Sunday, March 29, 2009

Pretty In Pink

With us it’s pretty much all or nothing. We don’t blob for days and the BAM! we can’t stop writing. Yesterday was one of those bleak foggy days in Washington. It was also the beginning of the Cherry Blossom Festival – which we didn’t know until we got downtown and saw all the pink signs encouraging people to come, but in classic DC thinking, not allowing people to park anywhere. The good news was that it was drizzling—so there weren’t a billion people wandering aimlessly looking for a place to put their cars. The bad news was that it had rained so all the blossoms that had bloomed were lying lifelessly in their previous pinkness on the ground. It was a bit sad, but we were determined to find the beauty that remained.

We fooled those DC cops and found a way around the prohibitions and parked, where we usually do, near the Jefferson Memorial. Because there was limited parking for cars, people were encouraged to take buses so there were lots of people coming off buses and heading directly for the tidal basin. We decided to go toward the George Mason Memorial (one of our favorites) and found that there were some lovely magnolia trees surrounded by bright yellow bushes (I used to know the name but who cares what they are called. They were a ray of sunshine in an otherwise gray day,)

We have been going to the Tidal Basin to see the blossoms for a long as I can remember. When Jordan was little she would invite her friend Mellie to sleep over and about 6am we would wake the girls, wrap them in blankets, and deliver them to the trees. When Eugenia came to live with us as an exchange student from Russia, we insisted she get up. And when Edwige lived with us, we insisted that she not miss it. We figured it was as close to doing something tourist-like that we would ever get. Anyway, we would walk around the circle of cherry trees, usually shivering, and we would pause every once in a while so David could take pictures of us, the trees, or strangers taking pictures of one another. We never brought coffee and Croissants, which so many do. And we never picnicked while viewing the scene. It was simply too early to eat or drink anything and the girls, cooperative as they were, usually just wanted to go back to bed.

But yesterday was nice. Sure we were alone – that was too bad. But it was fun for me to watch David figure out what he wanted to shoot. And I took some pictures with my phone, which I never do. It was unusually serene where we walked uninterrupted by the throngs of bloom seekers. And despite the fact that so many petals were wet and struggling to survive, there were still a number of trees just at the peak of their beauty.

As is usually the case, we didn’t stay too long. But we opted for quality rather than quantity. And the wonderful thing about the cherry blossoms is that they, unlike us, never get old. We’re just sayin…Iris (including the pictures)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Cherry Magnets

Washington DC has a number of magnets which are absolutely irresistable. Well, if you are a photographer, that is. We have a wonderful selection of marble monuments, from the Capitol to the White House, to the Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson. We who live here never really call them by their full names. You just go to the Washington (Monument), or to the Lincoln (Memorial). They almost become like our own buddies. We know where they are, how to get there, and usually what to expect when we arrive. But there are a few slightly less iron-clad magnets, much more fleeting in their presence, and often easy to miss if you oversleep.

One of the great and slightly more metaphysical of these is the hub bub surrounding the spring blooming of cherry blossoms. For almost a century, since the Japanese gift of three thousand cherry trees around the tidal basin, the annual ritual of paying homage to the Cherry trees has made March/April in Washington a driving nightmare. I try and imagine that in addition to everything else this poor city is stuck with, that bad drivers from across the country seem to congregate at Cherry Blossom Festival (yes, of course it’s now a Festival, too) time in early April. From the time Jordan was 5 or 6 we would choose a Tuesday or Wednesday morning, bundle her and Jzenhia (our Russian exchange student) or Edwige (our wonderful French au pair/now daughter) up in blankets, and roll out of the drive way at 5:15 in the morning, to get a quick walk around the basin before school started and the crowds became sclerotic. We did this for years, and in the five years since all those girls have moved on to other habitats, Iris and I try at least once a year to make the trip. This year, as has been the case in the last couple, we realized after last night’s rainstorm that “Oops, we forgot to do the cherry blossoms...” and worry that the pelting raindrops have caused the array of blossoms to degrade to a few splashes of pink. This morning, afraid once again that we’d missed the show, we hauled over the bridge, dodging legions of those lousy drivers, and skipped past the “Road Closed” signs to the area near the Jefferson where we traditionally start. I have to admit that in many ways it was not a great year. The rains did deplete a number of trees to mere shadows of what they must have been like on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Yet, being a weekend, the magnetic appeal of those pink buds was still proving a powerful force. And as we got out of the car, there they were, the matched sets: photographers, their tripods, and a lot of pink laden branches. It never fails to amaze me, the optimism these photo pholk show as they hope to find that one true, wonderful, and never before snapped image of a pink blossom. You have to be pretty optimistic to actually think you ‘ll get a picture worth remembering. The overall impression, especially if you squint just the tiniest bit, is of pink and more pink. But if you look in the manner of a camera lens, harsh and unforgiving, what might have seemed like a breezy color picture becomes something underwhelming. There are stunningly shaped branches which define the word crag; unending little tunnels to frame the Washington.

And on a macro level, a chance to sometimes see more in one rain drop than your eyes together can capture. Even Iris, the non photographer, was drawn into wielding her LG phone as a photo-capturing device, sending those images to New York-bound Jordan, even as we walked away. Several of my photo-nerd colleagues, having heavily invested in lens and tripod, not to mention time, were clogging the paths to the pink leaves, I felt obliged to watch, and see how things were developing, you ‘ll pardon the expression. The Cherry Blossoms remain that one forceful magnet that literally pulls the photographers out of their living rooms and onto the land of wet and soggy feet.

If only there were some way to translate all that beauty into a picture that lived beyond a postcard. As many times as I have been, I have to say the the people who make the most sense at those morning al fresco sessions are the ones who bring their picnic baskets. Croissants, and coffee, thick soft butter, jam as strong as the arm of a good friend, and maybe even a hard boiled egg. It’s about the closest thing we Yanks come to a reasonable version of Manet’s picnic, except those mavens of law enforcement, the U S Park Police would insist on covering up the nude picnic’ers. Kill joys.

Some poor photog is missing his eyepiece
And yet if we could just talk a few of the photo crowd into wearing those wonderful 19th century berets, perhaps the final results of the photo onslaught would be more bearable, helped along by that spirit of tradition and art which meet together on the banks of the Potomac. I’m looking for my beret now. We’re just sayin’.... David

....and Phinney Played a Great Game

My mom, now 91, was a graduate of the Journalism program at Stanford in 1938. She never really worked in journalism as a paid reporter, though for the last twenty years, no one was more rigorous in writing local newspapers and making them aware of small factual errors which crept into the paper. For a while she even had an arrangement with the Salt Lake Tribune that she would be an unofficial “fixer,” advising the hot shot J-school kids about what needed repair in their printed work. In the fall of 1939, just a year after her graduation, she had even ventured to Washington DC to see about becoming a reporter, and had made arrangements with Al Friendly, an old friend from Salt Lake City, then an editor of the Washington Post, to visit and see about working at the Post. Bad luck: the day of the appointment, Sept. 1, 1939, was the day Germany invaded Poland at the outbreak of World War II. Al got busy with the news (this is what newspaper people do!) and her appointment never got rescheduled She eventually returned to Salt Lake and had the life which I came to know.

My dad, who had done a number of jobs during the 30s and 40s – most of which revolved around the jewelry and watch trade, nevertheless had imparted to me, quite by accident I suppose, a cardinal trait of journalism: He who writes the headlines, gets to determine what it says. This isn’t so far from the concept of a free press belonging to those who own one, I guess, but dad’s version was a little more down to earth. In college, one of his closest friends, a certain Forbes Carleton Phinney, not only played football, but worked as a stringer for the school paper. And apparently Phinney never missed a chance to give his reports that certain ‘first hand’ flavor. He always phoned in a short version of the game action with a few highlights and at the end of every report finished with “... and Phinney played a great game.” It was a wonderful way to imagine history being written by its participants, rather than just by those on the outside with no direct involvement. So imagine my astonishment this morning as I scanned the New York Times to see the headline “Phinney Wins 2 Medals.” I didn’t really have to know who Taylor Phinney, 18, the cyclist, was to have a feeling that the perhaps there was a bit of inside PR at work here. I take nothing away from the young man, who grew up in a household with both parents world class athletes. He won two medals at the World Cycling Championships in Poland this week. Yet, I sort of hope that at some point he might have added to his cycling portfolio by taking that part time job with the high school paper, and have had the opportunity to make that one phone call at the end of every race which ended ... “and Phinney rode a great race.” We’re just sayin’....David

Monday, March 23, 2009

Isn't It Romantic

President Obama is getting criticized for laughing inappropriately about the economy (what a surprise) and Geithner sounds like he doesn’t actually believe what he’s saying (maybe he doesn't). There’s no good news so let’s move on.

The thing about Key West is that there are always lots of interesting options. Whether it’s a place to eat, some unique shopping or a place to stay, you can find something to fit your mood and probably (especially in this economy) your pocketbook.
at the Butterfly emporium
There are places to get a burger, buy key lime goodies, and hotels of every size and shape. There are old mansions, – some of which are B&B’s, (some too pricey and precious) and there are assorted motels and hotels. There is however, only one place that has everything; the Southernmost Hotel Collection (
The pier off the SouthernmostOnTheBeach
Too be honest, as many times as we’ve been there, I have never found it too precious. They have two B&B’s which are gorgeous, a newly built, comfortable, modern and well appointed addition (with the largest pool in Key West), that also has access to two beaches --in Key West it’s not easy to say hotel and beach in the same sentence (we saw two wondrous weddings on each beach). There are also ample accommodations off the beach—with guest privileges for the rest of the ‘collection’. And of course, there are two bars and a neat cafĂ© so you “shouldn’t fall dead on the beach’ from thirst or hunger.
Carrie and Lisa from Southernmost, on the beach
The management of the Southernmost has graciously produced two book parties for us. One for,, and most recently, for “Soul Rebel”, David’s exquisite Bob Marley photo book.

Much as we love Southernmost, this is not an advertisement (but it could be), this is merely a statement of fact from a world traveling connoisseur of places you want to be when you have all kinds of choices, or don’t. Let me say, it’s worth the trip all the way to the farthest point in the US just to stay there. And of course have Key West for additional fun.

But that’s not what I wanted to blob about – it’s just the backdrop or the preface. Initially, I was going to KW alone, which I have done faithfully for the last fifteen years. Then my pals at the Southernmost offered to do a book party if David could fit it in his schedule. (They did it in less than two weeks, by the pool with rum punch and appetizer goodies and an amazing number of people, including press, attended. But there I go digressing again. Anyway, it just happens that it’s around our anniversary and David thought it was worth changing his schedule for what would be a romantic brief interlude. Then Jordan decided she should come, so while the sunset and aura were dreamy, the romance was different than what you might think of as romantic. Don’t get me wrong it was absolutely terrific but different.

I find it is always interesting to get introspective about love, at least worthy of note for the person who’s doing it as long as they don’t share their thoughts. It is also fun to discover what is significant to people we don’t know. It makes life far more interesting to unearth secrets about people we may never see again—I don’t want to explain why, just go with me on this. It’s why eating at a bar rather than a table in a nice restaurant is often fascinating. In that light, while we were at the bar (drinking not eating, but obviously the place to be ), we started talking to Richie the bar manager. He and his wife Samantha (who was working the free rum punch station but is a physical trainer,) found their way to KW a short while ago. They are a smart and enterprising couple in their 20's and I asked how they decided on KW. Richie didn’t miss a beat. “We were looking for a place where we could be hired together. You know, I just can’t imagine what it would be like to go to work and not be able to see Samantha for an entire day.”

I was so stricken by this simple, but extraordinary statement, that for a moment I couldn’t speak. This may be the first time in my entire life I could say nothing. But then I thought, wouldn't the world be a spectacular place if that's how we all felt about the people we say we love. We’re just sayin’...Iris

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ciao Gianni

On my way back to Washington this afternoon, from a wonderful short trip to Key West - we had a book signing of Soul Rebel coinciding with Reggae Fest- I found myself on the Delta jet, happily ensconced on 26d (an exit row on the MD80s). As usual, I was editing the pictures just shot the last few days, these of no particularly world-wide import, but to me, perhaps no small tokens. Iris, Jordan, Soozie and her amazing pair of fuzzy dogs, Steve and Jane. The kind of pictures which you shoot, and as you do, understand just why it is that people take snapshots. To preserve a little sliver of that wonderful person sitting next to you, when fate, as it always does, causes you to drift apart. I never really understood what all the hoopla was about color-negative film and one-hour photolabs back in the eighties. I shot ultra sharp (that is, when my hands or lens didn't shake) color transparency film (".. mama don't take my Kodachrome..") and couldn’t really understand the appeal of that quick turn-around product which nevertheless seemed to be a thriving business. That is, until I became a dad. In the spring of 1986 it was all made clear to me. Jordan Kai Burnett, my first born, made an appearance in February. And in a mad dash to try and let the world know that I had just become the proud poppa of the world’s cutest baby, I bought dozens of rolls of color negative film, and turned them around at the neighborhood One-Hour lab (Action Photo!) All of a sudden I understood what the draw was to that billion dollar industry. You take a picture, (remember, this is very PRE digital), you unload the film, drive to Action Photo, drop the film off while you run to the market for yogurt and toilet paper, then stop by the lab on the way home, with your thick wad of prints of that morning’s baby snookums pictures. In one fell swoop it dawned on me the hows and whys of what made Kodak and Fuji such powerhouse companies (stay with me, folks... in the 80s they WERE powerhouses.) Now, I shoot pictures, like everyone else (literally) in the world, and upload the files to my laptop, and spend my time in the air between cities, looking at those images, choosing the ones to keep, and maybe even 'processing' them a little bit in order to make them just a little closer to how I saw the moment when the button was pushed. (Let’s face it, the cameras don’t always get it right!) We're all photographers, now, and there is hardly a time that I don't work with an editor or art director, that they don't have very particular ideas about how a picture should be done. After all, they, too, are now photographers, and look upon it almost as if it were an act of brotherly advice. Sometimes the advice is useful, often not so much. But as one who has had a few favorite pictures happen simply because an accompanying reporter said something like "don’t just stand there, shoot the picture!" I always try and at least follow through on the suggestion. In the digital photography age, we sometimes forget that great pictures are usually made by hard working, dedicated photographers who already see the world with a vision far apart from the rest of society. There is no question that few things are more tedious than for a non-photographer (you could insert "wife" or "daughter" here) to walk around any ole place with someone who can't help looking at the scene around them as if it were a photo op arranged by God and to be discovered on that stroll. We stop, we squint as we try and compose, we halt for a second to see if the light is right, if the shadow falls in the grooviest place. It's not exactly a simple meander, but one accented by all kinds of stops and starts, and often punctuated by "you can stay if you want, I'll see you back at the hotel."

It's not like we're trying to be annoying. We really can't help it. Most of us, in what seems like some sort of ongoing search for visual truth, act in a slightly immature way, as compared with, say, investment bankers, food service executives, and motel clerks. Again, we can't help it. It's just our curse. But that kind of child-like absorption with the world around us lets us connect in that unspoken visual way which produces the sweetest of pictures. This weekend our business lost one of the most wonderful of those child-like serious people, the kind that make me proud to be a photographer. Gianni Giansanti, the Italian wunderkind passed away Thursday from bone cancer at the all too early age of 52. I got to know Gianni during the early days of Pope John Paul II's tenure. We were part of that small group who followed the Pope on his early trips around the world, captivated by the way he captivated crowds, and amazed at the nouveau view of the Vatican which his presence brought to the Catholic church. It was, in the days preceding cable tv news (and the oversaturation we live with today) quite the event to see a youthful, dynamic Pope careen into town in the Pope-mobile, and deliver a message which young people, in particular, could relate to. It was the first time in a generation that there was that kind of popular enthusiasm. And from the first time JPII dropped to the ground and kissed it upon arriving at a new country, till the Alitalia jumbo jet left for Rome, the trips were all energy, all the time. On a number of trips I flew from Rome with the Holy Father's party (the Flying Papal Press Corps, according to one of my t-shirts) and visited such various places as England, Poland, France, Argentina, and of course, the US. Gianni was always one of those present with the Vuolo Papale press card we wore around our necks (Papal Flight.) Some places that actually meant something. In others, it was just another piece of chest decoration without any pull, but you never knew until you tried to push your way in, just how far you could go. Some of the usual group would resort to demonstrably colorful tactics. Fabian, a dashing French/Italian shooter for Sygma (ah, the days of the great agencies, all now sold off and whithered away!) usually wore very simple clothes: a black turtleneck, black pants and carried never more than two cameras. Truth be told, the turtle neck did NOT have a white collar, though he did little to disabuse any local security that he wasn't really a man of the cloth. He always made his way to the second or third row (the press was usually back at row 52 or so), and when the emotions of the prayers started to move the crowd, no one was more moved than Fabian, whose cries of "ohhhhh Madonnnnnna mia....." placed him in the center of the true believers. He'd make a couple of snaps, then sit back down and resume his heart-breaking plaints. He was a master.
In Buenos Aires with Pope John Paul II, 1982 - J-C Francolon (GAMMA), me in a bowtie, Luciano Mellace (UPI), Giancarlo Giuliani (Vatican), Rudi Frey (TIME), and Gianni .. all with our brand new Domke Bags
Yet I don't believe I ever knew anyone as smooth or dedicated as Gianni was. I, of the "I'm with TIME Magazine, and I NEED to be in the choir-loft" variety, usually had a pass which would get me there. Not always, but most of the time. Some of the other photographers, including Gianni, even though they were working for major agencies, had to make their own way to the event without a pass. It was one of those things I always felt the tinest bit guilty about. I could just stroll in, and they really had to work it. Yet, watching Gianni work was a true and wonderful work of art in itself. On the trip to England in 1982, just at the time of the Falklands War (with Argentina) the Pope faced much criticism, as if his presence would be an endorsement of the English attacks. Yet, the trip had been planned, and he felt that perhaps in some small way he might be able to bring the parties together to talk. (Just a few days later, we flew from Rome to Buenos Aires, so as to equalize the political impact of the England trip.) I was standing outside Winchester Cathedral, probably humming the Tony Randall song (yes, that Cathedral), pondering the Choir-Loft photo pass around my neck. I saw Gianni near by, scouting the area the way a good game hunter stalks his prey. Then, like the lion picking a zebra out of the pack, he started walking briskly towards a priest who was striding in black across the lawn, towards the entry gate. Gianni began speaking to him, his irresistable smile lighting up his face, speaking in Italian with the priest. For all I know they were talking about soccer scores, but the two of them headed for the door, and when a bobby tried to stop Gianni for lack of a pass, Gianni really let the guy have it "don't interrupt me, I am speaking with the good father!"... and kept marching into the church, never missing a stride. It was a moment of press triumph, only to be matched by his next performance. He later told me that as soon as he got into the cathedral, he went to the men's room, found a stall, walked in with his cameras, and sat down. And waited. And waited.

I made my way to the choir loft, dragged out the 300 lens, and waited for his Holiness to arrive. As the moment of the program approached the organ began to roar with music of centuries ago, echoing off the rafters. Gianni later told me that when he heard the music, he knew it was time to move. He left the men's room and crawled up rafters that had probably not been visited by actual human beings in centuries. And thus, 15 minutes later, just as JPII was to enter the Apse, I felt a sprinkle of dust and musty dirt start to cascade around me. I looked up and all I could see were Gianni's feet. He had crawled the 'back way' up to the top of the church, made his way across the beams to the loft, and let himself down to the area where we were. He looked as if he had just been playing cards with Indiana Jones at the bottom of a spider-infested cave. Cobwebs strung across his hair. Dirt on his clothes. But the irrepressible grin had never left, and at that moment I realized that Gianni Giansanti was no mere photographer, he was a man dedicated wholly and completely to his work. It was a thing of beauty. Gianni spent much of the last 30 years photographing JPII in that behind the scenes, private way which none of the rest of us were able to get to. He inspired confidence, not only in his discretion but his inherent ability to make a beautiful picture. The last couple of times I was in Rome we spoke by phone, but never managed to connect for one of those barely palatable Italian apertifs. (Who else makes liquor out of artichokes?) I have been blessed over the years to know a whole raft of wonderful and talented characters like Gianni (see his work here) , but even though we haven't flown on a Vuolo Papale for some years together, I just enjoyed knowing that somewhere in the world he was alive and sharing that air of simpatico which made him so special. I suppose he probably took his cameras with him, and I have no doubt that he's meeting with JPII this week to try and figure out what their next photo op might be. That would be one to cherish. Ciao Gianni... We're just sayin'.... David

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dancin' With....

Millions of people watch “Dancing with the Stars”. Some watch it because there are celebrities who can’t dance and make fools of themselves – and ridiculing celebrities is always amusing. Many watch because of the costumes and the near nudity—naked is always refreshing. And many actually love it for the dancing. My Mom is in the last category. She loves it for the dancing.

Mom can no longer walk very well. It fact, she is able to take very few steps at all. Her current state is especially painful for me and my brother because it is how my father lived from the time he was 30 until he died at 65. My baby brother doesn’t remember my Dad walking without an aid. Anyway, when we see her struggling with the confinement it brings back so countless difficult memories. It is mind boggling to think about how fast she went from being able to trot around a mall to being limited to little or no movement, except in a wheel chair. It just seems to happen to so many elderly people we know.
Rose and Milton, in dancin' days
The other day I read that Fortunoff’s (a household department store), was closing and I thought about Mom and the mall. A few years ago, when I asked her if she was getting any exercise she looked at me like I was nuts and said, “Of course, I go to to the mall and walk around and the next day I return everything I bought, so it’s more exercise.” Fortunoff’s was one of the places she loved to go, but only when there was a sale. Then she would buy dishes. When we were selling her house we found at least four boxes of unopened dishes in the attic, and at least seven sets in the cabinet. Yes, it was unbelievable, but it was her exercise. And while dishes were her favorites, there were also glasses, silverware, appliances, and giftware of all shapes and sizes. My cousins never had to go anywhere but my mother’s attic to find a present for any kind of shower.

Oops, once again, I digressed. Back to the stars. At one time mom was a wonderful dancer. When she and my Dad vacationed in the Catskills every year, they won all kinds of prizes for the steps they did together. There are pictures of them on the dance floor and, occasionally, we will find silent but moving images of them doing a cha cha or a mambo and maybe a waltz—although mom loved to shimmy in her fringed cocktail attire, so faster was better. I am convinced that “Dancing” is one of her favorite shows because in her head, she can still move like they do. If you watch her watching the show you will see she is tapping her fingers and even in her reclining chair, moving her feet to the beat of whatever song. The joy she feels when she looks at those people moving around is right there on her face. The pain of not being able to do it herself, seems to be in the past. It is something that is both wonderful and excruciating to watch.

Apparently, the program skews very old – not the audience the networks are looking for. But I think there are times when giving someone something to live for has to be more important than selling deodorant. We’re just sayin’…Iris

Monday, March 16, 2009

Repping the Bad Guy

What happened to this great nation? We produced the likes of George Washington, who couldn’t lie about cutting down a cherry tree, and Abraham Lincoln, someone who understood the need to respect all people (maybe there were a few exceptions we didn’t know about but mostly, all people). In case you don’t have the answer to the ‘what happened’ part of the question, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC provided some of the results in an editorial about Burson-Marstellar, (a giant PR firm) and evil.

A few years ago my son, who was a journalist, decided he wasn’t making enough money and wanted to try to work at a PR firm. After a few days he called me to confess he was not happy. “They want me to make up quotes”, he said. “They want me to lie about something someone said. I don’t think I can do that.”

I laughed and assured him it’s what all PR people do. In fact, it’s what they get paid for. And the better the quote—especially in a crisis, the more effective you will be for the client. He remained unconvinced and quit that job to resume his career as a journalist.

In retrospect, I am not sure that this seemingly uncomplicated act of making stuff up is as simple and harmless as I first thought. If you look at corporations like AIG, you will see that their list of PR firms remains almost as large as the bonuses they intend to pay their less than deserving senior executives. In fact, if you look at too many corporations, American or International, you will find that there are a plethora of these companies making up things that sound good to an unsuspecting public, rather than actually solving real problems.

A few years ago, when we first started our small (some would prefer boutique) public relations business, (which we called an ‘access’ firm, don’t worry it no longer exists), we decided to bid on an AT&T contract to move the Olympic Torch around the USA. We had no idea about the competition, but we assumed the list would be long. On the day we did our presentation, I had an enormous sty on my eye which, because it was ready to bust, was incredibly gross. Marthena had forgotten to button her skirt and it actually fell off during the pitch. OK it would have been pretty amusing had we not been a new struggling all women’s company. But, the show must go on and we plunged ahead suffering our humiliations bravely, but expecting rejection.

AT&T called us about three days after the presentation and offered us the opportunity to teach Burson-Marsteller, how to do what we had presented to them. They wanted a name – talent and experience was secondary. It would have been a great deal of money. When we turned them down we asked if Burson was going to oversee the entire effort. They told us that they had hired a coordinator to direct operations. As it turned out, this slime Wally, who took the job, only knew about it because we, in our never ending attempts to see good in all mankind, had told him about it and asked him what he thought. He thought it was great for us, but not as great for us as he thought it was for himself. And they all lived happily ever after making mega money by ripping off their friends and the rest of the world.

We stayed in business for a few more years and produced movie openings, corporate parties, and even gave advice to nice people who needed it. But nice and fun isn’t as lucrative as a willingness to forgo a moral core for, dare I say-- evil. Whether it be bonuses at AIG, or hiring someone to declare “Mission Accomplished” It’s likely it started as simply as making up a quote. What else do you need to know?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

What a Shame

The President has decided not to go to the Gridiron dinner. While it’s true that the Gridiron club is a membership organization of mostly old white Washington media people (they did decide to let women join a few years ago), the dinner is a Washington tradition. It is a place where media and political people get into costume and (like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland – one dead and one also old), do a show. It’s always a comedy and always a way for political people and the press to “let their hair down”.

Every President since Grover Cleveland has attended and in fact, Obama participated a few years ago and received numerous kudos. But he’s not going to go because his kids are on Spring vacation and he’s going elsewhere. Just to be fair, the White House has done a terrific job of outreach to both conservative and liberal media personalities. But I think that not going to the Gridiron is silly. Let the kids go on vacation and thank God, there is transportation readily available for the Big Guy, so he could get back and forth from wherever without any problem. I wonder if this is another case of “we’re not going to do things the way we used to do them.” And additionally, I wonder if this is another case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. What a shame it is to miss the President having a sense of humor.

And speaking of babies, guess who is not going to marry the father of hers. Yes, Bristol has decided not to marry her boyfriend Levi. Remember when I suggested we do “Free Levi” t-shirts. Well, Bristol decided to do just that. She wants to have a life. She wants to go to school. She wants to be a nurse. In her interview with Greta Van Susteren she talked about teen pregnancy and how stupid it was. What a shame she had to go through all of this. With her mother out of the spotlight, she will no longer be forced (at 19) into spending the rest of her life with a guy who happened to impregnate her –and yes, was very cute. She will spend the rest of her life trying to have a life. And she will never be in that place where she will be too old to have a baby – been there done that.

Last week I was returning from a trip and as I walked through the airport there was an announcement for Lawrence Summers to report immediately to his flight. And then Larry came huffing and puffing past me. I was heartened to see that he was still flying commercial, although my guess is he was not as happy about it as I was.
Larry Summers, who so wants to be a Cabinet Secretary but is not, and Tim Geithner, who is a Cabinet Secretary but doesn’t know how to act or look like one, both need to have real speech work—not media training.
These two guys, who have the thankless job of turning the economy around, may be doing just that but the public doesn’t know it because it is impossible to understand anything they say. And they say it with such lackluster that even if you could understand it—you wouldn’t believe it. Part of it is arrogance—that “we’re the smartest and we know best.” And part of it is that they can neither think or speak in simple terms—and I don’t mean sound bites. Our Larry, was on Face the Nation this morning. He tried to explain why AIG was still giving bonuses to their execs. He explained about contracts and complications. No one cares about explanations and contracts. The public bailed them out and the public (many of whom are without jobs and money), want to know why they are paying bonuses to people who screwed up the entire economy. They don’t want to hear that it is too complicated for mere mortals to understand. They want action and yes, retribution. They want those people to go to jail not a spa. It is truly a shame that the people who are working to solve the problems (and I assume they are) can’t instill confidence in a public that sorely needs a good dose of “yes we will.” We’re just sayin’...Iris

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Punishment Enough

Bernie Madoff’s kids are really lucky. OK the guy is a terrible sleeze and is going to go to prison for 150 years. That’s not why they are lucky. Here’s why. Even a slimy, no good, sleeze, is going to grow old. There is no place where it says it has to be gracefully. People just get old. It will happen to all of us. But Bernie may do one good thing. He has found the perfect solution to growing old and not saddling his kids with any responsibility for his welfare. As someone who is caring for an aged parent, this is not a small thing. When people talk about how he will kill himself before he gets incarcerated. I say, why would he? What has he been doing for the last six months. He has been stuck inside a luxurious apartment with no one to talk to and nothing to do-except find ways to bury his money. OK, well that’s no longer an option. Now, his family can visit him and bring cookies. He will have books, television and movies. He’s 70, so here most likely, there won’t be any heavy lifting –maybe he’ll peel a potato or two. Or maybe he’ll teach a class about investing in severe, rough, or disastrous times for the stock market. Probably they’ll let him work on a computer. His children and his wife have socked away millions. They won’t suffer. She has even asked to keep the penthouse and be compensated to the tune of 60 Mil. Even if that doesn’t happen we all know they have enough money to be happy. And isn’t happy what we wish for when it comes to our loved ones. He has the found the perfect solution to the problem of aging. Three meals a day, activities as desired and free medical care. And he doesn’t have to pass a “means test.” If only all of us had those kind of benefits when we are old.

Is this punishment enough for Mr. M? Maybe we should see what punishment means. . Punishment is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as, severe, rough, or disastrous treatment. Is that what will happen to our man Bernie? The people he cheated out of millions don’t really get anything from Bernie going ‘away’. They would probably be happier if he just gave them their money back. Obviously, that’s not going happen. His wife and kids need the cash – family first. But what would a satisfactory punishment (remember the definition), be for a guy like that? Make him watch more than one high school production of “Cats?” Oh that’s a good one.

And while we’re on the subject, David and I have taken to listening to books on tape as we drive the 250 miles from DC to NY and the additional 250 to Boston and back. We have listened to at least 30 books. Listening to books can be addictive. We are not quite as bad as our friends who were driving from St. Louis to Tampa, and when they hadn’t finished their book by Northern Florida, continued on to Miami until the book was complete. But we are stupid about our listening literature. We’ll start listening to a murder mystery and no matter how tedious, or badly written, we want to know who committed the crime. It often doesn’t matter how terrible the story is, as long as the reader is decent, but we must know the answer. It’s like we’re punishing ourselves for not reading, rather than listening to the book. So I was thinking, while we were not only listening but ranting about our current book, maybe Bernie should be made to listen to a poorly written book on tape with a bad reader. It’s so totally painful that it may provide some justice for his victims. Like every time he tries to turn off the tape the authorities say, “Oh no, this is brought to you by Elie Wiesel and the foundation you destroyed. It’s something by Carolyn Hart and you must listen until you are screaming in pain from the overly generous and thoroughly tedious description which neither adds to the story nor the narrative. Whew!

Some of my favorite punishments do fit the crime. Like the kids that try to rob the elderly and then they have to do public service by working in an elderly facility. But most judges aren’t that brave. In my estimation, the punishment should fit the crime. And since we have no control over the legal system, we should insist on a little creativity. We should insist that the perpetrator be made as miserable as the victims. In the Madoff case the money won’t be found, the guy is never going to do anything that makes anyone happy. So I think just making him as miserable as possible for the rest of his life, is the poetry his victims would read with great relish. We’re just sayin’...Iris

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Same, Same

There have been days when I thought I had nothing to write about and then ‘Poof’ there is so much to say I can’t do it in one blob. Where to begin? Let’s start with supper yesterday in the dining room at Mom’s retirement community. It’s called ‘retirement’ rather than assisted living and that makes a real difference in attitude—if not services and the kind of person who lives in the apartments. Mom sits with four other very nice women. The same can’t be said for the women who sit at the table behind them. The women who sit there are forever complaining or making some pretty outrageous statements. Here’s how yesterday’s conversation began; “My daughter says that they are not all Mexicans. That you can’t call them Mexicans because they are not from Mexico—even though they look like Mexicans. She says you have to call them ‘Spanics’. I can’t tell them apart but my daughter says they are all different.”

How’s that for 2009? OK they are old ladies, and they live in pretty much the white Northwest. But they watch TV and they certainly have seen a map of the world, and you have to know that they have heard the term ‘Hispanic’. My guess is that the discussion would have been different if it was about women, but who knows. Maybe they think all young women look alike. I didn’t participate in their conversation so I don’t know.

For whatever reason their lack of knowledge made me think about women and the ongoing battle we wage year after year, issue after issue. It’s always the same.

I’m not even going to mention the fact that a black guy rather than a white woman is President—this was not a gender issue. Hillary just ran a bad campaign. Oops, I mentioned it but let’s move on, or maybe back.

Beginning in the 1800’s women started to organize, petition, and picket for the right to vote. If you remember your history, the mid 1800s’ were also when the Civil War was fought to insure, among other things, the rights of slaves to vote. And women being women they did what they could to help the slaves obtain their right to vote—often at the expense of their own battle. Sure enough, (Voila! you might say,) the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the government from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, color or previous condition of servitude" (i.e., slavery). That Amendment was ratified at the end of the war on February 3, 1870. Guess how long it took for women (white or of color) to get the same rights. Don’t concern yourself with the addition. Women didn’t get the vote until August 18, 1920. Surprisingly (at least based on the women who chatter at Mom’s apartment complex) there were nine western states that adopted woman suffrage legislation by 1912. But it took another eight years before it became law.

Is this desire to sacrifice ourselves for someone else’s benefit or the greater good a mother thing? Or is it, "Oh no don't worry about me I'll just sit in the dark til it's my turn". Unfortunately, as a consequence of our constant sacrifice, men (and some women) think it’s OK just to set aside our needs. For example, on January 28th 2009 (yes we leapt out of the 19th century – although, as you will see it’s same, same), the House passed a version of the stimulus plan which eliminated a section that included expansion of health care services for low-income women. And why are we surprised. Women’s needs are often set aside for something deemed more important. And really, how important can low income women be? I’m not naive, of course there are equally important issues – like funding for Viagra, and sports stadiums – but fair is fair.

To his credit Tommy Thompson, former Secretary of Health and Human Services created a Department waiver so women could use Medicaid funds for cancer screenings and family planning services. The paragraph eliminated would have expanded eligibility for these programs to more low-income women, without applying for a time-consuming and costly waiver.

We have an economic crisis which impacts on everyone but especially low income women who are losing homes, jobs and health insurance. And with one stroke of a pen, the safety-net of health care and family planning services went away. One of the reasons was that it wouldn’t create jobs – pish posh. Expanding family planning to cover more people would absolutely have added health care jobs. But why dawdle about the truth when lies are so much easier to believe.

I’m not sure what women sacrificing or getting dissed has to do with Spanics all looking alike, but I think somewhere between the absurd and ridiculous we will absolutely find common ground. We’re just sayin’… Iris

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Closing the Circle

I have been a photographer since my junior year in high school. I originally joined the yearbook staff (“the Olympian”) in an attempt to broaden my “extra-curricular” activities, something my mom advised me was key to getting into college. Even the Sputnik generation needed more than simply good grades to land a proper school. In the end, while the c.v. adornment was only partially successful – I was turned down at Stanford and Pomona, though, happily, accepted at Colorado College -- my experience in the Olympus High School darkroom was transformative. Watching that first print, a simple white sheet of Kodabromide paper, bathing in the developer, become a photograph of the French Club, I was mesmerized. It had an air of alchemy, mystery, magic. I was hooked, and within literally months, I would take that school owned Rolleiflex and shoot Friday night basketball pictures which I’d try and sell for five bucks to the Salt Lake Tribune. (The key was, of course, to go to games where the Trib didn’t send their own staffer!) That was forty six years ago. I find it hard to believe that my own life has spanned such an integer. Like most baby-boomers, I still “feel” about 32 or maybe 39 on a day of fatigue. Maybe it’s the fact that I have been lucky enough to make the thing I love doing the principal source of bill paying. That is, work has never really been ‘work.’ Even what we refer to as ‘crap’ assignments bring something potentially interesting or exciting. I look at those jobs as an opportunity to try out some new technique or idea. I’m not a Pollyanna: I know which jobs are crap and which aren’t, but I think I’ve figured out over the long run how to take them in stride, and yet keep my artistic juices flowing.

Sometimes I wish I’d actually had a little more historic view of our times. A way of putting my pictures into some kind of long-term flow, or context. There are folks in my business who are able to focus, literally, on very precise and targeted projects. I guess I’m sort of a photo-slut: there are very few jobs which come my way which I don’t get at least a little bit enthusiastic about. But perhaps the thing I wish I were truly better at is the long term follow-up. American Photo magazine once described me as having “been everywhere, but only for an hour.” A slight exaggeration, to be sure, but not without a ripple of truth. So many places which I worked in my early career – projects which became significant parts of my life’s work, remain unrevisited. Chile in 1973, West Africa in 1974, Eritrea in 1977, Iran in 1979. I never managed to revisit, and take a second or third look at the aftermath of those stories. Somewhere in my inner decision making secretarial pool, on a mental corkboard, I have a long list of places I’d like to return to, people – anonymous to me then and now – who I would love to meet again. I was always terrible at getting names – the pathology of not having working for a daily paper or wire servce. And yes, time is ruthless: none of us get out of here alive. And in so many of my pictures, the desire to see people again is rubbed out by the passage of people in the intervening years.

The picture of Ayatollah Khomeini, with his inner circle, having tea in Tehran just days after his return from exile is a case in point. None of the people in the room in this picture are alive any longer. I spent two months in Iran during the Revolution in 1978-79, but haven’t been able to get a visa since then, to return to the scene, now 30 years gone, of these historical events. It remains a big void in my life as historian.

Just after the coup d’etat in Chile, in 1973, I photographed a young man who had been rounded up at university, and was going to be held for months before being released. His life changed that day, and so did mine. The picture ran in many places, and helped bring the face of the Chile coup to viewers, especially in Europe. Yet only a couple of years ago, when a Santiago newspaper ran a story asking “Who is this man?” did we finally find out who he was. Part of me didn’t want to know the answer to that question, fearful that he had been killed as so many were. But within days, friends of his contacted the paper and said that is “Daniel Cespedes --- the man in the picture.” An article with that title ran in the paper, and thirty years later, we learned that he had survived his ordeal was living south of the capital. I still haven’t been to Chile since then, a desire I keep sublimating to other more current demands.

But as this is one of the rare times when an unknown subject becomes known, I feel I need to close that circle. In fact, once Daniel was discovered, it made me ponder the idea that perhaps it would be possible to find some of the many people who unwittingly became subjects of my pictures at some random moment in time.

The mother and child in the Cambodian refugee camp, the loving mom at the Ethiopian camp.
Even a grunt helping fix a tank at Lang Vei, ca. 1971.

All of them make me feel there ought to be some way, unlikely though it sounds, of catching up with these people twenty or thirty years later.

Last Monday night, I closed one of those circles.

In the summer of 1972 I was still living in Vietnam. I was freelancing in what might have been referred to as the good ole days. Many magazines, not so many photographers, and if you found an editor who liked you, there were lots of possibilities for work. One day I took an assignment with the New York Times, to travel with their reporter, Fox Butterfield, and see what the action was up Route 1 towards Tay Ninh, just north of Saigon. It was following the spring of the North Vietnamese “Easter Offensive” and they were maintaining pressure on a number of vital places through out the country. Tay Ninh, a mere hour or so from Saigon, and supplied through Cambodia, remained one of those areas. Firefights and small skirmishes happened on a regular basis all summer. Fox and I headed north on Rt. 1, and late morning found ourselves in a small village still smoldering with the effects of the battle of the night before. This was long before the days of cell phones and Blackberrys, so there were no obvious ways of finding out what was happening other than to make a few phone calls to a military information desk, which was occasionally helpful, and just get in your car and drive. In the early afternoon we headed further north, shortly coming across a group of our colleagues massed on the edge of a small village. Trang Bang. There were all the audio accompaniments -- the sounds of battle: rifle fire, the explosion of RPGs and grenades, and the occasional ‘whump’ of a mortar. We were on a small road about a quarter mile from the village, waiting to see how the battle – between North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese troops, would play out. I was working with a slightly different mix of cameras that day. In an attempt, I suppose to take myself more seriously (don’t read all those photo magazines, people!) I had taken my two Leicas. I owned two very used cameras, in addition to my Nikomats. A wonderful M2 which I still use, and a Model III (about 1946) – a knob wind, screw mount of the early variety which, while capable of taking good pictures if you had a sharp lens on it, was prone to quirky loading and film-transport problems. But I know that in my mind, I was thinking “today I will be Cartier-Bresson.” Of course when the real photographic moments arrive, trying to “be” anyone else is always problematic. You need to just take your own photographs, in your own way.

We had been lingering on the edge of battle in this small village when a droning noise came out of the distance. Two A-1 Skyraider planes, with Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) markings started circling Trang Bang. After a couple of passes they began diving towards the village. I had finished the first roll of film in my Leica III, and had started to reload. The planes came in, lumbering along as they do, and dropped big canisters of napalm. Moments later there was a fiery explosion, and a large fireball erupted on the edge of the village near a pagoda, followed by billows of dark smoke. I was still struggling to slide the Tri-x into my Leica, with one eye watching the planes and one on the camera. The planes made a couple of passes, the film still resisting to go into that narrow loading slot on the Leica. Then, all of a sudden everything changed.

At the end of the road, we could see some kind of movement coming out from the smoke. It looked like a small group of people, who reached the road, then turned and started running towards us. To my left, Nick Ut, the AP photographer, and Alex Shimkin, a tall, lanky Newsweek stringer both understood what had happened, and immediately began running down the road towards the village, and the oncoming villagers. Within a few seconds, I got my camera loaded, the back closed, and started down the road myself. By then, the moment had passed. That picture which became the iconic image of the war was in Nick Ut’s camera. The crying children, running from the flames, had made it to where the cameramen were, and for a moment were waiting, wondering what to do next. The little girl in the picture, who had torn off her burning clothes, was having a canteen of water poured on her burns in an attempt to cool them off. Then a few seconds later, the children began running again, up the road to where the press vehicles were parked. That moment was over, literally in a moment. There was no lingering. It was the horror of life, happening. Within another minute or so, out of the distant smoky mist came a man carrying a woman on his back, and a minute after that, an auntie carrying the lifeless body of a burned baby. It was, in fact, a scene which had played out hundreds of times in Vietnam over the preceding decade, innocent villagers caught up in one sort of crossfire, or another.

Within a few minutes, Nick guided the burned children into his car, and headed to the hospital where he made sure they would be looked after. Then he headed to the AP where I was on my way, all of us to process our film. AP was the basic lifeline for daily press who were working in Saigon. If you needed films processed, prints made, and images to be sent over the wire to New York, AP was the hub. I’d dropped my films off, and was waiting to see what I had. I will never forget the moment when Nick came out of the darkroom, holding that picture for the first time, a wet 5x7” print, in his hands. Ours were the first eyes to see it. That summer Horst Faas, the two time Pulitzer winner who had spent years in Vietnam, was back and in charge of the picture side of the bureau. Well, even if he weren’t technically the chief of the picture side, wherever Horst went, he was in charge. There was a transcendent moment. Horst, a big rugby player of a European, and Nick Ut, a slight, unassuming Vietnamese, coming together again at a focal point of history. We all looked at Nick’s picture. “Well,” I thought, “that is way better than anything I have.” Horst paused a minute, and said in his most authoritative Germanic accent, “You do good work today, Nick Ut.” It was a profound compliment. Discussions ensued for sometime about whether the picture could be put on the wire since it involved “nudity” though clearly no rule ever written had this picture in mind. And in a matter of 24 hours, the photograph went from being viewed by our dozen eyes in the AP office, to tens of millions around the world.

But, what of the children. The girl, Kim Phuc, spent months in rehab, before finally getting to return to her village. She received medical help along the way, including from foreign medical teams in Vietnam, and eventually, as she came into adulthood, traveled to Cuba for study. Once there, she met and married another Vietnamese student, and a couple of years later they defected to Canada, where they live today. She has a foundation, the “Kim Phuc” foundation which is dedicated to helping child victims of war get the help they need. Finally, the other night, I got to see her again after nearly 37 years. German television, who it must be said, remains unafraid to spend money to create great work, had assembled a crew in Washington, and arranged for Nick and Kim Phuc to come to town for an interview. I, as someone who happened to be on Route 1 that day, was interviewed as well. And Monday night we all met again in Georgetown. With a small light illuminating us from the tv camera, we walked in the Washington chill across M street for half an hour, speaking of that day, of the times since, Kim’s children, and how we felt about the reunion. I’ve seen Nick a number of times over the years, but to walk, the three of us, and try and bridge all those years was very satisfying. I wanted to make a picture of Kim Phuc and Nick. I’d hoped to do it earlier in the day, in the beautiful light of a fading afternoon, but their planes were late, and we ended up shooting in the hotel cafeteria. It wasn’t a ‘crap’ assignment. But trying to make a picture which holds those 37 years together is not easy. Not as satisfying, perhaps, as simply knowing we are all alive and able to embrace.
cr: Hyungwon Kang
Kim Phuc radiates a kind of warmth and understanding which can only come from pain. But she has risen above her pain, and now tries to counsel others on theirs. Simply by example. The world has moved on. Ten years ago I returned one afternoon to Trang Bang while on a trip to Vietnam. But, having been drawn there, I didn’t know what I thought I would find, or even what I was looking for. Here, where the bombs had fallen and children run in fear, lay a bucolic countryside. Serenely beautiful Vietnamese school girls, their ao-dai dresses fluttering in the wind drove by in what seemed like slow motion on their motorbikes. Three wheeled trucks carrying produce buzzed like yellow jackets on the highway. In the distance the quiet of the village, and its pagoda seemed to have forgotten what happened on that June day in 1972. And maybe for a moment that was all right. Spending that evening with Nick and Kim was a little step to helping me close that circle. We’re just sayin’..David
(as always, click on an image to see it full size)
Just got the film back (it does take longer than digital...)

Meet Ava Buttle

Meet my friend Ava Buttle. She lives in a million different places all over the country – but mostly in assisted living facilities and retirement homes. Ava does get around. She’s easy to find but not always easy to explain. You see, Ava often doesn’t know where she is, how she got there, the time of day, or for that matter the month or year. You may have guessed that Ava is not a person but a condition. Ava Buttle is a Jewish word, most likely spelled avabutle or evabutel, rather than Ava Buttle, but I like to think of it as a her because it makes it so much more personal. Anyway, you use it to describe someone who is confused, or disoriented.

The other day, we were at dinner at Mom’s retirement center. I don’t actually eat there because they eat breakfast at 7 lunch at 11 and dinner at 4:30. It’s too early or too close together for me to enjoy a meal, but I do like sitting with the ladies and making either parallel or scatty conversation. The parallel conversation is when they talk to one another but since no one can hear the answers are always colorful. Like Mom asked Elizabeth how her night was and Elizabeth answered that she hadn’t had a fight with anyone. It was Ok because Mom (not hearing the answer) said “I wish I could say the same”. I have no idea what she thought she heard but they all seem satisfied with the interaction.

The scatty conversation is a bit more disturbing but can also be amusing. Margaret’s friend Ava Buttle never goes on vacation. When Margaret comes to meals she is never sure which one she is eating, but as long as it doesn’t have cream, it doesn’t seem to bother her. Yesterday, we took Mom back to her apartment after dinner and I thought I better just check to see if Margaret had made it back to her apartment. Sure enough, she was wandering the hall. I took her back to her room. She opened the door with the key on a lanyard around her neck. I said goodbye and she asked me if I had taken the key. “No Margaret”, I said, “It’s around your neck” “Well I’ll be” she said, “How did it get there.” “ Not sure, but goodnight Margaret and goodnight Ava” I said.

It occurs to me that the economy is avabutle, or maybe I am avabutle about the economy. Either way, there is serious confusion. The reports today are that the stock market hasn’t been this low since 1996. I was relieved rather than upset. 1996 was a pretty good year. Clinton was asking us to build a bridge to the next century. People were working, had homes, and made investments. It was a happy time. Gore may have continued to build the bridge. We will never know. Bush just wanted to sell it to the highest bidders—most of whom were his friends. Then, shamefully there was the war and additionally, the banks, lenders, speculators, and all kinds of corporations, got greedy. We seemed to change from a country ready to walk into the future, to a country that only wanted more, more, more, without thinking about the consequences of what that meant.

The President has been in office for a little over a month. He is anything but avabutel. (Yes, I am even avabuttle about the spelling – Yiddish words are never spelled the same way twice.) So far he has held an Economic Summit and a Health Care Summit. He is realistic but speaks optimistically about the future. He seems to be rebuilding that bridge to the future. It’s not easy. He is fighting the constant haranguing by the cable news networks and the do nothing Republicans. But I’m thinking, a little touch of 1996 is not a bad thing. And as long as he’s OK ---see you later Ava. We’re just sayin’…. Iris

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Just A Little Nuts

The other day I was walking down the street, texting on my cell. Somewhere between Avenues I noticed there was an old woman following me. She did not appear to be a homeless person or for that matter a nut, but I was wrong. She was clearly a little whacky. You may remember the song “Me and My Shadow”. Well when it’s performed, one of the actors trails the other step for step so you get the idea that they are the shadow. This woman was doing a pretty good job of reenacting that performance but without the music. Although it might have been playing in her head – which is something none of us will ever know.

At some point I turned around to see if she was actually following me or if she was simply walking very close to me. And, in fact, she was following me step for step. Turning around was apparently the signal she was waiting for in order to make conversation. “Is that an adding machine?”, she asked. I told her it was not. She continued to follow me. “Well then, what are you doing?” I told her I was sending a text message. “How does it work?” I told her that I didn’t know, and I quickened my steps hoping I could out run her.

Have you ever tried to run and text at the same time? It can’t be done—at least not achieve any success doing either. Then I realized I was running from some batty old lady and that it didn’t make any sense. I turned quickly and almost knocked her down. “What do you want?” I shouted at her. “Nothing,” she answered and walked away. Of course then I felt guilty. She was probably someone’s lonely mother who simply wanted a human connection. Then I thought, I’m taking care of my mother, let her kids take care of her.

Later in the day, when I got home, I opened an e-mail from the GOP. Why I am on a GOP e-mail list is beyond me, but their correspondence is often amusing. This one was as amusing as the old woman playing shadow. (You knew I would make a transition to something even if it began as unlikely). The message was from Michael Steele the new Chair of the GOP who for a few brief moments took on Rush Limbaugh about his speech to the Conservatives in the Republican Party. Steele called Limbaugh an entertainer. Can you imagine? He said Limbaugh’s show was incendiary and ugly. Whoa, then the big guns like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity got mad and called Steele names like doody ball and poo poo head. It frightened him to the point where he felt it necessary to explain what he had said. “My intent was not to go after Rush,” Steele told Politico’s Mike Allen. “I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh. I was maybe a little bit inarticulate. There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership.”

His voice and his leadership? Are these people kidding? I love Steven Colbert but I would never call him a leader in any political party – although he is both smarter and more entertaining than Rush Limbaugh. But back to my message from Mr. Steele this morning. It was a letter about preventing Al Franken (a comedian who could become a leader in the Democratic Party though if it happens it will have been through the electoral process), from taking his seat in the Senate. That part wasn’t a surprise but the note started with this: “I am using new technology to spread our conservative message and remind voters that our party is the one and only true party of the people.”

The ‘one and only true party of the people,’ whose leader (Steele acknowledged this in his apology) Rush Limbaugh, wants the President’s plan to get the economy on track and help to make things better for ‘the people,’ fail. For whatever reason I flashed back to the old lady and thought, she should be going step for step with a few of these whacky people in the Republican Party, And she should be asking them the same question. “What are you doing?” My bet is that the answer will be pretty much the same --- “Nothing.” We’re just sayin’....Iris

Monday, March 02, 2009

They Just Don't Get It

It’s so interesting (and by interesting I mean painful), to listen to people, who have no regard for anyone else, or for that matter, a brain—like Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh. Here are people who, because they make so much money, are totally out of touch with the suffering of millions of real people. It’s easy for them to name call and pontificate about all the things the Democrats will do. That is their right. But how dare they hope that the President’s stimulus package fail? How dare they hope that people continue to lose jobs, lending never begins and the banks fail. Rush Limbaugh just signed a contract for 100 million dollars. Quite simply, he does not want to pay taxes on this money. And Ann Coulter continues to write lies for thousands of dollars and make appearances and to sell books. She does not want to pay taxes on that money. They would rather the whole country go down the tubes. What more do you need to know about their minds, credibility, or dare I say patriotism.

But let’s turn the clock back for just a moment and reflect on what the Republicans did—or specifically, what George Bush (who came to office blabbing about the size of the government) did. He was going to balance budgets and keep the government under control. But when he came to office there was a $128 billion surplus. Whatever you may think of Bill Clinton’s cavorting in the White House, that's surplus. In Bush's budget for 2009, which was submitted last February, the deficit was projected to be $407 billion, or 2.7 percent of GDP.

Just FYI, and I know this is not a surprise, there are two kinds of government spending. One is mandatory and that includes entitlement programs, and the other is discretionary – wars, defense spending, homeland security, and programs such as farm subsidies and education. Social Security is off budget—not included. The Congress and the President decide what goes to whom and how much. During the Bush Administration, discretionary outlays increased about 35.8 percent. In 2006 it was over $2.7 trillion, which means the federal government spends $7.4 billion a day or $5.1 million in every minute of the year. According to the Mises Institute (not a bunch of liberal Democrats) Government increased over 45%. This is 815 times the level of federal spending in 1930. I hope I don’t have to explain about 1930—even I wasn’t alive then.

The stock market went down another 300 points today. David says it doesn’t matter unless you want to sell something. One of my heros, Donna, told me four months ago to get out because the stock market was going to go to nothing. I poo pooed that, but it could be she was right—it’s almost there now. So what could the Limbaughs and Ann Coulters be thinking? If they repeat themselves enough times people will believe them? This may have been the case a year or more likely two years ago. But no longer. What the right wing pundits and the conservative Republicans don’t get is that people want the President to succeed and it’s not about politics, it’s about saving their lives. How short-sighted, selfish and without any sense of compassion one needs to be to think otherwise. People don’t want to hear about how big the government is going to get with Obama. They know how big it got with George Bush and in eight years he did nothing to stop the economic disaster that he had to know was looming at our shores.

Today I went to the market in New York to buy Jordan some throat coating tea. At home, and even in New Jersey, I pay $2.50 for the privilege of coating any throat that needs it. I thought about Jordan’s flu-like dilemma and the fact that she has two auditions tomorrow but I couldn’t make the purchase (it was seven bucks!) Financially we are still OK, but I just can’t afford to spend that kind of money for something I can buy for half the price if I go across town. Thinking about what I spend for food is a definite change for me. But who knows where the market will be tomorrow. When I was 28 I lived in a car. I remember what that was like. I never want to do it again (I’m less flexible and certainly a bit more cranky) and I certainly don’t want my kids to ever be in that place. But unless we all try to make what the President proposes a success—we can just line up our vehicles. All I can say is shame on Rush Limbaugh and all the people who do not understand how important the cry for bi-partisan cooperation is at this very critical time. We’re just sayin’....Iris

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Ever So Murky

I'm sittin' in 10C, a seat on the 4:30 Vamoose from New York to DC on a Sunday evening, attempting to beat tonight's snowstorm home. Vamoose is one of the many bus lines which has discovered that in the age of "cheap" air travel there is still an enormous market for "really cheap" bus runs. The last minute fare for a DC-NY shuttle flight is way over two hundred bucks, one way, and even the vaunted Amtrak service has become injuriously priced. The fast Acela is often over $200, and the slower, less groovy trains are usually in the $100 range but can be half again that much at crunch times. Like the airlines, the train has become subject to willow-in-the-wind-like market responses. As soon as the internet traffic starts to show a lot of people are interested in a train, the price goes up, up, up. Even with my 15% Senior discount, its the price of a good meal to get home. On the bus, and there are a variety of them now available, the fares are usually in the twenty dollar range -- a big lunch for two at Chipotle, let's say. Quarters tend to be a bit cramped, and if the foreign student in front of you leans back into your lap to do his sudoku puzzle, getting to the john can be a challenge. But not as interesting as being IN the john, while the bus is hailing along at full speed. There is a cartoon warning in the toilet, rather like one of those IKEA furniture instructions, advising you (guys, that is) NOT to stand and pee, but to sit, like the girls. The thing is, and I'm sure every "sure, I put the seat up" guy would agree with me, sitting like the girls must is no bargain. The guys (standing) on that bus couldn't hit a toilet bowl at two paces, let alone standing next to it in an oscillating bus, careening along the Turnpike. It's kind of a mess, and Ladies, let me apologize for all the louts who have made the bus toilet such an unpleasant experience. I know it doesn't really make it better, but it's all I can offer. [Editor's note: Bring your OWN toilet paper. You have been warned.]

Decades ago, on my first trip to west Africa, I was waiting for the bus/truck (it looked like a truck, but acted like a bus) to head north to Mopti (in Mali.) I got to the bus station square early so I could pay my extra "colonial" fee, and sit next to the driver, and thus not bounce around in the back of the truck. But given the inevitable departure delays, I eventually had to relieve myself. I wandered over to a long, waist-high cinder block wall where I had seen Malien man flock, and tried to become one with my host country. The problem was simple. The men were all wearing a galabayha (sp.) - a long and somewhat fluffy ankle length gown meant to protect one from the sun, and hang loosely enough that you could just grab it up if you had to mount a horse, or.... have a slash (a British expression.) The men I watched all grabbed their gowns, knelt down below the cinderblock wall, and peed into the little decades old trough. They were out of view of the passing market throngs. Trying not to stand out, I too tried kneeling. But, and this is important, if you are wearing jeans or some other trouser style clothing, and are not endowed like John Holmes, you are in trouble. There is just too much distance and too many curves involved to get a clear shot. I kept trying to figure out for several minutes how I might accomplish this. Readjust the zipper. Slide the jeans down my hips a few inches. Pull my u-trou up a bit. Nothing worked. Finally, a man who I can only imagine was the sage Chief Justice of the Mali Supreme Court, who just happened to be walking by and noticed my feeble attempts at blending in, said "You may just stand..." I stood, and commenced to relieve myself (by now it was not a question of waiting on niceties), in full view of downtown Bamako, as streams of women shoppers and male merchants passed by the other side of the wall. It was kind of like the Delaware rest stop, except all the people at the rest stop were staring at me. Sometimes life, even in these confusing times, is boiled down to the simplest elements. Some day I plan to ask an 18th century historian what our ancestors used before the invention of Charmin and the flush toilet. But that's a different blob.

The simplest of things remain, however, the key to happiness in life, I am convinced. (Technically speaking, winning this week's 212 million dollar MegaMillions Lotto would be a simple act, one I could deal with.) Two weeks ago in the Dallas airport, in between flights, I went to grab a (decaf) coffee at one of those Starbucks look-alike places. I think this one was called Texas Coffee, and when I approached, a sole worker lay in wait for me. I asked for a coffee, "leave room for milk", and proceeded to pay him. His name tag revealed a name that, from years of parking in DC garages, I knew was Ethiopian. I asked him how long he'd been in Texas, and as I started to take a wiff of the pure Arabica beans, I was transported to a night thirty years ago, when I'd been driving through the north of Ethiopia near the Eritrean border. We'd tried to drive east to Barentu, my colleagues from the Eritrean Liberation Front, reporter Dean Brelis, and myself. Into the night, the recent rains had stopped us cold, truck wheels stuck in the newly created mud flats, and finally after several hours, we turned back to where we'd begun the trip. About midnight we got out of the truck and lay down on the grassy hill, next to a small fire. A young boy, no more than 7 or 8 was tending the fire, and charged with making tea in a small fist sized tea pot. His fingers became a blur as he poured water, put in the leaves and sugar, and added some freshly cut bits of ginger. He stewed the pot on the flames for a short while, then poured the rich tea into a shot glass, then back into the pot. He repeated this several times, mixing the elements perfectly, heating them just to the limit of sipping. He handed me the first glass, and as I sipped it, sitting underneath that incredible star filled African sky, I realized it was the most delicious drink I'd ever tasted. Sipping the sweet tea, with the background noise of a small fleet of goats munching their late night supper created one of the most sublime moments of my life. I leaned back, fell asleep right there, and awoke hours later, feeling as if I was being smothered by a furry blanket. There was that noise again. Eyes opened, I realized that my head was being straddled by a goat who was simply looking for breakfast, and my face happened to be in the way of his hind feet. We had more tea that morning but nothing ever, before or since, had the magnetism of that starlit ginger tea.

So when I asked the man at Texas Coffee if he knew where is fortune really lay, he looked at me quizzically. "Ginger tea, my friend, ginger tea!" I began to describe the making of the tea.. small pots, sugar, fresh ginger.. and his eyes came alive. "You know what I'm talking about, don't you?" and of course he nodded yes. "But," he shrugged, "this is not my place" pointing to the newly polished Italian espresso machine. "What can I do?" My parting words were "Save your money from here, and open your own ginger tea will make you rich."

I'm still astonished to see how much money is made from tea and coffee in this world, and no place continues to fake me out more than the Murky Cafe in Arlington (VA). This is the place which doesn't put capuccino or espresso drinks over ice because it's against their rules. There was a big brouhaha last summer over said rules, and while they do make an astoundingly delicious latte, certain other bloggers on this blob project refuse to step foot inside the place. I recently went with Jordan for a quick cup, and saw that they haven't lost their quirkiness. One of the new touches all over Arlington, in the county's bid to put revenue raising above all other services (Burnett's First Law of Bureaucracy: Foremost among all bureaucrats' objectives is maintaining the viability of the Bureaucracy -- and thus their power/employment -- and this is done by raking in money by whatever means) they have put those Brussels style pay-parking machines outside the cafe. You walk to machine, insert quarters or credit card (a dime no longer buys you any time), and buy up to two hours of parking time, wait for a receipt which you place on the dashboard of your car. Just remember that the Belgians, notwithstanding the fact that they eat better than anyone but the Italians in Europe, haven't had a working government for something like two years. Maybe the Walloons just didn't adjust to the new parking methods.

Yet, inside Murky, which sits across the street from the George Mason Univ. Law School, the promise of free wi-fi and good java keeps things very busy and very quiet. When you enter, not unlike the college version of "I'm going to the library to study... and watch for chicks", every head in the place turns to check you out. I've never actually been scoffed at, but I do challenge this method of study as perhaps a specious one.

Remember, there were two kinds of people who went to the library to study: the 8 kids who went to those private desks buried deep back in the stacks, and everyone else. Here, in an atmosphere where you could actually hear a pin being dropped, people seem to sit endlessly studying contract law or perhaps deviantly, the Style page of the Washington Post. God forbid you actually try and have a conversation. In Vienna, the few coffee houses ... er ah.. Kaffee Haus' I visited seemed more ripe for intellectual engagement than mere self aggrandizment. Chat in a coffee house actually meant two or more people speaking with vocal chords, intonations and inflections, rather than simply tapping keyboards. How far we've come.

I will say that inspite of their sometimes paranoid view of how to construct coffee beverages, the Murky baristas do know how to pour the cream top into a madcap flower, leaf, or picture of Thos. Jefferson wearing a rattail.

It's creamy, richly so, infusing the coffee with an almost icecreamery richness. And when you get to the bottom of the cup, you feel somehow obliged to rescue the last drams of inflated cream, resting on that distant cup recess.

Delicious. Now, if only we could figure out a way to bring my Ethiopian friend and his knowledge of sweet ginger tea to a place like the Murky where we could post all kinds of wacky Rules. Maybe something like "no straws with our tea," or "all tea served with processed white sugar: we will not use Equal or Splenda." At least it would be our rules, and we could change them at will, inflicting our petty desires on the market place as a whole. Sounds like just the kind of new econ model for the times we live in. We're just sayin'... David
Jordan finishes a soy latte