I've been thinking about this off and on all day, since I saw this story over at Pharyngula. I have to admit that I was a little surprised by the way the story was framed, not by the general slant but by the actual language used. It's a story about a billboard in Orange Park, FL, not far from Jacksonville, with an ad purchased by the Northeast Florida Coalition of Reason. You probably know where this is going. Here's the ad.

But here's the odd thing. The article refers to the sign, in both the headline and the body, as an "anti-God billboard." Anti-God? Of course the sign isn't anti-God. It's simply suggesting that if you're an atheist, you're not alone, which isn't even a particularly radical thing to say. I mean, you might feel alone if you're an atheist, since we atheists don't tend to group together in mutual support of our lack of belief, but it's a long leap from a factual statement about the existence of other non-believers to an active dislike for an entity that, well, we discount the existence of in the first place.

I wonder, though, if I am anti-God, at least as concerns the typical understanding of the capital-G God, i.e. a personal, interfering-with-everyday-life, thou shalt have no others before Me, binary, good vs. evil, disobey me and spend eternity in torment kind of god. And I think I am.

Amy and I talk about this a lot, especially as it deals with narrative and story. She believes, and I agree with her, that religion is the most successful fiction ever created by humans, and that for the last couple thousand years, monotheism has been the most successful religious story type. Monotheism is so successful that more than half the world's population, to some degree, think it accurately depicts the physical state of the universe. (There's a wide range of belief encompassed here, from vague notions of a consciousness to young-Earth creationism--I'm talking about about how successful the meme is right now.) So why does that matter?

It's the binary part that drives me round the bend, because it reduces complex questions to simple good-bad, right-wrong dichotomies, and mature minds recognize that there's rarely a moral circumstance where the answer, every time, is absolutely clear.

I'm far from a scholar of ancient civilizations and their religious practices, but I have to say that it seems to me, at this far remove, that there's something to be said for looking at your gods as beings to be placated rather than imitated. After all, the gods have disagreements; they wind up on opposite sides of wars; they cheat on their spouses; rape; steal; kill their parents and each other (depending on the culture). They also, on occasion, work together in common cause, and they've been known to hash out agreements and compromise when necessary. They are, in short, reflections of humankind.

But here's the important bit. Because they are often petulant and moody, and because they change their minds as often as three-year-old children, they can't really be looked to for moral leadership. They're looked at as warning examples of what not to do rather than as shining examples of what to do, and so the responsibility for deciding what is socially acceptable and unacceptable devolves to the humans in that society. As a result, they're already equipped to deal with moral ambiguity, because their religious universe is filled with it.

But monotheists don't have that challenge. They get to point to a single deity who's provided some sacred writings with some occasionally contradictory requirements and directions for salvation and say "that's what we have to do." Doesn't it have to be more difficult to deal with moral ambiguity if your religious experience is based on the binary of good and evil? If you look at the spectrum of Christianity in the US, you discover that the more fundamentalist the person, the more extreme he or she is on almost any political or social issue. The more locked into a single God they are, the more they're likely to be a hardliner.

Obviously, I think the world would be a better place if the population were a lot more atheist or at least agnostic, and approached life as though this were the only one we have and so we'd better make the most of it. But if that's not going to happen just yet, I think I'd rather have the dominant worldview be one where there are lots of gods who are all horribly flawed in multiple ways, because that, at least, is closer to reality than one in which an all-powerful, all-knowing God gazes down on the suffering of His servants and does nothing to alleviate it while simultaneously claiming to be the ideal of benevolence and justice. If that's God, then yeah, I'm anti-God.

I think I have to pass on this invitation.

I really don't have a problem with the stunt Senate Republicans pulled yesterday by refusing to give unanimous consent to allow hearings to continue after 2:00. It's a matter of consistency for me.

There were a number of times when Democrats were in the minority in the Senate when I wished they would do the same thing to oppose legislation. Just off the top of my head--some of the Bush tax cuts, the expansion of the war in Iraq, after the Gang of 14 allowed some egregious choices to make it to the federal bench and the filibuster was threatened (a position I came around on not long after that). And of course, I've been in favor of making Senators who threaten to filibuster actually make good on it, rather than do the fakey version we have today. The ability to slow down government deliberation is a good one to have at times, and what I and others may see as petulance, others may look at as a necessary action to slow down harmful legislation. It's all a matter of perspective.

Which is not to say I agree with the current Republican obstructionism. Critics of it are correct when they say it's the equivalent of a temper tantrum from a spoiled child. The most obvious reaction to Sen. McCain's threat that Republicans were going to refuse to help after health care reform passed was, after all, "so what's different now?" But I do understand where it comes from, because there have been times when I pleaded with my own Senators to engage in those types of tactics.

I'll be surprised if it lasts--there are too many ways for Democrats to create a backlash against it, and this health care win seems to have provided them with a feistiness they're often accused of lacking. And then things will return to normal, until the next major legislation comes up for a vote, and we'll get to hear how this is the WORST THING EVER!!!! and how Democrats will lose more seats than actually exist unless they immediately cave in to every demand the Republicans make. And so on.

Give Them Some Space

If, like me, you welcomed the passage of health care reform legislation last night--even if you were wishing for greater reform--you probably wanted to express your joy. If, like a lot of people, you're connected to others through social networks, you probably went there to celebrate, and you might have been surprised/disappointed/upset when you realized that not everyone shared your excitement over this legislation. I wasn't surprised by the reaction so much as I was surprised by some of the people who reacted the way they did.

I wasn't surprised by the reaction because I saw the same reaction less than a year and a half ago when Barack Obama was elected President and conservatives were lashing out. Then, in the post-mortem, when lots of my fellow lefty bloggers were offering what they considered to be sage advice to conservatives, I said we needed to mind our own business. I said we needed to remember what it felt like to be on the losing side and how incensed it made us to have the winners gloating and telling us what we needed to do. And it bears repeating today.

Yes, the reactions coming from conservatives are overwrought. I called out someone last night because he used the word "traitor" to describe House members who voted for the legislation. And in the face of that sort of reaction, it would be easy to gloat, to remember the way it felt to be on the receiving end back in 1994, or 2000, or 2002, or 2004, and to jam it back in their faces. But it would be unwise, and more importantly (to me anyway), it would be unkind.

If you're on Facebook and you see someone you went to grade school with having a really bad day over this legislation, let it slide for now. They're hurting and lashing out. You can be Walter Sobcek or you can be The Dude. Just abide.

Health Care Roundup

I did this post over at The Rumpus and thought I'd repost it here for anyone who isn't clear on what this legislation is going to do.

The debate over this round of health care reform has been nasty for a long time, and yesterday it reached epic proportions when protesters reportedly called Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) "faggot" and Reps. John Lewis (D-GA) and Andre Carson (D-IN) "nigger." Perhaps this will die down a little once the votes are counted this afternoon, and it almost certainly will (assuming the bill passes) once those in opposition realize that their fears aren't coming true. And it's with that in mind that I've collected the following links--stories which focus on what this legislation will actually do, and why it's necessary.

For starters, here are ten immediate benefits that you'll get when health care reform passes.

Ezra Klein explains how this reform will reduce costs, as well as who health care reform helps.

This study, published today, shows that lack of health insurance causes an additional 45,000 deaths a year, and "that uninsured, working-age Americans have a 40 percent higher risk of death than their privately insured counterparts."

Jonathan Cohn looks at the closing arguments in this debate as the final votes near.

It is not uncommon for artists to create work that aspires to disturb. And I believe this is a worthy impulse. Much of what we encounter from day to day does not move us. Often things that should move us do not, because we're used to hearing about such-and-such number of deaths as bombs blast some faraway land, or about the young lives cut short by a traffic accident on the highway a few miles away, or about the little child in the neighborhood, or related to a coworker, stricken by the terrible disease for which there is no cure. Always we are surrounded by suffering and pain, yet it is human nature to limit just how much we feel. It is good and adaptive. It gets us through our days. It keeps us productive. But to be human, we must do more than get through days and be productive; we must feel, even when it's inconvenient. One of the most important things that art can do is snap us out of our platitudes and euphemisms, even if just for a short time, and make us look at the naked reality of our lives: the fragility, the unfairness, the pain, the truth.

It is not uncommon for artists to create work that aspires to disturb. But it is very rare that I am disturbed.

The exception to this is Janis Brothers. Janis Brothers is an artist who is from and who works in rural North Florida, and, she told me, she worries that others won't get her work, that it doesn't have a universal appeal, because it is so personal to her. Brothers' art preserves and recreates the tragedies she's witnessed and suffered from, true, but just as a small town in the hands of William Faulkner can seem to contain the world, so can a single tragic car accident in the hands of Janis Brothers seem to crystalize the universal emotions, and questions, that we all experience in the face of death.

And none of us are untouched by death. You might just manage to dodge paying taxes, but death? It is the ultimate universal topic; the paradox is that every death is supremely individual. I have not yet seen one of Brothers' installations in person, but I had the opportunity to see images of her work, and to talk to her about it, and now she is the only artist who comes to mind whose installations I both fear and deeply desire seeing.

To me, the most disturbing project Brothers has shown is a film called "Squirm," an apt description both of the content of the video and the reaction it will evoke. Squirm shows a collection of dead mice stuck to a glue trap, surrounded by flies, as one last mouse struggles for survival and ultimately succumbs. 

Now I know what you're thinking: that's gruesome. Yes. But mousetraps are a big business in this world, and with good reason. Drive down any street in America and you are passing houses where rodents are being trapped and killed. It's a matter of what we choose to look at and what we choose to ignore.

Brothers found the opportunity striking because of the connection she made between the struggles of the mouse and a tragic car accident she'd witnessed. I'd like to quote her directly:

When I saw that one mouse was still alive but stuck to the trap, I decided to film it even though I did not have a particular plan as to how I might use the footage.  To remove the mouse would have been impossible.
In review, the struggle was similar to the experience I encountered with Cleansing, a reaction to the experience of witnessing a car accident.  All four of the passengers died.  The crash was so severe, the car had to be cut away to remove the victims.  The struggle to hang onto life only to die is a tragedy and very difficult to witness. 

The video of the dying mouse reminds me of the films I've seen lately (Fast Food Nation, Temple Grandin) where they show cows being slaughtered. No one likes this. Many look away. But those deaths are frequent realities we seem, as a people, in no hurry to stop. And we know, as a people, that we could save human lives by (for example) outlawing cell phones in cars and lowering speed limits, but we don't. We like to drive fast and talk on the phone. So some must die. We allow it. Why don't we feel this?

Tonight, while Brian and I were taking the lawn waste to the curb, we heard a series of screeches and bangs. Because I grew up on a busy street, I consider my familiarity with the sounds of car crashes better than average. "That's a bad one," I said right away. "They got several cars with that one." We walked out to the intersection (so did several dozen other people, by the way -- the first time I've seen most of my neighbors!) and there was one small Toyota terribly mangled, struck from several directions. Three larger trucks had their front ends smashed in. We watched for a moment, the emergency vehicles came, and we turned and went home. I told a joke, and he laughed. What could we do? Accidents happen... all the time. 

So yes, Squirm shows mouse death, but Cleansing is about the deaths of four human beings. I'm posting some stills from these pieces, but I encourage you to go to Janis Brothers' website and look around. Here are just a few photos:

This picture shows the medical equipment, and we get a sense of the four individual lives lost from the four stations.

This detail (latex obscures the news clippings, but not so much that you can't read them) shows that four were killed in a fiery crash -- the same kind of article we see all the time and usually think little of, the kind of information that does little more than put a barrier between us and the horror, the tragedy of the event.

The medical equipment drips its blood into religious vessels: vitrines covered with pristine cloth and communion wafers. The transmission of the blood from the medically to the religiously symbolic vessels is particularly meaningful I think, and says more than words can.

After the exhibition, the vitrines and wafers are permanently transformed, destroyed, bloodied. 

What I love about this piece is its layers: the news layer, the medical layer, the religious layer, the way the pristine thing is transformed/destroyed by the blood/wine while the news article with its emotional distance and professional tone is kept at bay behind latex, its words visible but muted while the things themselves enact the deaths -- that one-way movement through time -- the taking of a person with flesh and blood and hope and need and desire and fear and destiny down, via this destruction, to simply the blood and flesh. 

We have all lost people. I have lost people. Each of those deaths was individual, an event indivisible from the unique person whose life was lost. You can no more generalize about death than you can generalize about people. And I think that's why Brothers' art really works for me, why I feel she's managed to transform the personal into the universal -- her work is careful and respectful, and she never loses sight of the individual who lived and was lost. And through that care and respect and clarity of vision, she makes us feel that moment, that universal sense of loss and tragedy. The unwanted that came. The desperate desire to just reverse that one thing that happened whose consequences were so outsized, so awful, so beyond comprehension -- and so utterly irreversible.

And I both love it and am left profoundly unsettled. But it is an unsettling that I want to feel, because this is life, and it is too important not to.

Brothers also has a piece on sex offenders that would surely chill even the most hardened heart, but I would like to stop with these two pieces, and encourage you to view more on her website.

This is the third in my series on Florida Artists, especially the ones I just met. Previous posts here and here. Cross-posted to The Electronic Girl.

Like Jesus in the Toast

This is the only thing that might get me to pick up a copy of Newsweek.

Why is there a portrait of Karl Marx in the apple sitting in front of our “fashion icon” First Lady, in her latest appearance on the cover of Newsweek (which replaces her bulbous giant belts with Nosferatu nails as the de rigeur accessory for spring)?
Right. Karl Marx is in the apple, and the White House is so appalled by this that they had the picture cropped.
Early this morning, 3/16/10, it looks like the White House ordered Newsweek to crop the photo so the apple is no longer visible online. Newsweek has cut the table out completely, now, because whatever’s going on in this photo was noticed by the public.
Of course, that won't keep the millions of copies of Newsweek with the actual image on the cover from being seen by poor impressionable souls in checkout lines and doctor's offices everywhere.

I'm not sure what the deal is here, though. Let's set aside sanity for a moment and assume that there really is a picture of Karl Marx in the apple in front of Michelle Obama. Why? Presumably, Newsweek would have put it there. If they did, then either they did it as a subtle commentary on what Michelle Obama wants to do to the schools or they did it at her behest as part of her great indoctrination program that will turn our nation's youth into communists. If it's the former, and the White House indeed objected, then wouldn't it make sense for Hillbuzz to celebrate Newsweek's brave stand against a communist power structure? And if it's the latter, then why would the White House have the picture pulled?

I just don't get conspiracy thinking, I guess.

Electronic Motherhood

Yesterday afternoon, I became a mother. It happened quite suddenly. I was browsing facebook, happily making snarky comments on people's news stories and supportive comments about people's cats' health problems, when an alert pops up telling me that Brittany Spears (my boyfriend's daughter) has made a "family request." I'd never seen a "family request" before, so I clicked right away with more than average curiosity. And here's what I saw:

I will admit my heart pounded a bit out of my chest. Here is a strange new circumstance: a facebook request suggests I am someone's mother, then gives me the options "confirm" and "ignore." The emotional implications of ignoring motherhood need not be mentioned; the emotional implications of confirming motherhood, however, are not to be taken lightly.

But then, this is facebook. I have dozens of "facebook friends," which is a category quite distinct from "friend." A "facebook friend" is someone that you may or may not have even met. You may or may not actually talk to this person via facebook. You might even find some few "facebook friends" kind of annoying, or even just republican, and so choose to silence them from your news feed. Aside from appearing on your list of friends, these "facebook friends" have no real presence to you at all.

"Facebook motherhood," though, feels like a less callous category. And while I don't want to get into the long and complex history between Brittany and me, needless to say it's long and complex. When Brittany asked me to be her facebook mom, it's probably the sweetest, most loving thing she's ever done towards me. (And when I accepted, that may have been the sweetest and most loving thing I've ever done towards her -- "long and complex" history, after all, is a term that applies just as well to the Israelis and Palestinians, China and Taiwan, Hutus and Tutsis, as it applies to us.)

And of course Brittany has had other moms. She has her real mother and her mother's long-time girlfriend, too, and they are much closer to her than I am. But I've always known that and never tried to "compete." Far from it. I'm not technically old enough for her to be my daughter, so I've always resented the parenting role a bit. I've been more comfortable thinking of Brittany as a cousin. But of course she's not. A cousin is an equal. She's my boyfriend's daughter. It's not the same thing.

So being a "facebook mom" is actually the best possible description of our relationship. We're not family, but we are family. We love each other, but there's this weird barrier. We know each other well, and maybe over time we'll get closer, because we'll share news stories and updates about our pets.

Driving up the highway last night, to visit with friends, I found myself reminded that earlier in the day I had become Brittany's fb mom. It made me feel a little different, I realized. I little more motherly. I guess I'm getting older. But there was also this neat little fact: I'm writing a book about an electronic daughter. And now I have one.

Cross-posted to The Electronic Girl

A month ago, I blogged about an attempt by the Christian fundamentalist community in Texas to change the history and social sciences curricula for K-12 textbooks. There's been a fair amount of reporting on the story since then, most recently in the NY Times, and the changes that have been pushed through so far are disturbing.

That I find these changes disturbing shouldn't be taken to mean that I think the current curricula in history and the social sciences are sacrosanct or above criticism. Every area of study should be reviewed and updated periodically, with scholars and educators taking the lead, bringing in new understandings and material and discussing what works and what doesn't in the classroom. But that's not what's happening in Texas. What's happening there is far more agenda-driven.

And the people pushing their agenda aren't shy about the fact that they have one:

“We are adding balance,” said Dr. Don McLeroy, the leader of the conservative faction on the board, after the vote. “History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.”

And presumably they know this because they are experts in these fields, perhaps engaging academic discourse, researching and promoting their views using time-honored scholarly methods, right?

There were no historians, sociologists or economists consulted at the meetings, though some members of the conservative bloc held themselves out as experts on certain topics.

This would be bad even if all they were doing was nibbling around the edges, like their desire to include "'the unintended consequences' of the Great Society legislation, affirmative action and Title IX legislation" (which is lightly coded racism and sexism) or the replacing of the word "capitalism" with the phrase "free-enterprise system." But some of their choices are insane, most notably this one:

Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer from Richmond who is a strict constitutionalist and thinks the nation was founded on Christian beliefs, managed to cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone.

It's one thing to add in Aquinas, Calvin and Blackstone and make the curriculum deeper, richer, more complex. But to remove Jefferson? You know--the third President of the US, drafter of the Declaration of Independence, Founding Father. The man's face is blasted out of the side of a mountain, for crying out loud. But he also coined the phrase "wall of separation between church and state," and for that, he has to disappear from this list.

The most disturbing thing about this push is that, as I've written before, what happens in Texas doesn't stay there. No, because Texas is such a large purchaser of textbooks (and because California's economy is a hot mess and unable to act as a counterweight), the textbooks which get approved in Texas become the standards for textbooks in other states. And this should be a concern, because that means agenda-driven fundamentalists with little regard for scholarship or accuracy are writing the textbooks that your children could be learning from, even if you live far, far from the heart of Texas.

Math and Translation

I believe that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is the purest fiction ever devised. And when I say "pure" I mean that it is centered directly and wholly in the genre of fiction. Most stories wander into poetry from time to time, and dance rhythmically around in the domain of drama. But Alice in Wonderland is fiction, pure fiction.

My test for this is translation. Translation is a trial by fire for any work of art; translation is the Darwinian test. A novel that can be translated into drama, into film perfectly or even near-perfectly, no longer needs to exist. It has evolved into a preferred form, a form more likely to survive in our current cultural ecosystem.

My favorite examples: Breakfast at Tiffany's. Midnight Cowboy. In both cases the book is better, but in both cases, for most people, the movie is good enough.

These two novels were replaced in our cultural consciousness by the movies made from them because at their hearts both stories are dramas about characters and events.

To me, "pure" fiction is distinguished from dramatic fiction or prose-told drama by its uncompromising allegiance to ideas. A fiction will violate all good dramatic standards of character and plot and sense itself to communicate its ideas.

Most everyone knows that Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson was a mathematician, and I think this recent NYTimes Op-Ed does a great job of explaining to we lay-people how Dodgson's Alice wandered through a wonderland of ideas -- of mathematical concepts he brought to life through fiction.

There are have been more than two dozen attempts to turn Alice into a film, and while some have had more impact than others, none has ever threatened to replace the fiction, the prose as Dodgson wrote it. I believe none ever will: because film shows drama, and this story doesn't dance in dramaland, it frolics in fictionland, Wonderland, the land of questions unanswered, the land of nonsequiturs more true than sense, the land where ideas and concepts and abstractions come to life.

The single most amazing thing about mathematics is that, while the world of numbers appears to be entirely man-made, math describes our real, actual, natural world better than anything else. One, two, three, four -- these neat, discrete units of precise size and order are themselves ideas and ideals (in the platonic sense), concepts, abstractions. And yet: everything around us can be described through these strange little creatures that seem very much to be an invention and yet indicate at every turn that they are instead a discovery of something fundamental and (literally) universal.

It seems that the more dedicated we become to describing the world in terms of empirical fact, the more necessary these abstract ideals become. And it seems that the deeper we go into the misty magic land of these numbers themselves, the closer we come to that everyday complexity that seems to belie the cleanliness of a mathematical approach.

Consider the art of Nathan Selikoff: I've been considering it for days, ever since I met Nathan at an artists' workshop last weekend.

You're looking at "Chinese Warrior," a fraction of a much larger work, called "Faces of Chaos." Selikoff produced numerous images based on complex math, then sorted through the images, selecting 1024 that looked like things we could recognize. This is something like watching clouds, and making out shapes, only with much more discernible detail, and with absolute clarity on what numbers and what processes created the image.

This piece is called "Helios," (not to speak for the artist, but, very likely) because it looks like the sun. It's part of a separate project called "Strange Attractors," but it shows a similar idea: simple math gives us spheres and cubes and triangles, sure, but when the math gets complex enough, the images seem to leave that world of ideals and take a place in our real world: it looks like the sun not just because it is round and seemingly-spherical; there's more discernible detail than that:

This is a detail of "Helios" I made from a screen grab of the image on Selikoff's website: the seeming-sphere seems to have a surface, as you can see, and something seems to be radiating from it, some kind of dusty liquid heat -- a plasma. We see this image and recognize other images we've seen... this actual image of the surface of the sun. And the most astonishing thing of all is that the image produced by an artist through mathematics is more clear and detailed than the image made through optics by a scientist.

I look again at Selikoff's image and I ask myself: do the numbers tell us more than our eyes and instruments? Can the mathematical models predict the physical nature of the universe? Sure, this image looks like a Chinese Warrior, and this one looks like a star, but what about all those others? What other shapes exist in the universe that we do not recognize because we have not yet seen them?

I look again at "Helios," at the ribbons of energy that move "within" the "sphere" and I wonder if these lines tell us something about the movement of energy within a star that it may take scientists decades or centuries to confirm? We know numbers are useful in describing the world we understand, because we understand it; we can compare. But what about all those numbers who are useful in describing the world we do not yet know?

What Wonderland can they reveal? Only the Artist-Mathematicians like Dodgson and Selikoff can show, and tell.

This is the second in a series of posts on Florida Artists, and how I experience their work. I would love references to more artists, working in any medium, in Florida.

Cross-posted to The Electronic Girl

Go! Go! Ru-bi-o!

Don't freak, everyone--I haven't changed sides. I'm just rethinking my earlier position on the Crist-Rubio race. Back when I wrote that, Rubio hadn't opened up a lead on Crist, and I underestimated just how much the teabaggers had taken over the Florida Republican party, and how well Rubio would be able to make himself palatable to Republicans as a whole.

So what's the current situation? Rubio's winning now, but in a head to head with Kendrick Meek, it's close, 44-39, and with more Democrats undecided than Republicans, PPP says it's probably closer than that. Independents are breaking Meek's way for now, but it's way early.

So how have I changed? Well, back then I was rooting for Crist in the primary in part because I thought that if Crist won the primary, Rubio might run as a third party to his right and siphon off enough votes for Meek to win. But it looks now like if Crist runs as an independent, it helps Rubio.

In a hypothetical three way contest Rubio leads with 34% to 27% for Crist and 25% for Kendrick Meek.

Crist gets 32% of the Democratic vote but only 18% of Republicans running as an independent. He also leads among independents with 35% to 24% for Rubio and 22% for Crist.

Crist's overall approval rating now is a 35/51 spread. He's most popular with Democrats at a 45% approval rating followed by independents at 29% and Republicans at 28%.
I knew Crist had been cratering, but I had no idea just how large a crater we were talking about. This is extinction of the dinosaurs quality. Crist could conceivably pull it out, but it seems less likely every day, so now I'm left hoping that Crist does everything he can to drag Rubio down with him, leaving Meek unscathed and looking like the only decent one in the bunch (which he is).

But the polls right now are pretty clear. Meek has a shot against Rubio, if he can shore up his base, get us excited, and hold the independents. That's a lot to do, but it's possible. It would be great to see that seat go back to the Democrats, when the rest of the country is looking shaky.

Spring Break Woo!

We spent this afternoon at Shark River Valley, biking the trail with three friends. Last time we were there, it was the dead of summer, and the wildlife wasn't very wild. There was a lot more variety in the bird life today, and way more alligators, though they weren't moving much. We saw one swimming, but that was it.

The herons always seemed to be posing for us. Lovely birds.

This picture makes the gator look way scarier than he actually was. He was big--probably 16 feet long--but he was also completely uninterested in us or any of the other tourists who stopped to take photos. And I maxed out the zoom lens on him as well. No need to take chances.

Lovely bird. This shot doesn't do it justice, I think.

You can see all 25 pictures I took here. If you're down in this area and you're interested in seeing the Everglades, the Shark River Valley bike ride is a great way to do it. It's about a 15 mile ride, and the weather right now is perfect for it.

Perception and Image

We spend our lives wondering what the world is, what the universe is, what our experience is, and whether our experience means something objectively, whether we can translate from our perceptions some kind of larger truth, some understanding of the world.

It's a question for the philosopher in each of us: is there one reality, one objective truth? Or are there as many truths as there are conscious minds, as many versions of reality as there people and cows and bees and bacteria and trees?

I feel that reality is like a jewel with infinite facets, that we are born in the middle of one: it stretches to the horizon; to us it is large as a planet. And we can stay there. We can sit in the middle of our own point of view and we can see things our way: my country is the best country, because it's mine. My mommy is the prettiest mommy, because she's mine. It's where we all begin, and we have the option to stay. Or we can travel: we can wander far to the border where one side meets another, we can stretch our necks across that angle, let our fingers grip the sides, try to see what life looks like from that other point of view.

Even kindergartners wonder, when you see blue, is it the same blue I see? And even they discover there is no way to test the question. It is good to explore how sensory information translates itself in our minds to a three-dimensional reality with aspects we can call "depth" and "dimension" and "color": that's difficult enough. But how can we ever know if what we perceive is close or far from what others perceive? In some ways, our lives are dedicated to negotiating this unknowable gap.

Art is one of the few ways we can try to understand the way others see the world.

This weekend I met many talented artists, all of whose work affected me in various ways, and I understand those effects and those ways better in some cases and less well in others. The drawings of Christine Eckerfield (the picture above is "Palms in Full Sun") have the particular effect of making me question my eyes.

I see palms, and I recognize them with my own context: the shape, for me, a native Floridian, is familiar and ubiquitous and has been since childhood. Others might see these as signs of the exotic, but I see the familiar, the most often ignored shapes, the shapes that always linger just above our busy heads.

And I see the angle of regard: the framing of the image tells me how I am holding my head. I am questioning. I am surprised. I have looked up by accident, and lost my busy head mid-thought, not because of the beauty of the palms or the sky, but because I have been confounded by the light. And I am alone. I am certain of this: I am alone.

The light asks questions I can't answer. It asks: have you ever seen the world...? It asks: has anyone seen it? It asks: do you know what goes on while you look away?

The sky is mild, washed out, burned out as eyes burn out in mid-day sun. I'm reminded that in Vietnam they don't have separate words for blue and green, that to them, blue and green are two shades of the same color, like fuchsia and pink to us. I consider that there are millions of people who see sky and trees as a continuum of the same color, as we see sky and sea.

And I look at the light.

Light is the soul of quickness, always moving. By the time I have had time to wonder about how we see blue and green, the moment has changed. The image has the power of memory, potent memory, pure in the single mind, unspoiled by other people's recollections or by photographs.

Many times in my life I have seen a large and beautiful moon: I grab a camera. I snap a picture. The photograph shows a small white dot.

The record of light is not the experience of light. 5 million cameras would record a beam of light the same way. No two people will experience it the same.

This is the magic of this image: yes, it reminds me that we do not all see the world in the same way. But how? By letting me live a fleeting moment long. By letting me set this singularity of experience -- in which I am certain I am alone -- beside my own.

I don't know if her blue is my blue, but I know, I feel, that her moment is unique. And this makes me believe that her blue is not, cannot, be my blue -- that my blue is not even my blue from one experience to the next. The image makes me feel that the strangeness is the sameness, that the sameness is the strangeness.

I look at these palms, these common trees, and I think that, despite the intimate familiarity I have with the basic shape, the light, the moment, portrayed is utterly alien to me. And yet it is the feeling of alienation that lets me live in the image: it is the thing I recognize most of all.

This is the first in a series of posts on Florida Artists, and how I experience their work. I would love references to more artists, working in any medium, in Florida.

Cross-posted to The Electronic Girl

It would be understandable if, when you saw a headline like this, you figured you had enough of the story, got your chuckle, and moved on to the rest of the interwebs. After all, what more need be added to "Havoc on the highway: woman was driving while shaving her bikini area"?

Perhaps nothing has to be added to that headline, but there was lots more in the story. This was the best part, though.

"She said she was meeting her boyfriend in Key West and wanted to be ready for the visit," Trooper Gary Dunick said.
But wait--there's more. She was in the driver's seat, but her ex-husband had the wheel while she was shaving/driving. Yes, her ex-husband. And this all happened a day after she was convicted of a DUI with a prior and driving on a suspended license. This might be the most awesome story I've read all year.

It's never much of a shock when a state legislator indulges in some gay-hating--the state doesn't even matter, because state districts are so small that some manner of bigotry is bound to not only be acceptable, but applauded. This particular case is from Florida, which is why I clicked through to the story, but it could have been from anywhere.

Stephen Precourt isn't all that unusual--he's a white-bread Republican from the middle of the state with a really limited view of US history. Some background: Florida lawmakers are trying to pass a $75 million incentive package to lure more filmmakers to the state. We already have a program that offers an additional 2% tax break if studios make "family-friendly" programming (which screams Disney giveaway to me, but whatever), but this package would modify that provision.

Family-friendly productions are those that have cross-generational appeal; would be considered suitable for viewing by children age 5 or older…and do not exhibit or imply any act of smoking, sex, nudity, nontraditional family values, gratuitous violence, or vulgar or profane language.
Think Progress is focusing on the "nontraditional family values" part of the legislation, since that basically means "no gay allowed" in today's construction, and because, when asked, Precourt said he thought shows with gay characters "would not be the kind of thing I’d say that we want to invest public dollars in.” But notice what else Precourt said he thought the legislation meant.
State representative Stephen Precourt, whose district includes Disney World, says the purpose of the credit is to encourage movies to depict cinematic life from the 1960s. “Think of it as like Mayberry,” Precourt told the Palm Beach Post News. “That’s when I grew up — the ’60s. That’s what life was like. I want Florida to be known for making those kinds of movies: Disney movies for kids and all that stuff. Like it used to be, you know?”
Now, if Precourt is talking about encouraging Disney to go back to making movies like the ones they made in the 60's, well, that's not going to happen. There's stuff on the Disney Channel or ABC Family now which wouldn't get a G rating then, and a 2% tax break won't cover the box-office beatdown Disney would get if they tried to release a new version of "The Apple Dumpling Gang" without spicing it up a little.

But if Precourt is suggesting that the values in the Disney movies or Mayberry of that time were a reflection of real life, well, that's not true. It's not even true if you were a white male with money, though it was closer. What that period was known for more than anything was that facades were important, that the everything was okay as long as it looked okay, and never mind the festering illness beneath. Domestic abuse, racial tensions--Disney and Mayberry didn't have those problems, but the rest of the country did. In Mayberry, white men ran everything and whatever problems cropped up were taken care of with a grin and a handshake and a very-important-lesson learned. No wonder Precourt would like the movies to reflect that world--it would make life so much easier for him.

But for most people in the US today, our society is far friendlier to families than it was then. Women can leave bad or abusive relationships without being shunned by society as a fallen woman. Inter-racial relationships and families aren't considered a big deal anymore, much less an affront to all that is good and proper. And yes, quel horreur! gay couples not only live together openly, but sometimes they raise children--they're families. What's happened is that our idea of family has evolved, and that's made the situation better for everyone, yes, even for the traditional patriarch, because it's taken some of the pressure off him to be this ideal that he could never live up to before.

Professional Artist!

This weekend I participated in a professional development workshop for artists organized by Creative Capital and the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs -- two organizations to whom I am absolutely grateful, for the opportunity, the funding, all of it.

The workshop was a really unusual for a creative person. I think the life of a creative person is analogous to the experience of being gay: you always know you're "different," although there does come a specific crisis point in your life when you put a name to your difference and realize what it means for you. In some, small circles, it opens doors and makes you "a part of" something. But in the larger circles of the world it closes doors and makes you "apart from" things.

There are probably 500 ways of characterizing what Creative Capital is doing with artists in these workshops, but one simple way of putting it is that they're bridging the divide between artists and an important part of that world that artists are traditionally apart from: money.

Artists do not undervalue their work intellectually or emotionally, but they have trouble translating that value into the material world. It sounds weird to an artist to suggest that, because your work is valuable to the human condition, you "deserve" better living conditions - and even weirder to suggest that there are simple business-like steps you can take to achieve a greater impact with your work, spend more time on your art, and live comfortably, with, like, the money and time to take vacations and stuff, and... okay (so saith the peanut gallery:) who's painting this pink pony purple here? No one's buying this!

But this weekend I was convinced: in part through reason, in part through example, since artists who are making a living as artists led the workshop. It was a lot of information to process, and I'm lucky I've got spring break this week to think things through and make some plans, but it feels like I've gone from treading water to touching sand, and land is just a matter of walking in the right direction.

This weekend I also met some amazing people -- not just the group leaders, but artists like me, who are still in earlier stages of their careers. I was the only fiction writer in the room, so I got a glimpse of a lot of brilliant new work going on in Florida outside of literature -- painters, sculptors, filmmakers, and more -- and I'm going to write about each of them over the next few weeks. I hope you'll come back and read about them all: they are amazing!

Republicans have spent much of the last twenty years trying to canonize Ronald Reagan and give him a place in US history alongside not only 20th century giants Franklin Roosevelt and John F Kennedy, but even among the Framers. He has an aircraft carrier and highways and even a massive federal building named after him--Richard Simon thinks this last one is ironic, but given the extent to which Reagan expanded the federal government and the national debt, I think it's entirely appropriate.

And it's with that part of Reagan's legacy in mind that I propose the following alternative to replacing Ulysses S. Grant's picture on the fifty dollar bill with Reagan's: bring back the $500 and put Reagan on that instead.

The big problem with the debate about putting Reagan on money is that if he goes on under current circumstances, someone else has to go, and everyone currently on money has their champions, as Simon points out. I'd be opposed to replacing Grant with Reagan not because Grant was any great shakes as a President, but because we'd be replacing the man who led the Union to victory in the Civil War with the one who made the myth of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen standard fare for right-wingers everywhere. No thank you.

There's a cynical part of me which says we should replace Jefferson on the $2 bill with Reagan--after all, Jefferson is already on the nickel, and no one likes the $2 bill except as a curiosity. Cashiers hate it even more than they do the dollar coin. But Republicans would never go for it, unfortunately.

So back to my original suggestion--the $500, complete with Reagan on it. This would appeal to Republican vanity, as the $500 would be the largest denomination in circulation, and the people most likely to carry them around would probably be fat-cat Republicans. And Working class people who suffered the most as the result of Reagan's policies while President would rarely, if ever, be faced with the prospect of seeing his face on money. It's a win-win. Plus, I think we've gone through enough inflation since the $500 was withdrawn from circulation that the objections to the denomination size are largely moot now. So seriously, if Republicans are desperate to put Reagan on money, let's do it this way. They'll finally shut up about it and I'll never have to worry about seeing the thing.

Sorry for the recent silence--this is the week before Spring Break, which means the grading pile had to be thinned out lest it start exerting its influence over the tides.

But I'm back for the moment, and just in time to discover something I should have seen two weeks ago when it was reported, namely that an anti-choice Florida legislator named Charles Van Zant has filed a bill criminalizing most abortions currently allowed under state and federal law, to the degree that doctors who performed such procedures could face first degree felony charges which could carry life sentences.

It has little chance of passing, and even less chance of being upheld if it does, even though Van Zant has said that his goal is to get it before the Supreme Court so they can presumably overturn Roe v Wade.

To Van Zant's credit, he's acting in good faith, up to a point. I mean, if you honestly believe that abortion is murder, then you have to support this kind of legislation, right? It's not just murder, it's capital murder, and in a state with a death penalty, it should be treated as such, and so carry not just life in prison, but a death sentence--if you accept the premise. No exceptions for rape or incest either, though if the life of the mother is at stake, you can argue that an abortion is self-defense.

But here's where he misses, and where most anti-choicers miss: there's no penalty for the mother in his bill, and if you're going to argue that doctors are committing murder when they perform abortions, then you have to say that the person who makes an appointment voluntarily, goes to the doctor, pays the required fee, and submits to the procedure even many times more guilty of the same crime. Don't you? I mean, anti-choicers would love to be able to claim that Planned Parenthood workers are cruising around in abortion vans, kidnapping innocent women off the streets and hoovering out their precious fetuses to use in their Satanic worship circles, but it just isn't happening. Women who get abortions aren't having it done against their wills--in fact, given the obstacles that anti-choice activists have managed to place between women and abortion providers, there's no question that women who are having abortions aren't doing this on a whim.

So I have an idea. Why don't we contact Rep. Van Zant and ask him why he doesn't want to punish the people most responsible for abortions. Let's see if he has an answer. I doubt he will.

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