Thursday, April 30, 2009

Support OLC Nominee Dawn Johnsen

As a follow-up to yesterday's theme, here is a bit of (unfortunate) suspense, and an important political issue in which cell phones and email messages play a role. I'm quoting below from the "We Support OLC Nominee Dawn Johnsen" Facebook page. Indiana senator Richard Lugar has just recently confirmed his support for Johnsen; please consider sending him a thank you, and encouraging others – including new Dem Arlen Specter, to join him.

There's more on this story from the Wall Street Journal, by Walter Dellinger: "Presidential Picks Deserve a Vote – Executive nominees shouldn't be filibustered."

Read below to learn about Johnsen's situation, with information about how you can help. Harold Koh is facing the same obstacle; there's a link regarding his case at the bottom of the post.

In January of this year, President Obama nominated esteemed Constitutional scholar Dawn Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel, making what was described by Salon contributor (and former Constitutional attorney) Glenn Greenwald as Obama's "best [nomination] yet, perhaps by far."

Despite her impressive credentials and wide-spread support within the legal community, since her nomination Ms. Johnsen has been targeted by fringe groups who have collaborated to form an impressive, albeit baseless, coalition aimed at obstructing her nomination and sullying her sterling reputation. As a result of this campaign of distortion, Ms. Johnsen's confirmation has now been delayed indefinitely and faces the threat of being filibustered.

Ms. Johnsen, a graduate of Yale Law School, a member of the OLC under former President Clinton, and a beloved professor of law at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, is, in Greenwald's words, “a true expert on executive power, and specifically, the role and obligation of the OLC in restricting presidential decisions to their lawful scope.”

She has exhibited this expertise on countless occasions, consistently and publicly denouncing the widespread abuses of power that took place under the Bush Administration. Following the release last April of one of the Bush OLC "torture" memos, for instance, Ms. Johnsen wrote an impassioned article for Slate in which she decried the legal deficiencies pervasive throughout the memo, from the gross exaggerations of executive power to the incredible distortions of the law.

Please join us in voicing your support for brilliant legal scholar Dawn Johnsen against the baseless and disingenuous attacks that have been levied against her. As the NYTimes recently editorialized in her support, “There is no corner of the executive branch in greater need of a new direction than the Office of Legal Counsel. The impressive Ms. Johnsen is an excellent choice to provide it.”

Here are a few quick and easy steps you can take to support Dawn Johnsen:

1. Join the Facebook group in support of Ms. Johnson, and then encourage your friends and colleagues to do the same.

2. Please take 5-10 minutes and contact the following Senators. Ms. Johnsen made it through the Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote, and there is the threat of a filibuster looming. We are going to have to change a few minds to get her confirmed!

**IMPORTANT New Senator to contact** Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) (202).224.6551

Sen. Richard Lugar
(202).224.4814 (D.C. office)
(317).226.5555 (Indianapolis, IN office) (e-mail link)

Sen. John Cornyn
(202).224.2934 (e-mail link)

Sen. Mitch McConnell
(202).224.2541 (e-mail link)

Sen. Arlen Spector (202).224.4254 (e-mail link)

Simply tell whoever answers the phone that you strongly support the nomination of Dawn Johnsen as Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel and hope for Sen. [Blank]'s support when she is up for confirmation.

3. Call or email the Senators of your state, if they are not already listed above.
Here is the site to find contact information for individual Senators:

4. Take 30 seconds to sign this petition supporting Ms. Johnsen's nomination,
sponsored by People for the American Way:

5. Once you have joined this group, please consider joining the group "We Support Harold Hongju Koh," a similar group in support of President Obama's nominee for legal advisor to the State Department who, like Ms. Johnsen, has been viciously and wrongfully targeted and faces a threatened filibuster.

Here is the group's page:

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cellphones as Plot Destroyers

The topic of the week appears to be social media communications. There was piece in the Sunday New York Times on April 12th that made me think about the ways technologies of speed are changing the stories we tell and the methods we use to disseminate them. The illustration, shown here, is by the remarkable artist Yuko Shimizu.

The article, "If Only Literature Could Be a Cellphone-Free Zone" is by Matt Richtel, author of Hooked, "a Thriller about Love and Other Addictions." (Reviewer Katherine Neville writes: "Hooked is a wild roller-coaster ride through the hidden world where digital and biological cultures meet and clash. The scariest thing about Matt Richtel's astonishing first novel is that it is all possible, it is all probable – and it is all probably happening to us right now.")

Richtel observes: "Technology renders obsolete some classic narrative plot devices: missed connections, miscommunications, the inability to reach someone." He talks about writing his book and receiving feedback about the need to factor in the cell phone: contemporary plots can no longer be constructed on the assumption that characters aren't able to get in touch with each other, almost instantly and effortlessly.

Richtel quotes author M.J. Rose, who is setting her next book in 1948 in order to increase her miscommunication plot options: "You miss a train in 1888 or even 1988, and have no way to contact the person waiting at the station on the other end...he thinks you've changed your mind, been captured, weren't able to escape. You miss a train in 2009 and you pull out your cell phone and text that you'll be two hours late." Mystery collapses, logistical problems are easily resolved.

Think of all of the stories in which the exchange of letters or other messages over time stretches our sense of suspense and curiosity. We still feel this, of course: it hasn't gone away. We are just casting messages over broader distances, with electric, elastic response time, to friends and strangers alike. The suspense of waiting by the phone, or by the keyboard, has not gone away.

Plot is understood as a primary sequence of events. With cellphones, plots can be radically compressed; characters are no longer plausibly isolated. For all practical purposes, GPS systems locate them precisely in space and time. And yet, surely, mystery remains, only to be displaced into some other kind of psychic space. What does the literature of that kind of compression look like? Poetry, perhaps? A sequence of tweets? Graphic novels?

There's a nice communication bonus here, thanks to social media: Yuko Shimizu has written a post at her blog about the illustration process, giving a backstage studio glimpse of how she came up with the image (in both web and print versions) under a very tight deadline. This is one of those cases where the existence of the Internet, with its supplemental features, enriches the original newspaper article in an exponential way.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Twitter at the Top: The Chatty Classes

Given my current disinclination to Twitter, I found myself intrigued by this article by Matt Bai in last week's Sunday magazine of The New York Times: "The Chatty Classes: Why Twitter is the Last Thing D.C. Needs." This paragraph, especially, stood out:

Made it to DC, next stop baggage claim,” Craig Fugate, Obama’s choice to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency, tweeted upon arriving in Washington last month. A half-hour later, he reported, “No bag — great start in DC, the future of things to come?” Fugate’s luggage finally arrived the next morning, about an hour before he dashed off this mini-haiku: “Alice in Wonderland, getting morning star bucks.” Which kind of makes you wonder: if the head of FEMA feels that disoriented buying a latte near the White House, what’s going to happen during a tornado?

Indeed. Bai says: "However current it may be technologically, Twitter seems somehow out of step in its political sensibility — that is, in the promise of false intimacy between politicians and voters." He suggests that "in this new age of reckoning for all that we’ve failed to accomplish, voters seem to have tired of what pollsters call the 'understands people like me' question. Now, it seems, they want politicians to stop sharing and just govern like adults."

And whatever else Americans may be craving in our politics these days, brevity and immediacy aren’t among them. Politics today is already too simplistic and binary, its news cycle more comically truncated and ephemeral than at any time in our history; in the age of e-mail, blogs and smartphones, we seem to react to everything with a kind of frantic, predictable impulse (Tax all the bonuses! Kill all the pirates!) rather than with a longer-term consideration of benefits and consequences. The last thing Washington needs right now is politicians who seek to convey the moment in even shorter slogans and commentators who feel the need to offer their wisdom with even more frequency and glib abandon than they already do on blogs and cable TV.

I'm hoping that it is in fact true that Americans do want more substance from their leaders.
Twitter at the top may communicate a fleeting impression of intimacy – a sense of "transparency" in government – that serves as a corrective to magical thinking about omnipotent politicians. It sends out short telegrams about individual limitations, the inability of anyone to be in control of even the unintended consequences of their own most commonplace observations. (I bet Fugate had a morning choke over his coffee when he found his tweets recontextualized, with a critical assessment, in the Sunday mag.)

Lasting change of our own devising? It's a more complex thing, one that may not benefit much from the background noise – the static – of periodic false intimacy with policy makers.

That's a photo of Matt above: notice the absence (in this image, anyway) of a handheld device.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Twitter, the Anti-Meditation Global Positioning System

Maybe someday I will look back at this post and shake my head, but for now, I have to say I am not inclined to Twitter. Whenever I think of issuing short updates to inform the world of my global positioning, current activities, or state of mind, I am reminded of time I spent at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center across from Lake Calhoun, "just sitting" in zazen or listening to the lectures of Danin Katagiri Roshi.

When you just sit, you try to quiet the monkey mind. There is something so difficult – and so calming – about this practice, which connects you, at best, to the broader stream of life. That is life beyond the sphere of random determined human activity, which to such a large extent surrounds us, blinds us, and swallows us up.

So if you Twitter all day long, sending out 140 character communications from an electronic device, expecting others to take an interest in your whereabouts, your monkey mind, and your scraps of wit, banality, or insight, doesn't that just magnify and geometrically accelerate the noise that a practice like zen meditation aims to make still?

I like to send out these daily interweb communications, make occasional phone calls, and visit with people face-to-face. But the idea of Twittering gives me pause. Isn't privacy the greatest luxury? Time spent "off the radar"? Time to quiet the mind and the dispersal of personal information? It's just a thought.

"It's just a thought." I can imagine Katagiri saying that, in such a way as to make you take in the full weight of the phrase and its implications. Here is a quote from Each Moment Is the Universe. I think contains more than 140 characters, so it wouldn't work for a tweet:

"Even though we understand who we are, we have to see what we are. Are we separate from the grasses, trees, or birds? No, we are the grasses and trees, snowstorms and fine days. So we have to learn what the storm is, what winter is, what spring is. We have to understand everything in our whole life. So accept that life is just a continuation of learning. Day after day, life after life, we just have to learn constantly. That's enough."

Other books complied from Katagiri's lectures are Returning to Silence: Zen Practice in Daily Life (1988) and You Have to Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight (1998).

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Etiquette Tips for using the Electric Friendship Generator

The speed and distance with which we can now broadcast facets (at least) of our identities raises questions about Internet etiquette. Facebook, Twitter, and your standard issue blog pose and perform problems concerning the ethical dimensions of representation. Who, anymore, is speaking for whom? As someone recently put it to me: "Stuff gains a different kind of potency when it gets reproduced and linked into larger networks." And maybe it even loses something, too.

But at last we have some excellent etiquette advice, specifically for using Facebook, the "electric friendship generator." I found this video courtesy of Dr. Debby Herbenick, also known as My Sex Professor. It's worth a trip to her site to see the way she fleshes out this topic (so to speak), asking insightful questions about sex, love, and stalking on Facebook and Twitter.

Herbenick is a research scientist at The Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction here in Bloomington, Indiana, where she provides answers for the syndicated column Kinsey Confidential. She is also associate director of the Indiana University Center for Sexual Health Promotion. I appreciate her comfortable, knowledgeable approach to sex information, and love the illustrated banner for her blog, by Rama Hughes.

Before you get distracted by Dr. Debby and the many fascinating issues she explores, take a moment for some practical Facebook advice – from Jesus Diaz at Gizmodo, the Gadget Blog. Thank you, Jesus! I needed that.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

25 Random Things: Grackle Guys

25 Random Things: I know so little about grackles, though I have always loved their name. Did you ever hear a grackle crackle in the garden? It's part of the language of birds.

They are not one of the more beautiful birds, more like a smaller, less aggressive crow, with a harsh bird call. They do like to groom themselves by rubbing bugs on their feathers – a practice called "anting" – to apply liquids such as formic acid secreted by the insects. (So they like all-natural grooming products, as do I.)

John Caddy recently posted a poem about the Grackle Guys, received in my mailbox from Morning Earth. He also took the photos here. Here is the poem:

The grackle guys are up for it again,
full well they know their power
in new warmth and spring light.
Each incredibly aware of other males,

aims his beak straight up into his private sky,
the sky he knows he owns.
Grackle girls don’t care
what a grackle guy believes or knows
as long as he is fit and beautiful
and dominant (with other guys).
Oh, and his feathers must be silken moss,

and oceans must surround his eyes.

Friday, April 24, 2009

How Does Life Work? Learn More at Morning Earth

Perhaps you are wondering. If you want to develop your eco-literacy, or explore the confluence of art and ecology, you might want to take a trip over to the Morning Earth site maintained by poet and educator John Caddy. It's a rich environment, with learning resources, a daily poem, and information about balance, the biosphere, natural cycles, energy, symbiosis, and transformation. (I'm adding a link at the left.)

One of my favorite sections includes artist/naturalist pages, where you can learn more about people like Andy Goldsworthy, Rachel Carson, Beatrix Potter, and other artists who are new to me, such as Perry Ingli, of Plum City, Wisconsin, some of whose gorgeous works are shown above. The vertical image is of Aquarius Bluff, Lake Pepin, on the Mississippi River. The next picture is of the Sawbill Mountains at the Temperance River, from Ingli's North Shore Lake Superior Series, 1994. (I like this a lot, as I've climbed the Sawbill Mountains.) The other image is a set of 3 panels showing the Bluffs at Lake Pepin, from the Mississippi River Series of 1994.

Ingli has this to say about the way he works:

I am what artists call a "plein air" artist. That means I work outside, directly from what I see, not from photographs. I have to be there. I like hilly steep countryside and river bluffs, so sometimes I have to tie myself to trees while I'm working. I work with pastels on large sheets of paper on folding tables.

I take my time. I engage the natural-world in the slow lane; not the split-second aperture of a camera's eye.

I allow myself extended encounters with our region's land, water, sky, wind, wolf, moose, eagle, bear, loon; where new experiences and age-old memories merge and interact in a sort of slowed-down time.

I especially like that part about slowed-down time: it's often one of the gifts of artistic expression. This link takes you directly to Perry Ingli's Studio page.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Timber Rose English Lodge

One last wrap-up on our journey to the Smokys: a travel tip. We decided we wanted to be off the beaten track a bit, so I did a little search on that magical tool, the Internet, and lucked onto the Timber Rose English Lodge. (Shh...!) It's just a few miles outside Gatlinburg on the Arts and Crafts Community Trail, up quite a steep little winding incline, tucked onto the side of the mountain. A lovely place with great suites that include their own kitchens, private verandas and hot tubs. Private, beautiful, price competitive, highly recommended. It really is what it claims to be: a peaceful oasis.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day 2009: Consider the Dolly Parton Paradox

The Gatlinburg area of Tennessee is Dolly Parton country, and I've been thinking about her ever since our trip. I think that someone could write a fascinating book of about ambivalence and the ecology of popular culture, with Dolly Parton as the central figure. (And oh, what a figure: over the years her breasts have gotten larger, and her hips have disappeared.) I just read her Wikipedia biography, and I'm starting to think that my answer to the question "If you could have dinner with anyone on the planet..." might just be Dolly Parton.

But if I did win a contest to have dinner with Dolly, I wouldn't necessarily want it to take place at her Dixie Stampede, where we had supper last Saturday night with the Sounds of South choir in Pigeon Forge. That meal is not one for foodies, Slow Food types or even someone like me who enjoys using silverware. It's a 21st century Roman spectacle with floor show on the dirt floor of a huge arena. Designed to accommodate 1000s of guests, a contest takes place each night between Confederate and Yankee sides of the audience, dramatizing the "friendly rivalry" played out in the Civil War. (No mention of slavery, or even of casualties.)

There are horses, flaming hoops, longhorn cattle, racing pigs, and kids chasing chickens. The show begins with an invocation of Indian lore (the Indians, we learn, lived in a "land steeped in legend" – whenever anything is "steeped" in anything, especially legend, you can bet that's a bad sign –) and ends with a giant Dolly on a screen, leading us in a patriotic anthem. Dolly had the "We aren't red states or blues states: we are the United States" theme going before anyone had ever heard of Obama. At one point there's a game of horseshoes, the contestants pitching toilet seats. The whole hillbilly thing: embrace the ignorance! The pleasure is that of becoming infantilized: we are small children again, at the enormous breasts of a loving Dolly. (Her latest album is called "Backwoods Barbie").

The food ("a 4 course extravaganza!"): all the Pepsi you can drink, potato soup, cornbread, a complete chicken for every plate, a slab of pork, baked potato, GMO corn-on-the-cob, and a flakey, fakey apple turnover. No flatware: you just dig right in with your greasy fingers, while whoopin' and hollerin' for either North or South. The experience did have its moments, I must admit.

Dolly thinks big. I was trying to imagine the original brainstorm and business plan for this dinner theater concept, and then I tried to imagine the Stampede kitchen, the life cycle of the 1000s of chickens and pigs, the lifestyles of the performers, the impact of Dolly Parton on the Smoky Mountains, or on country's all more than I could put into my head at one time, or into one blogpost, certainly. Dolly has a large reach in the social imagination, and a huge eco-footprint. One of the ways she's given back to the region is to help fund a proposed hospital and cancer center in nearby Seiverville, Tennessee, in the name of the physician who delivered her. During our trip to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, I kept wondering about hospital and health care for the thousands of people there, many of whom look as if they eat only the Standard American Diet (SAD) of sodas, nitrate-laced meats, empty carbs, trans fats, not too many plants, and lots of sugar (yes, that was our 4-course meal).

She also launched a literacy program for kids called Imagination Library; it now serves one out of every two children under the age of 5 in Tennessee, and has programs in other states, the UK and Canada. Children (and perhaps more importantly, parents) receive books in the mail each month until they are 5: the first one is my old favorite, The Little Engine That Could. (A perfect title for Dolly.)

Dolly Parton seems to have insight and a sense of humor about her own body and her cultural significance: she says "Don't let these false eyelashes lead you to believe/that I'm as shallow as I look/for I run true and deep." From the childhood home described as "a rustic, dilapidated one-room cabin in Locust Ridge, a hamlet just north of Greenbrier in the Great Smoky Mountains of Sevier County" (where she was the 4th of 12 children), to "country" dressed up as Dollywood, Dolly is nothing if not democratic. Just compare her childhood to that of the 13 offspring of Cornelius Vanderbilt, something Dolly probably did, growing up just over the holler from the 250-room Biltmore in Asheville. There's a story here about class (and Class) in America.

As Elma, Savannah's bus driver, put it while giving the choir a tour of the Smokys, "Dolly is a genuine, giving, kind-hearted woman, but she is very artificial." Interesting.

Here is Dolly singing "Jolene" in one of her early television appearances, in 1974:

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Road Trip to Food Co-ops in Lexington and Asheville

Ahhh...home again after an adventure. We took a little road trip behind the bus filled with Sounds of South choir kids, who were performing in Gatlinburg, Tennessee last Friday. Sav has collected a few hundred photos of the kids on the bus, in the town, and in the Smoky Mountains. Here is just one of some of the gang.

Andreas and I made our own meandering way, with a first stop in Lexington, Kentucky, where we had lunch at Good Foods Market and Café. We had a chance to visit my friend Anne Hopkins, the general manager, and Danielle Dove, the new marketing manager.

It's great to have a network of co-ops across the country, mixed in there with the Subways, Short Stops, Cracker Barrels and such. For a map and a list go to There's more to come: visit Food Coop 500 to learn how to start a food co-op in your community. There isn't one yet in Gatlinburg, only a very crowded and chaotic Food City.

We drove through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Asheville, North Carolina on Saturday to visit the sweet brick French Broad Food Co-op there, across the street from Laurey's, where the philosophy is "Don't Postpone Joy." It's right across from The Orange Peel, a Social and Pleasure Club, too: a nice scene there in Asheville, Cornelius Vanderbilt country.

In the rain on Sunday we circled back to Good Foods, where the café was hopping and the food was was fantastic. Kale, berry pudding, fresh butternut squash ravioli, lima beans with delicious herb can't find these things at the big boxes or chains.

All along the road (alongside the shops selling "Genuine Antique Reproductions") the redbuds and dogwoods were in bloom. It was the perfect moment for a trip to the Smokys – except for that endless bottleneck at the car show in Pigeon Forge!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Road Trip to Pigeon Forge and Beyond

We're just back from a 3-day road trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, through Pigeon Forge, where there was a huge car show on the main drag. I hardly know what to say about this, except that it is a fairly stunning experience to literally crawl through town in a traffic jam that lasts for hours, past hundreds of cars with their hoods up in the parking lots, their owners sitting on lawn chairs, just chatting and drinking sodas and watching the traffic inch past.

I saw a lot of orange vehicles and was reminded of the time when Jack was small when we used to play "Orange Car!" and get extra points for spotting one; they were so unusual. But not in Tennessee.

If I were more into cars, and wanted to buy a vintage vehicle of some kind, especially an orange car, then Pigeon Forge would be the place for me. As it was, I was more or less aghast, thinking about the impact of all of those vehicles and people on the surrounding environment.

Here's a video from YouTube (also at this link), with music by Throttlerod, "Hell and High Water," that gives you a sense of the Pigeon Forge Car Show. It was posted by Justin, self-confessed car addict, 20-year old store clerk at Kroger who also loves drawing pictures of cars. (He has posted a few videos of his car drawings, too.) The images in the video must have been taken near the beginning of the show (which ends on Tuesday), as they don't really show how absolutely jam-packed everything is there on the main drag of Pigeon Forge (and for miles and miles at each edge of town).

Yup, that's where we were. Yee gads, and yeehaw! It only takes a bit more than 4 minutes to watch the video, but it took as long as 4 hours (or more) to inch through Pigeon Forge the past few days.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

"Imprinting Place" by Erika Osborne

Here is another image from THE LAND/an art site, from the Given Take June 2008 installation curated by Erika Osborne, who also created the body map images, in her fascinating Imprinting Place series.
She writes:

The landscape marks us if we let it. If we bring to it our sensory awareness - our bare backs, our hands and our eyes. It is on these surfaces that Place scrawls its signature in clay, water and light. The record becomes ours, differing from person to person and place-to-place as it fuses with the baggage we carry with us to each vista. It morphs and smears with the cultural, intellectual and social overlays that make us who we are. The work becomes a collaboration between rock, back, sun and eye. It is a translation, fueled by connection.

The other map is by Devon Kovach, from the Take Back exhibit at THE LAND; it is reviewed here by David Leigh. There are interesting overlaps and relationships at THE LAND between the map and the territory.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

THE LAND/an Art Site

My friend Edite Cates, of La Montanita Co-op (an innovative community leader in Albuquerque, Gallup, and Santa Fe) is an artist who also runs THE LAND/an art site and THE LAND/gallery in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her husband Thomas Cates. To learn more, click over to their beautiful website, where I got these photos.

THE LAND/an art site, Inc., a non-profit organization, provides environmental artists with opportunities to work and exhibit in New Mexico, and works to promote awareness of environmental issues through the arts.

THE LAND maintains offices, a resource center and a gallery space in downtown Albuquerque, and a forty-acre outdoor site in the foothills of the Manzano Mountains devoted exclusively to site-specific, environmentally low-impact, land-based art.
THE LAND/an art site was established in 1998 and incorporated as a non-profit organization in 2000. Its mission is to promote environmental art by providing artists with a work site and exhibition space, and to educate the public about the environment through art.

THE LAND challenges artists to expand on the ideas and media that have traditionally defined environmental art, and introduces environmental art to a wide and diverse audience through exhibitions, workshops, lectures, readings, performances and conversations—in the process helping both artist and audience gain a deeper understanding of crucial environmental issues.

THE LAND's residency program is a unique resource for artists. Residents find the experience enriching, often in unexpected ways. Many have found it transformative, generating new ways of thinking about the environment, new forms to embody what they have discovered, and new and thought-provoking ways of bringing their ideas to others.

Friday, April 17, 2009

"A Senator Concedes" by Mike Finley

Apropos of yesterday's post, a poem by Mike Finley:


Every day a man rises and sets off to undo it,
some failure he barely remembers,

a phantom moment hiding in time.

These are the years he is in his prime,

his wisdom and courage fixed in the grin

he landscapes his life with:

the disappointment he feels in the world
he holds at arm's length, the odd fascination

for his mother's first name.

Somehow we never quite let it sink in

that the contests that mattered
have long since been over.

Today I want to walk home, stumbling,
my fists at my eyes,
sobbing all the way.


The author explains: "Yes, I wrote it in 1974. For several years it had a different title, 'A Politician in Retirement.' It was really about me, not a politician, but I felt naked having it that way, like I was foisting anguish on the reader, and so came up with the character. But this was in 1974."

This is the most haunting line of the poem, regardless of context, perhaps especially since it was written so long ago:

Somehow we never quite let it sink in/ that the contests that mattered/ have long since been over.

(I'm also curious about the poet's mother's first name.) Mike tells me that he has been "grandfathered in by the state poetry commission to write free verse in perpetuity without having to purchase the $8 annual license." He lives in St. Paul, where he is a writer for hire.

Norm came later, and he has yet to concede, despite increasing frustration on the part of voters. (When I first saw the poem's title on facebook I got excited and clicked over to CNN, only to learn that there's still more wrangling ahead.) "We will never know who won," says Norm.

Finley's facebook post also included this high school photo of Coleman, from that era when he was a young man speaking against the Vietnam war. One of the features of this contest has been a retrieval of images of the candidates when young: there's even a popular video of Al Franken prancing around as Mick Jagger, from the Franken and Davis years on Saturday Night Live. With Norm, it's the hair and that serious expression. (One of these two guys has a sense of humor; the other – not so much.)

Coleman has a history of cliff-hangers and close elections. This is from Wikipedia:

In April 2003, Coleman told a Capitol Hill reporter that he was a "99% improvement" over [Paul] Wellstone because he had a better working relationship with the White House. Many supporters of Wellstone were offended and felt that this was deeply insulting, and at least one member of Congress urged Coleman to apologize.[26] In 2004 Coleman campaigned for the chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), but was narrowly defeated for the post by North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole in a 28-27 vote.

Want more about Norm? There's even a weasel-meter website.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Watching the "Olds" in a Slow Election

To be honest, I haven't watched the news a lot lately. I've been paying attention to other things, averse to the stream of teabag-and-tax outrages over on the telly, where the headers sound more and more like tabloids.

Andreas often calls the news "the olds," and I sometimes have to agree, especially in the case of that molasses-slow election over in the great state of Minnesota.

Here's a firsthand look at the recount, by Jay Weiner (normally – and formerly – a sports writer) from back in December, in the MinnPost. Daughter Number Three, who brought the piece to my attention, describes it like this: "Weiner shares his thought processes as a reporter who's a neophyte at campaign coverage, but an old hand at reporting and covering the Twin Cities." She also posted a link way back in November that lets you see the ballots for yourself, to consider the issues involved in accepting or rejecting them. I've been impressed with the due diligence effort in Minnesota on this, the determination to get it right. (Uff da to all of those archival boxes.)

Give it up, Norm. This is a case of diminishing returns, in which Coleman looks less impressive with each passing day. Millions of dollars and hundreds of hours of dedicated human energy have already been spent on the recount. At this point, polls indicate that the majority of Minnesotans wish Coleman would concede. Time to pack away that archive – perhaps at the Walker Art Center, as an installation of paper that people can walk through, shred, and make into origami peace cranes? Put this particular election to rest.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Obama Breaks Through the Handshake Taboo

My nephew Andrew passed this along from Papua New Guinea, with this comment: "This is the most powerful photo in the series [of Obama in Europe]. Remember they are not supposed to shake hands, but the two brothers couldn't resist the historic moment. The black royal cop never imagined in his wildest dream that he would usher a black American president into the British corridors of power. Nice."

Click here to find A.A. Gill's op-ed,"Larger Than Life in London" from the April 4, 2009 New York Times, about the significance of this handshake. And here is George Packer's "Obamism" piece from The New Yorker on April 13th.

I like the photo, with the black fence as vertical grid coming up in between and behind "the two brothers."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Asleep, Paris" by Sheryl Noethe

I am standing in the streets of the Left Bank in Paris
watching the refugees paint a mural across the sides of
several buildings. It is called, The Exodus of Kabul
and to look at it makes you want to weep. Beside me
my friend wears black leather and sports a butterfly
tattoo on his throat. He reaches his arm behind me
and without touching me touches me deeply.
I am watching the movement of the colors, from the
stream of Afghani people out of the mural into Paris.
I look at the street signs and the buildings, the activity
of the Parisians and I say the same thing to myself
that I say each of these nights in Paris –
Memorize Everything.

I get a job in a bistro where I haul buckets
up huge stone steps from the basement.
I am a spectacular busgirl. Soon I am promoted to
hostess. I sashay table to table and never forget a
face. As my French improves I take reservations
over the phone. I do numbers, dates, last names.
I wake up in the morning repeating the days of the week.

I find a hotel that will rent me a bureau drawer to sleep
inside and that is my room. It tucks away. In the day
I can walk Paris memorizing street signs. I have a vague
concern that my flight home has left.

I sit at a table with an old lover and two women.
As dusk approaches the women pull long black scarves over their hair
& then the sky, too, is black. I awaken, saying, I will get a scarf.
In one gesture I will pull the sky across my hair.

I have a felt hat with two brims. It is the same purple as my lipstick.
I sit in a bar called La Pêche. The bartender winks at me.
I wink back at myself in the mirror. In my hand I hold
a brown paper bag full of cash. This time, Paris . . .
I step into the bathroom and wash my bare feet in the sink.

Outside it's raining. I see the bar's name in pink neon.
I look up into the dark Paris night and say impermeable.
There is a man at a cash machine who wears a brown hat and
trench coat. He is entirely familiar. Happily, I walk toward him.

I look up pêche in my French dictionary. Sometimes
it means peach, sometimes sin and it can also mean fish.
I look up impermeable. It means raincoat.
Party of two, Thursday evening, eight o'clock. Springtime. Here with me,
asleep, in Paris.

© Sheryl Noethe, from The Ghost Openings. Grace Court Press, 2000. Nancy Shapiro, publisher.
photo by Ricardo Bloch, from Amphibious Andromeda

Monday, April 13, 2009

Poisonchanging: We Shall Remain, from PBS

PBS will begin to air a 5-part series tonight called We Shall Remain. Billed as "a provocative multi-media project that establishes Native history as an essential part of American history," We Shall Remain is a television series with a community engagement component. It is a poisonchanging event: an attempt to make visible – and therefore transformative – the story of American Indian experience.

The pictures here are by Webb Chapell, from the photo gallery for the first episode, "After the Mayflower":

Left: Language consultant David White reviews lines in the Nipmuc language with Marcos Akiaten, who plays the Wampanoag leader Massasoit. White consulted with the producers when they were writing the script and later translated lines into Nipmuc for Akiaten and the other actors.

Right: Director Chris Eyre discusses a scene with actor Annawon Weeden, who plays King Philip. Weeden, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, is an educator in his community and is a traditional singer and dancer.

We Shall Remain is a project extending beyond the television show, with community events and coalitions that bring together Native organizations and tribes, libraries, historical societies, museums, schools and other groups, to plan and sponsor activities that promote understanding of local Native history and contemporary life.

The very rich website includes education materials, information about community events, and a Native Now section about tribal languages, sovereignty, and enterprise. There is also a Reel Native section with videos from Native Americans across the country. Tune in tonight!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter with Peeps and Tiny Creatures

Time for a holiday. We have a yard full of blooms now, and the kids are asking for one more Easter egg hunt, Jack's last year in high school. I'll be sending the kids over to Daughter Number Three to see a couple of highlights from the St. Paul Pioneer Press Peeps Video Contest, too. Here are the 302 entries to their Peeps Diorama contest, which you can view as a slideshow. Check those Peeps out (and watch out if you eat them)!

The little butter cream bunny here is from Etsy (of course) – fresh from the shores of Lake Michigan, where it was created by Liz, áká Two Left Hands. An interesting detail: somewhere on TLH's blog she mentions wishing that she could knit or crochet, like her Mom (who also has a shop, ohruthie), but couldn't, so she turned to making unique small sculptures. These include the fairy tale creatures pictured here, and some wonderful monsters. Terrific eye-hand coordination and original design for someone who has "two left hands" – I find her work to be very playful and endearing, with exceptional craftsmanship.

TLH's daughter, Humblebea, has a shop, too, selling handmade children's clothes, and HER son has joined in the fun, selling pocket books from an Etsy address called darksiderules. You can buy his original children's book about a little hamster named Ruby and her best friend Lily.

I'm telling you, people: so much more fun than Walmart or Target. Happy Easter to you and to all of those Michigan family crafters!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Poisonchanging, and Learning to Write

Lyle Daggett recently posted an essay on his blog, A Burning Patience, about the first poetry writing class he took, during the summer of 1970, between his sophomore and junior years of high school. The class was taught by poet John Caddy, together with St. Paul high school English teacher Dave Evertz.

Lyle writes about the experience of being young in those years:

The war in Vietnam was all over the news every day, was the great pervasive fact of life. All of the male students in the poetry class, and in the other classes in the summer program, would be draft age within three years, or two years, or a year. It was impossible to ignore, impossible not to think about, impossible not to have an opinion about. You would have to decide, you would have to act, somehow, or it would take your life.

That summer he learned how to write, developing a passion that has shaped him ever since, connecting him with writers and their words all over the world. I liked this memory from that first formative class:

And John told us, one day in class, a story from Hindu mythology, about poisonchanging, in which Krishna was said to have swallowed poison, and transformed it inside himself into divine song. The significance, or usefulness, of the story didn't really sink into me at the time, though I kept it with me, and over the years I've come to understand it as a useful metaphor for what poets are sometimes able to do -- to take the poisons and terrors of the world, and through the making of poems -- through telling the truth in poems -- change terrible experience into something good and beautiful and essential.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Thrills are Antwerp, Belgium on Maandag 23 Maart 2009

This should get your day off to a good start! Many thanks to Dotty for passing it along.

Imagine taking a morning train and chancing upon 200 dancers thrilling to the Sound of Music at Antwerp, Belgium's Central Station. They were promoting the Dutch TV version of In Search of Maria, a BBC production staged by the Belgian VTM network.

It's called "a super-choreographed flash mob," and it just might be one of the great achievements of the human species. Here's another version.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Don't Take the Diet Too Seriously: John Cage's 27 Sounds in the Kitchen

My brother's birthday two days ago
got me thinking about the composer John Cage. There are quite a few good videos of Cage on You Tube, and after watching a few, this is the one I selected for you: 27 sounds manufactured in a kitchen. Cage was an early Western adopter of a macrobiotic diet (following John Lennon and Yoko Ono) and he talks about that here, in an endearing way.

(No matter how many times I watch this, it always makes me laugh at the end. Whatever diet you follow, don't take the diet too seriously... and pay attention to the sounds you manufacture in the kitchen!)

There's also a 9:22 video of Cage on the tv show I've Got a Secret in January 1960, performing "Water Walk." At the time, he was teaching Experimental Composition at New School in New York City. He uses 5 radios in the piece, but wasn't able to turn them on because of a labor dispute about which of two unions should be allowed to plug in the radios (a detail that seems to please him, and he adapts, slapping the radios instead). The very end of the spot has some fun graphics advertising a companion show of that era, What's My Line? (I have to wonder if Betty and Don Draper, from Mad Men, caught John Cage on I've Got a Secret. My guess is that Bets would find it silly, or annoying – those damaged radios! – whereas Don might be intrigued, taking a long draw on his cigarette before wincing and smiling and packing some idea away in his ad man head.)

There's also a very cool film clip, from Dreams that Money Can Buy, a movie by Hans Richter, with a Marcel Duchamp film fragment (complete with a nearly-nude descending a staircase) and music by John Cage. Somehow these early avant garde pieces still seem relevant and compelling today. It's that uncanny mix of nostalgia for something that happened before my time (so that I missed it at its "moment") and the discovery of how fresh and forward-thinking the experimentation still feels. It's interesting to think about how artists keep playing with the same tropes and obsessions, in various media configurations. For Duchamp it was (partly) the nude, but a "new nude," a very conceptual one.

If you click on the Duchamp link above, you'll find a timeline that includes his Rotary Demisphere, the device used for the optical spheres in Dreams that Money Can Buy. You'll also see the 1941 Box in a Valise, the portable museum of Duchamp's works, reproduced in miniature as if for a salesman's briefcase. 20 copies were created; I saw one at the Text/Messages: Books by Artists show at the Walker Art Center last December. There's also a preview of The Quick and The Dead exibition (next spring) with an interview called "Simon Starling: Tiepolo and Duchamp."