June 12, 2004

Gimme Shelter.

Tonight, we watched Gimme Shelter, a movie I saw when it came out in 1970, when I didn't know anything about the Maysles Brothers but loved the Rolling Stones. Today, it was more the Maysles Brothers than the Rolling Stones that led me to choose this film. I love Grey Gardens, and all of us who were making the selection love Salesman.

You might have heard the NPR piece on the Criterion Collection this morning. If not, listen to it here. Gimme Shelter is a nice glossy Criterion DVD. The extra scenes made me a little mad at the movie on behalf of the great Tina Turner, who toured with the Stones during the period of the filming and who is featured in the film doing one song, with extremely lascivious mannerisms, followed by a short clip of Mick Jagger watching her on film, then saying something like "It's nice to have a chick sometime." One of the omitted scenes, however, is a long sequence of Mick sitting with Tina (and Ike) looking at a magazine, hanging out, having a warm relationship. Mick plays guitar for a long time, playing quite well, in the style of Robert Johnson, and seeming almost puppylike in his desire for the approval of Ike and Tina. (Too bad they didn't get Ike Turner to do a commentary track on that scene. I would like to know what was going through his head at the time.)

Actually, I'm mad on behalf of Mick too, then--as if he needs my support!--because the edited film made him seem piggish toward Tina Turner, when, judging from the unused scene, he was very sweet with her. In fact, the whole film was edited to feature the Altamont concert, rather than the whole tour, and to make it seem that the Stones' music and the inherent destructiveness of the hippie movement were responsible for the murder and violence that occurred that night, because, of course, dramatically that makes a much better story than the truth, which seems to be that the Rolling Stones were disserved by the lawyers and others who handled the crowd control and security arrangements.

Plausiblethan theories about the sanity of Ralph Nader.

Proof that I read Jeremy's theories seriously: I paused to think about the meaning of the word "plausiblethan." A portmanteau word combining plausible and Elizabethan, suggesting the sort of assessment of plausibility that duped people in Shakespeare's day? See, this is why I'm a slow reader. I'm always stopping. If I had just glided along, trusting that meaning would take form...

So, the issue is whether Nader is crazy or lying or both when he says he will take more votes from Republicans than Democrats in the coming election. Jeremy initially went with lying, and I had said a liar would have to be crazy to go with such an unbelievable lie, so even if he's lying, he's still crazy. Jeremy correctly notes that the sane liar only needs to be believable to the subgroup of listeners he hopes to trick, so we should judge Nader's sanity by whether it's believable that potential Nader voters could believe that most of the Nader votes are coming from Republicans. Maybe people with any potential to vote for Nader--as a sane Nader would know--are starry-eyed and eager to believe things that will allow them to ignore the downside of voting for him. I could buy this. I note that Democrats are often pointing to the large number of working class Americans who vote Republican when they should be voting Democratic, who have misassessed where their interests lie. Maybe something keeps them away from the Democrats that would not block them from tumbling over to Nader. I could almost believe this as a long term strategy or as something that could happen with the right third party (but not something that Nader could do this year).

Jeremy also asserts in Nader's case in particular it might even be sane for Nader to think that he only means to dupe a subgroup of people who will be satisfied with the belief that Nader believes what he's saying. Under this theory, Nader rationally believes his voters only need to believe that their man isn't a liar and that he isn't knowingly helping Bush, and that they don't mind if their man is out-of-touch with reality. This version of Nader is quite unpleasant, but not all that megalomaniacal, because he's now only aiming at manipulating a small group of fairly odd ideologues.

Jeremy concludes with this statement:
I am amazed at the extent to which people are still willing to accept the idea that Nader is being sincere when he says he wants to see Bush out of office, and that he somehow just doesn't grasp how much damage his own campaign could do to the prospects of that happening. I think the available evidence is much more consistent with the idea that Nader knows full well he was a spoiler in 2000 and is not going to do anything to avoid being a spoiler in 2004.

I agree! And I certainly think he is lying when he denies that he doesn't mind spoiling it for the Democrats. If he were only trying to get the votes of the small subgroup of American voters who, like him, think the Democrats are so conservative that it's acceptable or even beneficial to leave the Republicans in power, then he wouldn't need to claim that he's taking more votes from Republicans. He could just say the Democrats deserve to lose votes to him unless they reframe their platform. But he doesn't say that, presumably because there are not enough hard-line ideological voters to make him a significant third party candidate. He'd just be another one of the fringe candidates who get no press.

June 11, 2004

Pretzels and free will.

As I was grading bluebooks in the café at Borders today, two little girls sat down at the next table. Each had a glass of water and a package of pretzels.
GIRL A: Tell me a story. 
GIRL B (the older child, in an adult tone of voice): When I was a baby, I loved to look at my mobile. And I slept a lot ...
The girls are both daintily dipping their pretzel sticks in their water before taking bites. They seem to be imitating an adult they have seen dipping a cookie in coffee. A woman sits down at their table and says to Girl B, "I told you about good pretzel manners." Girl A then proceeds to dip her pretzel in water and the woman takes Girl A's water and pretzels away, which the girl thinks is unfair. The girl had assumed that she had the advantage over Girl B for a moment and was free to dip until she was directly told not to.
WOMAN: You heard me tell [Girl B] and you made the decision to disobey.
Girl B still has her pretzels and water, which she now consumes, observing pretzel manners. After a few minutes, she says, "I love pretzels." Girl A immediately says, "I do too," and the subject of whether the woman has treated Girl A fairly continues--"You're being mean"--with the woman absolutely sticking to her decision to keep the pretzels and water from the girl who, after all, "made the decision to disobey," or, more accurately, decided to act on the theory that the general rule did not bind her and that a warning would precede any loss of privilege. The little girl is perhaps 5 years old, and the woman is clearly committed to teaching personal responsibility. As they get up to leave the girl puts her finger on a crumb on the table and pops it in her mouth. With the woman almost out of hearing range, she declares her small victory: "I ate the pretzel crumb!"

The view from Madison.

It's another damp, cool summer day here in Madison. My lewd front-yard mushrooms have re-sprouted. My overgrown hedge is now clipped, but swarming with mosquitoes. It's a good day to hole up inside and make the big push to get my Conlaw exams graded. Monday is the deadline, finally close enough to call up the mental powers that my brain keeps firmly in reserve, try as I might to tap into them earlier. Monday is also the first day of the 5-week summer session I will be teaching to a group--I don't know how large--of students who feel motivated for one reason or another to tackle the course in 2-hour sessions beginning at 8 am, four days a week. How strange it is to cover 5% of the material each day, to wrap one's mind around Marbury not in a week but a day. But we will do it! Instead of just bumbling into the summer day around 10 am, class will already be over, and a sense of accomplishment will cast a golden glow over the rest of the day. (See? I'm an optimist).

So, time for me to engage with some bluebooks. May I recommend the other Madison bloggers over there in the sidebar? Gordon (Venturpreneur) is currently blogging from Germany, and Tonya's blogging from Italy. Nina is now in Madison, as is Jeremy, and both of them have changed the look and the content of their blogs recently. Nina is tapping the rich material of her childhood, growing up in Poland in the 1950s (here, for example), and Jeremy is taking on Ralph Nader ("He may have a monomaniacal narcissistic mental world, but it's not a monomaniacal narcissistic fantasy world")(and scroll up if "Arkanoid" is a topic of interest to you).

UPDATE: John takes issue with Jeremy's assessment of Nader's contact with reality. Let's assume Nader means to lie, as Jeremy contends, when he says "I think I'm going to take more votes away from Republicans than from Democrats." John pointed out that it's such a ridiculous thing to say that even a liar would only say it if he was out of touch with reality.

I've heard two writers recently make the same observation about the difference between writing fiction and writing nonfiction: fiction has to be plausible (and is therefore harder to write). (The writers, heard on C-Span, were Tom Clancy and Tom Wolfe.) The same goes for lying: it has to be plausible. Deliberate liars who are in touch with reality will say believable things. Otherwise, why bother to lie?

June 10, 2004

Is there something vaguely contemptible about people

who listen to the radio to hear classical music? NPR's own research seems to suggest so, as reported in this Weekly Standard article. In contrast to the "citizens of the world," the "NPR Activists," who want to hear talk, the research labeled classical music listeners "Classical Monks":
Classical Monks use the music format to attain an internal state, soothing and calm, intensely personal. NPR Activists use information from NPR News to guide their relations with other people in their community and around the globe. . . . NPR Activists love analysis and debate. More talk is better, if that talk informs their understanding of global issues. . . .

Classical listeners enter a dream world with images of paradise.

The NPR newsmagazines keep reminding us of the real world, with its social conditions, environmental changes, and economic forces. . . .

Classical Monks seek an emotion derived from the aesthetic. NPR Activists think that reason and logic, on the basis of solid information, can lead to the perfection of mankind.

The classical listener values lone serenity. NPR fans are the most politically active segment of the population.

In short: "The portal to NPR news is through the intellect ... The portal to classical music is emotional. ... Classical listeners use the station for gratification of their private, internal needs."

This addresses only the preference for classical music over news and news analysis, but it seems to imply a more general attitude of seeing politics and the political life as preferable to art and the aesthetic life, public life as preferable to personal life, and reason as preferable to feeling. This set of preferences is itself a distinctive and harsh political opinion. It is an opinion I strongly disagree with, even though I don't think classical radio particularly deserves taxpayer support, and I'm one of those people who switch stations when Morning Edition gives way to Morning Classics.

ALSO: News and politics have emotional appeal to the people who engage with them. News junkies are scarcely purely intellectual. And music, especially classical music, has deep appeal to reason and the intellect. So even if it were true that reason was superior to emotion, it would not necessarily mean that news programming was superior to music programming.

Good-bye to Ray Charles.

What a great, great singer. It's crying time.

"Now that skulls are getting more mainstream...

"... the ones I'm buying are getting creepier and creepier." I found that quote pretty interesting. Where does it appear and who said it? It appears in this month's Lucky magazine and is said by the magazine's creative director (referring to her favorite jewelry pattern). Lucky is a completely mainstream fashion magazine, in case you don't know. The lead cover story, for example, is the thoroughly banal "Thick Lashes: Make Your Eyes Look Huge." But fashion magazines season their crushing banality with their special kind of insanity. The most ordinary products--a handbag, a pair of shoes--are labeled "Our Obsessions." Lucky's fashion director explains how she feels about buying camisoles like this: "I'm powerless against the allure of anything little and strappy and lacy."

I would like to see a movie about a fashion magazine in which the editors actually had the feelings that the pages of the magazine portray them as having. The closest thing we have to that is the wonderful "Absolutely Fabulous." To a lesser extent, "Sex and the City" brings to life the surreal, imaginary people portrayed in fashion magazines.

(And check out the winners of the Ab Fab lookalike contest.)

June 9, 2004

Nancy Reagan at the state funeral.

How strange it must be to be Nancy Reagan today, after all these years out of the public eye, tending to the man who no longer even knew he had been the President. The tiny woman in a little black dress is standing at the arm of a carefully dressed, white-gloved soldier, surrounded by all the grand trappings of a state funeral. On the other side of the ropes are the regular Americans, huge crowds in sloppy shorts and T-shirts, pointing cameras at her and just shouting out, "We love you, Nancy!"

Sixties songs and The Sopranos finale.

Since songs of the sixties became a theme of this blog today, let me say the one thing I wanted to say about The Sopranos season finale. When Tony was on his long walk home, he stops and sits on a step outside an elementary school, and you can hear a classroom full of kids singing. The song they are singing is "Mr. Tamborine Man." I'm not sure what that might have been intended to add to the meaning of the episode, but it would be really weird if an elementary school chorus really had to learn "Mr. Tambourine Man," which, by the way, was one of the key songs identified as being about drugs by Time Magazine in a widely discussed mid-60s article (the one that ripped the childlike innocence away from "Puff the Magic Dragon").

Here are the "Mr. Tambourine Man" lyrics that might refer to Tony's long walk home in the snow (with my comments in brackets):
There is no place I'm going to.... [He does have somewhere to go, but maybe in some deeper sense, he's lost.]

My weariness amazes me ... [Literally true.]

I have no one to meet ... [Because Johnny Sack just got arrested.]

And the ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming.... [That sounds like New Jersey, right?]

My toes too numb to step ... [Because he just had to wade in very cold water.]

wait only for my boot heels to be wanderin'...[He's stopped to rest.]

Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind ... [Possible reference to Tony's fainting problem.]

A good explanation for this song appearing in this episode, however, is probably that the people making the decision to use it are aging baby boomers like me, and these 60s songs have tremendous appeal for us. (I note that they recently ended an episode with "I'm Not Like Everybody Else"--my favorite Kinks song.) Or, better: Tony is an aging baby boomer, he would have been a kid in the sixties, so he'd like the same pop songs that the baby boomers watching the show remember loving when they were young. This goes with the big theme of the show: how weird it is that Tony's a mob boss but he's also an ordinary person.

Speaking of lyrics puzzled over in the 60s...

There's also this article about Paul McCartney suddenly admitting that all the Beatles songs that weren't supposed to be about drugs really were. (Link via Andrew Sullivan.) I think the key observation here is: "though McCartney may be one of the most famous people in the entire world and of all time, he still has this need for attention." How can Paul McCartney be so great and still seem like such an idiot? Sure, admitting to drug references in the old Beatles songs can get you some new press, but you just look bad contradicting John Lennon about "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" when it's his song and he's dead, and you make one of your own great songs less great when you say, "A song like 'Got to Get You Into My Life,' that's directly about pot, although everyone missed it at the time." So he wasn't really madly in love with a woman there? It was pot he was addressing when he sang "I need you every single day of my life." That may answer the question how McCartney got to be such an idiot.

UPDATE: John--my son John--emails:"'Got to Get You Into My Life' is obviously about drugs: 'I was alone, I took a ride, I didn't know what I would find there/ Another road where maybe I could see another kind of mind there.' John Lennon also said he thought it was about drugs. It doesn't 'make the song less great' to admit it."

MORE: Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties, page 154, footnote 2: "In 1980, Lennon made the strange observation that he thought the lyric [to "Got to Get You Into My Life"], which he particularly liked, referred obliquely to McCartney's belated experience of LSD." By comparison, William J. Dowlding's Beatlesongs, page 146, quotes Paul, re "Tomorrow Never Knows": "That was an LSD song. Probably the only one."

The professor and the calypso singer.

The NYT reports on Christopher Ricks, a 70-year-old poetry professor who's written a 500-page book analyzing the lyrics of Bob Dylan songs and is taking the whole mass of verbiage deadly seriously. He takes the concerts awfully seriously too:
Dylan concerts have a particular beauty and also a certain sadness, he explained, because Mr. Dylan himself is the one person who has to be at a Dylan concert and also the one person who can't go to a Dylan concert. "It's sad," he said, "the way it's sad that Jane Austen couldn't read a Jane Austen novel."

I thought a lot about the meaning of Dylan lyrics when I was a teenager. When I got a little older, I still liked the songs but thought a lot of the lyrics were chaotic ramblings that were often entrancing but had no real meaning to give up. But this professor was already an adult when Dylan arrived on the scene and he's been taking this stuff seriously since 1968, when some Smith College dinner party host imposed "Desolation Row" on him. The line "Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot/Fighting in the captain's tower/While calypso singers laugh at them" got his attention. He was already a poetry professor when that struck him as "wonderful" and "great." Interesting, I think, that the "calypso singers" were laughing at the fighting poets, isn't it? You'd think the poetry prof would identify with the poets, yet the poets appear as the object of ridicule. Perhaps the "calypso singer" would have seemed to be Dylan himself, laughing at the fighting of two serious poets, poets in a tower, and the 34-year-old poetry prof would have felt that he had been spending his life struggling over serious poetry in his ivory tower and that perhaps the "calypso singer" was laughing at him too. That's my speculation about how the old prof was seized by a deep passion for Dylan.

The book is called "Dylan's Visions of Sin."

UPDATE: And I bought the smitten professor's book. Borders had to pull the book out of the back room. "It just arrived two days ago." If I ran a bookstore, I'd make damn sure I knew what books were talked up in the morning paper and put it right out on the shelf where people will see it. Who knows how many shy people walk out without asking for a book they came in to buy? "Dylan's Visions of Sin"? I was almost too embarrassed to ask, for a number of reasons. (I'm still looking for the meaning of life in Dylan lyrics, like a teenager? Visions? Sin? It's all too pompous and ridiculous!) Now I know I sound like I'm making fun of the book throughout this post, so why did I buy it? This is a case where I can tell you the exact sentence I read that made me decide to read the book. It appears at the top of the second page, in the introductory chapter, as the author explains why he decided to use the seven deadly sins as the framework for his discussion of Dylan's lyrics. This is a paragraph of Ricks', with no quotation marks to show where the Dylan lyrics are:
She opened up a book of poems and handed it to me, written by an English poet from the fourteenth century: Handling Sin. Handling sin is for me the right handle to take hold of the bundle. My left hand waving free.

So that last sentence is what got me. I'm utterly charmed by the old professor talking about Dylan, seamlessly weaving in the words he loves.

Madison coffeehouses.

The WSJ--Wisconsin State Journal--has a nice article on Madison cafés, specifically the nine cafés in the area between Library Mall (the campus end of State Street) and the state capitol building (the other end of State Street). Well, really just the seven that aren't Starbucks, because Starbucks has a policy against media interviews not pursued through the proper corporate channels. That provided a convenient excuse to the WSJ to leave them out, which they probably wanted to do anyway.

The reviews of the seven cafés betray a Madison sensibility: they tell you whether the coffee is "fair trade," but not how it tastes. Well, they just didn't do a taste test, so do that yourself. They tell you who goes there ("sketchy intellectuals," striking TAs, Ani DiFranco, theater crowds, government workers, Farmers' Market shoppers) and even who sits where (graduate students in back, undergrads in front). And they tell you about the music (e.g., at Michaelangelo's they let the staff bring in the music, so you're hearing whatever someone who happens to be working there at the time happens to like). You can also see what food there is and whether there's WiFi (there is, at all but two).

Did they really need Starbucks' permission to report this information? I think they just wanted to make Starbucks look like unfriendly corporate clods. The suggestion, as usual, is that you shouldn't go there because they aren't locally owned. I think Starbucks should be compared on the quality of the place (music, seating, other customers) and the drinks and food. Not doing so gives the impression it is actually better than the locally owned places, when in fact it isn't.

June 8, 2004

Michael Moore as tip inducer.

So I go to Fair Trade Coffee House for a little coffee and blogging. Which reminds me: the Wall Street Journal has a nice front page article today about how "[s]ome food retailers tout 'fair-trade' programs that pay struggling farmers in poor countries more than market rate for commodities like coffee, bananas and chocolate. While the farmers benefit, retailers often gain by charging huge markups." I read in the paper version but can't link to because it's only for subscribers, but it was interesting to learn that the coffee growers in the program receive 44 cents per pound over the regular price for coffee, but some stores charge $4 more per pound to customers who fork (spoon?) over the extra money thinking all the extra is going for the good. They even think more of the retailer that is engaging in this scam because it looks like they care about the growers, when in fact, they are using the sympathetic image of the growers to grotesquely overcharge! Nice little game, which would be more exposed if the page was open to nonsubscribers.

But the coffee here at Fair Exchange doesn't seem more expensive than elsewhere. I'm drinking a plain cup of black coffee, and as usual, I dump my change in the tip jar. The tip jar here has a cut-out photo of Michael Moore, with outstretched arms, attached to the top of it.

"Aren't you worried that picture of Michael Moore is going to make people who don't like him tip less?"

"Well, it might make people who like him tip more."

"Maybe the theory is that conservatives will just tip anyway, but left wingers need an extra incentive to tip. It could be read as insulting to lefties, that they won't tip enough unless you play up to their political preferences."

"That's a good theory."

But really, isn't it more conservative to think that you contribute in proportion to your assessment of who deserves it and more liberal to think that everyone ought to give a generous amount without passing judgment? That is, conservatives would do more through charity and liberals through taxing?

UPDATE: My readers may have noticed that I have a way of calling the café in question Fair Exchange and Fair Trade with about equal frequency. Sorry. It's Fair Exchange. "Fair Trade" is the name of the program designed to give growers a larger share of the coffee selling proceeds. INCREDIBLY LAME FURTHER UPDATE: The name of the café is Fair Trade! Let's just say it's not a sufficiently memorable name ... and I'm an idiot!

Optimism overload.

The massive news coverage of Ronald Reagan's death is understandable and not inappropriate, but is it necessary to talk about optimism every ten seconds? Personally, I love optimism and am optimistic, but every time I turn on the television, someone's talking about Reagan's optimism. It's enough to make you want to start saying cynical things. I see Christopher Hitchens is doing his part. And Mickey Kaus relays comments of his readers about how Reagan didn't seem too sunny when he appeared on the political scene in the 1960s. I was a college student when Reagan was the governor of California, and I vividly remember how my peers saw Ronald Reagan in those days, when he would appear on TV denouncing the student demonstrators of the era. He seemed scarily nasty to us, then. Kaus offers three possible explanations for why Reagan's image changed so much:
1) The Sixties--you'd be feisty and defensive too if you were a conservative running in the Summer of Love, with the left visibly ascendant and hippies running amok, etc. 2) You almost have to maximize your likability* if you are running a national political campaign, as Reagan was from the mid-1970s on; 3) Everybody seems nastier and more Jack Webb-like in old TV and radio clips, including the reporters. Edward R. Murrow, what an a-----e! And that grumpy old Mr. Cronkite. People just presented themselves differently in public then. More Humphrey Bogartish and Gary Cooperesque. Today everyone you see on TV is coached to be "happy to be here" and nobody laughs at Washington Week's Jeff Birnbaum forcing himself to grin like a raver on Ecstasy. The median has shifted dramatically niceward--but Reagan was genial back then, by the standards of the day. ...

Well, Kaus is right that people spoke differently on TV back then. I've noticed that they spoke much faster and included many more specific facts along the way. Were they a lot less genial? Look at old clips of Hubert Humphrey. (I recommend this.) He was the source of many jokes for being overly happy and ebullient. And he doesn't seem abnormal by today's standards. And as late as 1976, smiling a lot seemed a bit weird: Jimmy Carter was the example of that. Bob Dole carried on the Bogartish attitude into the 90s--and, I guess, it's easy to see how people found Bill Clinton so much more appealing. But, in my opinion, Reagan really did redo his demeanor. I'd like to see some of the old clips of Reagan scolding the student demonstrators that disturbed us so much in the 1960s. Maybe it wouldn't seem so bad now. But it seemed really bad then.

That asterisk in explanation #1 relates to John Kerry, and the post above the "transit of meanness" one examines Kerry's attempts to seem optimistic (because free-flowing optimism appears to have become a requirement for the presidency). Kaus makes fun of Kerry's hopelessly dreary speaking voice and asks: "Isn't it better to lower expectations in the Cheering Optimism department and focus on a nuts-and-bolts, no-BS jockish competence?" I agree that the candidate (unless he has unusual vocal skills like Reagan's) shouldn't try very much to change his speech. It will sound fake. And I think Kerry is most likely to grow on us if he doesn't try very hard. Don't talk to me, just be there--a sane, competent, good person. As for optimism: it's not instilled by looking cheerful and making assertions of positivity. Remember that the most damaging images of Nixon were the ones with the awkward grin, and that Nixon won the presidency after his aides hit upon the idea: "let Nixon be Nixon." So, let Kerry be Kerry.

There has been way too much banal optimism this past week. It's mindless, and it causes a backlash of cynicism. In fact, one of the things that makes me feel optimistic is the way people react with cynicism when they are fed too much optimism by politicians.

Back in Madison.

Ah! I'm back in Madison! No matter where I travel, I'm always happy to come home. I'm happy to hear so many birds singing this morning, to know there will be cafés on every block (great little cafés where you can get a big cappucino and sit down at a little table and read or blog for a long time), and to be in easy range of so many huge, fully-stocked bookstores. I don't want to complain about New York City, but the only real bookstore I ran into was a shabby Barnes & Noble that was laid out like a mall Waldenbooks. And where are the cafés? The reviewers in the Zagat guide bitch about Starbucks being "on every corner," but the guide only lists ten locations. I think there are that many in Madison (along with numerous nonStarbucks places). On the Upper East Side, there aren't any unless you go as far east as Lexington. So let's say you're staying in a hotel on 5th Avenue, going to museums on 5th and Madison, shopping on Madison Avenue over a range of 20 blocks: you will not see a single Starbucks! There are restaurants, but nowhere to buy a coffee and just hang out and read. And nowhere to buy books! So I'm happy to be back in this place of the books and cafés that are so much a part of everyday life.

By the way, I picked the hotel in NY--the Stanhope Park Hyatt--in part because of its beautiful sidewalk café. But why aren't there sidewalk cafés on every corner? Probably because they aren't profitable enough to meet the high rents. The hotel's café probably makes economic sense because it draws people, like me, to the hotel, where money will be extracted in other ways (e.g., $17 a day for internet access).

UPDATE: Chris emails to say there are a lot more than 10 Starbucks stores in NYC and points to this official store locator. There are 142 (but still only 10 listed in Zagats, which refers to other locations). But note that within the big East Side rectangle bordered by Central Park on the west, 57th Street on the south, Park Avenue on the east, and the end of the island on the north, there is not a single Starbucks! In other words, you have to leave the nice part of the East Side and get over to Lexington before you'll find a Starbucks! Oh, and don't try to find a Starbucks anywhere--east or west--above 81st Street! And there are 7 in the Madison area. Actually, in proportion to the population, the numbers are pretty similar. The difference is that in the areas in Madison where you'd be out walking along, shopping or taking a break from work, the stores would be very available. And there would be many other cafés as well. ADDED: And as Nina notes in email, the city Starbucks stores really don't offer the best atmosphere for sitting around and reading or working. People who think they do have not been exposed to enough cafés.

AND ANOTHER THING: I refer to the many "huge, fully-stocked bookstores" in Madison, but there are also a lot of small, specialized bookstores in Madison, both used and new.

The inelegant East Side.

Here are a few pictures from an inelegant part of the East Side where I lived in the early 1970s. The first picture was taken as a car wheel (not a tire, a whole wheel) inexplicably rolled down First Avenue, faster than the speed of traffic:

June 7, 2004

"Don't take that door!"

Yesterday, photographers protested a proposed ban on photography in the New York Subway system. I've been in NYC the last five days, taking photographs, though not on trains. Why don't I take photographs on trains? I was robbed on a train once, so I'm one of those people who try to be inconspicuous on trains. I certainly don't want to display any valuables, and a camera is a stealable item. But even aside from my vigilance about robbery, I don't want to annoy or intrude on people. People riding the train are trying to endure their little daily ordeal in peace, and it is irritating to be viewed as someone else's subject, even in the tiny subjection that consists of being the subject of a photograph.

I was on a photography walk this morning, wending my way from my 5th Avenue hotel to the block of 91st Street between First and York where I used to live in the early 1970s. Unlike my old 1977-1980 neighborhood--shown here--that neighborhood, which wasn't even nice at the time, has declined. The building I used to live in, then an unrenovated tenement, has become a warehouse. But the nice thing about neighborhoods in decline is that there are a lot of interesting things to photograph. Walking around my hotel, there's nothing photographable. Approach my old neighborhood, and there are interesting things everywhere. So what does this say about the role of the photographer? Maybe we ought to be ashamed of ourselves, intruding on the people who can't afford to remove themselves to a nicer place. Those people on the subway would probably prefer a less picturesque mode of transportation, and there is something unseemly about capturing their suffering, though it is a very mild form of suffering. It is only interesting to photograph because it has an element of suffering. I usually don't photograph people, but I photograph places that express something about the people that live and work there. I'm drawn to things that are wrong or messed up in some way, even though I'm very sensitive to anything being awry in my immediate surroundings.

As I was walking this morning, I saw a strange door at the top of a stoop. Someone had attached assorted pieces of wood to it in a way that made it look like a shrine. There was an old woman sitting on the stoop. I thought about how much I would love to photograph her, but how I wouldn't even dare to ask her if I could. With my camera in my hand, I looked at the door. She yelled in a very cranky "Little Edie" way: "Don't photograph around here!" I said, "Can I take that door?" She spat out, "Don't take that door!" with the level of disgust and outrage that would have been appropriate if I had actually asked if I could detach the door from its hinges and cart it off with me. I said I was sorry and walked on, feeling quite chastened and guilty about taking photographs.

So what do I make of these one hundred protesting photographers who marched through the subway system staking out their entitlement to take all the images they want even though New York City police officials deem a photography ban a good anti-terrorism precaution? Clearly, the subways are a terrorist target and a horrible catastrophe could easily occur there any day. There is some connection between photographing the site and making a terrorist plan. Those who ride the subway have new reason to feel uneasy when they see photographers, whose photographing of odd corners of the station has become disturbing in a way that it was not before 9/11. One photographer quoted in the linked article was questioned by police when he took a picture of a bridge and knew of someone who was questioned for photographing a train station. He says, "The paranoia has gone a little too far." Yet if an attack were to occur, the police would be criticized for not noticing things like this and taking action to prevent an attack. There are many places where photography is prohibited by law, many other places where it is prohibited by social convention and human decency. (Suppose I had taken a picture of the old woman who yelled at me?)

What does it mean to see yourself as an artist? Does it mean you have a special privilege to annoy or intrude on people, to have the rules bent to suit you, to challenge and make people confront their fears? Does it give you a special feeling of entitlement? Why doesn't it give you a special feeling of empathy for the fear and suffering of others? And if it doesn't give you a feeling of empathy and some sense of guilt about intruding on the suffering of others, why are you not ashamed of your self-flattering belief that you are an artist?

June 6, 2004

Views from the hotel and in the American Wing.

Here are two views from my hotel window (note the flag is at half staff):

And here are two images from the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the first is a detail the second an Art Deco tomb effigy):

The Whitney Biennial: polymer bliss.

This morning I saw the Whitney Biennial. There will be no photographs, because you're not allowed to take photographs in art museums (at least in the United States). So how was the show? Of course, there's always a lot of stuff in the Biennial that seems like somebody is trying to help somebody by letting them hang their things in the company of things that deserve to be there. There are always dismal installations and videos. There are always messy, self-indulgent things trying to look good by being tacked up in large multiples and bathed in very strong light.

But go to the top floor and take a right turn and look at the first two rooms. Okay, stop for a couple minutes and read the absurdly leaden and pompous art-prose they've painted on the wall, but don't take it seriously! If you're an editor-nerd like me you can think about how someone might have written these words if they had actually wanted the reader to understand the actual meaning as opposed to wanting to create a general sense of the loftiness and political importance of the whole affair. And then you can think about the meaning and decide if it was worth saying at all. Or even if anything at all was said. But why are you wasting your time? Take that right turn and hang out in the first two rooms. That's where I spent my time. What most impressed me were two artists that have worked out an elaborate style involving thick use of synthetic polymer (i.e., clear plastic), that gave a fascinating dimensionality to what appeared as a flat surface. (Why is that such a fascinating effect? Why did we like Magic Eye posters even when the images that seemed to pop out were not even interesting images?)

The two artists were Julie Mehretu and Frank Tomaselli. Mehretu's large canvases with built up layers of polymer were done mostly in black ink painted and drawn on in great curving lines and hard ruled lines within the polymer layers. Tomaselli had elaborate swirls of cut out paper birds and hands and eyes along with real pills embedded in his polymer. For both of these artists, it was not just the brilliant technique but also the images. Mehretu's were surrealistic landscapes/cityscapes that brought to mind ancient Chinese ink paintings and abstract expressionism. Tomaselli's were druggy hallucinations on a black background.

Here's the link to the official Biennial site, which tries to be a clever website but is pretty annoying and ugly. I can't link to the particular artists I liked--you can click your way to them though--but it's just as well because their works don't look at all impressive reproduced on line.

D-Day and today.

The lead editorial in today's NYT reads:
It's tempting to politicize the memory of a day so full of personal and national honor, too easy to allude to the wars of our times as if they naturally mirrored World War II. ...

But there are two forms of temptation to politicize the memory of D-Day. One is the temptation to say our war is like that war. The other is to say our war is not like that war and to criticize those who find any similarity.

The Times keeps its indulgence in this temptation quite subtle. I've seen much more heavy-handed politicization of this kind. On Memorial Day, I wrote about WWII without mentioning anything about today's wars, and was harshly criticized on my now-defunct comments page for failing to go on to criticize the Iraq war. Talking about WWII supposedly required setting it apart from the current war. The Times, being far more sophisticated in its expression of opposition to the Iraq war, confines itself to positing proponents who will make the positive comparison between the two wars--as if they, and not the Times editors, had brought up the subject.

Dark comedies.

Key line in an excellent NYT article on fixing movie comedies that failed to please test audiences (especially the new and troubled Stepford Wives): "No dark comedy has ever reached the status of blockbuster."