Monday, October 31, 2011

Poisoning Democracy

I have just finished reading the excellent article by Jane Mayer, which appeared in a recent New Yorker magazine.  Entitled "State for Sale," the article chronicles the activities of Art Pope in North Carolina where he has successfully taken over the state legislature. How? you might ask.

Well, he bought enough Republican seats to change the state legislature in North Carolina--a state that voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and where both houses of the state general assembly had not been controlled by ONE party for a hundred plus years.

Here's how the article opens:  "In the spring of 2010, the conservative political strategist Ed Gillespie flew from Washington, D.C., to Raleigh, North Carolina, to spend a day laying the groundwork for REDMAP, a new project aimed at engineering a Republican takeover of state legislatures. Gillespie hoped to help his party get control of statehouses where congressional redistricting was pending, thereby leveraging victories in cheap local races into a means of shifting the balance of power in Washington."

The basic strategy was to go after elected officials and paint them as too liberal.  Throw enough money at something, and you can change people's minds.  And that's exactly what happened.

This strategy has eerie echoes of the current efforts of the Koch brothers.  In another New Yorker article--titled "Covert Operations"--Jane Mayer had also chronicled the Koch brothers' rise in political financing circles.  These billionaire brothers have set up various foundations which primed the pump by funding the "grassroots" rise of the so-called Tea Party.  No wonder some pundits refer to the Tea Party as an AstroTurf movement. 

Along about now, are you wondering--so what?  As the Mayer article on Art Pope unfolds, you learn that the tactics used were to target Democrats, throw buckets of money into ad campaigns that smeared these candidates and spread misinformation about them.  In one instance, a candidate who had dark hair and dark skin was identified as Hispanic.  The Pope money helped fund a campaign ad that showed the candidate with a sombrero and a tag line of "Mucho Taxo! Adios, SeƱor!"

What makes this disturbing trend of excess money being thrown into political campaigns is the recent Supreme Court decision on Citizens United.  You can follow the link to Wikipedia to read the basics of the case, but in brief the Supreme Court held that corporations WERE people and had First Amendment rights to free speech.  Thus, the Federal Election Commission could not limit the amount of money corporations could spend on political campaigns.  The result of this decision is that the election process is being flooded with money, with the sources largely untraceable, as reporting requirements do not apply in many instances.  One news commentator noted that another country--say China--could throw huge sums of money at a campaign to turn the outcome of an election in its favor on an issue such as environmental deregulation. 

The result of this convergence is, I fear, a poisoning of democracy.  Of course voters should be better educated.  Of course people should do their homework before they mark a ballot for a candidate.  Of course people should ignore ads that misidentify someone as Hispanic (never mind the so-what response that we really should give to such an identification).  We have lost far too much of our critical thinking skills as it is--can democracy really survive as a political system when the electoral process is so polluted by far too much money?

A recent Writer's Almanac included a quote from our second president, John Adams: "Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Our Bodies, Ourselves

40 years old!  It's hard to believe that 40 years ago, a group of women got together and wrote a small pamphlet which helped alter women's awareness of their bodies.

Titled appropriately Our Bodies, Ourselves, this booklet dealt with subjects that were taboo in the early days of women's liberation.  It talked about human sexuality in frank straightforward terms.  It gave detailed descriptions of the types of birth control available.  And it used rudimentary drawings to show female anatomy.

Hard to believe that such information was revolutionary, but it was.  I bought one of the first versions of this booklet--a newsprint paper version that did not hold up well to constant consultation.  Then I got an upgraded version with a more substantial cover that helped the book weather all the use.

I soon got one to give to my sister, who is 12 years my junior.  As I recall, my sister took her copy and disappeared into her bedroom for hours.  Since at that time, she was a teen, no doubt she too was learning things she had not known about her body, herself.

When I had a daughter, and when she was a preteen, I gave her a copy.  She too took her copy and disappeared into her bedroom for a time.

One of the things my parents did absolutely right in raising me was to always be very straightforward when it came to talking about human sexuality.  This booklet was written in that same vein--straightforward information.  Truth is always better than myth.

As our children were  growing up, my husband and I likewise were very straightforward with them.  Inevitably, both our son and our daughter, as they grew up, asked the inevitable questions:  "How did I get to be born?"  Many parents have that experience--it is even the subject of comedy.  Mothers or fathers tongue-tied, unable to tell their children in direct language about human sexuality.

Well, that was not us.  We always used correct terms, completely avoiding euphemisms.  I recall one day when a neighbor several houses up the street from us asked me if we had told our son "about sex."  Of course, I said, why?  Because, she said, their son (about the same age as our son) had asked them something he learned from our son.  Well, I said, haven't you talked with him? Oh, no, she said, he's too young.  My response--if he's asking his friends, he's not too young.

So, many many thanks to the women of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective.  I just hope that we don't lose all the gains of women controlling their bodies, their selves, in the next 40 years.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

DAY TRIP--Fallingwater

(this photo is from the Wikipedia page on Fallingwater--all the others were ones I took during our day trip)

Our next day trip covered a few more miles than the one to Hawk Mountain.  We decided to go to Fallingwater, a place neither of us had ever seen.  Fittingly, this lovely house (but, oh, so much more than a house) is a U.S. National Historic Landmark, as well as being on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

The day began with most unpromising weather--yet another day of rain.  We drove across the PA Turnpike in a pouring rain that made driving anything but a delight.

Just as we reached Fallingwater, the clouds began to clear and snippets of sunshine peaked from behind the remaining clouds that were reluctant to leave.

Autumn has finally arrived--the leaves were not quite as bright as I had hoped.  Autumn is my favorite time of year--and I look forward to the splashy displays of vermilion, yellow, and orange.  There is just enough color now to satisfy me.

After checking in at the Visitors' Center, we waited for our tour group number to be called.  Then we walked down a crunching gravel path to Fallingwater.  

No photographs are permitted inside the house, so I had to content myself with views from the outside.  

A little history is in order.  Anyone who grew up in western Pennsylvania knows the name Kaufmann's Department Store.  For decades, this department store was the height of upscale shopping.  This downtown Pittsburgh store was the kind of place people got dressed up to visit.  Maybe you remember the days when department stores had ladies with gloves operating the elevators.  Kaufmann's was that kind of place.

By the time Edgar Kaufmann, Sr. was running the store, the Kaufmann family had a country retreat location on Bear Run, some 76 plus miles southeast of Pittsburgh.  They wanted to have a house built on the location.  Through various contacts, Edgar Kaufmann engaged the services of Frank Lloyd Wright.  He fully expected that Wright would design a house that would face the lovely view of the waterfalls.  Imagine his surprise when Wright's design called for the house to be built OVER the waterfalls.

What followed is a well-known story of twists and turns in the building process.  Not only was the location a surprise, but the design itself was revolutionary.  Wright called for cantilevered reinforced concrete balconies  that were the primary features of the house extending over the waterfalls.  The conversation flowed back and forth between Kaufmann and Wright.  Some of the controversy swirled around whether or not Wright's design could, in fact, be built.  Of course, eventually it was. 

When Kaufmann Senior died, his son Edgar Kaufmann, jr. (who, for some reason, insisted on the lower case j for jr.) inherited some of his father's wealth along with Fallingwater.  The son Edgar was an only child--and, as it happened, he was also gay.  He never married, though he did have a long term partner.  Since Edgar, fils, was childless, he made plans for Fallingwater to be deeded to Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which occurred in 1963.

The house was, in many ways, a glorious failure.  While it was being built, the soundness of design was the subject of constant communication between Wright and Kaufmann, Sr.  Eventually, during the 1990s, the house had to be reconstructed to shore up the cantilevers.  The last work, which finally appears to resolved the structural problems, was done in 2002.

While the house was being built, Edgar jr. joined the fray, defending Wright.  It is telling--at least to me--that when Edgar jr. was selecting a career, he eschewed retail altogether, having no interest in the life of running a chain of department stores.  His passion?  Art.  He studied during the 1920s  at the School for Arts and Crafts at the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna.     He also was a residence apprentice in architecture at Wright's Taliesen East school in the mid 1930s.

Edgar jr. went on to become the  Director of the Industrial Design Department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  He also authored a book on Frank Lloyd Wright.

What a day trip.  Not sure if we have energy for another such trip this autumn, but if we do, I will surely let you know.

Friday, October 07, 2011

DAY TRIP--Hawk Mountain

While my husband and I enjoy traveling, usually when we talk about a trip, we mean A TRIP—you know, somewhere away that takes multiple days. For example, we could travel to San Diego or to London.

What we have not done as much of is take day trips. Pennsylvania, where we live,offers a number of delightful destinations for day trips. And October is such a lovely time of year in the northeast, where leaves turning brilliant colors make a perfect backdrop for a day trip.

This week we set out for Hawk Mountain. We have been members for years, maybe even decades, but have never traveled there.

The story of Hawk Mountain is one of the power of individual effort and the need to respect and preserve nature. It began with a young man named Richard Pough who had recently graduated from college. He was a budding conservationist. Having heard of a place near Reading, PA called Hawk Mountain, he decided to visit.

At that time, the Pennsylvania Game Commission had placed a bounty prize on the heads of goshawks--$5 a head. The thinking was to eradicate any predator in the wild, including birds. (It is a huge irony that humans, the greatest predators of all time, would make such a determination to try to exterminate other predators.)

Pough* found a scene of incredible destruction—hundreds of raptors shot dead by hunters. He returned the following weekend with a camera, gathering up the dead birds which he lined up and photographed.

The photos helped galvanize other like-minded people, including a New York philanthropist named Rosalie Edge. She had the means to secure the land around Hawk Mountain. She first leased it, and 1934 she installed a warden to keep hunters away.

Within a year, all hunting there had ceased. She went on to purchase the 1,400 acres and the next year opened the Sanctuary. She then deeded the site to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary which incorporate in 1938 as a non-profit organization. Today, the bulk of funding for the place comes from member support.

That makes Hawk Mountain the world’s first—and largest— refuge for birds of prey.

Why Hawk Mountain? The mountain, part of the Appalachian chain, sits right in the middle of one of the North American flyways. The sanctuary is well-developed with trails to various lookout points over the valley below.

On a clear day, such as the one we traveled on, the unobstructed view across the valley is some 70 miles. The main trail is about one third easy walking and two thirds climb over rocky terrain. One mile out to the North lookout point, and one mile back is a good walk in the woods.

We didn’t see too many raptors. The turkey vultures were out in force, riding the thermals with such ease, almost mockingly. One kept swooping in right where we were sitting as if to say “Look at me. You can’t do this.” We also saw red tail hawks, an American kestrel, and a bald eagle in the distance.

The two primary lookout points have volunteers and interns during all the hours the Sanctuary is open. They do a daily count, which you can see here. Sharp-shinned hawks, the ones most prevalent during the first week on October, were not to be seen during our trip.

Day trips? Yes, we plan more and I will photography and report on each.
*Art Pough went on to lead an amazing life as a conservationist. He helped found the Nature Conservancy. As his obituary in 2003 notes (he lived for 99 years) he served “stints at the National Audubon Society and the American Museum of Natural History… he wrote a series of Audubon guides on birds; helped to get a law banning the sale of wild-bird feathers; became one of the first to warn of the dangers of DDT; established several important preservation groups; and inadvertently established the house finch population of the eastern United States.”

Monday, October 03, 2011

Sing Out!

When our kids were just wee, we had several tapes with children's songs. The tapes were called "Wee Sing..." There was a "Wee Sing America," "Wee Sing Silly Songs," "Wee Sing Bible Songs," and on and on with the "Wee Sing" series.

Many of these songs were ones I knew, and had sung as a child. Some I did not know, but had great fun learning. I learned new favorites: "Boom, Boom Ain't It Great to be crazy," and "Little Bunny Foo Foo." Frankly, I mustn't get started recalling all these songs. Remembering them brings a HUGE smile to my face, but it will distract me from my subject here.

Oh, just one more side-track. One favorite song was "Catch A Little Fox." You know the words:

A hunting we will go, a hunting we will go,
Heigh ho, the dairy-o, a hunting we will go!
A hunting we will go, a hunting we will go,
We'll catch a little fox and put him in a box,
And then we'll let him go!

We would play this portion of the tape, and our daughter who was around one year old would listen intently. When the chorus line came--Catch a little fox and put him in a box, And then we'll let him go!" she would sit up, and join in merrily. As soon as the chorus was over, she went back to quiet listening. We would back the tape up again and again, and every time got the exact same reaction from her. Kind of like a wind-up doll.

So, what got me off on the subject of singing "Wee Sing" songs? Well, recently I attended a church meeting. NO, no--we did not sing "Wee Sing" songs--but we may as well have. The entire church was filled, and hardly anyone used the music. Instead, the words were projected on a screen, and people dutifully read the words. Hardly anyone bothered to sing harmony, or even knew that such a thing existed.  What a let-down.

Now, I confess, if there's something I really enjoy it is singing in four-part harmony. But, if Coke ran that old classic commercial today--I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony--the words would have to be changed.

We are losing--or maybe have already lost--our ability to sing in public. Certain styles of popular music seem to avoid melody at all costs. Televised singing contests, a la American Idol, have elevated harsh vocal performance to an art. I have a friend who teaches voice, and invariably when she gets new students, there's always someone who wants to sing "like they do on American Idol." My friend patiently explains that that's not singing. 

One of the most popular television shows, when I was a college student, was Hootenanny.  OK, you can follow the link and figure out my age...  This show aired on Saturday night.  It was practically required viewing on campus.  Admittedly, in the early days of television, there were very few places to watch it.  So, the college student lounge was a natural gathering place.  By acclimation, Hootenanny was the show of choice.  (And, on Saturday mornings, it was "Rocky and Bullwinkle.  Sigh, the good old days.)  Hootenanny featured many groups who did nothing but sing, sing, sing.

Think of the times now that we do sing together in public?  Don't include church.  And what do you get?  Maybe, if you attend a sports event, you sing the National Anthem--and just hope that someone isn't butchering it in the process.

I can think of a song for almost every occasion.  It doesn't take much inspiration for me.  A day without clouds?  "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" or "Blue Skies, Smiling at Me."  A cold gloomy day "Oh, The Weather Outside is Frightful."  And so on.

I don't really know how to revive singing.  But, I think we've lost something very special.  Maybe we could start by using songbooks instead of projection screens.  We could skip watching "American Idol" and go instead to a sing-along concert.  We'd better hurry--soon, no one will remember what songs we had.

Sing out!