28 June 2010

"The Supergirls" by Mike Madrid

Mike Madrid
Date of publication: 1 September 2009
ISBN: 1935259032
334 pages

The thesis for The Supergirls is obvious; Mike Madrid explores the depiction of women in the superhero world, and as one might expect, he concludes that more often than not, they have been mistreated.  The text is presented in a very accessible fashion that does not pre-suppose much familiarity with the characters and stories he cites throughout, though I do feel he should have done a clearer job explaining a few major industry-wide events.  For the most part, the book is structures chronologically, beginning with the late 1930s/early 1940s, and concluding in the 21st Century.  Wisely, though, Madrid has constructed each chapter around a theme specific to each era.  This means that each chapter is, essentially, its own thesis essay within the frame of the overall book.

I do wish Madrid had been more specific in naming the creators and editors of the stories he referenced.  Most citations simply lay the blame for mishandled characters at the feet of their publisher, but more often than not he doesn't even identify which publisher was responsible for a character's woes.  Maybe it's just a by-product of earning my degree in history, but I felt this was relevant information that the reader shouldn't have to supplement on his or her own.  After all, it was individual men and women who made the choices about the content of the issues that hit the stands; Madrid suggests by omission of their names that some faceless order simply decreed how things would go.

Also conspicuously absent are any insights from anyone within the industry.  A spattering of quotes taken from previously published interviews appear, but it seems that either Madrid was uninterested in, or more likely unable to, interview anyone for the purpose of this book.  It may not seem to matter, but it gives this the feel of one of those "unauthorized biographies," where the subject is not actively represented to defend against any accusations against it.

Madrid bandies about spoilers for characters's fates throughout.  You may never have read a single comic book featuring Ms. Marvel, and while Madrid may rouse your interest, he will likely quash it by the book's end, because there's a sense there's nothing for you to find in the material itself that he hasn't already told you.  So, while this is written with the non-enthusiast in mind, it rather perversely lessens the need some readers will feel to explore the subject material for themselves.

Finally, it's worth mentioning that Madrid's scope is largely confined to a few characters from the DC Comics and Marvel Comics rosters; indie characters are largely ignored.  And, strangely, Madrid discusses Batman as much as, or more than, any other character throughout.  Batwoman, Catwoman, Batgirl and Wonder Woman are all evaluated vis a vis their relationships with the Caped Crusader.  Which, really, is ironic given that Madrid argues throughout that women characters have been unfairly defined by the sensibilities of their male creators for their male readership.

DC Comics is celebrating the 600th issue of Wonder Woman by giving the Amazonian a new costume.  There's a brief blog entry from How Stuff Works about it here.

27 June 2010

"The Foundation" by Zac Brown Band

The Foundation
Zac Brown Band
CD release date: 18 November 2008
List price: $11.88

I can't say now whether I first heard lead single "Chicken Fried" on the radio or as part of the ubiquitous free digital samplers I've found every year since buying an iPod.  I thought the sound of the song was pleasant enough, but the lyrics just didn't do it for me.  It seemed to be a very generic amalgamation of every country music stereotype, from "cold beer on Friday night" to "jeans that fit just right."  This was a song meant to play over an Applebee's commercial.  Or Levi's.  Or both.  Then came the final verse of the song, in which we're implored to give thanks to the soldiers who ensure that "we don't have to sacrifice all the things we love/like chicken fried..."  Because apparently, there's a terrorist organization determined to take away our chicken supply.

Don't misunderstand me.  I'm all for giving a shout-out to our brave men and women in uniform.  Give them an entire song, though.  Don't shoehorn them in like that at the end of the song for the cheap audience reaction.  Most insulting of all on the cut is the militant drum that introduces the first line of that verse.  It's there as an auditory cue that the drunken revelers need to pay attention to something serious for a moment, like when you're at a party and the drunkest guy there is adamant about the toast he's about to give to Woody Woodpecker.

So, yesterday morning I was wide awake--thanks, Crohn's disease/steroids!--and I thought I'd stroll into the Oldham County Public Library and see what albums they'd added that I was curious to hear but didn't want to blind buy.  I found The Foundation among a handful that called out to me and brought it home.  I figured as long as "Chicken Fried" was one of the weaker cuts on the album, I might like this debut release.

I can tell you, I was greatly disappointed.  Zac Brown Band's musicianship is impressive; they sound like a group of seasoned pros, used to churning out commercial radio hits on a daily basis.  The production leaves them feeling sterile, though, hitting each note just right without the kind of vim and verve that one might expect from a band whose leader sports the bushy beard seen in the album art.  As instrumental tracks, any of these songs is custom made for today's country radio.  It's polished enough for the soccer mom set and features enough acoustic instruments to satisfy fans of mandolin and such.  (You know, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? crowd.)

To win over the young male demographic, Zac Brown Band relies on what can charitably be described as vapid and even asinine lyrics.  Album opening "Toes" features an oft-repeated chorus that makes sure you know that the guy in the song has his "ass in a chair" on the beach, getting drunk.  And to make sure they've got your attention, he smokes "a fatty" near the end of the song.  This is country music for the Family Guy crowd, apparently, which might explain the most offensive song of the collection, the closing track "Sic 'Em on a Chicken."

It has the structure of a preschool record, but it's about having a dog that is kept for the sake of slaying chickens in the yard.  A particularly boisterous rooster rebels, nearly taking the eye of a kid and is in turn slain by the song's narrators and eaten.  It never becomes an outright mockery of violence, inviting one to dismiss it as sheer comedy.  Rather, its straightforward presentation seems to suggest that Zac Brown Band simply thought a song about killing chickens for the sake of killing chickens was not just amusing, but somehow clever.

At the end of the album, I was left exactly where I was when I had finished hearing "Chicken Fried" the first time: wondering just what it is that so many fans see in this album and band.  But then I remember that they're too busy expressing gratitude that soldiers give their lives so they don't have to give up chicken.

25 June 2010

Too Many Cooks in the Afghani Kitchen

7/8/10 issue of Rolling Stone
Like so many others, I've been fascinated by the recent drama generated by a Rolling Stone article that led to the very public firing of General Stanley McChrystal.  I've read reactions online, heard some of the talking heads on TV and watched President Barack Obama's press conference announcing his acceptance of General McChrystal's resignation.  Until just now, I had not actually read the article responsible for the debacle.

Firstly, I think some serious accolades need to be thrown at writer Michael Hastings.  The war in Afghanistan has turned into Heroes for too many Americans: it's something that used to be all the rage on TV and now they've moved on.  Only, Heroes has been cancelled, freeing its cast members to pursue more lucrative movie roles while our men and women in uniform continue to try to find something positive to justify the ever-increasing death toll there.  Hastings's article was not intended to undermine the operations in effect, or to embarrass General McChrystal.  Rather, it reads like what it was clearly intended to be: a frank discussion of what's really happening in Afghanistan.

Perhaps what is so startling about Hastings's work is not even its own content...but the complete absence of anything else approaching its level of honesty in any other media report.  Hastings paints a picture of Gen. McChrystal as something of a character out of The Men Who Stare at Goats, combining unconventional computer nerds with gung-ho grunts to not merely kill enemy combatants, but to revolutionize Afghan society itself.  A lofty goal, to be sure, but one that perhaps was out of everyone's hands once President George W. Bush justified his invasion of Iraq on the grounds that our national interests rested on the democratization of extremist societies in the Middle East.  What's good for the goose is good for the gander, and so it seems that what's going on in Afghanistan--controversial as it is--is a terribly unfortunate by-product of its own spin-off war.

General McChrystal himself comes off in the article mostly the way I think most of us suspect--or even wish--our top military leaders really are.  This is a guy who has actively participated in night raids in Afghanistan, an exercise that places in harm's way every one of the soldiers who take out on patrol.  I can still remember feeling a sense of admiration for the few managers I had at Cracker Barrel who would actually bus tables and help run the grill when we needed an extra set of hands; I can only imagine how it must have been for low-ranking infantry to stand side by side with their top commander with every chance that one or both of them may not come back alive.

President Obama and General McChrystal in a photograph from the White House Flickr Photostream
The real embarrassment of Hastings's article isn't the general himself, but rather the lack of organized leadership in Afghanistan.  Diplomats, photo-op seeking Congressmen and of course the dubious Afghan President Karzai all complicate what is at best an undesirable situation.  If President Obama is serious about prosecuting this war to victory--and I believe he is--then General McChrystal must not be the only one to lose his job after the publication of Hastings's article.  Ambassador Karl Eickenberry, whose scathing report on Gen. McChrystal's operations was leaked to The New York Times for what appears to have been solely to get the general's goat, should get the next ax that falls.  Likewise, if Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke is half as temperamental and meddling as he is characterized in Hastings's article, then he, too, is a liability who must be removed.

From the White House Flickr Photostream
Whether the counterinsurgency doctrine Gen. McChrystal has espoused will actually succeed remains to be seen.  The absence of a better plan, coupled with the aforementioned philosophical corner President Bush painted us into after going into Iraq, makes COIN our best chance to not only salvage this bloody war, but perhaps actually succeed in leaving Afghanistan a better place than we found it.  I believe President Obama is committed to that end, and I have great hopes that he and General David Petraeus will find a way to succeed.  If they're to learn anything of value from Michael Hastings and General McChrystal, it is obvious that their first step must be a complete reorganization of our diplomatic presence in Afghanistan.

19 June 2010

Album Review: "Up on the Ridge" by Dierks Bentley

Up on the Ridge
Dierks Bentley
CD Release Date: 8 June 2010

I hadn't even planned on buying this album so soon, but when Amazon raised the price on Chely Wright's Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer by a couple bucks, I decided to wait on that and instead added this album by Dierks Bentley to my shopping cart.  I liked him from the first time I heard "What Was I Thinkin'" back in 2003, but for one reason or another, I haven't kept up with his albums since 2006's Long Trip Alone.  Anyway, I'm thrilled to have indulged and bought what may be the strongest album in his discography to date.

What makes Up on the Ridge so appealing is that it's obviously not a commercial record.  From start to finish, this is a modern bluegrass album.  I'm sure the marketing department would prefer to call it "acoustic," but with Chris Thile, Del McCoury and The Punch Brothers making appearances, it's impossible to deny what this album really is.  The guests (who also include Miranda Lambert, Jamey Johnson and Kris Kristofferson) don't feel like they were inserted to bolster sales, either; rather, their appearances are very organic, akin to what Vince Gill did on his These Days box set project a few years back.

U2 fans will be surprised to hear Bentley's arrangement of their "Pride (In the Name of Love)," as Kristofferson fans will be by "Bottle to the Bottom" (which includes a vocal appearance by the song's originator).  Talk about taking a song and making it your own!  I was less taken by "Bottle" simply because the up-tempo arrangement runs too counter to the forlorn nature of the lyrics--but that may just be because I'm more familiar with Kristofferson's original version.  Otherwise, the traditional/public domain "Rovin' Gambler" stands out as a story song following a gambler from a bad run of luck to prison for murdering a cheater.  It's been covered countless times before, and Bentley's run through it with The Punch Brothers calls to mind equal parts Bill Monroe and Marty Robbins.

I used to like to evaluate whether an album could be "background" noise, and Up on the Ridge can be that...but it's a work of art and ought to be listened to and not just heard.  You don't even need a friend around; Bentley's provided enough in the creation process that you're really just crashing his jam session by putting on the album.

18 June 2010

Single Review: "Keep the Change" by Darryl Worley

Keep The Change
Darryl Worley
Digital Release Date: 15 June 2010

"Aims for Haggard; Settles for a Bumper Sticker"

My problem with this song isn't its politics. It's with its execution. I think back on Merle Haggard's "Are the Good Times Really Over?" and "The Fightin' Side of Me" as great examples of songs that thoughtfully asked questions about our government and the messages it sent. Maybe it's unfair to measure every country song by Hag. "Keep the Change" probably have had those classics in mind, but what Darryl Worley has turned in is little more than a vapid Tea Party jingle.

You can question, challenge and outright oppose President Obama, but let's not pretend that either he or President Bush before him have been freedom-quashing tyrants. Nor should a fan confuse his politics with whether or not a song is actually a good song...and this one is at least two more drafts away from being one.

The chorus asserts, "Gonna keep our God, our freedom, a little money in the bank/y'all can keep the change." Must be nice, Darryl, to have that job that lets you have a little money in the bank. Too many of your audience have gone without a job since before President Obama took office. I'm on board with the ire of, "I work half a year for me, the other half for Uncle Sam/While he's bailin' out those sinking ships and drownin' the little man." I think the situation is more complex than that, but we'll go with it. But what's up with the defiant claim, "And if you see me close my eyes and bow my head/before I break bread with my family/It ain't a habit, it's important it's my right?" Did President Obama try to slip in a "No bowing your head" clause that I missed?

No, but it's a line that will resonate with this song's audience. There's a crowd out there who wrap their Bibles in flags, and feel threatened by anyone and anything that doesn't pander to their idea of how to enjoy their freedoms of speech and religion. I won't be surprised when, instead of criticism that this song is anger-pandering drivel, Worley is lauded for "telling it like it is" and being "a real American." He must be; there are stars on the digital single artwork, after all.

12 June 2010

Cincinnati Reds Bobblehead Dolls

It's hard to believe, but this is the tenth year that Cincinnati Reds fans have been presented with Bobblehead Dolls as stadium giveaways ("SGA").  I thought this would be a good opportunity to 1) post a comprehensive list (since I love lists) and 2) get a sense of how the Reds have fared during these games.  Here we go.

05/26/01 Barry Larkin (W: 7-2 vs. St. Louis Cardinals)
06/15/01 Pete Harnisch (L: 4-8 vs. Colorado Rockies)
08/17/01 Danny Graves (L: 1-5 vs. Milwaukee Brewers)
05/31/02 Johnny Bench (L: 0-7 vs. Atlanta Braves)
06/14/02 Chris Sabo (W: 4-3 vs. Pittsburgh Pirates)
07/20/02 Eric Davis (L: 7-8 vs. New York Mets)
08/10/02 Adam Dunn (W: 9-0 vs. San Diego Padres)
05/24/03 Marty [Brennaman] & Joe [Nuxhall] (L: 4-5 vs. Florida Marlins)
07/19/03 Austin Kearns (L: 8-9 vs. Houston Astros)
08/01/03 Gapper (W: 5-3 vs. San Francisco Giants)
04/21/04 Joe Nuxhall “The Ol’ Lefthander” (L: 5-9 vs. Atlanta Braves)
06/30/04 Sean Casey “The Mayor” (W: 2-0 vs. New York Mets)
08/11/04 Joe Morgan (L: 1-11 vs. Los Angeles Dodgers)
05/24/05 Ken Griffey, Jr. (W: 4-3 vs. Washington Nationals)
06/08/05 Wily Mo Pena (W: 11-9 vs. Tampa Bay Devil Rays)
08/03/05 Tony Perez (W: 8-5 vs. Atlanta Braves)
05/24/06 Felipe Lopez "Power of Tradition" Series 1 of 3 (L: 2-6 vs. Milwaukee Brewers)
06/28/06 Barry Larkin "Power of Tradition" Series 2 of 3 (W: 7-2 vs. Kansas City Royals)
08/09/06 Dave Concepcion "Power of Tradition" Series 3 of 3 (W: 8-7 vs. St. Louis Cardinals)
05/23/07 Bronson Arroyo (L: 7-12 vs. Washington Nationals)
06/13/07 Aaron Harang (L: 3-6 vs. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim)
07/25/07 Frank Robinson (W: 7-3 vs. Milwaukee Brewers)
08/22/07 Marty and Thom Brennaman (W: 4-2 vs. Atlanta Braves)
05/17/08 Brandon Phillips "30/30" (W: 4-2 vs. Cleveland Indians)
07/26/08 Adam Dunn "80s Night" (L: 1-5 vs. Colorado Rockies)
09/16/08 Tom Browning "Mr. Perfect" 20th Anniversary of the Perfect Game (W: 7-2 vs. St. Louis Cardinals)
05/09/09 Joey Votto (W: 8-3 vs. St. Louis Cardinals)
07/04/09 Jay Bruce (W: 5-2 vs. St. Louis Cardinals)
07/18/09 Edinson Volquez (L: 1-5 vs. Milwaukee Brewers)
08/15/09 Brandon Phillips (L: 6-10 vs. Washington Nationals)
06/12/10 Scott Rolen

Collectors should also be aware that in 2002, fans who signed up for a MasterCard were given a Mr. Red bobblehead.  And on 23 September, a Pete Rose bobble was given away during a softball game.  The Reds can't actually market Rose per his expulsion, so this was a way of recognizing his contributions to Riverfront Stadium in its final year.

So, going into play tonight vs. the Kansas City Royals on Scott Rolen Bobblehead Night, the stats look like this:

16-14 overall
5-0 vs. St. Louis Cardinals
0-2 vs. Colorado Rockies
1-2 vs. Milwaukee Brewers
2-2 vs. Atlanta Braves
1-0 vs. Pittsburgh Pirates
1-1 vs. New York Mets
1-0 vs. San Diego Padres
0-1 vs. Florida Marlins
0-1 vs. Houston Astros
1-0 vs. San Francisco Giants
0-1 vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
1-2 vs. Washington Nationals
1-0 vs. Tampa Bay Devil Rays
1-0 vs. Kansas City Royals
0-1 vs. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
1-0 vs. Cleveland Indians

If I were in charge of the schedule, I would only give out Bobbleheads on nights that the St. Louis Cardinals come to town.

11 June 2010

Republicans Aren't the Solution; Republicans Are the Problem

For years now, the Republican Party has kept to a pretty consistent script.  "We're tough on crime, low on taxes and better overall for the American people."  President Ronald Reagan famously insisted that "government is not the solution; government is the problem" and that has been the platform of the GOP ever since.  I know a lot of conservatives are tired of hearing folks dump on their heroes and party.  This isn't intended to be another of those diatribes, but rather a sincere questioning of whether the Republican party is actually representing the views, values and interests of their conservative constituents.

A little context, first.  When Mr. Reagan ran for office, he was challenging a terribly ineffective Carter White House.  I have tremendous admiration for Jimmy Carter's post-presidency, but it's hard to say his term in the Oval Office was a success by any standards.  Inflation was up, morale was down and it seemed that the message from our nation's capitol was, "The good times are over."  Reagan rejected that defeatism, believing instead that the only thing keeping us mired in the muck was an unwillingness to change the way we did business.  He was right.

Back to 2010.  The greatest microcosm for discussing the modern Republican party is the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  We've known for decades that it's in our interests to create--and execute--an energy policy that does not perpetuate our slavery to oil.  Environmentalists had cautioned for ages against how disastrous offshore drilling could become, and were dismissed as Chicken Little.  During the George W. Bush years, the federal government deregulated as many industries as they could.  The result?  BP was legally permitted to continue increasingly unsafe and dangerous practices aboard their rig until the Earth violently objected.

What has been the reaction from the GOP since?  First, they tried to sell the public on calling this "Obama's Katrina," trying to suggest that President Barack Obama was as indifferent to this catastrophe as his predecessor was to the hurricane that decimated the Gulf coast in 2005.  Of course, there were several differences.  Firstly, Hurricane Katrina had been forecast ahead of time enough that there was no excuse for the failure to organize a proper evacuation of New Orleans; the only people who would have suspected BP's oil rig would rupture were in the employ of BP.  Secondly, despite occurring on his watch, President Obama was not responsible for authorizing the changes in regulatory policy that permitted BP to operate such an unsafe rig.

House Minority Leader John Boehner vocally opposed any effort on the part of the Obama administration to hold BP financially liable for the damage.  Think about that for a minute.  The leader of the GOP in the House of Representatives, a member of the "tough on crime" party, effectively said that he does not believe in holding BP responsible for its actions.  Imagine, if you will, a Republican rushing to say that Charles Manson not be held accountable for his heinous acts.  For some reason, when it comes to individuals, the GOP is all about throwing the book at 'em but when it's a large business capable of making campaign contributions, then that's the time to forgive and forget.

The prevailing doctrine of the GOP insists that if people are left to their own devices, they will do the right thing.  Funny, I thought it was the liberals who worshiped at the altar of Utopia.  If this disaster isn't the proof in the pudding, I don't know what would be.  I'm an optimist by nature, but I'm not a fool.  I trust in God, but I lock my door.  The BP oil spill, as well as the economic meltdown, are clear demonstrations that greed begets greed.  They say those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, and right now we don't even have to wait for these failures to teach us something.  Sensible regulations are necessary because people aren't the self-governing do-gooders the GOP likes to tell us we all are.

President Reagan was right to insist that government shouldn't micro-manage the daily affairs of citizens, that we are more likely to flourish when we are free to experiment with our businesses and pursue happiness as we define it.  But somewhere along the line, his anti-paternalism vision was co-opted into an anti-government doctrine.  You can let the inmates run the asylum, but you can't expect the asylum to function properly.  I have a difficult time believing that he would recognize his intended sentiment in the actions of his political heirs as they stumble over themselves to defend the indefensible.  They owe the American people--or, at least, their own constituents--better than the kind of hypocritical anarchy.

There's a great moment in the movie Tombstone where Billy (played by Jason Priestly) sees the kind of destruction caused by the gang of outlaws he's been running with and decides he's had enough.  "I'm sorry, but we got to have some kind of law," he says as he turns around his horse and heads back to town, abandoning the cowboys.  I urge conservatives to have that kind of fortitude.  Stand up to the extremists in the Republican party and demand that they either return to the kind of vision that you have, or turn in your GOP card.  You don't have to become a Democrat in defiance; there are plenty of independent parties that you might find fit your values much more closely and would love to have you join.  When the Republicans ask you, just tell them, "I didn't leave my party.  My party left me."

10 June 2010

Sketches from Barbados

I can't believe it's been an entire decade since I returned from spending two weeks in Barbados.  I was there as one of twenty-three students in a Cross-Cultural Studies course.  I'm sure I'll blog some more reminisces about this soon; I'm in the process of gathering my former classmates in a Facebook group to share photos and stories.  Anyway, while rooting through my bin of souvenirs I came upon a few sketches I dashed off during those two weeks.  Here they are, with some remarks.

Woodvale Hotel Balcony, Third Floor

Of the twenty-three students, only six of us were guys.  In case you're wondering, no, I had no game then and made no effort to hook up with any of the girls.  Anyway, they booked the six of us guys in three adjacent rooms on the third (and highest) floor of the Woodvale Hotel.  Our rooms had two full-sized beds, a small kitchen and a balcony.  The above sketch was one I dashed off from our balcony.  You can't tell it from the angle I used, but directly beneath us was the courtyard, containing the swimming pool.  Just beyond the courtyard fence, the Caribbean Sea washed ashore.  My roommate was cool and I genuinely liked the guy, but what made my experience in that room even more special was the fact that he and several others elected to sleep in one of the other rooms most nights.  I flung open the outside door on those nights and fell asleep with the sea breeze wafting in and the sound of lapping waves lulling me to slumber.

Barbados Green Monkey

Barbados is a small island, whose outline is shown in the above sketch (it's the vaguely phallic looking thing the monkey appears to be holding).  And yet, they've done a remarkable job preserving tracts of nature and offering wildlife the chance to roam unhindered.  The highlight is the Barbados green monkey, so named for the green tinge to its fur.  We were all captivated by these unique creatures, whom we were fortunate to see up close and in person, without any cages or barriers of any kind between us.

Still Life from Souvenirs

I took $1000 with me to a place where the conversion rate was two local dollars for every one U.S. dollar and on the return home I had to borrow money from a classmate to buy lunch at an airport.  And while I brought back a handful of souvenirs, most of them were free advertisement postcards.  I spent the majority of my money on experiences, but I did find a few items I desired enough to purchase.  One night, I flaked out in the hotel room and did this sketch from the lot of them.  The items are, from left to right: a miniature Barbados flag; a seashell; a sailing ship made from sugar cane; and a guitarist made from some kind of wiry substance and painted a bronze color.  The guitarist was one of several different instrumentalists, and I kind of wish I'd bought the whole band because they looked so neat.  I settled on this guy, though, because he just looks so nonchalant that I felt he reflected the mood of the island.

Weimer's, 23 May 2000

The Barbados Tourism department arranged for us to spend an afternoon at Weimer's, a beach club that I gather normally charged an above-modest admission fee.  Upon entering the premises, they had an island bar (meaning, it was rectangular, with four counters; like the one on Cheers).  Beyond that was an open-aired courtyard with tables.  That looked out onto their beach, which had a volleyball net and other activities.  Several of my classmates rented beach bikes and other flotation toys and went into the water.  I'm not a swimmer, so I decided that instead of embarrassing myself in a game of volleyball, I'd just chill and sketch.  I wish I had the talent to keep up with all the different people who were playing volleyball that day, but I settled on one girl who tended to stay near the area I'd already established with my framing of the foreground.

The fun thing for me that day was that another classmate saw me sketching this piece and asked me to sketch her.  I'd never been asked to sketch someone before, so I was a bit nervous (especially considering how problematic faces have always been for me), but she assured me she wouldn't be too harsh in her evaluation.  Anyway, she sat across from me at the table and I sketched her.  She was thrilled with it, which in turn thrilled me.  I'll never forget she kept telling me she'd had a few people sketch her over the years and that I was the first who really captured the smirk she tended to give as a smile.  I gave her the piece, which is why it isn't included here.  I wish I had a scan of it, though.

I might post some photos and other memories from those extraordinary two weeks.  In the meantime, I'm really tired and Hallmark Channel has stopped showing Cheers in lieu of infomercials.  Off to bed!

08 June 2010

Mass Media, Citizen Journalists and the FTC

A good reporter knows to never become the story (no, this isn't the time to discuss Helen Thomas), but one of the biggest stories of the last couple of years has been the changing nature of mass media as a commercially viable industry.  Various businesses have folded, and others have struggled to find a new approach to keep themselves in the black.  The problem is that 30 years after the launch of CNN, even the most basic cable or satellite package includes more 24 hour news channels than the average person could possibly watch.  More significantly, we disseminate information instantly online these days; there's really nothing to be said in a print edition tomorrow that hasn't already been said today.  It's hard to imagine why anyone would actually pay money for news updates.

A friend of mine posted a link earlier today to this editorial from the Washington Times.  Because I'm a firm believer in irony, I'm tempted to make you read the editorial, but since I suspect you're as lazy as I am I'll tell you that it concerns a proposal from the Federal Trade Commission to find ways of subsidizing mass media.  The idea is that the Washington Times, for instance, provided the content about which you are now reading in my blog, thus discouraging you from visiting their website and rewarding their sponsors for their advertising space.  To get square, the FTC would like to see the various services that provide links to news articles pay a tax.  Of course, that would eventually lead to yours truly having to decide whether to pay a licensing fee to discuss an editorial or article posted elsewhere.  It seems to be contrary to the very nature of the Internet, where speech has generally been freer than in any other medium.  Certainly, one can say or display things online that would never fly on radio or television (even basic cable).

The Washington Times posits that, "Fostering a robust public-policy debate, not saving a particular business model, should be the goal of journalism in the first place."  I agree with this perspective.  TV Guide was once an authoritative weekly digest that really lived up to its title.  You got regional listings for every channel in your area, from midnight on the first day of coverage until midnight on the last day of coverage, with brief synopses of about half of every program.

Now, the listings are restricted to national, prime time broadcasts.  TV Guide figured they could save a lot of money by asking its readers to go online to find out what's on TV, and dedicate their printed magazine to news announcements and editorial content.  And why should readers be content to read an editorial, and then have to decide whether or not to respond by writing a letter that most likely will not be selected for inclusion in a subsequent issue, when we can go online and post our thoughts and reactions to others instantly?

If TV Guide has made an effective use of their websites to counter the decreasing value of a printed periodical, why can't general news providers do so?  Firstly, it's important to note that we're assuming everything is fine with them.  TV Guide had moved to a bi-weekly schedule the last I saw, meaning they're offering significantly less content to readers than they did a decade ago.  They're counting on readers being interested enough in plot speculations and industry gossip to keep the magazine relevant for two weeks at a time.  In the entertainment world, two weeks is an awfully long time; entire scandals can break and be in the hands of spin doctors by the time they go to print.

Breaking news waits for no one, and the Internet has made next-day summaries irrelevant.  That means that what a publisher offers readers needs to be unique.  It has to offer the kind of thoughtful analysis that helps readers place events in their proper context.  This, ultimately, is what the publishers and editors need to address.  Fans call in to sports talk radio shows every day, and nearly all of them carry the swagger of an expert.  But there's a reason that Dan Patrick is the host and not George from Waukeegan.  Dan Patrick is a professional, trained in the art of presenting a story to an audience.  He puts in a lot of time audiences never see, studying players, statistics, games and such.  He has honed the craft of interviewing the individuals who make sports what they are, from rigid coaches to mercurial players and shameless agents.  George from Waukeegan's qualification is that he supplements watching games by listening to Dan Patrick on the radio.

The general news world needs to compete with citizen journalists and bloggers by...not competing with them.  Rather, the real threat to mas media is...other mass media.  It's no coincidence that the documentaries of Michael Moore have found such an enthusiastic audience in recent years.  People will willingly pay money to see the kind of investigative reporting that they can't do for themselves.  Too much of our "proper" journalists have become little more than glorified bloggers, offering editorials rather than actual reports.  We can make those kinds of remarks for ourselves.  I enjoy posting about socio-political events every now and again, but I have no illusions that I've got something unique to offer you, the reader.

I also understand why you wouldn't feel compelled to pay to read the writings of someone else if they weren't more thoughtful and better informed than me.  I read an article on the Huffington Post website today by Alec Baldwin in which he expressed outrage at BP.  I have enjoyed his work as an actor over the years, and while I applauded his Huffington Post editorial, the truth is that Baldwin's star power is the only reason his diatribe was featured.  There's a guy I follow on Twitter who has been unrelenting in posting scathing remarks and posting links to various articles related to the oil spill since it began.  If he was a Baldwin, he'd be revered for doing his homework.  Meanwhile, the actual Baldwin's writing--impassioned though it was--was basically standard blog material.

If the mass media wants to save itself, it needs to remember the first rule of reporting: give the people what they want.  We can post emotionally inspired rants for ourselves.  What we can't do is actually have access to the kinds of people and documents that professional reporters are accustomed to gleaning for information.  Go talk to the movers and shakers of the world.  Find the evidence against wrong-doers.  Quit offering the kind of vapid--and increasingly unstable--whining of Glenn Beck and instead put the Bob Woodwards and Carl Bernsteins to work on today's Watergate.  Those two reporters actually investigated something.  Sir David Frost later completed their work by forcing the mea culpa from President Nixon that was the confession the nation wanted since the story broke.  A group of Monday morning quarterbacks--no matter their resumes--are simply not worth the cost to readers, and they shouldn't be for their employers.

06 June 2010

Sketch: "Her"

A friend of mine had composed a poem called "Her" and he asked me to dash off a sketch to accompany it so I obliged.  What I came up with was pretty simple in concept; the two characters seen away from one another--him in profile on a stool, her, sanding with her back to us.  Each has a martini glass.  In silhouette, though, the two are brought together, sharing a kiss that is clearly not open-mouthed.  Is it an awkward, peck-type first kiss?  A timid, for-old-time's-sake goodbye kiss?  I can't say now.  Maybe my friend will be kind enough to exhume his composition and post it for us; if he does, I'll be sure to offer a link to it.  I apologize for the faintness of the sketch (as well as the poor girl's left arm, and his god-awful tie!).  I've tried tinkering with the scan, and I can only seem to darken the pencil lines at the cost of also darkening the entire page.  I might re-visit the original sheet and see about re-pencilling or possibly even inking it for heightened clarity.  Better still, maybe I'll see about coaxing my friend Chad into doing something with it; unlike me, he's got both talent and technique!

I am informed by the poet that I based the guy off Kyle Rayner, the Green Lantern.  He also clarified that this was a poem, not a short story or vignette as I'd originally posted (that remark has now been revised).

Sketch: Untitled Montage

Another sketch I turned up in the filing cabinet.  I'm having a hard time recalling the origins of this one.  I know I was asked by a friend to dash off a sketch to a short story he'd composed--this wasn't it, but I seem to recall doing the two together.  I can't say now where I got the idea for either the overall montage, or any of its individual elements.  I'm wanting to say that "Suicide Is Painless" figured into it somehow, but I can't say for sure now.  I suspect that Reading Rainbow crossed my mind at some point, hence the book at the end of the rainbow, but why that should have been, I have no idea.  So, I'm left in an interesting position: the artist saying to you to interpret this entirely as you see fit because I can't tell you what my "intent" was!