Monday, March 31, 2008

A True Test of Civility.

Imagine spending thirty-six years in prison. No thank you. Often you'll hear people (who obviously have no idea what they are talking about) ranting about how easy inmates have it in the United States. They'll say,"Color television, porn mags... don't have to work for a living... free food and get to sit around all day. I wish I had that kind of life." Whenever I hear someone talk like that, I join them in their desire to get their wish. Not the one that they imagine as some sort of gift for the guilty- but the reality that incarcerated criminals face in America. I'd love to see them react to having their freedom taken away. I'd love to see them sweat through the nights in a cell, wondering when they would have to face the next predator, eager for the fresh meat of a 'fish'. They would surely generate a new perspective facing 36 years in the slammer.

As if being stuck in 'gen pop' for three-and-a-half decades isn't bad enough, imagine that you have to serve all of that time in solitary confinement. You may think that our civil rights protect us from that kind of fate. Think again. Herman Wallace and Alfred Woodfox have been housed in the solitary unit at Angola Prison in Louisiana since 1972. The two convicts were sent to lockdown for allegedly murdering corrections officer Brent Miller during a prison riot. Along with a man named Robert King Wilkerson, they were known as the 'Angola 3'. Every two weeks since being moved to isolation, they have shown up at their reviews only to be told they had no hope of escaping their plight.

What is it actually like where Wallace and Woodfox have been 'housed'? Prisoners are kept in their cells for 23 hours of each day. They eat every meal in that little 6" x 9" box. They are allowed to go to the showers and walk alone on the tier during that remaining hour. Once every three days, they can spend one hour by themselves in an outdoor caged yard. If they are lucky and know someone in the ward, they might yell to them through the walls. Their personal property, reading materials and visitation rights are restricted. There is increasing research in the mental health community that shows that isolation can lead to mental and emotional breakdowns, as well as psychotic episodes. Specific symptoms can (and often do) include Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, visual and auditory hallucinations, hypersensitivity, paranoia, insomnia, and suicidal ideation. But what the heck... commit the crime, do the time, right? No, it's not that simple.

Apparently there is significant doubt over whether Woodfox and Wallace were ever guilty of the crime that got them put into solitary in the first place. Reportedly the Angola 3 were Black Panthers who were actively organizing to stop a prisoner sex slavery ring and to end racial segregation within Angola. When Brent Miller was initially found dead from stab wounds, the prison warden immediately fingered Woodfox and Wallace. In the subsequent trial, inmate witnesses were given cigarettes and promised other deals to testify against the defendants. Robert King Wilkerson was released from lockdown in 2001, after being there for 29 years. He had been accused and found guilty of murdering another inmate. After being exonerated, Wilkerson devoted his freedom to publicizing the plight of his imprisoned comrades.

The attorney for Woodfox and Wallace was recently stunned during a routine visit to find that the current Angola warden had released the prisoners into a dormitory setting. Of course they are still imprisoned, but their case is under review in higher courts. Now in their 60's, these men are clearly no threat to the security of other inmates, or the institution in general. The larger issue is the constitutionality of prolonged solitary confinement. The 8th Amendment of the Bill of Rights assures us that US citizens are free from the threat of "cruel and unusual punishment". Sadly for Americans, this concept is being challenged at the federal level. The fabled 'War on Terror' has allowed the Bush administration to chip away at our civil liberties. Much of the nation has already accepted torture as a means of punishing 'non-military combatants'. Guess what... that term can easily be applied to the government's perceived enemies at home.

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Danial Johnston, and his movie.

I finally got the chance to watch The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006), a documentary film directed by Jeff Feuerzeig. I had been intrigued by this story of a mentally ill man who wants to find fame as a singer-songwriter. In fact I'm generally interested in psychological portraits of artists who fight against convention to express themselves. Daniel Johnston fits that profile. He struggled with a bipolar disorder for decades. Still he believed that one day he would be famous, like his idol John Lennon. He used film, songs, and drawings to document his daily life. He recorded his raw, warbly, voice and simple guitar-playing on cassette tapes, and distributed them to everyone he met. Eventually people began to take notice. Musicians like Thurston Moore, Steve Shelley, Tom Waits, David Bowie, Yo La Tengo, Beck, and The Flaming Lips became fans of his work.

Daniel Johnston grew up in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. He was the youngest of four children born to a pair of Christian Fundamentalist parents. From the very start his parents realized that he was different. He had a hard time controlling his impulses, and he liked to spend all of his time in the basement playing a rickety piano and creating line drawings. Sometimes he would enlist his brother's aid in making home movies. But he mostly kept to himself, articulating his dreams. Upon graduating high school he briefly attended Abilene Christian University, and later transferred to a branch of Kent State University in Ohio. It was during those years that his bipolar disorder began to manifest itself in serious ways.

While at Kent State, Johnston met what would turn out to be "the love of his life". Although they never even established a romantic relationship, the troubled young man became entirely obsessed with a girl named Laurie Allen. Through the years he would write hundreds of songs about her, claiming that she was his one and only muse. At the same time he was having a lot of difficulty living with his parents, and his siblings in Texas eventually invited him to live with them. It was upon his move to Austin that things began to develop for him. Johnston worked at McDonald's and in his off-hours began to establish himself as a bit of a local celebrity. His big break happened when MTV came to town, and he managed to worm his way into their programming.

As his exposure grew, and his music began to make its way into the hands of musicians and recording industry professionals, Johnston's behavior became increasingly erratic. He began to take LSD. His hallucinogenic drug use combined destructively with his millenarian biblical views to produce severe delusions. He began to act out in strange and maladaptive ways. His condition deteriorated until he ultimately tried to bring down a plane in which his father was attempting to fly him home. Although both Johnston and his father survived the crash landing, this stunt landed Daniel in a mental institution. Incredibly, he had become such a legend in the music underground that major record labels were offering him lucrative contracts while he was under commitment.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston brings us up-to-date with its subject's life. Johnston lives in Texas with his aging parents, in a home adjacent to their own. Although he seems relatively stable (thanks to a comprehensive regimen of modern medication), he is in need of support and care. He still records and performs music, and is assisted on the business end by his father. Tastes are different from the 90's, and there isn't such an appetite for quirky and raw fragility in the guise of indie pop-folk. While Johnston still has his following, he increasingly becomes a novelty act. I'm convinced that people go out to see him for his legend, rather than his actual creative output. He's even gotten his drawings into the Whitney Biennial, which pretty much guarantees that he is past his artistic zenith. But he is still a curiosity, and for those that are unfamiliar with him, the documentary is quite amusing.

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Who was Mark Kostabi?

Given that I live in Andy Warhol's home town, I am privy to much discussion about his value as an artist. Before I ever visited his museum I was convinced that he was a complete charlatan. After all, the guy got famous from painting soup cans and making large silkscreens of Mao Tse-Tung. However my opinions about modern art were unqualified. I wasn't accustomed to looking behind the image itself for the conceptual framework of art. While some iconoclasts will insist that none of that matters, I have since learned to appreciate it as an essential part of the work. Otherwise it's all just "pretty pictures". What makes art serious is its contribution to a discourse that has been progressing throughout the centuries. Sure, you could have painted Campbell's Tomato Soup- but you didn't, and that's an important distinction.

When I read more about Warhol, I could understand why even knowledgeable critics sometimes slagged him. Perhaps the biggest knock against him as a fine artist is that he let others do much of his work for him. Yet this process itself is an integral part of what made Warhol such an innovative artist. His "Factory" reflected an essential component of our society. In and of itself, it was a trenchant commentary about modern life, a la Capitalist consumerism. And he was far from a one-trick pony. Not only did he forever redefine what was "fair game" as subject matter, but he also changed the contemporary approach to advertising, entertainment and public relations. He was one of the first artists to die filthy rich, and he changed the cultural dialog forever. How's that for making an impact?

The downside of Warhol's legacy is that he left us with imitators that have proven themselves to be singularly annoying. An illustrative example would be Mark Kostabi. Until I read Andy Behrman's Electroboy this past week, I had never even heard of Kostabi. Behrman once worked for the "artist" as a public relations manager and salesman. Later he was accused and convicted of selling forged Kostabi works in Japan and Germany. The problem with his conviction was that it was very difficult to tell what an "authentic" Kostabi would look like. Certainly one could say that his paintings were shallow ripoffs of early surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico. The colors, background and (most glaringly) faceless subjects directly copied the Greek-Italian master. But beyond that, Kostabi's skills as an artist were impossible to evaluate.

Kostabi World (as the large studio the artist inhabited was called) employed shifts of painters who toiled for minimum wage. These anonymous artisans came up with the ideas, applied the colors to the canvas, and waited for their employer to sign each piece in turn. With this assembly line approach to creativity, 100's of works were completed and turned out every year. They shared a cold, derivative and generic quality that seemed to appropriately match the social-climbing aspirations of mid-80's Manhattan. Yet they weren't confined to the gallery. In order to meet the company goals ("a Kostabi on every house"), the product was placed in malls throughout the country. The "artist" himself would make a series of national tours in order to promote the work.

To his credit, Kostabi once billed himself as the ultimate "con artist". Although expressing a certain amount of hubris, this statement at least honestly portrayed Kostabi's relationship with his collectors. However, he might have driven the knife a bit too deep when he publicly proclaimed that only "suckers" bought his work. Certainly there were a lot of them caught up in the 80's arts scene, and they made Kostabi a very rich man. Perhaps that's why he never came up with a "second act". Whatever amount of cleverness he had once harbored was quickly exhausted. Somehow he successfully ascended the New York art world with a series of publicity stunts and a butt-load of mediocre (yet controversial) work. He insulated himself from immense amounts of negative critical attention by insisting that all that mattered was his wealth. Kostabi was a pale and rehashed Warhol without the conceptual context or artistic ability.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Nimród Antal, "Kontroll" (2003).

Sometimes I will choose to watch a film simply because its setting appeals to me in some way. Session 9 is an excellent example of this- for those not familiar, it's a movie that takes place almost entirely in an abandoned and deteriorating mental asylum. In that flick the building itself is like a character. There's an inescapable oppression at its core. I don't know exactly why urban ruins appeal to me, but I'll often seek them out whenever I get the opportunity. In a strangely similar way underground environments have always interested me. Whether its a cave system, the sub-basement of a large building, or any sort of tunnel- it makes me curious. I guess it's because there is a suggestion of hidden activities and unique conditions in the dark recesses of such environments. The idea of another world beneath our feet is stimulating.

When I first read about the Hungarian film Kontroll (directed by Nimród Antal), I knew I wanted to see it. It was created against the backdrop of the subway system in Budapest, Hungary. It's the second oldest underground Metro system in the entire world, and construction on its very first line began in 1894. Amazingly it only took 2 years to complete it. While it was a remarkable feat of engineering during the time it was built, it is now an operating historical landmark. One of its distinctive features is the presence of roving pass controllers. Their job is to verify that all riders have passes. Although they may be stationed at the bottom of various escalators, they often turn up in unexpected places to surprise the unwary.

Kontroll is based on the activities of a team of these controllers. The ticket inspectors under the supervision of Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi) are a motley bunch. There is the grizzled veteran, the enthusiastic novitiate, the narcoleptic and temperamental giant, and the slimy cynic. Together they monitor their assigned daily section and play off each others' practical jokes. They also engage in a less-than-friendly rivalry with another team of controllers. Like in any other workplace, the subway workers establish alliances, discover ways to passively protest their conditions, and feud with those they "serve". Apparently the inspectors are resented for their petty authority and certain riders go out of their way to make their jobs more difficult.

Much of the enjoyment of Kontroll is to be found in exploring the culture of the underground. It's such a surreal place of employment that it can carry a large burden in the struggle to maintain viewer interest. What would tempt people to work in such place? You'd have to be a quirky character to spend a third of your life beneath the city. The interaction between these workers is often humorous and otherwise engaging. The dark comedy of the film offsets the creepy ambiance of the tunnels themselves. It's a bit of a shame that Antal felt a need to introduce conventional action elements into the tale. Certain plot threads seem contrived and out-of-place in what could have otherwise been an effective slice-of-life sociological study (in this respect it reminded me of Art School Confidential). But I suppose this type of forced drama served to hook a less sophisticated audience that will likely ensure a cult status for Kontroll.

The other directorial misstep lies in the soundtrack. At times the heavy techno-industrial music served to heighten the tension. Yet at other moments it seemed overdone. Using too much of that sort of thing makes a movie seem like an MTV promo spot from the 80's. That kind of choice can seem hip at the time of production, but it causes the movie to age poorly. There's also a subtle undercurrent of political commentary regarding life under an authoritarian regime. Fortunately none of that needs to be understood to enjoy Kontroll. Ultimately much of this film works. It's got the pace and editing of a "popcorn flick", and its context is unique enough to hold the viewer's attention. I wouldn't be surprised to find this director lured to Hollywood with promises of a big budget and American stars.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Scott Zesch, "The Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier" (2004).

Imagine for the moment that it is the 19th Century. You are a 12-year-old boy whose parents recently decided to seek opportunity on the Texan frontier. Your nearest neighbor is a mile and a half away, so life is filled with a deep sense of isolation. It is a hardscrabble existence for you and your family, and everyone is expected to put in their share of work. One evening you are finishing up your chores at twilight. You are tired and lost in dreams of other places. Because you are preoccupied with your thoughts, you don't notice that there are three riders on horseback approaching your family's homestead. Only when they are within 300 yards do you snap out of your reverie to examine them. You have to assume that they are cowboys, as there are often buffalo hunts and cattle drives in the territory. But as they draw closer you realize that you were horribly mistaken. You are looking at Indian raiders.

There would have been plenty of opportunites to hear stories about the Plains tribes in the hill country of central Texas. The Comanches and the Apaches were notorious for resisting the pressures of the Federal Indian Affairs Office. There was little that these nomadic peoples could do to stop white folks (especially German-American farmers) from encroaching on their tribal lands. The situation was increasingly desperate, and the vast herds of game that the Natives relied on were rapidly dispersing and leaving the area because of the presence of the White Man. Still the Plains tribes were fierce and proud, and loathe to voluntarily come in off the range in order to settle in reservations and adapt to an entirely foreign way of living. So they held on to their way of life, and made periodic raids on the white settlements.

One of the most extreme dangers you'd face if you were that preteen caught unawares out on the outskirts of your property was the prospect of being snatched up by the "savage" Indian raiders. Initially the Indians snatched little boys and girls in order to ransom them back to their distraught families. But eventually their numbers started to suffer because birthrates in the tribes were decreasing. More and more, Comanches and Apaches looked to bolster their strength through forced adoption. They were entirely race-neutral when selecting their captives. They grabbed Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, and European-Americans with the aim of transforming them into brave warriors. In order to have the best chance of turning captives into "Indians", they needed to get to kids before they were able to fully form their cultural identities.

You might expect that it would be difficult to get these young white children to embrace an entirely new way of living, especially after being kidnapped by strange and foreign men. But life on the frontier was grueling and confining for adolescents. Many of the hostages eagerly took to the adventure and freedom of Indian life. Scott Zesch's The Captured examines the cases of ten (or so) such children. In each instance boys and girls were seized by force, often with accompanying violence to their family members. The descriptions of the abductions are harrowing. It's hard for the modern reader to understand how these kids overcame the horror and brutality they witnessed firsthand, visited on their friends and family by marauders from the wilderness. Yet as Zesch reports, they did. And they often came to identify with tribal life more than their birth culture.

The stories in The Captured are truly unforgettable. Zesch is fascinated by the psychological processes that allowed these captives to respond favorably to an invading people. Withon a period of only a few months, several of these kids found themselves willingly participating in raids against the very settlements they had been recently stolen from. Contemporary observers might suggest the Stockholm Syndrome as the reason for this phenomena. But every one of these "white Indians" would retain their love for their adoptive tribes for the remainder of their lives. It didn't matter if they were recovered after six months or twelve years. Something about the lifestyle of the Plains Indians was inescapably compelling for these young individuals. Fortunately for readers, Zesch has the skills necessary to enliven a time-and-place that has vanished forever. This is a remarkable book.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Splendid China, and other long gone amusements.

In surfing through a series of urban ruins sites today, I came across some shots of a singularly unique location. Outside of Orlando, Florida there was once a 'theme park' called Splendid China. I don't know how I missed hearing about it. Apparently it included recreations of some of the more notable sights from that behemoth land across the Pacific. There were replicas of the Great Wall of China, The Leshan Grand Buddha Statue, and the Forbidden City. Visitors were invited to stroll the grounds among these architectural wonders and check out some authentic Chinese entertainment and performances. This wasn't the type of place that you would find thrill rides like roller coasters and dark rides, but rather opportunities for relaxation and contemplation.

If such amusements strike you as incongruously located in the shadows of Walt Disney's empire, then you are certainly not alone. Reports are that it only attracted about 700 people per day. The $100 million dollar facility was opened in 1993, and closed in 2003. But within that time it managed to provoke plenty of controversy. Evidently there were quite a few observers who viewed it as a propaganda machine. Protesters actually demonstrated outside of the park, complaining about the occupation of Tibet, and the idyllic depiction of what amounted to the largest communist nation on Earth. Although it was owned and operated by China Travel Services, there were allegations that the organization received its marching orders from the Chinese government itself.

In retrospect all the hoopla seems kind of silly. Did folks really think that Splendid China should have contained scenes of the Red Army harassing Tibetan monks? Would it have been appropriate to include a cheerful model of the Tiananmen Square massacre? It seems like that would have defeated the purpose. I doubt it would have led to marketing success. It surely wouldn't have delayed the 2004 auction that offered the park assets to the highest bidder. Ultimately I find the park's demise a sad, yet probably inevitable, reality. American families and tourists are much more interested in the type of sanitized experiences that the pavilions at EPCOT offer. There has to be cartoon characters and greasy fried foods, or otherwise it's not really a vacation, is it?

I've often lamented the homogeneity that characterizes amusement parks in the United States. They offer plenty of opportunities to achieve physical disorientation and vertigo. But most of the rides are mass-produced and differ only in their marketing content. The same skeletal structure underpins Garfield's Tunnel and The Little Mermaid's Fanciful Swim. It's all pre-packaged and deliberately targets the lowest common denominator of society. Amusements must be sanitized of any elements that could possibly offend the delicate sensibilities of the average consumer. It's really no different than the Hollywood film industry or basic strip mall culture. Everything is contrived and boring. How can anybody be sentimental about such diversions? Travel across the country and you can find the exact same thing in your back yard.

Maybe it's always been this way. In the bygone days of roadside attractions, there were surely numerous "Mystery Holes", "Reptile Lands" and "Slippy Slides". Still one could still hope to stumble on something truly unique and interesting. Today I discovered this site- Florida's Lost Tourist Attractions. It catalogs an abundance of places that have faded inextricably into the past. These were destinations often reflecting the particular dreams and visions of true eccentrics. Nowadays those guys can't compete with the spectacles of the mega-corporations. Gone forever are the The Upside Down House, the Prince of Peace Memorial, and Tragedy in the Museum. Luckily for us their memory is still preserved on the World Wide Web. At least we can discover what we are missing.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Kalle Lasn, "Culture Jam" (1999).

Generally I don't seek out book recommendations from 14-year olds. While they may be tuned in to some pretty cool things, I just assume that their appreciation for whatever cultural objects they prefer is relative to their stage in life. Still it's probably a bit limiting for me to take that viewpoint, so if I think a kid is especially evolved and I know that he/she enjoys other things that I like- then I figure it might be worth a try. That's how I ended up with a copy of Kalle Lasn's Culture Jam. It's basically a screed against the consumer culture of the United States, and a manifesto suggesting ways to undermine it. The title refers to any action which seeks to disrupt the prevalent mentality of the society.

Lasn was born in Estonia, and hopped around quite a bit before finding himself quartered in Vancouver, British Columbia. At that point in his life he was working as a documentary filmmaker. He became interested in forest management, and decided to make a short film about an advertising campaign that was being promoted by the lumber industry. After completing the work, Lasn discovered that Canadian television stations would never show his work. Apparently he had yet to realize the influence advertisers have over the media, because this rejection inspired him to start Adbusters Magazine. Lasn then undertook a series of ventures intended to fight against corporate power.

Culture Jam is divided into four sections, each corresponding to a season. Lasn's conceit is that the process of 'culture jamming' will inevitably lead to a nationwide revolution. But first he needs to make the case that a problem exists with the current paradigm. This should not be a difficult task, given the state of the country. The truth is that there have been so many books and films that have sought to outline the damage done by unscrupulous corporations. One would have to be daft not to recognize the power corporations wield throughout the United States and the world. Still, in the face of such overwhelming influence, what exactly does Lasn think "culture jammer" activists can do?

Lasn recommends that people take whatever steps they can to resist the corporate state. He tells the story of how he experienced an epiphany in a grocery store parking lot, and proceeded to jam the coin slot of a gate releasing shopping carts for customer use. Somehow he felt that he was making a difference with this small gesture. Lasn suggests that people ought to refuse to give in to company procedures and policies during phone conversations regarding problems with products and services. He even goes so far as to prod vandals to deface billboards, which encroach on our "mental environment". Other ideas Lasn presents require large sums of money. He encourages ordinary citizens to buy 30-second advertising spots on television, in order to air "anti-marketing" messages. If station managers refuse to air them, Lasn says that we should alert the press.

Unfortunately there is very little in Culture Jam that strikes me as particularly useful in a potential confrontation with corporate culture. He provides a general outline that traces the evolution of the concept of "corporations" from 17th Century England to the present day. It's a section that provides information that should be well known to anybody who has devoted even a minimum of time to the subject at hand. And he touches on the situationist philosophy of Guy Debord, which lends a historical sheen to his efforts. Yet Lasn ultimately fails to convince the reader that his anti-consumer movement has anything to offer other than generalities and enthusiasm. This book could certainly be of some use to an adolescent trying to re-envision his/her place within society, but I can't recommend it for anyone who has already identified the basic problems that we face.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Youth and the Cult of Competition.

I heard on the news this morning that the top American figure skater is not allowed to compete in the 2008 world championships in Sweden. Mirai Nagasu is a 14-year old from California, and has already proven herself to be one of the BEST at her sport by winning the US National Championship in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although she qualifies for the senior level here in her home-country, she is still considered a 'junior' worldwide. So she'll have to put the greater glory on hold for another year. For some reason, the rest of the world doesn't seem to want to embrace the US agenda of producing the youngest elite athletes. Are other countries simply proving themselves to be the "nanny states" that Americans regularly accuse them of being, or is there a valid reason to encourage patience in our children?

It's not uncommon here in the States for parents to sign their kids up for a competitive sport at age 5 or 6. After all, if the young ones are going to eventually become the very best, then they need to start early. At stake are limited college scholarships and even more rare slots in the pro ranks. For some people the goal of winning eventually eclipses all of the other reasons for participating in sports. The overzealous father who screams from the sidelines at the coach or referees is now a cliche. There is a quality of desperation in the expectations such parents have for the performance of their offspring. It really is as if they are trying to live through their kids. Projecting one's own inner dreams on one's brood can be more than just creepy- it can actually be physically harmful to the child.

The nature of childhood is development. Growth during this initial period of one's life can set the tone for adult health. Putting young people at risk for serious injuries that may affect them for the rest of their lives does not seem especially prudent. There is much evidence that intense physical conditioning (even without injury) can stunt growth. That's because nutrients and energy that would ordinarily be used for bone development is diverted to the muscles. Additionally, unnatural amounts of chemicals produced in the process of working out can interfere with the natural levels of hormones associated with nascent maturity. Have you ever wondered why so many short adults were intense wrestlers or gymnasts in their youths?

Aside from whatever physical maturation problems can arise from a hyper-competitive drive, there are psychological concerns that must be taken into account. No matter how good your little one ever gets at a sport, there is always someone better. If self-worth is determined by rank, then one learns to never be satisfied. While perpetual dissatisfaction is actually encouraged as a positive value in American culture, it can be devastating to one's perception of "quality of life". Do you really want to teach your son or daughter that they can never be quite good enough? By putting an inordinate emphasis on the competitive quality of sports, that's exactly what you are doing. And even if they do become elite, they will have to accept that time itself is against them. In many world-class athletic events, you are washed up by the time you are in your mid-20's (if not before).

Given the American way of approaching competitive athletics, I have absolutely no inclination to encourage my children to pursue such goals. Not only would I not want them to feel over-the-hill before they even reach full adulthood, but I also wouldn't want them looking back on their high school years as the "best times of their lives"- because that's simply pathetic. Additionally, I don't want to see them enter the cult of worship that makes watching televised sports a lifelong obsession. These athletes (professional or otherwise) are not heroes, at least not simply by virtue of them being the best at some conglomeration of physical feats. In most cases they are merely people who have such limited focus that they excel at a single thing. Apparently that's what passes for a role model in our narrow-minded society. It's a shame.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

The "Right" to Bear Arms.

One of the most commonly expressed fears emanating from the radical right is that the government will one day take away the guns of lawful citizens. While regulations concerning guns have historically been rather mild, Republican politicians have been able to harness the anxieties of sportsmen and other collectors of firearms in order to defeat their opponents. Organizations like the NRA continue to invest significant funds in lobbying efforts, and any perceived limitations on gun ownership are fought with often disproportionate zeal. Despite the fact that no one with any political power has seriously suggested outlawing the possession of firearms, reactionaries paste provocative messages to the bumpers of their automobiles that dare functionaries to disarm them.

All of this furor naturally results from various interpretations of the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution. Often the exact words of this document are edited or misquoted by those with extreme positions on the issue. For the sake of exactitude, I quote this portion of the Bill of Rights in its entirety:

"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

That certainly seems straightforward, doesn't it? Yet like any other construct of human language, it can be analyzed and interpreted in multiple ways. Does it mean that arms are necessary for the proper functioning of a militia? That seems true beyond doubt. But do those words preceding the comma limit (in any way) the clause that follows? Or were individuals meant to "keep and bear arms" apart from their participation in a militia? And what exactly does "shall not be infringed" entail?

At the time the Constitution was written, it was actually expected that free white men would always be armed for the purpose of "public defense". If you listen to the words of the founding fathers, it seems pretty clear that they included this protection as a way to ensure that the federal government would not be able to exercise unchallenged power. Obviously our ancestors were concerned about preserving their civil liberties against any foreseeable threat. This was a direct outgrowth of arguments in the wake of Shay's Rebellion. Anti-federalists were fearful that the creation of a standing army might lead to a form of military dictatorship. They insisted that James Madison include a specific acknowledgment (as an amendment to the new Constitution) that citizens were entitled to protect themselves against tyranny.

Unfortunately for modern commentators, the historical debate at the time of the writing of the 2nd Amendment involved matters of state security- not individual self-defense. So it's not altogether clear what the founders' intentions would have been regarding a person's desire to accumulate weaponry for its own sake. This right seems more appropriately to be drawn from common criminal law tradition. It's quite clear that restrictions on gun ownership have existed since the very formation of the United States. The South prohibited African-Americans from possessing firearms for the first 100 years of the nation's existence. Additionally, early decisions throughout the country affirmed the state governments' powers to regulate the concealment of weapons.

Regardless of the subjectivity found in the varying opinions regarding the "right to bear arms", it is clear that the American people have tolerated some level of gun regulation ever since the 2nd Amendment was written. It's a shame that we have entered an age in which people feel the necessity to assume black-and-white positions on almost every important social issue. It's frankly ludicrous to suggest that we have an unalienable right to possess any type of arm, in any place, and at any time. Try employing that logic when entering a school, an airport, or a government building- I doubt your decision to carry a handgun will be defended by general public opinion. Yet on the other hand, I don't hear many people express a desire to see private gun ownership eliminated altogether. So I have a hard time figuring out why people consider this a divisive political issue in the first place. Can't we incorporate a bit of nuance into our approach?

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Friday, March 21, 2008

When you care enough to send the very best.... **

When the Rapture happens, will you be ready? I'm not talking about the condition of your mortal soul. My assumption is that you have already attended to your eternal future. What I'm talking about is your relationships with those you'll be "leaving behind" (as it were). We presume that the "saved" will simply vanish, or ascend quickly into the heavens in the blink-of-an-eye. Most likely the damned among your loved ones won't actually see your departure. In other words, they'll have no clue where you've gone. Perhaps you've been abducted by World Government agents? Or maybe you just got tired of all those arguments about who would take the kids to church each week. The point is that it will simply be a matter of perspective, which kind of defeats the purpose, after all. So what do you do about it?

Well, thankfully the answer is here. Rapture Letters! Someone has thought to set up a system whereby your people back on Earth will be notified when you leave for your great reward. They won't have to wonder if you have finally sought professional assistance, or have departed on some special retreat. They won't suspect you of starting an affair and abandoning your family. There is simply no chance of anyone getting the wrong idea. The letter will be sent to all indicated, arriving via e-mail on the First Friday after the great event itself. It is written in clear and simple terms that even the most flawed among them will be able to parse. (Read the letter here). Its author has taken great pains to communicate the status of the world without unnecessary embellishments. There are handy biblical references where the confused can find verification direct from God. And finally... a prayer template is provided for the possible salvation of the recipient.

Ok... so is this some sort of cosmic joke? All signs point to "no". Although the site's origins are somewhat unclear, a bit of deductive reasoning has led me to believe that its creator is somehow affiliated with the Calvary Chapel of Phelan, CA. On the front page, it is clearly stated that the project is a "personal ministry", which suggests to me that no official authority is particularly anxious to take credit for it. Why that should be so, I have no idea. Given the specific beliefs of this "born again" brand of faith, this service is immensely convenient and efficient. If you really think about it... who is going to let out the dogs after the Rapture? And cancel the credit cards?? And turn off the furnace and lights in church? Best to consider these practicalities now, before you are swept off your feet in a Lordly embrace.

Frankly, you have to admire whoever put this together. For one thing, they have taken sufficient time away from prayer to construct an elegantly straightforward web site. Navigating through its pages, I noticed immediately that every effort was expended to make it user friendly. There is a separate section which allows you to enter recipients' names and electronic addresses, one-at-a-time. Bear in mind that if your various social circles are wider than most Christians, you should expect to devote anywhere from 12 to 24 hours submitting the entries for all your heathen friends and associates (more time will obviously be required if you live in a gay or Catholic neighborhood). Don't worry about offending anyone by making a mistake of judgment... in any cases where you falsely condemn someone to Hell on Earth, the beauty of it all is that they will never realize your mistake (unless the "saved" are allowed to keep their existing e-mail accounts in heaven).

Perhaps it's not quite up to the standards of the time (there are no glitzy Flash effects or video portals), but this site manages to get the job done. Or does it? Notably absent is any real effort to convince the non-believer that this mailing is authentic. It's author makes only a half-hearted attempt to address the skepticism of its potential readers. Obviously this will be a cynical and hardened audience... after all, they've already turned away the greatest gift man has ever received. Yet there's only two sentences devoted to such concerns. To wit: "I am sure that there will be a lot of speculation as to what happened to all these people. The theories of some scientists and world leaders will have so much credibility that most of the world will believe them." But then again, no one wants to invest too much of the time we have left on inane nonsense like "scientific theories".

What makes this enterprise almost perfect is the author's explanation of what makes it possible. Obviously he expects to be among the chosen. So who is going to send out the e-mails, post-Rapture? No, he hasn't arranged for Mexican laborers to man his keyboard. But he has anticipated the question- "How is this accomplished, you might ask (sic). It's a dead man switch that will automatically send the emails when it is not reset." You have to appreciate anyone willing to reveal the mysteries behind their accomplishments. Any critics should be reminded that this service is absolutely free. And only 10% of donations are applied to administration costs, with the remainder being devoted to "further the kingdom of God".*

* Which raises the question... what is God gonna do with the money? Internal improvements?

** Thanks go out to Tibi for letting me know about this.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

NCECA Ceramics Pittsburgh.

Truth be told, the sum total of all I know about ceramics could fit into a soup bowl. Naturally I never thought I'd be writing a post about this crafty art form. But one never knows how the exigencies of fate will conspire to make you consider something you never really expected to think about. I guess the seeds for this particular post were planted when the funding for the new David L. Lawrence Convention Center was in place. The state-of-the-art facilities have attracted a number of events that ordinarily would have bypassed Pittsburgh. Who could have ever predicted that the Furries would come to the Three Rivers? Likewise, who would have known that NCECA would decide to locate their annual event in the Burgh?

NCECA stands for the National Council on Education for the Ceramics Arts. It's too late to book your reservations for this year's conference, but you can still take advantage of the many events around the city that galleries, studios and other cultural institutions have planned in conjunction with NCECA. In fact, if you are a regular at art openings around town, you've likely already seen a fair amount of ceramics work this month. As I (somewhat offhandedly) remarked to one friend via e-mail- "This town is lousy wit' 'em" (ceramics, that is). And just from one observer's perspective, it is amazing how versatile artists can be while working in this medium.

Surely anyone who grew up in the 80's knew at least one person that got caught up in the trend of ceramics painting. You'd go choose one from among many generic molds, and paint a hardened gray object to suit your tastes, and to match the colors of your home furnishings. I'm not very proud of the fact that I broke many of these craft products in the process of negotiating my way through my tempestuous preteen years. Little did I know that I'd be looking at examples of the form in art galleries a couple of decades later. The difference is that these are one-of-a-kind works of genius. The range of subjects that can be conveyed in clay of one sort of another is limited only by the wild imaginations of the creators.

I bought my first ceramics piece from Laura Jean McLaughlin -a friend of mine that runs a great galley/studio called the Clay Penn. I caught sight of a truly wondrous object- a round glass tabletop suspended above a fantastically strange mermaid. It was something out of a child's fevered hallucination-dream. It was truly unlike anything else I had ever seen, and I had to have it. It took me months to arrange its purchase, but it now occupies a central place in my burgeoning art collection. I have since acquired several more of McLaughlin's pieces, which are dispersed throughout my house. I've also subsequently learned that my friend is internationally-known for her work. And I've started to appreciate ceramic arts in a way that I would have never guessed. But you can see for yourself this weekend...

Particular highlights around town include the work at the La Vie Gallery, the Clay Penn, Fe Gallery, and Modern Formations. I've seen these shows personally, and so I can recommend them without reservation. Now that the official participants of NCECA have arrived (approximately 5000 of them), these places will be having official receptions to welcome connoisseurs. You can find out what's happening at the larger institutions around town by visiting NCECA's official site. But to really get the most out of this weekend, you are going to have to do some digging. If you have a favorite gallery in the area, stop by and see what they are offering. Some of the places that I know are hosting ceramic art (that I haven't visited) include Moxie Dada (North Side) and the James Simon Gallery (Uptown). This "gallery guide" site is an especially comprehensive gateway for specific information.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Guy Claxton. "Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind" (1997).

What would be your criteria for the best non-fiction books? In order for me to find such a work compelling, it must change the way I think about things- at least for the duration of the time that I'm reading it. But my standard for the ultimate non-fiction is a quality that I take away from the reading that remains with me for a long time. A lot of stuff seems profound only as long as the author is explaining it, and leaves no residue in the reader's life. Naturally there is some sort of continuum that describes the extent to which something one reads will stick with him/her. It's not something to be measured in absolutes. Guy Claxton's Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind certainly intrigued me when I was in the process of absorbing it, but whether or not it's going to linger is tough to determine.

Claxton is most of all moved by the concept of the unconscious, which he refers to as the "undermind'. If you've ever taken a basic survey course in psychology, then you are likely familiar with the term. You'd encounter it whenever you studied Freud and Jung. They defined it as a dark and enigmatic region of the mind that we are ordinarily unaware of, but nonetheless affects the way we think, and the choices we make. Freud most associated the unconscious with sex, while Jung paired it with dreams. When they first introduced their versions of the concept, it entered the popular mind fairly quickly. But over the subsequent decades, it has become progressively discredited, and viewed as essentially unscientific.

Western society seems to have sided with Descartes, with his reliance on the conscious mind as the only source of true thought. Claxton calls the prevalent attitude a reliance on "d-mode" (deliberation or default, alternatively). We have been taught that the only worthwhile mental activity involves logic and/or analytical reasoning- byproducts of the conscious mind. Meanwhile the unconsciousness, which has always been an essential component of Eastern spiritual and cultural traditions, is either viewed as suspect or ignored altogether. Claxton views that as a mistake, if not a fatal position. His contention is that these two disparate modes of thinking are equally significant, and respectively appropriate for different situations and problems.

But before we can give the unconsciousness its proper due, we have to accept that it actually exists, and discover its nature. In order to establish its parameters, Claxton cites many experiments conceived by a wide range of cognitive psychologists and other scientists. He doesn't belabor the reader with overwhelming details, but instead presents the findings in easy-to-understand, direct language. Even without the copious references included in the footnotes, these studies are convincing. There is no doubt that the brain processes an almost unimaginably large amount of information that we are never consciously aware of. To add a layer of additional authenticity, Claxton includes several fascinating puzzles which demonstrate the presence of unconscious processing.

In order to cover all of his bases, Claxton presents a detailed look into the world of neurology. He offers an accessible look at the structures of the brain itself. He explains how neurons work, and how the patterns of fired electricity that course through the brain relate to both conscious and unconscious learning. His writing style makes an extremely complicated subject sensible to the layman. The elegance of the system is remarkable, appealing to both the rationality of the conscious mind, and the intuition of the undermind. In a relatively short (yet dense) volume, Claxton manages to accomplish amazing feats of exposition. As in an optical illusion, his revelations seem at once deeply profound and inexplicably obvious. I would certainly recommend Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind to a general audience of inquiry, and I would consider it almost indispensable for artists, writers, business managers, salesmen and educators.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Bon Appetit!

Having a brand new kid has made me reconsider a lot of life choices that I have been taking for granted for many years. I suppose it's only natural to second guess myself now that my decisions more directly affect someone else. While it's not so crucial that I make hard-and-fast, life-changing judgments immediately, it seems appropriate that I initiate some basic considerations. There are many areas of my life that reflect values I have held consistently and consciously for a long time. But other habits have developed as a result of perceived necessity, fleeting preference, and/or convenience. When it comes to eating, my behavior has been influenced by all three of those factors.

It strikes some of my friends as odd that I should be so particular about "consuming" certain things (books, films, music), yet when it comes to food I am rather indiscriminate. I have often admitted that I have an extremely unsophisticated palette. At home I make very few meals. I do sandwiches, spaghetti, or some basic version of quesadillas. That's really about it. If I want something different, I generally have to go out to some sort of restaurant or order for delivery. I've only had those options on a regular basis for the last decade or so, due to financial constraints before that. Because of these long-lasting limitations, it should probably be no surprise that I stick to the conventional offerings.

The problem with all of this is that the typical American diet is unwholesome, and a bit gross. This is a meat-and-potatoes nation, and even those standards are usually cooked in an extremely unhealthy manner. Just about everything is fried. The United States loves its french fries, wings, onion rings, cheese sticks, burgers, donuts, eggs, fried chicken, and cheese steaks. Hell, this is the only nation where one could reasonable expect someone to develop a fried OREO. And if it's not fried, then it's invariably smothered in grease and oil, filled with sugar, or jammed into pockets of fat. I think I read somewhere that three-quarters of the menu offerings in every eatery in the US are virtually identical. If it's not true, it sure seems like it. The vast majority of what we eat is a corn byproduct.

I would think that the situation outside the home closely mirrors what's happening in private kitchens across the country. Generally businesses cater to the lowest common denominator. What else are "the people" eating? Another indicator of the unfortunate state of our national cuisine is the typical public school lunch menu. If you haven't visited your local school lately, you would be stunned to see what the government allows cafeterias to feed the kids. How about mini corn dogs, nachos w/cheese, fruit cup, and 2% milk? Sound pretty nutritious to you? OK then, try ribbie sandwich, chips, baby carrots, and chocolate milk? They usually just put "cook's choice" on the schedule when they serve up stuff like this. It's better public relations. And believe me, whatever it looks like on paper... it's different when it's resting there in slabs on the little styrofoam tray.

To make matters worse- this stuff is invariably the lowest quality product from an uncaring, mechanized, nationwide, corporate agribusiness industry. It is engineered to meet the basic standards of a national government board for the absolute minimum cost. I don't know all of the ins and outs of the policy procedures for mandated nutrition, but I can say without reservation that the system is broken. Not long ago a huge amount of ground beef was judged by the USDA to be substandard, and was belatedly recalled. Much of that meat originally found its way into the nation's school lunchrooms. It was consumed by children. I don't know why the American public tolerates such a disgrace. The youth are being trained to eat offal. I wonder who will be held responsible. I guess we'll be packing lunches for Baby E.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

The Lamest Duck of All.

The phrase "lame duck" was originally used to describe an 18th Century London broker who couldn't pay his debts. In a more literal sense it refers to a bird who can no longer keep up with the flock, thus making it easy prey. Obviously we in America use it when talking about a politician in the last year of his/her term, with no chance of being re-elected. George W. Bush is a "lame duck". There are people all over the nation, and indeed throughout the world, that couldn't be happier that he has at last reached that status. Unfortunately this president has not been the type of leader to recognize the prevailing mood and/or will of "the people". Instead of aging gracefully, he's clamoring about trying to construct a legacy.

No doubt Dubya has already assured that he will be remembered for a long time. There is already plenty of discussion regarding his potential status as "Worst President of All Time". The 25% (or so) of America that still supports him is the vanguard in the fight to deny that label. They have an uphill battle, and Bush is not making it any easier for them. Right now he is in the midst of two important Congressional conflicts. He is trying to uphold his "right" to conduct warrant-less surveillance. And he is working to preserve his power to torture suspects in his War on Terror". These are not positions that many citizens would identify passionately with. But it doesn't matter to this Commander-in-Chief. After all, he is the "decider"!

It doesn't appear that George W. Bush has ever been all that concerned with the will of the people. His definition of democracy doesn't stretch wide enough to accommodate dissenting views. Throughout the past seven years I've occasionally wondered if his negative ratings have ever weighed heavily upon his esteem (or conscience). I've always come to the conclusion that they don't. But speculation on this matter isn't necessary- because he's spoken many times on the subject. Here are a few direct quotes:

"“If you’re sick and tired of the politics of cynicism and polls and principles, come and join this campaign." George W Bush, Hilton Head, South Carolina, 16th February 2000.

"I've been in politics long enough to know that polls just go poof at times." --George W. Bush, Tipp City, Ohio, April 19, 2007 .

"I don’t care what the polls say. I don’t. I’m doing what I think what’s wrong." George W Bush, New York Times, 15th March 2000.

I found those few statements after a three-minute Internet search. I'm sure I could fill up the entire page with more, expressing the exact same sentiments (albeit without the ridiculous gaffes). What it boils down to is that he doesn't care what you (or any of us lowly citizens) have to say. He's got his agenda, and he's sticking to it.

The problem with the surveillance bill is that Congress wants to refuse immunity to communications firms that broke the law at Bush's request. In other words he wants to protect his friends that flouted the US Constitution. But the subtext here is especially interesting, because Bush would be dragged into the courts to defend his role in these violations if this bill were passed. He's certainly not going to allow this to happen, and neither are the Republicans in the House of Representatives. Meanwhile they will play the patriotism card. They will insist that the legislation be passed in order to "make America safe" from "terrorists". It wouldn't be in their best interests to reveal who they are really protecting.

What's especially ironic is that the surveillance bill was unnecessary in the first place. The executive branch already had the right to request a warrant retroactively, after eavesdropping on anybody that they so chose. Somehow that power was insufficient for their needs. And it's pretty obvious why that's the case. Just like under the current circumstances, the Bush Administration wants to be allowed to act on its agenda without ever having to answer for its activities. This is the American government that is finally above the law. This is the dictatorial leadership of the United States. Yet they have the gall to use the bludgeon of "Democracy"- not the philosophy, but the word itself in isolation of reality.

The same applies to Bush's resistance against a proposed prohibition of torture. It doesn't matter that such tactics contradict the banner of freedom under which he claims to fight. Civil rights don't apply to his enemies. This is (undeclared) war! There are no rules. And again the sycophants in Congress struggle to defend him. They want to know why we would give away "our play book". Why should we reassure al Qaeda that we practice what we preach- freedom and democracy? It doesn't matter that the prisoners might be innocent. The USA isn't going to take that chance. They will get their civil rights once they agree to bow down to us. Or maybe not. It depends if we're "safe enough". Be scared. If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck...

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Ralph Blumenthal, "Stork Club" (2000).

It's likely no coincidence that I thought a lot about social capital last weekend. I am often influenced (in sometimes subconscious ways) by whatever book I am currently working my way through. It just so happens that I was reading Ralph Blumenthal's Stork Club last week. Before I picked it up, I didn't know anything about the Manhattan club of the title. Apparently it was a major social institution in mid-Twentieth Century America. A list of its patrons would typically include actors, journalists, authors, singers, gangsters, socialites, dandies, debutantes, dancers and politicians. If you were recognized by its high-toned doorman, then you knew that you were somebody. A starstruck Midwesterner visiting the "Big Apple" could get his/her fill of celebrity at The Stork.

The origins of the club were not nearly so exclusive as one might expect from its eventual success and reputation. It was owned and operated by a man named Sherman Billingsley. Born in Kentucky, Billingley migrated with his family to Oklahoma when he was just a young child. His father was eager to claim a piece of Indian Territory, which was newly opened to settlement by the federal government. Sherman and his siblings were farm kids, and they learned to work hard and find money wherever they could. Logan (Sherman's eldest brother) decided to try his hand at bootlegging, and his younger brothers followed in his footsteps. When the 18th Amendment prohibited the sale of alcohol, it created a fortuitous niche in the economy for the Billingsley Boys. They made a heap of cash, and also ran afoul of the law.

Having made his pile in the underground liquor trade (and spent time in jail for his missteps), Sherman followed Logan to NYC, where a fortune was being made in real estate development. He opened up a string of corner pharmacies where he sold nostrums that were really just clandestine bottles of alcohol. He made money quickly, and was able to open up a speakeasy in midtown. It did well, and attracted the attention of some truly bad actors. Billingsley's ties to mobsters (like Frank Costello, Owney Madden, and "Dutch" Schultz) were a necessary evil in the nightclub industry. Proprietors had to pay off racketeers in order to stay in business. Billingsley claimed to resent their involvement, but seemed to ultimately benefit from their protection throughout his career.

Warding off the tough guys amounted to just another in a long line of hassles and expenses Billingsley confronted during his ascendancy. Later on, when much of the crime syndicate was pushed from Manhattan, it would be the service unions that prompted the greatest portion of Mr. B.'s grief. The Stork Club was picketed for years by disgruntled ex-employees. Billingsley was notoriously anti-labor. Perhaps he acquired his elitism from hanging out with the high company that patronized The Stork. Anyway, he would often use his contacts as a bludgeon against unions and other competitors. J. Edgar Hoover (the legendary FBI director) was notably useful for this purpose, as were Walter Winchell and other journalists who favored Billingsley's place.

For a couple of decades The Stork Club remained the preeminent place to see and be seen. Blumenthal's book includes photos with his luminous clientele, which featured the Kennedys, the Roosevelts, Marilyn Monroe, Earnest Hemingway, Damon Runyon, Frank Sinatra, Alfred Hitchcock, and Henry Fonda. The list of names mentioned in conjunction with The Stork is indeed amazing. It reads like a Who's Who of America from the 30's to the 50's. In fact (in this reader's opinion) Blumenthal seems a bit too starstruck in his account of the place. He could have given over more space to the many controversies Billingsley was involved in. He could have more closely examined the club owner's prejudices (he once had a famous feud with Josephine Baker), or provided more background information about the phenomena of unionization during the 50's.

Still, if you have an interest in the high-living antics of prominent people during this era, then you'll no doubt enjoy this book. It's also interesting to read about Billingsley's often troubled relationship with his staff. He was watchful to the point of paranoia- even going so far as to practice active wire surveillance over both his workers and customers. Blumenthal seems flippant about these spying tactics, but it's not too much of a leap to believe that Billingsley might have been paying for Hoover's favor with illegally-obtained information about the nation's elite. A chapter on that aspect of Sherman Billingsley's life would have drawn significant attention. Perhaps Blumenthal's research just didn't support that avenue of inquiry.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Is John McCain Insane?

The more I learn about John McCain, the more I suspect that he is fucking nuts. I don't mean he is quirky or eccentric. I mean he seems genuinely insane. Sure, he's got his excuses for madness- he was a prisoner-of-war in North Vietnam for five years. But having a reason for your mental state doesn't excuse you from being evaluated fairly. I think it would be fundamentally irresponsible of American voters to allow such a man to achieve the nation's highest office. Of course, a large proportion of our citizenry has a track record of supporting patently unqualified candidates (the proof has never been so obvious as during the last eight years). Still one can hope that a more rational side of the populace will prevail, and we can avoid the pitfalls that await us should McCain prove victorious in November.

One indicator of his mental health is his extreme inconsistency on so many hot button issues. He said he was dead-set against Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, but he's recently pledged to uphold them into perpetuity. He was a leading proponent of the Iraq War before it started. That's no surprise, since he's still rabid on the subject. Yet in the build-up to the conflict he was adamant that Donald Rumsfeld was correct about his estimates regarding troop levels and the Iraqi reception of the American troop presence. Since then he has become well known for insisting that we need to double or triple the amount of soldiers in Iraq. His confidence in the perceived "rightness" of the mission remains unwavering. But he has waffled on a number of other issues- public financing, opposition to the religious right, his stance on gay marriage, etc.

Inconsistency itself is not enough to land McCain in the loony bin. In fact it seems to be an indispensable trait for most politicians. We could judge them for their political expediency, but I'm not so sure I don't prefer a guy who is willing to reconsider his positions over another who is "unwavering" in the manner of George W. Bush. It's just that quality that I find so troubling in McCain's approach toward foreign policy. He seems extremely comfortable with the idea of unending war. His "laid back" acceptance of continuing conflict was amply demonstrated with his public admission that a 100-year occupation of Iraq is "fine" with him. This shouldn't inspire any amount of confidence in his ability to resolve the situation.

Still the problem is greater than his simplistic position on Iraq. McCain has been vocal about extending the "War on Terror" throughout the Middle East. He's exposed both his love of surf music and his admiration of mass indiscriminate killing of civilians by being caught on tape chanting "bomb, bomb, Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boy's "Barbara Ann". And this is the man that the Republican Party is seriously proposing as their candidate for the presidency. He has assured the country that he fully intends to continue using pre-emptive war to stabilize the region and the world. If he becomes the Commander-in-Chief, he would like to form a paramilitary force to prosecute covert operations on behalf of American power. This body would have no Congressional oversight, and would be beholden solely to the dictate of the executive himself.

As problematic as Dubya's insufferable reign has proven, I fear that four years of McCain might be worse. The Shrub has surely been a complete failure as a diplomat. People throughout the world have viewed him with a mixture of fear, contempt, and dark humor. I have no doubt that McCain will simply compound the growing hatred directed at our nation. He's stated that he plans to form a "League of Democracies", which would have the effect of undermining the United Nations in the event that the Security Council votes against the interests of the United States. He is paranoid, impulsive, and notorious for throwing horrific temper tantrums. While many have questioned the judgment of the current president and his administration, few have accused them of being "crazy". But with McCain's apparent instability, he could be the most serious threat to the human race in decades.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Guilt by Association?

One thing I've been consistently amused by during this extended primary season is the Republican hackery's clumsy campaign to disparage Barack Obama. Their initial ploy was to cast doubt on his religious affiliations. They did everything possible to get people to believe that he was a Muslim. Why that should matter relative to his aspirations for the presidency... I have no idea. Obviously the framers of the Constitution didn't mean to prohibit followers of Islam from becoming chief executive. This was a transparent ploy to tie Obama in with the terrorists. It didn't matter that the man had attended a Christian church for the last twenty years. Somewhere deep in his core, he was a treasonous follower of Mohammed. They've been flogging this canard for almost an entire year. It got so bad that the mythbusters over at Snopes had to post about the rampant lies. Still I've had to hear the AM radio talking heads refer to him as Barack Hussein for the last several months.

Of course we all know that this shit never quite stuck to the wall, no matter how often it was parroted. Watch now as the strategy shifts. They've given up on trying to make Obama the external enemy. Now they have begun the process of coloring him as the enemy within. It's now openly acknowledged that Obama is a member (in good standing) of the Trinity United Church of Chicago. Bear in mind though that this is no "ordinary" Christian" house of worship. It has all the trappings of Christianity, but it is somehow "other", and in that otherness something wicked lurks. While nominally devoted to Jesus the savior, it is in reality devoted to an insidiously divisive purpose. It preaches a message of hate for the United States (or so we are now told).

The presiding pastor of Trinity is Dr. Jeremiah D. Wright, Jr. If you visited the official church site, you would get the impression that Dr. Wright is an exemplary American. He started out his adult life in elementary education, served in the Marine Corps, and earned his doctorate in theology. He has served at Trinity since 1972, and now ministers to a flock of 6000 members (actually he is semi-retired as of February, 2008, yet he has remained active and is still considered the head of the Church). Apparently he subscribes to Trinity's mission statement, which includes serving not just the oppressed- but all of God's family. And, if you take the organization at its word, "it's not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and (...) does not apologize for its African roots!" Perhaps that's what some anonymous GOP think tank researcher found most suspect about Obama's relationship with Wright and Trinity.

Anyone who has unsuccessfully spent years trying to dig up dirt on Obama knows that he is virtually unimpeachable. So what better way to attack him then to establish "guilt by association"? It's absolutely true that Obama has credited Jeremiah Wright, Jr. as being an important influence in his life. The thing to do is to make the good Reverend Wright look like a black separatist. And the best way to do that is to comb over all the speeches that Wright has made throughout the years, and selectively quote the most inflammatory remarks that can be found. This isn't at all difficult because the man has been genuinely incensed about the treatment his people have received over the years. He has directed some serious accusations against this nation and its government. And it also helps his detractors that he has been closely associated with Louis Farrakhan in the past. As a result, it's not hard to cherry pick and make Wright sound scary to your average Middle American kool-aid drinker.

But what does all of this have to do with Obama? The implication is that this presidential hopeful will carry all of Wright's values and attitudes into the White House. It evidently doesn't matter that Obama has explicitly denounced the statements that many have found so offensive. He's frankly expressed his disagreement with Wright's views. In addition, his public rejection of Farrakhan's endorsement carries no weight with his critics. The mere fact that Obama has sat in the pulpit while Wright has preached his "message of hate" is enough to condemn his integrity and expose his dangerous deception. Whatever else has been said in Wright's nearly-40-year career is beside the point. By extension, we shouldn't pay any attention to Barack Obama's own words and deeds during his time in the political spotlight. There's no reason to give credit to anything Obama says, because someone he's been associated with has controversial beliefs. Would that we could apply that standard to all politicians- would we ever be able to find an electable candidate?

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Social Capital.

This past weekend I found myself in a conversation about social capital. Coming from a family that excels at economics, it wasn't a big surprise to find myself ruminating on the concept. I'm certainly more of a social sciences guy, but quantitative analysis is difficult to avoid if it's in your blood. When I was a kid I made a list of all the people I knew, and I gave them numerical scores on several key personality characteristics. I was never put off by the subjectivity that applying numbers to social phenomena entailed. Even if I realized that the values were assigned somewhat arbitrarily, they were still useful for me in attributing relative worth. It helped me think about what mattered most to me, and refined my perception of my ideal self.

I can understand how someone could view such behavior as cold and calculating. There is something troublesome about trying to assess human interaction using standards akin to units of currency. But I can't help thinking of human transactions in those terms. Some people form associations based upon intuitive attractions, and believe that they are somehow being truer to themselves than others who involve themselves in (what they see) as social "games". Yet I think its foolish to deny that we often act in ways that will best fit our interests. Perhaps many folks make these calculations subconsciously, or have a different language altogether for their strategies- but I truly believe its useful to try to step back and take account.

Who hasn't (at one point or another) considered whether entertaining a certain person would lead to social liability? I know one individual in particular that is exceedingly interesting and somewhat charming when sober, but goes completely off the rails under the influence of hard liquor. He has provoked situations that have been so extreme that people have entirely shut him out of their social circles. When he is wary of his own excesses, he makes an effort to build bonds with others with a surplus of social capital, in order to rehabilitate his own personal profile. Of course it takes an extremely generous and trusting type to fulfill this role.

It's rarely difficult to spot those who are actively seeking to build social capital. They have been commonly referred to as "social climbers". They seek to curry favor with the glamorous and famous, or those who have achieved success in a particular domain. Nipping at the heels of the popular can help one accumulate a certain cache, but if their approach too obviously exposes an agenda, then it can backfire wildly. Making the appropriate evaluations of the social standing of others can make or break one's progress toward a treasured goal. As superficially manipulative as it sounds, you may want to hold your tongue in certain company. The person you offend may hold the key to a doorway you want to pass through. I've known characters that consciously and consistently try to reject their awareness of such situations, but they often end up frustrated for having done so.

The reality of our collective existence is that we are social animals. We can't avoid the shifting sands of alliance and association because a great proportion of human enterprise depends ultimately on some level of cooperation. Human beings are much more likely to want to involve themselves with others who are generally held in high esteem by their peers. This isn't necessarily determined by financial standing or physical attractiveness, although these factors tend to be considered disproportionately in American society. Less obvious influences depend upon the nature of the activity and/or goals being pursued. Intelligence, charisma, wisdom, strength, integrity, flexibility, generosity, creativity, patience, tolerance, open mindedness, talent, and skill can all play roles in determining social capital. You ignore them at your own peril.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Are God and Science Irreconcilable?

If you step back to look at human experience from a distance, it's kind of odd how often people consider the concept of a "god". There's really very little of concrete quality that suggests the existence of such a being (at least one with a discernible personality). It makes me wonder exactly how anyone ever came up with the idea in the first place. Perhaps it comes down to the unexplainable. Human beings likely encountered mental or emotional strife anytime something happened that they didn't understand, so they devised an unseen force to serve as the repository for their mysteries. How that slowly transformed into the conception of a personal "God" is intriguing, yet ultimately unknowable. But what is nearly certain is that for a long time that's all people had to get themselves through the long dark nights.

It's obvious that a large proportion of the world population still relies on a "god-figure" for guidance. Naturally the formulations of this presence differ depending upon the culture and history of the region that different groups of people inhabit. Is it any surprise that Middle Eastern gods tend to be stern and rather unforgiving? Look at the landscape and climate of that area- the inescapable things that effect life consistently over time. Perhaps in more hospitable places, the "gods" are generous and mild. Then again, maybe there isn't so much need for them in such natural Edens. It's all well and good to concentrate on the here-and-now when life is untroubled, but tough times demand a bit more support.

Anyway, despite huge advancements in science and technology, we still contend with the various "gods" within and across civilizations. However we have entered a time in which those advancements have led a significant sample of folks to believe that there's no longer a need for "god". The other day I heard both Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. World-renowned physicist Dawkins recently published a book called The God Delusion that has upset a lot of true believers here in the US. It's largely a response to the increasingly loud faction of society that wants to teach creationism in public schools. Dawkins methodically deconstructs the idea that there is a grand design in the universe implemented by a hyper-advanced, all-powerful "God".

Dawkin's argument is that such a "supreme being" would have had to evolve into its perfect state, like every other creature we know about. He turns the "intelligent design" theory on its head, using its proponents' own convoluted logic against itself. If a brain or an eye is so complex that it could never have "evolved" without the seemingly-required foresight of a creator, then the same thing should apply to God himself. If that's the case (Dawkins wonders), then who created "God"? It's his opinion that natural selection is so elegant a system that it has made "God" superfluous. I guess that's just the logical conclusion of someone who relies on observation and the scientific method alone to construct his world view. Or maybe not...

Francis Collins is the head scientist behind the human genome project that has mapped out the structure of life itself. Once an avowed atheist, he has gradually become an evangelical Christian. That process gestated as he observed the failing health of his critically ill parents. His work as a geneticist has contributed to his faith. When he looks at the DNA threads that he has documented, he can't help but believe that it is the physical manifestation of "God's" mind. It is unthinkable to Collins that such a thing occurred randomly. Therefore he considers his own discoveries "an opportunity to worship" divinity.

While I have found no compelling reason to make a commitment to either Dawkins' or Collins' way of thinking, I do find their conflict interesting from a psychological perspective. What is it about us that we need to seek resolution for life's great enigmas? That same drive seems to fuel the scientific process, as well as religious exploration. The great puzzle is the human need to extend their inquiries beyond immediate questions of survival. Like with every other issue of consequence, I tend to reject the absolutist approach that requires people to choose between nature and "god".

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Artistic Paradox.

I made it back to Panza Gallery for another drawing session. I've only been going once every few weeks since the baby was born. The rotation of models has been consistent, so I haven't been missing out on new people to draw. I'd love to finish The Book of Life with some variety. I'm in the business section now, partially through the letter "e". The end of the project is in sight... it has been for awhile now. I am ready to be done with it- an entire phone book filled (every other page) with drawings. Somehow I'm starting to feel confined, as if I was curtailing my artistic progress. On one hand, I know that my skills have improved markedly in the nearly two years that I've been working on this thing. But I can't help feeling that my imagination has been stagnating.

I've been daydreaming about doing some more experimental drawing. I'd like to continue drawing from live models, but find a way to advance a sort of mutated vision. For some reason I've felt constrained to doing rather conventional figure drawings in this book. It certainly seems to fit my intentions for the project. Still I keep thinking about strange growths and exaggerations. I hope finishing this will be as liberating as I think it might be. I could have simply taken a break from it and started something else, but the lag in my progress has been glaring. Last year at this time I was drawing several times a week. As it is, it's looking like I'm not going to be done for several more months.

I know that the structure and the discipline required for completing The Book of Life will have a substantial payoff. The scope of the endeavor entails an inevitable development. I once read about a chess grandmaster who suggested that merely playing a 1000 matches would lead virtually anyone to become something of a master of the game. For that expert, getting better is largely a matter of perseverance. One can't help but learn something from repetition. This is most likely applicable to drawing as well. It would be hard to argue that I'm not improving my level of craft. But I have to ask myself whether it is making me a better "artist".

When I see the mannered paintings and drawings of those who aspire to the mastery of the classics, I don't necessarily consider these pieces to be "art". I can be impressed by the level of craftsmanship displayed, but they don't move me in the ways I expect "art" to move me. There must be conception, not just representation. I don't see the point in simply trying to make an image incredibly realistic. I have photography if I want to represent reality. Even in that medium, I've been moving further away from conventional documentation. So what is it I'm looking for? I appreciate the idiosyncratic and intensely personal work that forms a unique world view. That's the type of art I want to make.

The complication in all of this is that a certain level of technique is necessary to be able to convey my ideas into their external form. I've never had formal instruction in any of the pursuits of self-expression that I'm involved in. That goes for drawing, writing and photography. Still I can't help thinking that study and practice could only expand my possibilities. And yet this has to be balanced with a looseness of articulation that involves being apart from convention. If I learn the "proper" way to do these things, then they are going to be (by definition) less subjective and more derivative. It's a conundrum that I'm having difficulty synthesizing.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Gay Marriage.

It seems almost unthinkable that in the nearly two years I've been keeping this blog, I've never devoted a post solely to gay marriage. Yet with that kind of sustained omission, it's understandable why people would wonder why I'm finally addressing the issue now. There's no better reason than the fact that the California Supreme Court is now revisiting the issue to decide whether or not the state should uphold its ban on same sex marriage. The main question to be decided is whether such a prohibition contradicts the civil rights of gay men and women. At the same time justices on the court have to determine whether or not it is their role to overrule a voter referendum and an appeals court that have already passed judgment on the issue.

Personally I'm conflicted on the value of marriage in the first place. Before M. and I got married, I was convinced that the institution amounted to little more than a legal contract. I felt that no piece of paper could change the nature of commitment within a relationship. If you are determined to be with your partner forever, than what does it matter whether or not you have the state's approval? Of course I've always conceded that it is a matter of perception. If you believe that it makes a difference, then it does- for you and your partner. Still it's patently clear that there exists no social consensus about what it all means. Hell, it's commonly stated that a full 50% of marriages result in divorce. If that's not a sure indicator of conflicted definition, then I have no idea what would be. Anyone who claims to have a handle on marriage is most likely just talking out of their ass.

At the same time, it makes sense from a legal standpoint. There are lots of indispensable benefits that accrue to the lawfully wed. In fact I have read that there are an estimated 1000 federal and an average 400 state benefits that apply to married couples. Some of the more notable ones include joint adoption, next-of-kin status for medical purposes, joint insurance policies, divorce protections (like child support), automatic inheritance, qualification for spousal benefits (annuities, social security, pension plans, and Medicare), property tax exemptions, joint filing of tax returns, bereavement or sick leave to care for spouse and/or child, evidentiary immunity (if spouse is on trial), and domestic violence protection orders. That's certainly a lot to give up on principle. And it's a lot to withhold merely because you don't approve of some stranger's betrothal.

Personally I don't find any of the arguments against gay marriage compelling. The most commonly heard objection is that allowing homosexuals to get married will destroy the institution itself. This contention lacks any hint of logic or reason. Exactly how will this destruction occur? Whatever damage could be done to the tradition has already been done by straying heterosexuals. Others claim that opening up the restrictions on marriage will lead to more children being born out of wedlock. If you give a mere thirty seconds of consideration to that proposition, it becomes unfailingly obvious why it's beyond ridiculous. Some assert that legalizing same sex marriages will launch society down a slippery slope that will inevitably lead to the sanctioning of legal unions between man and animal, man and child, and man and several wives. Whenever I hear this argument, I wonder about the fantasy lives of its proponents.

Finally many opponents of same sex marriage appeal to the authority of the Bible. In their view "God" doesn't sanction gay behavior- so why should government? According to this two thousand year-old text, marriage was intended to be used for procreation above anything else. But I never hear these same Christians attacking heterosexual couples who have decided not to have kids. They also have never proposed forbidding infertile people from getting married. What kind of double standard is that? While they might protest that this is an invalid extension of their beliefs, they are immune to the argument that homosexuality has nothing to do with bestiality. Naturally the inconsistency of their holy book finds its mirror in their own opinions. That's inevitable among fundamentalists of all types.

Anyway, I see no reason to govern a modern society according to ancient belief systems and superstitions that would have been more appropriately left to medieval peasants. That's the reason why the founding fathers included a protection from religion in the 1st Amendment. If we're going to use Leviticus to decide this issue, then let's be consistent and outlaw "usury". That's right- according to the Old Testament, charging interest on a loan is a sin. Let's really shakedown a powerful institution!

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner, "Freakonomics" (2005).

If I made a hierarchical list of my reading interests, the subject of economics would be close to the bottom. When I was an undergraduate, course requirements included a semester each of macro- and micro-economics. I remember very little of anything that was presented in those courses. I didn't pay much attention because I found the material tedious. Since then my understanding of the way economies work hasn't gotten much further than the laws of supply and demand, and diminishing returns. I consider my curiosity fairly broad, but for some reason I'm not compelled to learn much else about economics. So if you suggested that I would be likely to find myself reading a book on the topic, I'd probably laugh at you.

Yet somehow I am reading a book that can be nominally defined as a study of "economics". Still I'd characterize Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's Freakonomics as a work more aligned with sociology than any ordinary approach to economics. Levitt is a Harvard-educated academic who is considered to be among the very best economists of his generation (he recently turned 40). In 2006 Time Magazine included him on their list of "100 People Who Shape Our World". But it is not strictly his theoretical genius that has earned him worldwide fame. Actually he's best known for his unconventional approach to the application of economics. He uses the tools of the field to examine phenomena in politics, law enforcement, and education.

Freakonomics is the result of repeated requests from publishing houses for Levitt to write a mass market book on economics for laymen. Having judged himself an insufficient writer, he enlisted the help of Dubner, who had interviewed him previously. Together they set out to write a book that the average reader could understand. Levitt expresses a distrust of the typical obfuscations that the mathematics of economics employs. In fact he has been noted as having said "I just don’t know very much about the field of econometrics." His basic belief is that the rules of the field can be applied to virtually anything. And together the authors convey a set of these structures in "common sense" language that doesn't require a background in economics to understand.

But what makes this work eminently readable are the mysteries that Levitt and Dubner study, and the conclusions that they draw. Likely the most controversial finding is their contention that "Roe Vs. Wade" is responsible for the steep decline in American crime rates during the mid-90's. It was this bit of analysis that brought Freakonomics to my awareness in the first place. Upon its initial release, there was a wave of protest about this idea. The authors explain that the huge increase in abortions after legalization eliminated a large portion of the criminal class that would have come to age in the early part of the last decade. The underlying assumption here is that unwanted babies grow up with a greater risk of transforming into law-breaking adults. This was obviously damaging for the growing number of moralists and fundamentalists in the US.

This slim volume is packed with similarly intriguing (if mostly less incendiary) material. Levitt and Dubner talk about the commonalities of Japanese sumo wrestlers and American teachers. Apparently both groups will cheat if given the proper incentive. They describe the asymmetrical information advantages of real estate agents, and how the Internet is actively undermining that imbalance. They even present an insider's look at the accounting logbooks of a chapter of the Black Gangster Disciple Nation. We get to see exactly how lucrative crack-dealing is, and for whom. All in all, this is an entertaining and informative read- if only a bit thin conceptually. Although I don't feel that it offered me an integrated way of thinking about the world, Freakonomics did let me peer through some unlikely windows for unique perspectives.

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Cormac McCarthy, "The Road" (2006),

Although I make a serious effort to spend as much time reading as possible, it's very rare for me to read an entire book in one day. Besides the fact that I have more responsibilities and priorities than ever, I am a notoriously slow reader. I'm usually satisfied if I get through 100 pages over several hours. So it's notable that I completed the entire length of Cormac McCarthy's The Road in a single day. I'm certain that it's partially attributable to my appreciation for the author's previous works. I've gotten through almost all of them. And I was particularly looking forward to The Road, because of its post-apocalyptic theme. But I also found it eminently readable, despite its relentlessly bleak tone.

The Road is the tale of the relationship between a father and his young son, and their struggle to survive a harsh world. Something has occurred to make living on the Earth virtually unmanageable. McCarthy never explicitly outlines the cause of the transformation, but certain clues suggest that it might have been the result of a nuclear war. There are ashes over everything, and the sun is perpetually obscured by the particulate matter in the atmosphere. Naturally this means that all plant life is either dead or extremely unhealthy. Without feed animal husbandry is impossible, and so food supplies are almost non-existent. People aren't able to rebuild from the ashes of civilization because agriculture is seemingly impossible. The survivors are left to salvage the remains.

McCarthy increases the mystery and tension by leaving out the exposition that most writers would be tempted to include in the book's early chapters. We don't know who the father was before the disaster. We are told that he once had a wife, but she couldn't bear life without hope. Their boy was born after the key transformational event, and he knows nothing of what society used to be like beforehand. His father realizes that those "old days" are slipping away forever, and exist only in his receding memory. It's for this reason that he chooses not to talk too much about the past to his son. We don't know exactly how long the pair has been wandering, but we know that it's been at least several years. It is obvious that love for his boy represents the only reason for the father to stay alive.

The descriptions of their surroundings are concise and matter-of-fact. This is unexpected considering the author's usual penchant for long, meandering, occasionally indecipherable paragraphs. For the first time in my experience with McCarthy's work, I was actually propelled along by the rhythm of his writing. The horror is explicitly drawn whenever the father and son encounter something new. Meanwhile we are aware of much unspoken nastiness that they have apparently become desensitized and detached from. The reader is often asked to consider the plight of the main characters, and ask him/herself whether or not he/she would continue on, or just give up altogether. As our heroes search through the ruins of one tableau after another, it's quite clear that a commitment to persevere has to be renewed daily.

The Road would be nearly unbearable if there weren't such a tender relationship at its core. The depth of feeling exchanged between Papa and "the Boy" is clearly evident, and the dialog between them makes up a large portion of the book. In fact there are very few other characters that McCarthy introduces directly into the narrative. When the few exceptions occur, these figures are usually employed merely to advance the understanding we have about our protagonists. What degree of humanity have they been able to preserve despite the unthinkable pain that accompanies them? How do they relate to others when the inexorable message of life is "kill, or be killed"? If this incredible work doesn't evoke both dread and introspection in its readership, then the scenario it's based on is probably inevitable. This is a tremendously important book, and a true classic in every sense.

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