Saturday, April 27, 2013

Sweet Shrub

Sweet Shrub in our woods this afternoon.
Yesterday after work Jennifer and I were doing our usual drinking beer, talking debrief of our busy lives.  Slowing both of us down to the speed of our land sometimes takes all weekend.  But this particular Friday afternoon while walking in our woods I noticed a different looking growth, tropical-like plants, budding from the ground in a dozen places each tipped with the most fragrant aroma.  Jennifer had known of the plants for a couple of years but had never seen them bloom.  We got quiet and witnessed sweet shrub
Today the blooms have no scent at all.  The aroma is a short-lived wonder that lasts about a week.  But yesterday we accidentally stumbled into their final aromatic expression.  Jennifer pinched off a splendid specimen of leaf and bloom.  You must hold it completely up to your nose.  If your nose is more than two inches from the bloom you cannot smell it.  Perhaps it is stronger at first blossoming.  I took deep slow breaths.  It was a wonderful experience.
Sweet shrub has a unique sweetness that is refreshing, not intoxicating as, say, gardenias are.  At least late in the blooming, you almost have to pull the scent out of the flower with your breath.  It does not engulf you with its sweet presence.  So refreshing and sprightly in the woods. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

My Wood In Spring

My reading bench this morning maybe 90 minutes after sunrise under defused clouds.  We pretty much own the view.  The leafing trees formed a canopy from whence a multitude of bird calls beckoned into the open space of my reading spot. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Cedar Waxwing Photo Opp

A shot Jennifer took with our Nikon.

A shot I took with our Canon on auto exposure and manual focus.
Cedar Waxwings enjoy all our holly berries and other sources of nourishment and refuge on our property about this time every year.  Last night about 40 of them were perched in the top of a budding pecan tree in our back yard.  They just stayed there as Jennifer and I approached in the cool early spring sunset.  We didn't even notice them until we were standing under the tree.  It is some measure of our peaceful space that they were not disturbed by us as we approached, talking in a rather animated tone.  Of course, we got very quite after we noticed them. 

The birds were sunning themselves in the top of the tree.  They remained there while Jennifer when back in the house to get our Nikon and Canon cameras.  We took a bunch of photos over probably about 5-10 minutes before they flew off to their next destination.  We felt privileged that they posed for us.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Thumbs-Up Being

As the keyword "film" on this blog will reveal, I have always been in love with the movies. From Saturday matinee afternoons as a child and throughout my adulthood, movies have fascinated me, bored me, inspired me, taught me, disappointed me, made me want more, and made me want my money back. As with any relationship, there are ups and downs, and such is my experience with film making that I consider myself to have a relationship with movies.
By extension, movie critics are of interest to me. None more so than the recently deceased Roger Ebert. I have his book The Great Movies as part of my library. I watched him and long-deceased Gene Siskel banter back and forth about films on At The Movies back in the day.  All my friends who have the least interest in films know what “two thumbs-up” means; it means Siskel and Ebert both agreed whatever movie they were discussing was worth seeing.
I did not follow the agonizing decline of Ebert’s health with any regularity or special commitment. I knew his physicians disfigured him trying to save him from cancer. I knew he had been close to death but then recovered. I knew he couldn’t speak anymore but that he was as good a writer as ever. I occasionally read his reviews on the Chicago Sun-Times website.
A couple of days before he died he posted to his blog that he was taking “a leave of presence” – a typically innovative way to say something old in a fresh way. He was that kind of writer. Then he died. Death is not something I fear, nor is it something I take lightly, and it has always amazed me how someone can Be one day and not Be the next.
For all these reasons and others not articulated, I focused more attention on Ebert in the days after his death. My Flipboard and Zite apps were filled with articles on Ebert. I read a really terrific piece he wrote for Salon in 2011 entitled “I do not fear death.”  I found it to be poignant and inspiring. Ebert had no religion. He believed in no afterlife. So I have that in common with him. This article validated my own experiences. He did not need the traditional cultural props to address his impending death. He was beyond all that. I hope I am as well.
I found an amazing TED “talk” that he delivered in 2011 as well. It is actually more of a presentation than a talk. He had lost the ability to speak, after all. And yet, if you watch the talk, you might redefine what it is to have a voice and how a voice can be transformed by near-catastrophic challenges. 
It is obvious from Ebert’s last decade of life, productive right up to the end, he remained an optimist. He was “thumbs-up” about living, he was a master of Thumbs-Up Being. His eyes remained bright; his writing passionate and fairly prolific. His mind found creative ways to express itself in written form and he remained engaged with art and living and loving. I would say he had a smile on his face but he really didn’t. He could not close his mouth because, among other complications, he had lost his jawbone. But his teeth were white and attractive and, even though he could not form a smile with his mouth, he certainly emitted one with his eyes and his written words.
His final review was published a day or so after his death. His passing was that close to his criticism and creativity. It was about a Terrence Malick film, To The Wonder which I am unlikely to see until it comes out on Blu-ray due to it being only in limited release. I have no “select theaters” near me. That takes a drive into Atlanta I probably won’t make. But, you never know.
To The Wonder is apparently a continuation of Malick’s brilliant minimalist style, heavy on emotional effect and light on narrative or rational understanding. Ebert acknowledges as much in his review and he is OK with it. He gave the film 3 and a half stars. And then he died. The review’s final paragraph reads: There will be many who find 'To the Wonder' elusive and too effervescent. They'll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.”

Watching Ebert’s TED talk touched my soul – and that made me wonder. Are such moments merely guiding paths to self-discovery of emotional aspects of my own Being? By touching me so do they introduce me to myself? Am I better acquainted with who I am and what I need and appreciate because of human beings like Roger Ebert who connect with me through words about the art of film and the art of living? I think so. And that is to the wonder of my Being. So, the next time I feel discouraged or unfulfilled or aimless I will think of my moments with Roger Ebert and dozens of other masters like him; and I will try to connect to the magic, the courage, and the discipline it takes to give life and even death a big Thumbs-Up.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Liberty Means Nothing If You Can't Breathe The Air

The New York Times reported yesterday that air pollution in China contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010 alone.  The situation is so bad there that even a neocon like former Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson has issued an urgent plea for help

Communist China may have greater government intervention and planning in their economy overall, but throughout its fantastic period of growth China has done almost nothing to regulate the impact of its growth on the environment. The United States is far more environmentally regulated than anywhere in the remaining communist world.

That is a good thing. When it comes to environmental matters I am an unabashed big government liberal. My libertarian leanings are secondary to the best way to ensure clean air and water and sustainable use of natural resources. If you can’t breathe or drink water your liberty means absolutely nothing.

The history of the West and the present experience in Asia confirms beyond all doubt what happens when human liberty is allowed to economically expand while leaving our environment to some theoretical free-market “checks and balances” that will magically emerge when human beings go too far with polluting the air and water. The simple fact is that there are, in practice, no economic models enacted on the planet today that factor in the cost of manufacturing and economic development upon our natural world.

The result is the death of Lake Erie, toxic waste dumps all over the world, unparalleled pollution first in industrialized Britain and America and now in China, India, and elsewhere across Asia. You can even throw Brazil into the mix.  If a country is growing economically its environment (and consequently its population) is suffering. We do not learn anything.

Human beings will destroy the environment to a harmful degree if left to do so in complete freedom. That is both a historical fact and a present reality. Period.

A closer look at unregulated Asia today reveals the unhealthy and unsustainable reality.  China has been more in the spotlight due to its extraordinary economic growth.  Conditions there have recently been labeled as "airpocalypse". Currently, there is a tremendous amount of infighting among the communist bureaucrats as to how to address what is apparently a runaway problem.  This means nothing is being done quickly, if at all.  The water situation there is, if anything, worse than the air quality.  Nearby, the harbor of Hong Kong is affected.  Air quality there is now considered "dangerous".

The situation in India is also bad, where it is reported that coal pollution is killing tens of thousands every year.  In the large cities such as Hydeabad air quality is harmful to human health.  Pollution in all its forms (air, water, waste, noise) has diminished the health of India's population as the country attempts to grow economically.

I know a bit of what this is like.  When I visited India back in 1985-86 I traveled one day with a Hindu acquaintance on his small motor-bike all over Bombay (now Mumbai).  After several hours of driving around without a helmet on we returned to his flat for a meal prepared by his sister.  She laughed when she saw me.  My face was covered in soot from exposure to the city air.  That night I experienced a minor asthma attack.  It wasn't even hazy that day, as I recall.  I can only imagine what it must be like in Mumbai today without any pollution regulation to the economic growth there over the past 30 years.

In Europe's and America's more environmentally regulated societies air and water quality is generally considered among the best in the world.  This is a constant battle, however, between those who understand that regulation works and those who would minimize regulation in the the face of history and present evidence (as given in the post) that deregulated economic growth is unquestionably harmful to human beings and the environment.

Idiots who advocate radical measures like abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency are obviously blind to what is occurring in every industrializing nation on this planet, to what occurred in 19th century industrialization, and to the fact that there is no singular significant historical moment when human beings accounted for the environment as they modernized their economies.  Every person of such shallow ilk should be banished to swim and jog in China and India today. 

Let them bask in the absolute freedom of development without pollution controls.  It is like going back in time, a devolution of knowledge in favor of either a philosophy that disproportionately favors deregulation over human health or a simpleton neurosis of mistaken belief that government always makes things worse.  Very clearly, the record shows only government can bring improvement where pollution is concerned and then only if it acts.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Thomas Jefferson: My Favorite Patriot

You think politics today is polarized and confusing?  Consider the presidential election of 1800, when then Vice-President Thomas Jefferson crushed then sitting President, John Adams, 61% to 39% in the popular vote.  But, due to election rules of the time, Jefferson became absurdly tied in the Electoral College with his own Vice-President running mate, the amazing Aaron Burr.  The election was thrown into the House of Representatives and the House chose Jefferson to be our third President after 36 ballots, a contentious affair far closer than the popular vote.  This ridiculous circumstance led to the passage of the 12th Amendment to prevent it from happening again.

I just finished a book by Jon Meacham entitled Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (2012).  Meacham makes it clear that the election of 1800 was very much a referendum on two visions of government in America.  The Federalists had held the upper hand since the George Washington presidency.  Washington allowed for strong Federalist input and the government was Federalist in many, if not most, respects.  This accelerated with the John Adams presidency.  Adams was a New England Yankee and wanted to consolidate aspects of State Sovereignty into a Federal Authority (thus the term Federalist.  Though note that there is a distinction to be made between the Federalist Party and the principle of federalism).

Jefferson represented the majority of who were considered then as "southern" Americans.  At that time, the term "southern" applied to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, which would be considered battleground states today.  North of there the nation was decidedly abolitionist and mostly Federalist.  Jefferson and most southerners feared the Federalists would re-establish monarchical-like authority in the Federal government. The Jeffersonian political party was known (somewhat confusingly today) as the Democratic-Republican Party.  (It later became the Democratic Party while the Federalist Party vanished and was replaced by the Whig Party and ultimately by the Republican Party.)  Meacham thus understands that the fundamental tension within American politics has always been between State and Federal Power.

I have a small collection of books on Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson is my favorite patriot.  His appreciation for the finer aspects of the enlightenment period such as art, architecture, and literature, great cuisine, his bright articulate mind, his brilliant writing abilities, and his philosophy of government are all of superior calibre compared among his Founding Father peers.  Monticello itself is a small wonder.  Jennifer and I visited there many years ago.  Virginia is a wonderful state for tourism and Monticello is among its finest attractions.

I have a representative sampling of Jefferson's original writings and his most renown essays. I have his famous gardening books.  Meacham's biography makes my fourth now.  My oldest is from 1987.  My favorite of all four (yes I prefer this one to Meacham's) is Willard Sterne Randall's Jefferson: A Life from 1993.  Randall does not even get to Jefferson becoming Vice-President until page 523 of his 595 page bio.  He consequently has ample space to explore in detail Jefferson's interests in art and science and his political philosophy as they formed in his younger years.  For this reason Randall gives a very clear image of the Jeffersonian mindset, even if he fails to give Jefferson proper accountability in the matters of Sally Hemings or slavery.  (Here Meacham is contemporary and incorporates these new "evils" within his portrait of Jefferson.)  Previously, my most recent biography was American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis from 1996, it too is what might be termed a "positivist" look at Jefferson's life.

Meacham's approach is more complete at least in the respect of how it receives recent scholarship on Jefferson's treatment of his slaves and his extended sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, his slave girl.  Meacham acknowledges these as historical facts, whereas the other three biographies either ignore or seek to deflect these matters.  In recent years scholars have become less forgiving of the contradiction between Jefferson's ideal of individual human freedom and his ownership of hundreds of slaves.

I have a copy of the October 2012 issue of Smithsonian Magazine which features an article entitled "Unmasking Thomas Jefferson."  The article attempts to describe an abusive Jefferson.  He hired a fierce overseer who frequently beat and punished his slaves.  Jefferson saw how he could profit from selling slave children, disrupting their families in the most callous way.  This is a record of behavior we would call brutal and racist today.  And that is the point of this scholarship; it is meant to show Jefferson as a racist and a rapist.

Meacham does not run from this.  An example: "The emotional content of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship is a mystery.  He may have loved her, and she him.  It could have been, as some have argued, coercive, institutionalized rape.  She might have just been doing what she had to do to survive an evil system, accepting sexual duty as an element of her enslavement and using what leverage she had to improve the lot of her children.  Or each of these things may have been true at different times.

"Sex, Jefferson himself once remarked, was 'the strongest of the human passions,' and he was not a man to deny himself what he wanted.  Sally Hemings, for her part, was 'light colored and decidedly good-looking,' Jefferson grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph recalled.  In the following years Jefferson was always at Monticello at the times she was likely to have conceived the children she is known to have borne."  (Page 217)

Meacham does not delve into Jefferson's personal interests in science and architecture and the origins of his political philosophy with as much detail as Randall, which is why I prefer the 1993 biography.  (The writing of the Declaration of Independence is covered in a few paragraphs by Meacham, for example, while Randall devotes 8-9 pages to the reasoning and influences behind its initial drafts and edited revisions.). Meacham is worthy in that he incorporates Jefferson's slave-based warts into the overall portrait.  I must accept that Jefferson was a shrewd and harsh master as much as a gentle one.  I must accept that Jefferson was an erotic man.  Meacham importantly point out that Hemings was also the half-sister of Jefferson's deceased wife, Martha, who he loved and to whom he was completely faithful for the many years of their marriage.  This adds further entanglements to the complexity of the Jefferson-Hemings affair; in all likelihood Sally resembled Martha in some ways, sharing the same father.

Otherwise, the book is a solid review of Jefferson's life and achievements.  Little time is spent on his youth.  He always loved books and learning.  He always loved the outdoors, hunting, riding, and growing all manner of flora.  By page 85 Jefferson is already famous.  He becomes ambassador to France by page 178.  Vice-President by page 299.  President at 347.  By page 445 he is in his post-presidency period, a period of rest, reconciliation with former enemies like John Adams, horse riding (which he did daily, even while President and to which he attributed to his own good health), leisurely reading and writing, and overseeing the gardening of the grounds.  Even though this section of the book is only 50 pages Meacham provides a superior read to Randall in this regard.  The later biographer condenses this portion of Jefferson's life but to a single, short chapter.  Admittedly, this period is anti-climatic, but the man was still thinking and writing and fascinated with life.  To grasp the full man surely you have to look at his final 18 years of life with certain depth.

Jefferson founded the University of Virginia during this time.  "The making of the University of Virginia was Jefferson's last great effort and leadership.  It called on his political, intellectual, and architectural gifts.  As with so much in his life, there were compromises and problems (he spent too much money), but also as with so much else, Jefferson created something that endured.  The Declaration of Independence's words lived past him.  The nation built from the addition of Louisiana lived on past him.  His conception of the possibilities of a strong presidency lived on past him.  The university did, too.

"Education had been a perennial interest.  'I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that of the diffusion of knowledge among the people," Jefferson wrote George Wythe in the 1780's.  'No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.'" (Page 469)

Meacham is right to point this out but I think Jefferson was rather naive about the sophistication of "knowledge" of which "the people" were capable.  The average voter today is a pathetic, uninformed, victim of campaign finance and mass marketing.  Jefferson did not foresee this.  His vision of the voter, like his myth of a largely agrarian Jeffersonian America, was misguided and too idealistic.  People are stupid and the stupider the voter, the stupider the politics becomes.  That's my personal interpretation, it is certainly not Meacham's.  In this regard I am, of course, anti-Jeffersonian.

One of the best things about Meacham's book is the 174 pages of endnotes, many of which read on for pages by themselves.  This is a treasure trove of information about Jefferson that I have not read elsewhere.  It is a valuable inclusion and is another thing that makes this biography distinctive.

America did not turn out as Thomas Jefferson intended.  Yet he remains, for me, its most fascinating Founding Father.  Meacham summarizes: "Jefferson is the founding president who charms us most.  George Washington inspires awe;  John Adams respect.  With his grace and hospitality, his sense of taste and love of beautiful things - of silver and art and architecture and gardening and food and wine - Jefferson is more alive, more convivial....The real Jefferson was like so many of us: a bundle of contradictions, competing passions, flaws, sins, and virtues that can never be smoothed out into a tidy whole."  (Page 500)

Meacham is a great addition to my Jefferson biographies.  Taken together, the four of them provide many facts and perspectives on Thomas Jefferson.  His sex with Sally Hemings and his control of his slaves does not detract from the man of brilliant talents, enlightened interests, and capacity for expression.  Perhaps this makes me racist by today's standards.  I hope not.