Sunday, November 25, 2012

Critic's Notebook: Earless in Arles

Yesterday I strolled through the van Gogh exhibition currently at the Denver Art Museum, all the while dodging a large woman wheeling her personal mobility device strategically about the galleries like a free safety in a dodgy backfield. The rest of the field was silently absorbing the cultural flotsam of the museum's audio tour via headphones, so aside from the shuffle and squeak of shoes and the occasional cough, it was a quiet day with the artist.

I walked through, declining the headphones - partly out of respect for an artist who declined an entire ear, partly in gratitude for the DAM's exhibition materials which did not mention said ear at all . . .
 "Don't say anything about the ear."
. . . but mainly because I did not want artistic judgment prejudiced or otherwise disposed by biographical material or other nonformal considerations, being a confirmed formalist in my limited appreciation of the visual arts.

The museum's promotional materials featured the famous self portrait in the straw hat. I gather that Van Gogh, lacking funds to pay for models to sit, produced more than the usual artist's quota of self portraits, which may explain the "emotional intensity" noted in the exhibit placard near three such portraits, or what I suspect may also be a certain disgruntlement at having to sit there while painting his own portrait again.

Vincent's contemporary, Gauguin, of course, had the model problem all sorted out - just go to Tahiti where there's no currency, pick out some attractive naked women and, when you aren't painting them, sleep with them. No wonder Vincent, in his overcoats and hats and galoshes, looks  . . . tense.

The exhibition doesn't include the iconic large works like the "Sunflowers" or "Starry Night," but in concentrating on his artistic development and his peripatetic life it presents him as a human being with periods of normalcy - a small painting he gave his sister . . .

. . . his studiousness in combining Japanese landscape painting with French impressionism . . .

The implication in all of this is that van Gogh could paint, that in order to paint like this he didn't have to be crazy, and that talent and inspiration aren't the same as madness.

"Grass and Butterflies"

But who's to say, maybe it helped. The "divine afflatus" doesn't visit often. Most of us just stay at home and cut the grass to keep out the butterflies.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Nothing Secedes Like Secession

Gone forever the palmier days of the Nixonian era, when we were surprised to learn that there lived in our midst a "Silent Majority," an angry, scandalized, overtly religious and generally (we thought back then) elderly, white population. People who had no voice of their own, apparently (since silence was part of the brand), but who relied on the likes of Dick Nixon, Ed Meese, Ronald Reagan and Chuck Colson to speak their minds for them. Quieter times, if not gentler ones.

Forty years later, the din from this angry white mob of the disenfranchised is nearly as loud, grating and unrelenting as the Christmas music being piped into your local Super Wal Mart. And as night must follow day, the talk is of secession, evidently on the grounds that any collective decision taken in a putative if faltering democracy which does not accord with their own view of things cannot, ipso facto, have been a conclusion reached by a majority. What else but to voluntarily absent themselves from the Union and begin afresh with God's blessings and exclusive favor?

 Let's start over.

Secession petitions have appeared like a nasty rash on a White House website set up expressly to receive citizens' petitions. The petitions taken together have nearly 700,000 signatories - just about exactly the number of Texans able to write their own name on an important document such as an installment agreement for a 72-inch plasma screen TV for the rumpus room wall in the trailer. But no, in all fairness the petitions come from all 50 states, though most of them have originated, I suspect, from white bastions across the Swine Fever Belt. Guvunner Rick Perry is implicated in none of this current round of trash talk.

But they've convinced me, as I've mentioned before. I've become a states' righter almost overnight. Nothing secedes like secession, I say, so go for it and may God speed your efforts at nation building. I say this, not from any principle involving the rights of states, nor from any overarching poitical theory such as federalism, let's say, or the venerable Roman Catholic system of hierarchical pederasty. Nor do I entirely agree that a nation should be free to prepare its citizens for the 21st century by enforcing a strict regimen of creation science in its schools.

No, my agreement with the secessionists comes from a facile self-interest. First, the resulting federal budget surplus in this newly truncated nation of non-"real Americans" (or "unreal Americans"?) would enable us to build a veritable Utopian society - free high-speed rail, an excellent system of free universal health care, quality universal public education, superb roads, safe bridges, a no-fail power grid, disaster readiness, a courteous and efficient nationalized airline. In short, it would be a kind of reverse "Left Behind" in which everyone who's left behind gets all the good stuff ( you remember, all the "stuff" you voted for in the first place.)

And best of all, a friendly socialist pat on the ass in parting: the generous redistribution of all those newly released Social Security funds for liberal slackers and takers like me.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Lebowski Measure

Anyway, if you’d like to find peace on earth and goodwill, man, we’ll help you get started. Right after a little nap.    - from "Dudeism," the website of the Church of the Latter Day Dude

In this election just past I voted with the Dude (wherever He abides) and a majority of my fellow Coloradans on a ballot item to legalize the possession of marijuana for recreational use - an item I call the Lebowski Measure.

It only makes sense. After all, the only constituencies that will be disappointed will be the Zetas and the American medical marijuana cartels, all of whom are currently making fair money off the weed as an illegal substance or as a prescription drug. Legalization measures in California and Washington have been opposed not only by law enforcement and business groups, but by the medical marijuana industry and beer distributors as well. No surprises there.

I was talking about this with a Kansas friend just yesterday, who told me that the residents in his small rural community lying about 40 miles east of the state line are overjoyed. They'll be able to make the short drive into Colorado and buy without prescription an already ubiquitous opiate which remains illegal in 48 states. It occurred to me when he told me this that Colorado may yet become the light of the world, the city on the hill which cannot be hid, unless it just forgets for the moment where it is.

Here's the good news for the nation, the new Gospel. Colorado, you'll have noticed, is one of those square states in the middle of the continent. But in spite of having only four sides, it is bounded by six states, touches a seventh (Arizona) on its southwest corner, and is just a 40-mile skip across the Oklahoma panhandle from Texas, the eighth state in its immediate cultural orbit. (Come to think of it, I can't unreservedly recommend "skipping" if you happen to be in Texas.)

Colorado is, in short, perfectly situated to become the leaven in the otherwise formless dough that is America. When surrounding states come to calculate the amount of potential revenue disappearing annually into Colorado's official coffers, the sea change will be on its way. Soon enough, the entire country will be a nation of Latter Day Dudes, abiding in peace, freedom and harmony. 

Colorado the light of the world? Why not? What would you rather do for recreation? ("Oh, the usual. I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback.")

And finally, a handy, user-friendly Youtube guide to marijuana use, courtesy of the Seattle Police Department (seriously):

Friday, November 16, 2012

Duck Outruns Trout

I've spent the past few days down on the river once more, in brazen dereliction of my coveted post as head blogister, to conduct my private trout census, to get in one last sortie before winter sets about in earnest, and to observe the little negotiations and adjustments that Nature makes among her denizens to keep things humming along smoothly in their appointed orbits. I observed a little exchange worthy of record and comment.

The river flows reach their lowest point this time of year and the water is preternaturally clear, enough to read a standard credit card agreement in about six feet of current. The fish are correspondingly wary and difficult to approach; they avoid the still runs where they're easily spotted, they look askance from beneath the rougher water at my counterfeit comestibles, even more so than ordinarily. Success lies in finding that slender mean between their desire for privacy and their need to put on a bit of weight against the approach of winter. Float a midge larva or the right streamer down a riffle and you may come up with something.

Trust me

So between the clarity of the water, the low volume of the flow and any number of icthyophagic predators congregated for the fishing, the trout have a hell of a time of it until the ice sets in. Herons, kingfishers, the occasional overwintering eagle, flotillas of merganser, and local flyfishers like me are all looking for a few nice filets to pack home.

There is nothing, I had thought until now, faster than a spooked trout. Earlier in the day I'd been wading along down a smooth run of river in about two feet of crystalline water, surely no place for a trout, when I came face to face (so to speak) with a respectable fish lying stock still on the river bottom just at my feet, nearly invisible among the pebbles and moss. It lay there as still as death, probably no less surprised than was I. We looked at one another. I moved a foot closer. The trout kept still. I looked at it, it looked at the side of my stream boot. Again I moved my foot. It scooted off in a blur across the river bed.

Later, as I was standing in the stream casting an idle fly I spotted a little gang of three mergansers in their winter brown, hanging about a shallow riffle, probably six to eight inches of water running over a bed of river pebbles, the sort of rill no one bothers to fish unless they're a merganser, the sort of rill I have heard aspersed as an "unproductive riffle." One of them would go to the bottom of the rill, wait until it spotted a fish, then like a senator after a page it would rocket into the current, neck out, head submerged, ass in the air, legs churning along the bottom, kicking up a zig-zag rooster tail through the riffle at full bore until it came up with a four-inch trout, which it would display to its fellows and then down the hatch it went. Damnedest thing I ever saw, a duck outrunning a trout.

Friday, November 9, 2012

If All the White Folk Voted . . .

In the televised post-results chatter of election night Tuesday, Bill O'Reilly announced with the gravitas and bewildered sadness of a postcolonial anthropologist that, "it's not a traditional America anymore." What? We legalized pot? I shouted at my neighbor Zeno's television screen.

Traditional America (a trolling motor in every home)

“The white establishment is now the minority,” O'Reilly fumbled on, heedless of my expostulation. “And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama's way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?”

Hispanics, blacks and women, all wanting "stuff," all overwhelmingly voting Democratic to get it. Who could have ever guessed it would come to this, people with no shame voting for someone just to get stuff? Stuff like . . . uhhhh . . . jobs, contraception and health care, progressive tax laws, Social Security payments, public education, a modern public infrastructure, equitable voting rights? Just typical.

O'Reilly forgot to mention the 39 percent of the "traditional" (meaning "white") electorate who also voted outside its species for the incumbent. By contrast, Romney evidently offered the alternative of an ennobling ethical purity: "Vote for me and you'll get squat." Unless, that is, you qualified for his proffer of a tax cut.

An egregious case of not getting it, this weary befuddlement of O'Reilly's. Not surprising in one who, more often than not, seems to have just pulled his head out of an inconvenient anatomical constriction. Where has he been these last forty years? It's no great revelation to white Southerners that they've been in a minority for about four centuries, give or take. They can walk down any street and see that demographic arithmetic on parade.

 "Ah don't believe they'd take kindly to your dancing, son - you're a minority."

In fact, given the brisk import business in which Americans once indulged unencumbered by immigration laws, and from which the South in particular profited, it's one of those wonderful ironies of history that small-government, don't-tread-on-me states like Alabama should be so hell-bent on passing intricate laws that fall just short of criminalizing both immigration and minority voting.There are now nearly as many Indian-born and -trained citizens in the country as the poor native-born souls who work at places like Chick-Fil-A, those real honest-to-gawd Americans who, but for the teeming Asian hordes who stole their jobs, could be making good money as medical doctors, geneticists, biochemists, computer engineers and so on. No, Bill, it's not a traditional America any way you parse it.

I really have to wonder if all the eligible white people voted this time. It's possible that a goodly number of them were out monitoring the polls in minority-heavy districts where fraudulent (Democratic) ballots were most likely to be cast, or were demonstrating in other more graphic ways outside polling places, and just forgot to vote themselves.

Traditional American outside polling place

At least one traditional American we know of, one who would have cast a Republican vote, was in jail for tampering with Democratic voter registration forms and couldn't get to his polling place. And then of course there are all those evangelicals who placed the Kingdom of You-Know-Who before the Kingdom of Man and couldn't bring themselves to vote for the apostate Republican candidate. All this white recalcitrance in spite of the warnings of a Dallas pastor that a Democratic regime is "paving the way" for the antichrist, which I had always thought was Allen West, but he's a goner after this term. And he's white anyway.

Allen West

If you never left the rural Midwest, or if you were the semi-lucid nonagenerian resident caretaker at a Baptist church camp in Wisconsin or northern Idaho, you might still think that the U.S.A. is a white nation, founded by You-Know-Who for White Folk.

But even if, pace Bill O'Reilly, all the White Folk had left the polling places outside their own voting precincts alone, gone home and voted like they were supposed to, things would have come out pretty much as they did last Tuesday. Which just goes to prove that if you're a traditional American you can't count on democracy to work like it should.

Traditional Americans at play

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Why I Didn't Vote for Obama

I voted yesterday, Colorado being (at least to date) one of the remaining states in which mail-in ballots and early voting have not been declared fraudulent acts or outright sabotage. There is no dearth of presidential contenders among whom to choose so, Romney being a candidate beneath notice or consideration, the incumbent is not the only remaining electable option. I couldn't bring myself to vote for President Emperor Caesar, nor for Robert "The Naked Cowboy" Burck, nor, sorry to confess, the President himself.

I think that one can easily find reasons to vote for him: for ending the use of torture, for getting us out of Iraq on Bush's timetable, for having at least some inkling that we need a sound energy policy, for a willingness to raise taxes on wealthier citizens, for supporting the Dream Act for immigrants, or for insisting that quasi-religious employers provide all legal health coverage. Or just for not being Mitt.

(by DonkeyHotey)

I'm not one who rested his hopes on Obama in 2008 to change much of anything, so I'm not angry that a liberal will has been suborned by the dirt of the political process. He never claimed that he was a liberal, and despite the animosity and name-calling from an increasingly shrill American right wing, he isn't one. Nor do I think that Obama's failures can be entirely chalked up to a recalcitrant and wilfully bone-headed Congress, though there's something in that. Barack Obama made many campaign promises leading up to his election, has kept a very few, and has proven as opportunistic as politicians usually prove if they succeed at politics. In this I am neither disappointed, angered nor surprised.

There is, however, a list of crimes (none crimes of omission) that must be laid directly at the President's feet (a president whom I like personally, in the sense that we can like someone personally whom we've never met, in the same way as I hated Reagan, Bush, Cheney, John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales "personally"). My list may not be exhaustive but each is an ethical deal-breaker for me:

1. Foreign policy conducted by drones on innocent villagers half a world away, a policy which in the hands of G.W. Bush would have rightly been labeled racist.

 Victim of 2009 U.S. drone flight, Waziristan

2. Unprecedented use of the 1917 Espionage Act in the prosecution of government whistleblowers while at the same time sanctioning strategic information leaks by high ranking personnel (the Seal Team 6/bin Laden and the Anwar al-Alaki episodes being cases in point).

3. Unprecedented deportations of immigrants which is quickly, among many other consequences, cementing a police security state.

4. Unwarranted and illegal surveillance of citizens and unprecedented use of National Security Letters to obtain information against citizens neither accused nor suspected of wrongdoing, which is quickly cementing a police security state.

5. Unprecedented prosecution by Obama's Justice Department of Muslim Americans who decry national policy in the Middle East, including the use of drones and our no-fault policies with Israel, which is quickly cementing a police security state in which free speech rights under the First Amendment are being routinely violated. This includes the arrest and indictment of Jubair Ahmad, a 24-year-old Pakistani legal resident living in Virginia, charged with “providing material support” to a designated Terrorist organization (Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT)).

6. Arrogating the power to kill anyone, including American citizens, without accusation, due process, or legal remedy. Case in point: Anwar al-Alaki and his teenage son.

7. Signing into law the National Defense Authorization Act, thereby arrogating the power to arrest and indefinitely detain anyone, including American citizens, without accusation, due process, or legal remedy. The Justice Department is currently pushing back hard and with some success in spite of previous legal setbacks, in the suit brought against the President by Chris Hedges which correctly claims the act is unconstitutional.

8. Refusing the rights of due process and legal redress to the inmates of Guantanamo, many of whom are not guilty of crimes, while insisting that Guantanamo remain in operation, and backing down in the face of outcry when anyone suggests its inmates should have speedy civil trials.

9. Putting in place Tim Geithner to manage the TARP bailout money, which Congress allocated to help underwater homeowners and which Geithner openly and avowedly used to help the banks ("foaming the runway" for the banks, as he notoriously phrased it). And for being generally indebted to Wall Street and hence, in the end, a foe of any meaningful regulation of banking, which to this moment remains unregulated.

There is also the unmistakeable element of idealism mingled with disappointment in my vote. It is a symbolic act, an unwillingness to participate any longer in a political charade that is, at its core, corrupt, all the players bought and paid for. I'm not recommending my course of action to anyone. I'm too old to have to pick a lesser evil. It's time to work on my kharma.

End note: You might want to consider the sage advice of MSNBC's Chris Matthews of the large forehead, who explains here that democracy means only two choices. Only 'idiots,' he assures us, vote for 'numbskull' third-party candidates. Otherwise . . .  who knows what might happen?

A Dog Ate My Television

It's been more than a month now since I sequestered myself under the bed - slunk off to catch fish for a while and then, like a migrant laborer, off to work the pecan harvest in Kansas, unwilling to drive along the blogistrada among a local punditry intoxicated by the current campaign cycle. Weak of me, perhaps. Truth be told, I just crawled back out into the light of day thinking it must be the seventh when it's only the sixth. In any case it's all nearly over. I'm still trying to decide whether to vote for Crossroads GPS or Priorities USA Action. Running out of time, I know, but running out of time is what I intended to do when I crawled under the bed.

"We buy previously owned politicians"

I have probably, in the course of this dreary and acrimonious affair, seen no more than three campaign ads on television. This is not as inhuman a feat as it may seem at first blush, given that I haven't owned a television this last quarter-century. This singular deprivation has the advantage of sparing me all the silliness of both the election cycle and the "holiday" season. For the same reason I don't see campaign ads I also don't have to listen to Christmas carols, unless I inadvertently open one of those godawful electronic Christmas cards and am illegally assaulted with a tinny rendition of "Do You Hear What I Hear?"  (Now I think of it, I'm going to get one of those little lapel pins that reads "Ask me about my 'War on Christmas'.")

Christmas card depicting human playing with dinosaur

The only time I really miss having a television is during the running of the Tour de France, the pharmaceutical trade show that occurs each July in France, whence the name. It isn't as though I never watch television, which in the modern American landscape is as ubiquitous and unavoidable as second-hand smoke at a Russian Orthodox pig roast.

I spend enough time watching the telly in hotel rooms to understand that I still don't want one and that much of what passes as political commentary these days is often just the geniuses at MSNBC assaulting the geniuses at Fox News for some recent idiocy, and vice versa. The media has increasingly become its own news, which allows what was once called "the Fourth Estate" to studiously avoid examination of any difficult civic and international issues like sane gun laws, sane energy policy, climate change, anti-Islamic bigotry in evangelical America (cf. sane gun laws), unlawful surveillance of citizens, unlawful undeclared wars, or in general anything it didn't take away gratis in the free tote sacks they hand out to reporters at a White House press conference.

It used to be that politicians could just make up some sentimental stuff about morning in America and be elected, then reelected . . . 

They could remain, in a word, gentlemanly, if a bit short on ideas. Nowadays gentlemanliness is a liability and what they make up is generally any ad hominem nonsense just short of matriphagia*, for example. (*Cooking and eating your mother. OK, but it ought to be in the dictionary, someone has done it before.)

That our political candidates should be short on ideas at such a critical juncture is many things - pathetic, dismaying, unpardonable. The fact that we have a vice presidential contender who thinks Ayn Rand was a philosopher simply points up the utter collapse of public education, something I meant to mention earlier.