New Yorker, William Cullen Bryant, for whom the park is named. During the winter Bryant Park is often used for public ice skating and is a popular destination for families during the holiday season. Conversely, it's rather sad to think that a space named for this great man of letters could also be used for an event as vacuous as Fashion Week twice a year. Poor Bryant probably rolls in his grave each time a waif-like model trips down the runway in some couture nightmare.

Does anyone remember having to memorize the final lines from Bryant's most famous poem, "Thanatopsis," when they were in school? I remember the poem quite well, including having to stand in front of the class while reciting the final stanza. It was around 12th grade I think, in an AP American Studies course.

"So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams."
I recall it seemed rather appropriate at the time because my class at school had suffered the loss of a classmate killed in a car crash not long before we tackled Bryant and some of his Romantic-era American contemporaries. I think for most of us it was our first encounter with death beyond the sphere of family and the elderly. Here was one of our own - gone at 18 - having been thrown out the window of his car during a head-on collision. No seat belt, of course. It was definitely a wake-up call for our senior class, and set the tone for the rest of the year. Now twenty-five years later it's obvious that the event made a lasting impression.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Back to Vermont

I just learned that we're returning to Vermont for the Thanksgiving weekend . . . a quick trip up early on Friday, returning on Sunday afternoon. We'll spend some time at Scott Farm again - with more pictures taken, no doubt. We'll also avail ourselves of the indoor pool at the little inn where we stay, eat at our favorite diner outside of Brattleboro, and take in an art and artisans show in Putney. It promises to be a lovely weekend.

I usually eschew travel over the Thanksgiving holiday because of the traffic nightmares, but given the events of the last few months, particularly the death of my mother-in-law (with whom we usually spent Thanksgiving), I think a weekend away in one of our favorite spots will do us good.

Last from Vermont - Scott Farm

Here are the last of the images from Vermont - more of the barn doors from Scott Farm. As I noted in my first post on these doors, I was really struck by the beauty of these images, their variation, and the ways in which years of harsh Vermont weather had aged the wood. I know neither the ages of the barns nor the amount of time it takes to bring out this kind of patina on white-washed wood. But it's beautiful. That I do know. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Looks like "drought" is the buzzword in this week's news, whether one is talking about the fires in southern California or the record dry spell and water shortage in the southeastern U.S. The fires in California, brought on by a nasty combination of too little rain and the Santa Anna winds, are nothing new - although this round seems to be more widespread and devastating than the fires of previous years. Scientists will doubtless remind us, as they do after other newsworthy fires in high profile places like Yellowstone, that fire is a natural part of the landscape's life cycle. Periodic wildfires burn out excess growth and unhealthy trees, preparing the soil for new growth. And it is amazing to witness the rapidity with which teeming life returns to a burned over area. Nevertheless, it's hard to nurture those warm and fuzzy "Animal Planet" feelings when one witnesses the evacuation of thousands and the destruction of so many homes in the region. Although one might want to tell them, "we told you so," one can't help feeling sorry for families that have lost everything.

Still, these fires should remind us that much of that region is built on a mirage that has been unnaturally sustained through irrigation. (A few months ago I did an article - cross-posted here - on the use of desalination technologies to meet water demands in an increasingly drought-stricken West. Also, the book Cadillac Desert is arguably the best explanation of how developers coaxed a green "paradise" from a semi-arid landscape.) And long before civil engineers dammed western rivers and began digging irrigation channels, fire was a natural sculptor of the western landscape. It will be interesting to see how the region responds to this latest challenge. One would hope that developers, and the local governments that approve or reject their proposals, would finally recognize the area's natural limitations and plan accordingly in a manner more attuned to environmental impact.

On the other hand, in the Southeast, particularly in the area around Atlanta, extreme drought is a new experience for many people. Sure, the region has experienced periods of severely diminished rainfall before and suffered the consequences within the context of lessened agricultural output. The problem this time, however, is that the drought is affecting an area that has experienced a remarkable population explosion in recent years. Atlanta, for example, faces the disastrous possibility of losing one of its primary sources of potable water, Lake Lanier. Several communities from Virginia through the Carolinas have already instituted strict water conservation policies and municipalities like Atlanta are on the verge of declaring states of emergency. People like my parents in southeastern Virginia adapt to the restrictions on water use, but they really don't have a sense of the magnitude of the latest emergency. Sure, they can't wash their cars or water their lawns. But as long as they have water to drink and take a shower, they're not really worried.

Several months ago I wrote:

"Still, unless one is directly affected by water shortages, it may prove difficult to galvanize popular interest in the debate over the efficacy of desalination programs, particularly when the media pay so much attention to the Middle East and its role in feeding our fossil fuel diet. Think of it in these terms, however. In 1999, the Saudi Arabian oil minister, Sheik Ahmed Yamani, offered an ironic conclusion when asked about the significance of oil to his nation's development. 'All in all, I wish we had discovered water,' he remarked, a telling observation in a world so often assessed through the refracted politics of oil. In the end, water may be the 21st century's oil, and could prove even more expensive."
So here we are in October and the situation is far more dire and affects a far more substantial portion of the population. Perhaps now ordinary people will take notice and respond with an urgency heretofore not seen. Indeed, I think we're going to be hearing far more in the near future about water shortages and the ramifications of long-term drought from a national perspective. Realistically, the situation should spur a deceleration of the development boom that has punctuated western and southeastern economic growth in the last 25 years. And, given the growing interest in global warming and climate change, recent events should spark a popular demand for more eco-sensitive responses to demands on our natural resources. Otherwise, communities like Atlanta face a long-term situation more threatening than the effects of a fire. As I noted in April:

"Assuming the mantle of historical geographer and studying a map of the West, one sees a landscape dotted with ghost towns. Yet they're not of the mythic 'Old West' variety; they are towns that sprang up in response to the discovery of gold, silver, copper and uranium, or flourished when the first roads spidered westward to California. Today, there are countless exit ramps along the east-west highways that lead to abandoned mining communities and once prosperous towns with derelict truck stops, gas stations, garages and warehouses. Fifty to 75 years from now, we may have a new breed of ghost towns - communities that emerged around the burgeoning agribusinesses that took advantage of post-Depression irrigation efforts, but dried up as their access to inexpensive water evaporated. Even larger interior cities like Denver may face significant contraction if their diminished water supplies, dependent on the shrinking snow pack of the Rockies, can not be supplemented by other sources. Water-stressed urban areas may become the West's equivalent of decaying, post-industrial 'Rust Belt' cities, their economic hearts on life support as businesses and citizens leave for - literally - greener climes. And one suspects that these new ghost towns of strip malls and convenience stores will prove neither as picturesque nor as attractive to tourists as Bodie, California, and similarly 'historic' mining communities."
Now take that scenario and apply it to the southeast. Is Atlanta on the list of future ghost towns, a city crippled by a combination of drought and developmental shortsightedness? Obviously these are worst-case scenarios, dependent on just the right convergence of circumstances. This year's drought could be followed by next year's floods. Nevertheless, the current emergency should give localities cause to reexamine their pursuit of unmitigated development. In the meantime, pray that the rains fall in Georgia and the politicians learn a valuable lesson.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Christmas Decorations Already?

Am I the only one appalled over the pre-Halloween appearance of Christmas decorations in stores? All of the "drugstores" and "big box" retailers have already put out their Christmas decorations, which are now nudging the Halloween fare (on the shelves since late summer) to the side. Christmas stockings, lawn displays, icicle lights, artificial trees, and toys are on display perhaps earlier than I've ever seen them. Naturally marketers are paranoid about having a good year and cashing in on the holiday season. And we've all seen the annual stories on the national news about how good numbers on holiday receipts can make or break an entire year for a business. But one wonders if the early appearance of the Christmas displays makes a difference in the bottom line. From just an anecdotal perspective, all I hear are negative reactions to the early Christmas barrage. Do the marketing experts ever consider this reaction and does it have a measurable impact on sales? Sounds like a thesis topic for an eager MBA candidate.

I remember when I was a child, one never saw Christmas decorations until the Friday after Thanksgiving. Santa bringing up the rear at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade was like a signal: It's now officially the Christmas season! Shop and decorate to your hearts' content. Even then, people usually didn't decorate their homes until early December. (And I know in some more traditional homes, particularly those that observed a fairly strict liturgical calendar, the decorated tree didn't appear until Christmas eve and was thrown out promptly after Epiphany. For my grandmother and her family, there was the superstition that it was bad luck to leave one's tree up beyond New Year's day.)

There's an intriguing disconnect between our nostalgia for "Christmas past" - embodied, for example, in the growing popularity of the film A Christmas Story - and the degree to which we tolerate the base commercialism of "Christmas present." Of course, it's easy to engage in nostalgia as a psychological exercise. One needn't spend any money or do any mental "heavy lifting" to surround oneself in the warm firelight's glow of holiday nostalgia. It's the equivalent of tuning in to the televised "yule log" that a local New York City station broadcasts each Christmas morning. One just enjoys the happy memories - with a side order of kitsch - without the post-fire mess. Nevertheless, one can spend a great deal of money on a nostalgia trip. Just look at the ways retailers try to separate us from our money with images of Christmas dragged kicking and screaming from some idealized Victorian past. The reality, of course, lies a fair distance from the truth of Victorian-era Christmas celebrations, Charles Dickens and Ebenezer Scrooge notwithstanding.

I'm left wondering what would happen if consumers revolted, and decided that "less is more" at Christmas? What if a large proportion of us realized that Christmas - and Hanukkah, for that matter - isn't about buying presents and besting our neighbors in a contest of decoration density? Don't misinterpret my remarks here: I love Christmas and have always taken great delight in the nostalgic trappings of the holiday, from Santa to sleigh bells. No doubt the memories of even my own childhood have been scripted with an eye to Ralphie and his quest for a Red Ryder b-b gun. Our family has tried to give my sons Christmas experiences that will serve as a happy foundation for later recollection, striking a balance between the commercial and the Christian, the stable and the shopping cart. Because whether or not one believes in the literal truth of the "virgin birth" and the miracles of Bethlehem, the values enunciated in that story - apocryphal or otherwise - are good lessons to inculcate. Surely we can learn to be more giving - of our time, talent, or treasure - without swiping our debit cards at Wal-Mart or Macy's in a frenzy of materialistic passion. To retailers this alternative reality represents heresy. But approaching "middle age" I'm beginning to realize that life is ultimately easier, and more satisfying, if I worry less about what's on sale, and more about what's at stake.

Friday, October 19, 2007

A few more from Vermont

Here are a few more from our trip to Vermont: Kip, the border collie who follows commands better than my children, here at my feet after running the sheep in circles; one of the sheep, in this case a "blue-faced Leicester" I believe; a view from the ski lift at Pico, ferrying us to the top of the mountain; and finally a view of a barn and its surroundings at Plymouth Notch on a rainy afternoon. It's amazing how much we manage to pack into four days up there, and the variety is amazing, from hiking the mountains, enjoying the foliage, herding sheep, and picking apples, to careening down the side of a mountain on a luge-like contraption with wheels. Given our growing love for Vermont, I suspect we're going to be spending more time there than our standard autumnal visit.

Friday Meme

I haven't done one of these silly memes in a while, but this one proved fun and reassuring on a dreary Friday. Give it at try. Given the poor performance of so many Americans on history, math, and geography questions, I'm not surprised that some of these might prove difficult.

How smart are you? - Intelligence Test

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Vermont Headstones

Continuing the posts from our Vermont trip, here are four images of Vermont headstones. This cemetery is west of Brattleboro, near Marlboro College. We visit every year, in part because we enjoy the beauty and uniqueness of the stones, and it gives the boys a chance to get out of the car and walk around for a bit before we head home at the end of the trip. Although they used to run through the cemetery, playing hide and seek behind the stones, the kids now stop and read the names and dates, remarking on the deaths of the children and infants. It's hard for them to understand the hard reality of high infant mortality during that period, and comprehend how lucky they are to have been spared the uncertainty of life in a world punctuated by periodic epidemics.

Most of the stones date from the early to mid 19th century, but a few, like the first one pictured here, date to the 1790s. They're particularly interesting because of the thin black stone from which they're sculpted. I'm not sure of their geologic specification, but they have a shale-like quality and appear fragile. The angel represents a dramatic departure from earlier 17th century New England stones, in which images - including skulls and depictions of demons - reflected the Calvinist notion of the uncertainty of one's salvation and the potential torments of hell for those not among the "elect." Set in a quiet spot, above a farm with fields of grazing horses, it always reminds me a little of the cemetery on the hill overlooking Grovers Corners in Act 3 of Thornton Wilder's Our Town.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Boys in Vermont

Here are Ben and Sam in Vermont . . . sitting on the porch of the general store in Plymouth Notch, with me atop Killington, and lounging on a bench at the Vermont Country Store. It's gotten harder to make them sit still for photographs, let alone actually smile for the camera. As for me, the sun reflecting off the top of my head makes me look like I have even less hair than is actually there . . . and makes me think that before too long, Ben and Sam will be referring to their dad as "chrome dome." Ugh.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Baby Boomers on Social Security

On the news this morning I saw that the first official "Baby Boomer," Kathleen Casey-Kirschling, applied for Social Security benefits yesterday, signaling the start of a new kind of surge - the rush of boomers to tap Social Security. A retired teacher from New Jersey, Casey-Kirschling was born one second past midnight on January 1st, 1946, in Baltimore, MD.

This news got me thinking about my own place in the post-World War II "Baby Boom," which ostensibly lasted from 1946 until 1964. Some historians argue that the boom really applies only to those born prior to 1956, a group that was eligible for the draft during Vietnam. Obviously coming of age in the late 50s and confronting Vietnam on the cusp of adulthood represent significant influences for that generation. But do I, born early in 1964, really have much in common with someone born in 1946 or even the early 50s, for that matter? I don't really have a sense of shared experience with the Vietnam generation.

I guess from a purely statistical standpoint 1964 represented the final peak for the surge in the birthrate that followed World War II. And we all know the extent to which that population explosion changed the United States in every facet of society. But abandoning the demographers' pronouncements, I think experiential reference points perhaps better define the cohort to which we belong. Although I remember Vietnam, vaguely, along with the Apollo moon landings, and, just barely, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, I have stronger memories of Watergate, Nixon's resignation, and events of the mid-1970s and after. So maybe those of us born from about 1960 until 1970 represent an altogether different group from the true "Baby Boomers." Indeed, now in our late 30s and late 40s, we seem to be stuck between the "Baby Boomers" and the "Echo Boomers," the children of "Baby Boomers" who were part of a second surge in the birth rate that began in the early 1970s. And we're definitely not a part of the much ballyhooed "Generation X" which is now slogging through their 30s.

Using this experiential model we could include Watergate, the Bicentennial, Carter's election, the Iran Hostage Crisis and the Reagan years as benchmark events in our development. They certainly meant more to me in terms of first-hand experience than the Eisenhower years, Vietnam, JFK, or the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, the post-1960 crowd only reaped the rewards - beneficial or otherwise - from those events so ascribed as defining elements in the "boomer" experience.

Regardless of how one feels about the semantics of defining the "Baby Boom," it will prove interesting to watch how this generation that so profoundly shaped the country in its youth, will affect the country in its old age. Some analysts are making dire predictions, particularly in the context of the Social Security system and in the field of geriatric medicine. No doubt their experience in old age will determine how I spend my retirement years.

"Verschärfte Vernehmung"

In Sunday's New York Times Frank Rich wrote:

“BUSH lies” doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s time to confront the darker reality that we are lying to ourselves.

Ten days ago The Times unearthed yet another round of secret Department of Justice memos countenancing torture. President Bush gave his standard response: “This government does not torture people.” Of course, it all depends on what the meaning of “torture” is. The whole point of these memos is to repeatedly recalibrate the definition so Mr. Bush can keep pleading innocent.

By any legal standards except those rubber-stamped by Alberto Gonzales, we are practicing torture, and we have known we are doing so ever since photographic proof emerged from Abu Ghraib more than three years ago. As Andrew Sullivan, once a Bush cheerleader, observed last weekend in The Sunday Times of London, America’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques have a grotesque provenance: Verschärfte Vernehmung, enhanced or intensified interrogation, was the exact term innovated by the Gestapo to describe what became known as the ‘third degree.’ It left no marks. It included hypothermia, stress positions and long-time sleep deprivation.”

Still, the drill remains the same. The administration gives its alibi (Abu Ghraib was just a few bad apples). A few members of Congress squawk. The debate is labeled “politics.” We turn the page. . . .

As the war has dragged on, it is hard to give Americans en masse a pass. We are too slow to notice, let alone protest, the calamities that have followed the original sin. . . .

Our humanity has been compromised by those who use Gestapo tactics in our war. The longer we stand idly by while they do so, the more we resemble those “good Germans” who professed ignorance of their own Gestapo. It’s up to us to wake up our somnambulant Congress to challenge administration policy every day. Let the war’s last supporters filibuster all night if they want to. There is nothing left to lose except whatever remains of our country’s good name.

I haven't written much about the Bush administration of late, in part out of a frustration and boiling anger that have prevented me from writing with little more than curses and scabrous invective. That this administration is rotten to its core is not in doubt. As Frank Rich points out, however, what is in doubt is the soul of our nation. Will we have the moral wherewithal to address the legacy of Bush crimes? Will the American people elect a President in 2008 who will commit to making a 180 degree reverse in policy to turn our nation from the fascist path down which Bush and his supporters have led us? That remains to be seen. Or will we be like the "good Germans" mentioned by Frank Rich - Germans who may have disagreed with Hitler and the Nazis but said nothing in opposition to the tactics of the Gestapo nor rose up in opposition to the genocide of the Holocaust.

One hopes that Americans' lack of interest and outrage over the torture issue - and the war in general - are a product of Bush's propaganda campaign to misinform the nation about administration policies and the state of the conflict. In that sense, the White House has used the media as masterfully as Goebbels commandeered the German press in the 1930s. (Having adopted many of the political tactics employed by Hitler and the Nazis, one shouldn't be surprised then that the administration would condone "enhanced interrogation" - the "Verschärfte Vernehmung" mentioned in Frank Rich's editorial - in its treatment of prisoners.)

Yet one suspects that Americans' disinterest is simply a product of apathy. Americans just don't care. Or they're closing their eyes and collectively wishing the problem would go away or resolve itself. In the end, average Americans, enveloped in a voyeuristic haze no less numbing than the smoke of an opium den, seem more concerned about O.J. Simpson, Britney Spears, or the latest reality TV sensation. Why concern oneself with presidential debates, charges of torture, or judicial corruption, when one can tune in to the latest installment of The Bachelor or Dancing With the Stars, thus avoiding any kind of emotional or intellectual challenge beyond crocodile tears for the ousted and tearful bride-to-be?

Unfortunately we have over 400 days left in this White House train wreck. And given the ability of this administration to weather nearly every crisis, one has to be pessimistic for the country's future. Having fallen so far from the tree of liberty, planted over 200 years ago, we should be ashamed of ourselves as a nation. Removing Bush and Cheney from office before their 400+ days expire, we should apologize to the world and labor to right the wrongs of the Bush years.

Friday, October 12, 2007


This will doubtless prove my most controversial and thought provoking painting to date. When I started this project a couple of weeks ago, I approached it simply from a documentary standpoint. The subject is derived from some digital photos I snapped in midtown Manhattan. The scene is pretty typical New York: a homeless guy sleeping on the sidewalk. One sees it in every neighborhood in every borough.

In the context of the city's daily rush and rumble, we tend to become desensitized to the presence of our homeless neighbors and thus tend not to notice them. Becoming just another image in the visual assault that is New York City, one filters out the homeless in the same way one filters out the cabs, sirens, and crowds. A psychologist would probably argue that this filtering process is a pretty common coping strategy for residents of noisy and noisome big cities.

So, back to my sense of experiment . . . If you've followed the commentary on my paintings, you already know that I don't do portraiture, nor do I populate my images with people. When they do appear, they're always in the background and amorphously defined. In that sense, this painting was a leap, because it's a double portrait and the people are the focus of the image. Although I approached the paper with trepidation, I was ultimately pleased with the result, particularly the man's varying skin tones and the folds of his red pants.

Nevertheless, after looking at the finished image over the last 24 hours, I begin to see how some might not view this in a purely documentary fashion. For example, there's the obvious issue of race, which initially didn't figure in my calculations. Having been raised in a family environment in which race was a non-issue, I initially didn't think of the implications of portraying an African-American homeless man. Homelessness affects people regardless of race or ethnic background, and as a documentarian I was just happy to capture such a good composition. But as a former historian with a background in southern history, I soon recognized that race - and the juxtaposition of a homeless African-American man and a white model - could make this a difficult image to approach.

If one has read much southern history, sociology, and literature, one understands the psycho-sexual link of these subjects in the region's cultural DNA. The theme appears in Flannery O'Connor, Wilbur J. Cash's Mind of the South, and in the speeches of the region's most notorious racist politicians. It's less pervasive today, obviously, but from the age of slavery well into the 20th century and the years of the Civil Rights Movement, that image of the black man paired with a white woman proved a powerful psychological tool in the perpetuation of racial archetypes. Addressing that complex set of issues was never my explicit intent. Nevertheless, it can't be avoided if one comes to the painting already carrying that cultural baggage. I welcome comments on this one . . . but be polite, even if you disagree with the way in which the subjects are portrayed. I'm still debating whether or not to include this in the November art show of which I'm a part. Reaction from friends and readers will help me make that decision.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Fall Colors from Our Condo in Vermont

Here's the view from our condo up near Killington. The colors were incredible this year, and as these photos reveal, the display changed from moment to moment as the sun's angle changed. The last two, taken just as the last bits of sunlight filtered across the surrounding mountains, reveal how much orange and red were present. Some years we arrive and there's virtually no color and other years it's past peak. I'd say were were right at peak, at least in the middle section of Vermont. Farther south, around Brattleboro and Scott Farm, there wasn't nearly the saturation of changing leaves. It was rather sad to return to New York City where there's hardly any color to mention. At least we'll have the beauty of Central Park in its autumn finery in just a few weeks. I can't wait.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

More Photos from Scott Farm, Vermont

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Vermont Barn Doors

We just returned from Vermont late Monday evening, exhausted from driving, hiking, and enjoying the fall foliage. This will be the first of several posts on our annual trip since I took lots of photos and have lots to share. Friday afternoon and Saturday morning we spent on Scott Farm, near Putney. Known for its orchards filled with heirloom apples, the farm was used as a location for The Cider House Rules, which I've mentioned in several other posts which include a couple of my paintings. We fed the sheep, moved them between a couple of fields with the help of a border collie named Kip, and walked through the orchard rows, picking apples and munching on wild raspberries. As I walked around the farm Saturday morning, wandering from barn to barn, I noticed that the doors were quite striking in the beauty of their weathered wood and peeling paint. I started snapping away. These are the digital photos of four of those doors. I also took black and white film shots and will post some of those when they're developed.

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Thursday, October 4, 2007

This is so NOT the American Dream

Every now and then a member of my family will make a comment that - whether explicit or implicit - essentially asks the question, "How can you live in noisy New York City in such a small apartment?" There are times when I ask myself the same thing. But having lived in suburbia both as a child and young adult homeowner, I have to admit that I wouldn't want to live in suburbia at this point in my life. (On the eve of our family's annual Columbus Day weekend trip to Vermont, I should point out that I could move to a small burg in Vermont or New Hampshire and assume the mantle of full-time artist and genttleman farmer while our family raises a few sheep for my wife's knitting/spinning obsession. But I don't see that happening any time soon.)

But back to this issue of living in New York City versus living the "American Dream." Obviously the ideal of owning a home, a little plot of land, a couple of cars in the driveway, cable TV, with a couple of kids in tow is still a powerful symbol for many Americans, particularly those recently arrived. This has been the benchmark for middle class success since the end of World War II, when the GI Bill, easy credit, and the largest expansion ever in new housing stock made it all possible. Fed up with overcrowding and pollution, tens of thousands of New York City residents (like the Levittown family pictured here) abandoned the Big Apple after World War II for the suburbs of Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

But as I've written in other blog entries, that "Dream" is becoming increasingly elusive for a growing "underclass" of Americans who are often marginally employed, lack health insurance, and have somehow missed out on many of the trappings we usually associate with "middle class" life in the U.S. Yet odd as it seems, I like the fact that New York City is so NOT the "American Dream." I like it that I don't have to rely on my car to purchase even basic staples like milk and bread. (When I visit my parents in Virginia, I'm always frustrated by the routine of getting in the car and driving 15 minutes just to do ANYTHING. Walking is not an option.) Indeed, since moving to Manhattan nearly 10 years ago, there have been periods in which I didn't sit behind the wheel of a car for stretches of several months. And I don't miss it. I like the city's diversity. I the like the incredible access to the arts. I like the walkability of the city. And I don't think it's that crowded, in an agoraphobic sense, unless I decide to venture into mid-town with the tourists and business-suit types.

Ironically, some recent demographic studies have shown that Manhattan is becoming a popular retirement destination for people who had left the city for suburbia decades ago. Retirees cite the advantages of good public transportation and nearby airports, access to the best medical care available, and the proximity to museums and the arts.

So as I explain my choices to the family for the umpteenth time, I'm sure I'll have to do it all over again at some point in the not too distant future. New York City is like Mars to them. I honestly think that they would have had an easier time understanding if I had moved to Vegas, because for them Vegas at least has the trappings of suburbia under the gilding of neon.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Scrapple: The Other White Meat

After watching Super-size Me! a couple of years ago and reading Fast Food Nation at about the same time, we earnestly tried to remove McDonald's and its competitors from our family's list of dining choices. We've done a pretty good job, limiting ourselves to only a handful of family visit each year. Occasionally we'll break down and agree to a trip through the Golden Arches as a treat for the boys . . . or we'll be out in suburbia and have no other options. The other day we stopped by McDonald's after the boys' fall baseball afterschool activity. It was late and we were in a generous mood. An old fan of Big Mac's, I was indulgent and ordered one. It tasted great, particularly the tangy essence of the "special sauce" (mere Thousand Island dressing). But within an hour my intestines were tied in knots like my kids' double-knotted sneakers and I was longing for the couch and some Tums.

Hearing about my gastrointestinal agony, a friend offered a finger-wagging remonstrance and admonished me about the cartilage, fecal matter, and "god knows what else" that might be in the burgers. What one forgets, however, is that being from the South, I'm hard-wired to have an affinity for highly processed meat products. Bacon, for example, is the most perfect food in the world. I could eat bacon every day if my conscience - and arteries - would let me. Sausage, country ham, pork shoulder, pork chops, pork bbq, pulled pork sandwiches, and pork tenderloin are all delicacies on par with the richest foie gras or caviar.

I should note here that having grown up just minutes from Smithfield, Virginia, site of Gwaltney's main processing plants, I was doubly inclined to avail myself of the world's porcine delicacies. Driving along Route 10 near Smithfield one couldn't avoid encountering the truckloads of hogs, destined for the abattoirs of the Gwaltney corporation. An old friend, himself an enthusiastic connoisseur of bacon, would regularly drive the Route 10 bypass to avoid passing near the plants. One time I asked him why, thinking that it might be the pervasive smell of slaughtered pigs which prompted his reluctance. "No," he replied, "It's not the smell. I just want to keep thinking that bacon comes from a happy, magical place." Fair enough. I guess it would be nice to believe the fantasy that bacon was like manna from heaven, without the reality of freshly gutted oinkers traveling from the kill floor to the "disassembly" plant.

Indeed, I do love pig. But I draw the line on some pork products, like scrapple, pictured at left and below. A friend who visited the South back in the summer encountered fried scrapple on a breakfast menu at a diner. He asked me, "What's in scrapple?" My reply: "Everything but the squeal." (The reality of scrapple is this, taken from a typical store-bought package: pork skins, pork livers, pork tongues, pork hearts, corn meal, salt, spices.) Blanching, he was glad he hadn't tried it, along with a few other southern delicacies that one encounters in bars, "juke joints," and cinderblock convenience stores: pickled eggs, pickled pigs' feet, scrambled pig brains, deep-fried chicken's feet, pork cracklins (essentially deep fried pieces of pig fat), pig ears, and smoked pig tongues. Neither I nor my parents ever sampled these piggy treats. However, my grandmother still enjoys a scrapple sandwich for lunch, while my dad's younger brother and his wife swear by fried scrapple sandwiches for breakfast fare.

Of course, the South doesn't possess a monopoly on utilizing every part of its slaughtered animals, as I've witnessed during trips to some of the City's more traditional butchers. Ottomanelli's has the largest beef tongues I've ever seen proudly displayed in its windows. Faicco's, the West Village's famous Italian market and "pork store," has hearty displays of tripe and various organ meats in its cases. But there's something to be said for pulling up to a low, cinderblock building in your F-100, walking in past the Miller Lite neon, through the pool tables to the bar, and asking for a pickled pig's foot from the big jar on the counter. Add a cold Meisterbrau or Milwaukee's Best to your order and you've just tossed your testosterone on the table for all to see, without having to pull out an NRA card or brag about the new NASCAR-themed La-Z-Boy now sitting proudly in your double-wide.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Sidewalk Auguries & the Commodification of Halloween

Since the dawn of human existence we and our antecedents have looked to certain events as omens, divinations, and signs from god. These potential predictors of future events have been evinced in the form of everything from natural phenomena like eclipses and animal sightings, to a turn of tarot cards or a roll of the dice. Today I think I experienced my own augury of the future. As I stepped off the bus at Astor Place to catch the uptown subway I was greeted by a large puddle of Halloween-orange vomit. Surely that is an unwelcome sign that the day is not going to go well, an omen for rough sailing ahead. And sure enough it started off badly and hasn't improved. Let's hope the day brightens.

Speaking of Halloween, does anyone else out there think that retailers and advertisers have gone way overboard in the marketing of Halloween? I remember as a child how Halloween was a pretty low-key holiday. With no days off for school and only "It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown" for kids' TV specials, Halloween seemed like the step-child of the bigger holidays, like a warm-up for Thanksgiving and Christmas, or a teaser for the mayhem of December 25th and Hanukkah. A few weeks before October 31st the candy displays would hit the Woolworth's, Grant's and Rose's (retail mainstays in the age before Wal-Mart and Target) and those crappy costumes with the plastic masks would find their way to the shelves. We would agonize over the "what are you gonna be" question and usually at the last minute we'd buy something from the store - a Frankenstein, Dracula, Casper the Friendly Ghost - or my mom would help us slap together something easy: hobos and football players were perennial favorites in our house. Jack-o-lanterns might appear a week or two before the revelry of trick-or-treating, but lawn decorations were simply non-existent. Occasionally there would be a community Halloween party and in elementary school we'd have a little party in our classroom. The night would arrive and we'd spend several joyous hours marching from house to house in my little subdivision of about 100 homes, and we'd fill our bags with the typical assortment of candy. (In that sense, the holiday has changed little. My kids pretty much get the same kinds of candy I received. And my wife and I always scrounge their bags for our old favorites - Three Musketeers, Nestles Crunch, and Butterfingers!) We didn't really worry about our personal safety or the safety of the candy. It really was a very innocent affair. Even when we were older and had stopped dressing up and trick-or-treating, we didn't engage in some of the nastier rituals associated with Halloween revelry. In such a small community, egging someone's house or toilet-papering their trees would have been foolhardy and the scoundrels pretty quickly rounded up. Our biggest concern always seemed to be the weather. In southeastern Virginia, October 31st could bring either frigid temperatures - necessitating an extra layer of clothes underneath those flimsy costumes - or balmy "Indian Summer" weather with 70 degree temps at trick-or-treat time. Cooler was definitely better, particularly from a psychological standpoint. I always associated the holiday with cool weather and the rustle of dried leaves underfoot as we clomped from door to door. Breaking a sweat in a Frankenstein mask was a long way from fun.

Today the holiday seems so much more complicated. I'm still amazed, for example, when I see the amount of decorations so many people place in their yards: inflatable monsters, elaborate haunted house displays, strings of plastic jack-o-lantern lights hung from trees and porches, and even orange Christmas-like strings of mini-lights. Indeed, Halloween - at least in suburbia - seems to rival Christmas for the sheer volume of stuff with which people adorn their homes. When did this happen? I'm guessing this is another product of the Wal-Martification of America. Cheap, plastic, and "made in China" are temptations simply too powerful to avoid on October 31st. The sheer commodification of the holiday is made all the more worse by the fact that the candy and decorations - even here in the City - start appearing in store as early as August and the beginning of September. (This marketing pattern is no surprise, of course. Christmas decorations will hit the stores on November 1st - if not sooner - and Valentine's candy and cards will appear on shelves by December 26th.)

Equally puzzling is the appeal of so-called elaborate "haunted houses," including some that employ Hollywood-style special effects to scare patrons. I remember "haunted houses" as a kid, but they were always amateurish affairs that were primarily fundraisers for various community groups like the volunteer rescue squad or fire department. Particularly troubling are the insidious "hell houses" run by fundamentalist Christian groups. These concoctions expose kids to the supposed "torments of hell" for those who sin, drink alcohol, engage in premarital sex, seek abortions, or engage in homosexual behavior. In the end, they're merely more tangible expressions of the hate-mongering these groups soft-peddle from the pulpit during the other eleven months of the year. Of course, these are the same people who refuse to let their kids read Harry Potter books or take part in the innocent play of Halloween because they associate these symbols with evil and Satanic worship. I'm still shaking my head over these examples of religious extremism.

Luckily, Halloween in the city is still fairly low-key. Some apartment buildings have trick-or-treating for the kids, with sign-up sheets posted to let everyone know who's taking part. In my neighborhood, West Village businesses along Hudson Street have trick-or-treating on the Saturday or Sunday afternoon closest to Halloween, usually in conjunction with a Halloween party held at the Bleecker Playground the same day. The kids march up and down Hudson Street and most businesses hand out candy to the costumed kids. It's fun, safe, and people in the neighborhood have a good time. Our kids' school will also have a "Monster Mash" Halloween party on the Saturday before Halloween as a big fundraiser for PTA programs.

I do know a few families who take their kids out to suburbia to trick-or-treat with friends so they can experience the more "traditional" door-to-door Halloween ritual, as if they're missing something in the City. Is this holiday really so important that kids need to take part in what some consider a "typical" ritualized experience, as if they're passing on some significant piece of cultural baggage without which their kids would be incomplete? And it's not like the Great Pumpkin is going to fly in and reward kids with toys and presents like poor Linus perennially hopes in the the Peanuts holiday special. It should just be fun, without ideological or philosophical strings attached. I remember no angst-ridden discussion by my fairly conservative parents about the pros and cons of dressing up as monsters or wizards for Halloween. In that sense, one can excuse the garish lawn displays. They're still tacky, but in the name of pure fun, a little tackiness is excusable.