Have You Lost Your Census?


Yes, I have, actually.  Can't say where it's gone astray, but I cannot lay my hands on my household's 2010 Census form.  Fortunately, the Bureau tells me on their website that they'll likely send another, once they notice mine is missing.  They're watching me, like hawks, they are. They will not be ignored, even inadvertently.

So, it may not have come to your attention, but the Census Bureau has launched a promotional campaign and incentive program this year to encourage all of us to respond to our Census Questionnaires.  It seems that, once all the forms have been returned and their contents scrupulously tabulated, each and every one of them will be tossed into the churning interior of an enormous spinning drum of unique and remarkable design now under construction somewhere in central Montana, from which The President Himself, amid Flourishes and Fanfares, and in the presence of Worthy and Celebrated Guests, each of whom in his or her own fashion exemplifies the Story of Our Nation, will draw One Lucky Respondent's Form.  

The aforesaid Lucky Respondent will thereafter be memorialized with a Monument in a Location of Due Importance to be designated later.  A public employees' holiday may ultimately be announced in honor of this as yet Unknown, but presumptively exemplary, Citizen.  

Here is a preview of the Short Film that will be shown at regular intervals at the Visitor's Center to be constructed at or near the future, thus far unbuilt but shovel-ready, Monument:


Photo: "Wooden chest, cased, lined and bound in iron and secured by three different locks, in which Domesday Book was kept stored from about 1600." Via the UK National Archives.


The President Appeals to the Bass
(and to the French)

Florent Ghys  

I posted the original version of the first video below last April under the title "Sérénade pour le commandant en chef et contrebass."  I had already planned to re-post it this week, in part to contrast the fresh-faced optimism of this past version of the President with his rather more beleaguered persona one year on -- friends, the Presidency is a tough job under the best of circumstances -- but principally to call attention to the fact that the creator of this piece, Florent Ghys, has been signed by Cantaloupe Music, the record label of New York's Bang on a Can, and will be releasing three EPs of his music in the upcoming future.  The first of the three, Baroque Tardif: Soli, arrives tomorrow.  (For the moment, at least, a free MP3download of the title piece, "Soli," is available via that link.)

Via Sequenza21, I discover that Cantaloupe Music has issued a slightly revised version of the video in conjunction with M. Ghys' debut, under the title "Music for Multiple Basses and The President of the United States." (Very similar to my own title, but not suspiciously so: how many variants are really possible here?)

In addition to tacking on some Cantaloupe-related titling at the start, this version rewrites history by changing the date of the Weekly Address on which it is built: the original version was dated (accurately) January 24, 2009, while this new one bears a date of January 27, 2010 -- i.e., this Wednesday, when Mr. Obama will fill us in on the State of the Union.  

Now, it is again my distinct honor and high privilege to present Florent Ghys and, looking very relaxed, a more youthful version of President Barack Obama.

I posted a second Florent Ghys item last May.  Looking back at it, I find that one of the videos I had embedded in it has disappeared from Ghys' Vimeo page.  The piece to which it relates, "Clignotants," is included on tomorrow's EP release, and it appears that the video has simply moved from Ghys' own page to the page maintained by Bang on a Can.  From that source, because I quite like it, here it is again:



UPDATE 012610: It occurs to me that perhaps the President should begin to travel with a string quartet, to provide musical commentary and support for his speeches.  Sure, a string quartet lends a certain hifalutin' air to the proceedings, but it could be an improvement on the President's beloved Teleprompter, so frequently criticized by nasty Fox News commentators . . . and occasional others:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Obama Speaks to a Sixth-Grade Classroom


Photo of Florent Ghys via Cantaloupe Music.


Hale, Merry, and Full of Thanks

Oh my goodness, America, and the World: it's another Thanksgiving Day! 

And here in the Forest that means two things: Presidential turkey pardons and Fairport Convention.  (Various exemplars of this recurrent annual rut in which I am enrutted are linked here.)

Yesterday, President Obama took his first run at the annual tradition of Pardoning the Turkey.  Notwithstanding the pleas of PETA and The Atlantic, the President again dispatched the lucky birds to Disneyland. Those who are keeping score can add this rather trivial instance to their burgeoning Obama is just like Bush indices.  

The photos of this year's Pardon are disappointing on the whole.  Mostly they resemble this one, in which we see the President demonstrating the turkey levitation skills he acquired under Master Yoda's tutelage on Dagobah.  (The President holds a genuine Dagobahamiawaiianesian birth certificate, you know, with oak leaf cluster.  Ask anyone!) 

Feast.  Or feast not.  There is no try.  Futile, resistance is.

Obama turkey pardon 2009

This President is obviously new at this ritual, as evidenced by his staff Trying Much Too Hard.  In the "preview" video below, we see the power of the vaunted White House media operation to take a slim joke (at best) and to drive it without mercy into the ground, such that no actual humor remains.   What else does one expect from Government work?

All right, that's done.  Now, on to Fairport Convention.

I have repeatedly taken Thanksgiving as the excuse to link one or another version of "Now Be Thankful," which is simply a lovely song. Below, the band in performance ca. 1970, with helicopters.  Yes, I know I posted this already back in 2006.  Do I repeat myself?  Very well, I repeat myself.  It's what Americans do!  Especially bloggers.

If all that's too British for you, I'll round things out with a Properly and Inescapably American Song of Thanks.

Happy Funksgiving, all!


Drive-In Saturday:
All You Need is Lovecraft

A Modest Late October Suggestion to Our President

Dear Mr. Obama:

Have you noticed, as I have, that Halloween stores have popped up like slithy toad stools to occupy every empty retail space in These United States?  

Mystic caverns shoggoth

Of course you have. Your eyes are everywhere, after all, particularly since you declined to roll back that millstone on civil liberties that is the PATRIOT Act.  

But never mind that: we were talking about commercial real estate. Mervynses and Circuit Cities may come and go, but the Eve of All Hallows lingers on.

In the interest of the care and feeding of our Great Recovery, permit me to suggest that your course is plain.  You must immediately propound an Executive Order declaring that the last day of every month shall hereafter be celebrated as Halloween, and that the spirit of Giving Back necessarily compels every Good Citizen to participate with Gusto in the Celebration of All That is Dank and Nasty, every thirty days or so.  In consequence of this prudent and judicious edict, all of these smilingly entrepreneurial Mom & Pop-up stores will never close, the grand engine of consumer purchase will idle no more, jollity will rollick 'cross the land, and all manner of things shall be well.  

In anticipation of your prompt endorsement of this wise and obviously beneficent policy, I remain

Yr. humble servant, 

G. Wallace


Phooey!  And gooey, and p'tui!

Truth be told, I lost most of my interest in Hallowe'en once I figured out that the adults and beer companies had taken it over. 

Still, it's a perfectly good excuse to post this video, in which San Diego's own Eben Brooks pays poppish tribute to the Greatest and Oldest of the Great Old Ones.  If the President embraces my petition -- with all eight arms, of course -- you'll be hearing this one on the radio all the year 'round.

Extra tentacles, please!


Photo: "Mystic Caverns, Shoggoth?" by Flickr user Clinton Steeds used under Creative Commons license.


Les Regles de LA Metro

When I need to make a court appearance in downtown Los Angeles, I generally hop on Los Angeles' Metro Rail light rail system. There is a station convenient to my office, and another downtown convenient to the county courthouse, and the roundtrip fare is much less than the cost of parking.

As with most any other public facility, Metro Rail stations come equipped with helpful signs to alert passengers to the Do's and Don't's of Good Transit Citizenry.  

Here is an example, posted on a pillar in the station near my office:


So many rules, so much good advice, and all conveyed in the three official languages of California Public Spaces: English, Spanish, and Pan-Global Semiotic.

You don't have to be a Harvard Symbologist, or literate in English or Spanish, to appreciate the elegance and clarity with which this sign conveys its Helpful Hints on good Metro Rail behavior.  Just one look, that's all it took, to interpret these universal signifiers:


"We Warned You It Was Sticky"

Put That Down 


"Forward and Lateral Passing Only"

Look where You Throw 


"Okay, Okay,
the Dinosaur Footies
Are Kinda Cool"



[Posted on the advice of the Brussels Transit Authority.]

"No Cussing, Tintin!"



Healthy, Wealthy, Wise: Pick One


2 a : a method for achieving an end 
    * * *
c : a detailed formulation of a program of action
--  Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary


On Election Day last November I wrote, in explaining why I'd not be casting a ballot for any of the presidential candidates, that

Senator Obama has been sufficiently forthright for me to know I cannot vote for him because I disagree strongly with many of his central policies, but I will shed no tears when he is elected, as seems inevitable.  I wish him well in office, and I feel more than a little sympathy for his supporters: anyone investing that much Hope is bound to be disappointed in a world that sadly, campaign rhetoric aside, does not in fact operate on wishes, good feeling and pixie dust.

And I was right, I think.

Tonight's big health care speech was President Obama doing some of what he does best.  He is a very smart man, a politician even more canny than Bill Clinton (which is saying something), and -- teleprompter be damned -- that rare contemporary figure who can give a canned and pre-rehearsed speech without it actually sounding canned and pre-rehearsed. This last counts for a lot with me: I speak publicly whenever I can on legal and insurance topics or anything else anyone wants to hear about, and I would just curl up and die if the presentation wasn't alive as it's being delivered.  When he's on his game, as he certainly was tonight, the President can be restrained and controlled while remaining alive and connected throughout.  As a performance, it gets an entirely unironic A

Still, I remain unconvinced that anything really worthwhile in the long term can or will be accomplished by our Congress when it comes to health care reform.

My fundamental problem with tonight's speech comes down to the definition quoted above.  From beginning to end, the President told us that, on this night of all nights, he was going to offer and describe his "plan" for reform.  If you parse the speech through, however, no such plan ever appears.  There is plenty of talk about what the President wants to achieve -- genuinely desirable ends not far removed from the well-intentioned rash of Facebook status posts last week, on the lines of

[Name of honorable and decent person] thinks that no one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick.  If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.

-- but hardly anything practical concerning how we are going to get there. The proper word for the what is not "plan," but "goal," and we can stipulate that the goals outlined this evening are devoutly to be wished. But it is the how that constitutes a "plan" properly speaking and, apart from a slew of "make it so" diktats, there was a rather glaring dearth of hows to be had tonight.

Just take a look at the official cheat sheet for the self-effacingly named "Obama Plan for Stability & Security for All Americans" [Official White House PDF].  At the outset it promises to

  • End[] discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions.

and to 

  • Cap[] out-of pocket expenses so people don’t go broke when they get sick

Good things both, I think we can agree, and certainly features I would like to see in my own insurance plan.  While we are about it, the Plan also promises that we will get essentially unlimited diagnostic and preventive care -- mammograms and flu shots and diabetes tests and the like -- at no "extra charge," i.e., included in whatever premium we (or our employer if we are lucky) are paying.  

But at the same time as the Plan promises to do all these desirable things, it simultaneously promises that we are all going to have access to "quality, affordable" coverage -- which we have to assume is a phase meant to describe coverage that costs no more than, and possibly much less than, what we are paying now.  In fact, the Plan apparently promises that those who are defined as "high risk", i.e., those with preexisting conditions who we know going in are most likely to require expensive future care, will have access not merely to "affordable" coverage, but to "new, low-cost coverage" through the mysterious and only-vaguely-described "Exchange." 

What, in the most basic terms, is wrong with this picture?  

It seems to me that any Plan that mandates that insurers must take on greater risk -- i.e., that they must provide near-unlimited coverage for people that they know from the outset will be needing an extra-high level of payouts for benefits in order to obtain the care that they are entitled to under the Plan -- but that simultaneously implies that those insurers will not be permitted to price their product in proportion to that risk is side-stepping a fundamental problem.  No insurer, public or private, can be expected to pay out more than it takes in.  The doctors, the hospitals, the folks who clean out the bedpans, they all rightly expect to be paid for providing those services.  If the people who need those services the most are the ones to whom we promise "low cost" coverage, some part of the actual cost needs to be borne by others -- and how that doesn't mean an increased cost for those who already have insurance, or for the taxpaying polity as a whole, I just don't see.  If there is enough "waste and inefficiency" already existing in our Medicare programs that its elimination will cover these costs, as the President implied there is, then it is high time we start the show trials of the entire generation of government functionaries who allowed it to happen.  (He said, facetiously.)  

Now I would be the first to admit that I don't know it all, particularly on an issue this complicated.  And I am prepared to believe that the President actually has answers to these practical objections, and to others with which I won't bore us here.  But I certainly did not hear those answers tonight.  I did not hear the how.  I heard talk about a Plan, but the Plan itself went missing.

These are not impossible questions, or so we are told, but they are undeniably very difficult questions. And I regret to say that I am convinced in my heart of hearts that there is no government on Earth, here or elsewhere, now or ever, of this party or that party or any other party, that is actually qualified to produce a credible answer to them.  Matters as they currently stand are bad enough -- I have been paying my family's health insurance from my own pocket for fifteen-plus years, keeping premiums as low as I can via high deductibles and the good fortune of having needed very little in the way of covered care, and the cost is still too high -- but no plan that I have seen coming out of the Congress to date, and nothing that I heard from the President tonight, appears to hold any practical promise of improving the situation for most Americans. The involuntarily uninsured are likely to benefit, I suppose, but the currently insured (especially those who already pay for it themselves) and those who are willingly, or willfully, uninsured -- those who will be subject to the "individual mandate" to which I recall Candidate Obama being ostentatiously opposed -- seem unlikely to come out ahead.

I would very much like to be wrong about this.  Anyone care to convince me that wrong is what I am?


Illustration by Karl R. Rittman of the 857th Engineer Aviation Battalion.


Among School Children

Obama Question Othority

The President is scheduled to address America's public school students on Tuesday, in advance of his Big Health Care Speech to a joint session of the Student Council Congress on Wednesday.  The former has turned into an overblown kerfuffle in which opponents of the administration, unfortunately and most loudly including the zany-maniac crowd of which I was complaining just the other day, shout that the speech is a sinister exercise in political indoctrination -- in which argument they were aided by the fabulously tin-eared lesson plan initially circulated by the Department of Education, since sheepishly withdrawn, urging students to reflect upon how they can "help the President."  

The prepared text has been released now and it is, as expected, not a sinister exercise in indoctrination.  It is aggravating all the same, even though it delivers little more than the standard time-worn and unobjectionable message that can be paraphrased as: 

"Kids, you ought to stay in [public] school and work hard to advance yourselves, and you'll thank me for telling you so someday."

This is another in the decades-long line of Presidential pronouncements raising the nagging question of why this President, or any other President, should get the idea that the job of being President necessarily includes taking time away from the work of actual governance for the sake of saying to students what is already being said, every blessed day, by a squizillion other blessed adults who are neither more nor less credible on the subject than is the aforementioned blessed President or any other President who has been or ever shall be.  The proper ground for objection to this sort of thing is not the risk that the young people will be led down the primrose path to Communism, but that these sorts of helpful lectures by public figures high and low rarely amount to anything more than displays of self-importance and sentimental tommyrot. 

When I went to the White House site this morning to look for the text of the speech, I was again astounded by the extent to which the Executive Branch has become one enormous advertising agency.  The Media Resources page relating to the speech, for example, features not only links to the hastily re-drawn "classroom engagement resources" but also embeddable banner ads to include on your blog or website (in the unlikely event your readers include K-12 public school students) and even a "coming attractions" video in which the President's message -- "Kids, you ought to stay in school and work hard to advance yourselves, and you'll thank me for telling you so someday." -- is pre-delivered for him by a collection of NASCAR drivers:

Though the NASCAR drivers don't go so far as the President does in laying a "don't let us down" guilt trip on the kids, this is still self-important, sentimental tommyrot.  On your nickel, too, and mine, since the care and feeding of the White House media apparatus is a taxpayer responsibility.  

Can we possibly arrange the appointment of a Healthy Skepticism Czar to teach the kids to test and to question most anything they hear from those who come clothed with authority of any stripe?  

Think for yourselves, kids, think for yourselves.

P.S., Your country is counting on you.


Illustration: Custom Obamicon by the author.


Where Have You Gone, Jolie Mary Jo?
Our Nation Turns Its Second Thoughts to You

Blessed damozel - head study

The blessed damozel leaned out
    From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
    Of waters stilled at even . . . .
    "The Blessed Damozel," Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1846)


In the immediate aftermath of the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy, it was widely reported that Google and other search engines saw a spike in inquiries for variants, often misspelled variants, on "Chappaquiddick" and "Mary Jo Kopechne."  Much of that traffic was presumably driven by the zany-maniac crowd who so enjoy misrepresenting themselves as conservatives, for whom it is essential that any prominent highly-liberal Democrat be painted as the very spawn of Satan -- a purpose for which the awful events of July 18, 1969, are too useful to ignore -- but some of that traffic at least must have derived from the conundrum of reconciling the praise heaped upon the late Senator in so many eulogies with the ignominy that more typically befalls those who abandon young women to die slowly in submerged automobiles.

It was already well known before last week that the Senator was dying, but I had the impression that there was every reason to believe that the actual end would not come for some weeks or even months.  When I picked up the morning paper and saw his death headlined, it caught me by surprise.  And, perhaps out of that surprise, very nearly my first thought was:  

"Well, I imagine he and Mary Jo are knocking one back together even now in some heavenly saloon." 

Which is not a bad image, if you're of a mind to believe in a beneficent and particularly forgiving Providence.

Matt Welch is rightly perturbed with those who would suggest that Ms. Kopechne's wildly unnecessary death is somehow justified or even rewarded by the subsequent forty years of Kennedy's senatorial career.

[T]he sentiment [that Kopechne's death was somehow 'worth it'] is a timely reminder of the seductive awfulness of political ideologies everywhere and always.  The ends are always worth a few strangled means, especially to those wielding or sympathizing with power.  If you're openly musing whether the unwilling, unjust sacrifice of an innocent is worth a broad set of alleged legislative improvements, you're not asking a morally challenging question, you're answering it.

As Exhibits "A" and "B," he points to a Huffington Post piece by Melissa Lafsky and to a Guardian essay by Joyce Carol Oates.  Lafsky's column is, to this reader, pretty ghastly in any number of ways.  Badly written, for a start.  Oates' ruminations are more worthy of consideration, not only because she is a vastly better writer and thinker than Lafsky, but also because Oates places the question in a more adult and serious frame. Oates fictionalized the events at Chappaquiddick, from the point of view of the victim, in her 1993 novel, Black Water, and it is clear she has thought longer and harder about them than the general run of online commentators (present company included).  As a novelist, Oates inevitably sees Kennedy and Chappaquiddick as having literary parallels:

One is led to think of Tom and Daisy Buchanan of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, rich individuals accustomed to behaving carelessly and allowing others to clean up after them.  It is often in instances of the 'fortunate fall,' think of Joseph Conrad's anti-hero/hero Lord Jim as a classic literary analogy, that innocent individuals figure almost as ritual sacrifices is another aspect of the phenomenon. 
* * *
The poet John Berryman once wondered: 'Is wickedness soluble in art?' One might rephrase, in a vocabulary more suitable for our politicized era: 'Is wickedness soluble in good deeds?'' 
This paradox lies at the heart of so much of public life: individuals of dubious character and cruel deeds may redeem themselves in selfless actions.  Fidelity to a personal code of morality would seem to fade in significance as the public sphere, like an enormous sun, blinds us to all else.
One could wish (I could wish) that the parallels to Kennedy's life post-Chappaquiddick were not so much to be found in American literature as in the Russian novelists.  Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are full of sinners and criminals whose later actions redeem them.  The Russian literary way, however, was to require that the sinner be brought low first, that he feel in a direct, personal, public way, often in Siberia, the full weight of the wrong that's been done before, at last, finding the way to a better and more laudable life. 

I do not doubt that Senator Kennedy had many painful periods of personal introspection over what he did and failed to do that night, but position and privilege allowed him to evade the consequences that would be expected to be inflicted on most of his fellow mortals.  Even those who are more admiring of the Senator than I will ever be might admit that his later accomplishments, no matter how otherwise admirable -- I leave it to the sympathetic reader to select his or her personal favorite -- are tainted at least slightly by what Auden wrote of, in a much different context, concerning this day seventy years ago:

The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.




Top: Head study for The Blessed Damozel, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1876), via The Rossetti Archive.

Bottom: The infamous 1973 National Lampoon Volkswagen ad parody, previously mentioned here in early 2005.  Created only five years after the incident, this seems driven less by any hostility to Kennedy than by the fondness for poor taste and macabre humor typical of the Golden Age of the Lampoon.  Sadly, most reproductions of this appear on the sites of zealots of questionable probity, i.e., the aforementioned zany-maniac crowd.  This copy comes via the more apolitical Photobucket.


Your Our Tax Dollars at Work

If I were asked to trace the precise moment they lost me, it would have to be the loving closeup of the prosthetic racing leg at 0:16.  

"Let's be completely honest" in the first few seconds runs a really close second.

In the immortal words of Sheridan Whiteside: "I may vomit."


Update [mere moments later]: 

Seriously, my head is in danger of going full Cronenberg each time I watch this.  

[Insert inarticulate, gurgling scream here.]


Further Update [30 minutes or so after that}:

Even more seriously, this ad would not be running at all but for its creators' confidence that the American public might be swayed by it in a useful way.  Each time I watch it -- and the fact that I keep returning to it is not a healthy sign -- I find even more to be amazed by: the fallen hockey player, the charging thoroughbreds, the surging bean sprouts, the "Extreme Home Makeover"/barnraising, the solar panels and wind turbines, Joe Louis, and the gol-durned Moon Landing, all in one glossy, toxic package.

Sure, its only hope is to sell some of your neighbors a car -- and to sell all of us on a multi-billion dollar charitable donation to a wallowing leviathan -- but this spot cannot but reminds me, in a kinder-gentler way, of the classic and still kinda creepy indoctrination sequence in Alan Pakula's [mysteriously hard to come by ] The Parallax View (1974):

Of course, I may be overreacting.