this is how it works

Marc Thiessen was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. He also wrote speeches for Donald Rumsfeld when he was Secretary of Defense. He’s the author of a book (I hesitate to call it ‘non-fiction’) entitled Courting Disaster; How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack. In part, the book argues that the use of torture (redefined as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’) is legal, moral and effective. Thiessen is associated with the Government Accountability Institute, which is a conservative group that claims to investigate government fraud. He also writes opinion pieces published in the Washington Post.

Recently the Government Accountability Institute issued a report claiming President Obama has ‘skipped half of his intelligence briefings.’ That claim is based on the number of times the president, after reading his daily intelligence briefing, decided he didn’t need a more detailed in-person follow-up briefing. Let me clear about this: there were, in fact, NO skipped briefings; there were only briefings that were sufficiently clear that President Obama didn’t require any additional information.

Marc Thiessen

Thiessen, in a recent Washington Post opinion piece, repeated the ‘Obama skipped half of his intelligence briefings’ claim. Thiessen not only neglected to report the facts on which the misleading claim is made, he failed to note his relationship with the group that made the claim. Right wing bloggers picked up the claim and began to repeat it, without bothering to check its accuracy. American Crossroads SuperPAC, one of Karl Rove’s political attack machines, featured the claim in a pro-Romney campaign advertisement, noting the Washington Post as the source in order to validate the claim. Bloggers, right wing pundits, and contributors to FOXNews began to complain that the ‘mainstream press’ was deliberately ignoring the story.

And now there is a portion of the U.S. population who believes President Obama actually skipped half of his intelligence briefings.

If you ever wonder why a third of the Republican Party believes the president is a secret Muslim, or that he’s a socialist, or that he was born in Kenya — this is why. This is how the Republican Party works these days.


I took the 9AM bus to the downtown farmer’s market this Saturday morning. It’s a short trip, but circuitous, traveling mostly through working class neighborhoods. By the time we reached downtown the bus was about three-quarters full. There were maybe five white folks, all of us with empty ‘green’ bags, heading to the farmer’s market to buy fresh vegetables, artisan cheeses, fresh-baked pastries and breads, local jams and jellies, ethnic delicacies, locally grown eggs, wines from small regional wineries.

All the other bus passengers were African-American or Hispanic. Most, if not all, of them were going to work. Several of them were wearing restaurant garb — smocks from fast-food restaurants or polo shirts with the names of restaurants embroidered on them. A couple of guys were wearing steel-toed boots and carrying their own tool belts.

[T]here are 47 percent who are with [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax…[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Those folks going to work, they’re the people Gov. Romney counts in his 47%. I suspect most of them pay little or no federal income tax — not because they don’t work, but because they don’t earn enough money. Some of them probably get food stamps, several of them almost certainly receive the Earned Income tax credit, some of them may get some sort of government subsidy for heating in the winter, a fair number of them probably had done military service (or had a relative in military service). They still probably pay state income tax, of course, and sales taxes, and a host of other taxes.

These people are most definitely not victims, and don’t see themselves that way. Not one of them, I’m sure, has ever attended a US$50,000 a plate fund-raiser dinner to complain about how unfair life has been to them. And I think I can say with a high degree of confidence that not one of them has ever filed a 379 page income tax return.

Despite what Gov. Romney says, these folks do take responsibility for their lives. In fact, the working poor have to take more responsibility for their lives. They can’t hire somebody else to raise their kids, or cook their meals, or mow their lawns, or do their laundry. Poor city dwellers are less likely to own a vehicle, so when going to work or appointments they have to take into account bus or subway schedules (and consider the possible disruptions in service); that usually means leaving earlier and traveling longer in order to be sure they’re not late. Poor folks have to shop more carefully — for food, for clothing, for just about every goddamn thing. Being poor means making daily money decisions: do you buy fresh vegetables and the makings for a proper meal that you’ll likely be too tired to cook, or do you pay a bit more and buy a couple frozen pizzas that are filling and quick and easy? Do you buy the kids cheap shoes which will only get them through the summer or more expensive shoes that might last a year?

Poor folks are up to their necks in personal responsibility. They have less time and money to spend at weekend farmer’s markets.

The bus was nearly empty on the way back. Mostly just us white folks returning from the farmer’s market. Two women were cheerfully sorting through bags full of hand-spun yarns. Me, I picked up a nice garlic focaccia and an absolutely delicious loaf of raspberry streusel bread. I tasted an exceedingly fine locally-made Chipotle-Jack cheese (aged six months) and intended to buy it last thing before leaving, but it was clear at the other end of the market — three or four blocks away — and I might have had to hurry to catch the bus. These are the sacrifices we make.

the people are wrong

I’ve been shooting a lot of cityscapes lately — partly because I have a new camera that’s particularly well-suited for that sort of photography, and partly because I’m a sap for the geometry of structures. It’s been pointed out to me that most of my photographs are unpopulated. Devoid of people or other life forms.

This photograph, for example, sparked a couple of my favorite internet people to make the following comments:

I’m becoming increasingly aware of how meaningfully empty and post apocalyptic your cityscapes are. I used to think it was purely a compositional choice, that you didn’t want too many people or cars cluttering up the frame, but now I’m wondering if Des Moines has been quietly evacuated

I’ve wondered, too, about Des Moines. Where are all the people?

Where are all the people? The people are all over the damned place. They’re out on the streets and in the alleys and walking through the skywalk. I don’t always include them in the photographs, though. When I’m shooting cityscapes, I’m usually drawn to some combination of light and shadow, or some arrangement of form and shape. I’m usually drawn to the geometry, and the problem is that so often the people are just wrong for the geometry in the frame.

They’re dressed in the wrong colors, or they’re moving the wrong way, or they’re standing in the wrong spot or in the wrong stance, or they’re looking in the wrong direction, or they’re looking in the right direction but with the wrong expression. Sometimes they’re just wrong for reasons I can’t articulate, but they’re clearly wrong in the frame and they distract from what interests me.

When the people are being right, I include them. But when they’re being wrong I wait until the right people come along or until there aren’t any people at all. Or I give up and go somewhere else. For example, the following photograph needs people. I noticed the light and the shadows and the reflections, and I parked my ass across the street and waited for the right person or group to move into that space. I don’t recall how long I waited — I’d guess it was somewhere between a quarter of an hour and half an hour. During that time a lot of folks entered the space, but there was something wrong about all of them. None of them contributed to the space. So I documented the light, and moved on. With the right person, it would have been a good photograph. Now it lacks life.

There are other times — less common, to be sure — when I notice people who look like they’d be right. There’s something about the person that draws the eye and makes me think all that’s lacking is the right background. So I sort of wander along with them for a while in the hope they’ll move into an interesting space with good geometry. If they don’t, they don’t. I end up with nothing. I tagged along with the kid in the next photo and his puppy for maybe ten minutes (any longer and I begin to feel like a pervert). I shot maybe a half dozen frames in a half dozen different situations — but the light was always wrong, or the shadows were wrong, or the geometry was wrong. And when the exterior factors cooperated, the kid or the puppy were wrong, or I was a half second too slow or too quick. So in the end, I got nothing interesting.

The thing is, I’ve been shooting cityscapes — photographs of the city. Not photographs of the people. This new camera is also, I think, well-suited for street photography and I’d like to start getting involved in that. Street photography is a lot more fluid and relies on a different sort of geometry. Instead of looking for the geometry of structures into which people might fit, I’ll have to learn to look for geometry and structure in how people move and arrange themselves.

Cityscapes, in my opinion, can fail if the people are wrong or if the geometry is wrong. I have the feeling that when street photography fails it’s because the photographer is wrong. That should make things interesting.

and another thing…

Muslim extremists, grow the fuck up.

So somebody made a cheap-ass YouTube video mocking your religion. So what? So they said something rude about the Prophet Mohammed. You think nobody ever said anything rude about Jesus? Or Abraham, or the Buddha? Have you ever seen the Buddha’s hair?  Looks like he’s got a tea cozy on his head. And here, look — it’s Jesus portrayed as the clown from a Stephen King movie. Do you think Christians would get all upset about that?

Well, okay, yeah, you’re right — they would. But they wouldn’t start burning down embassies. You could probably make a picture of Jesus fucking a sheep and nobody would be burning down embassies (and lawdy, I just did a Google Image search using the keywords ‘jesus fucking sheep’ and sure enough, there’s a picture giving a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘lamb of God’).

Muslim extremist guys, here’s the thing: that movie was a piss-ant insult. When you respond with violence because somebody says ridiculous shit about Islam, you’re suggesting Islam is feeble and delicate. You’re suggesting the Prophet is so weak and frail he needs to fret about what a small group of idiot film-makers have to say about him. But you know what? It’s not Mohammed who’s weak and frail. It’s you. It’s your faith in Islam that’s weak and frail. Truly devoted Muslims just shrug that shit off, because no puerile, half-witted video can damage their faith.

But you guys? You guys are just being dicks.

snake bit

Researchers who deal with deadly snakes have learned to make themselves immune to snake venom. Gradually, over time, they repeatedly expose themselves to small doses of the venom, building up a tolerance for it, until eventually they can withstand a level of poison that would kill a normal person.

Folks, that’s what’s been happening to us in US politics. For the last four years we’ve listened to Republicans and right-wing extremists call President Obama anti-American. We’ve heard them claim he’s an illegal alien with foreign values. We’ve listened to them say he’s a secret Muslim out to destroy America. We’ve heard them claim Obama is a Communist and an atheist and a Socialist with terrorists for friends.

On occasion somebody in the Republican leadership will issue a weak rebuke, but for the most part they don’t discourage this sort of talk. More often, they encourage it or participate in it. The result is the American populace have developed a tolerance for this sort of poison.

So yesterday, when Gov. Mitt Romney, publicly stated that President Obama was in sympathy with the terrorists who assassinated a US ambassador and three other members of the US consulate in Libya, we heard reporters and pundits call those remarks “unfortunate” and “inaccurate” and “ill-timed” and “unpresidential,” and a “discredit to his campaign.”

Think about that. A candidate for the office of President of the United States accused the sitting president of sympathizing with the perpetrators of a concerted assault on a United States embassy, which resulted in four deaths of embassy personnel. What Romney said was so despicable that it should, by itself, render him unelectable.  And the news media calls that statement “unfortunate” and “inaccurate.” I’m telling you, America has been snake-bit, but we’ve been exposed to so much venom that our system tolerates it.

And you know what’s worse? You know what is even worse than the outrage deficit that allows Romney to get by with appalling shit like accusing President Obama of treason? I’ll tell you.

What’s worse is we’re not supposed to say that racism plays any part of the hatred the right wing feels for Obama. Because calling somebody a racist is offensive.

nine-eleven / thirty-three

I had two friends die in the attacks of 9/11. Not close friends, but friends. One was a member of the book club I was in. We met once a month for a couple of years. He was a nice guy, smart and funny, owned a pair of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels that he pampered ridiculously. I only saw him once outside of the book club — in a bar on the Upper West Side. He was with friends and I was with friends, so we just chatted briefly and that was it. He worked in the South Tower. Later I learned he’d called his sister from the Sky Lobby on the 78th floor to tell her they were evacuating his office as a precaution after the North Tower was hit. That’s about where the second plane hit. We figure he died immediately. Nearly a year later he was officially identified as a victim. Basically that means they found some bit of flesh which they matched to his DNA.

My other friend was somebody I knew from graduate school in Washington, DC. We’d worked together briefly in the Social Science Research Lab. He’d taken a job as some sort of analyst for a research firm in New York City. He worked a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. We assume he left his office and went down to the scene to see what was happening, but that’s just a guess. All we know is he went to work that morning and sometime later his body was identified. He was probably killed by falling debris.

I’d moved from Manhattan a few months before that September. I’ve always felt like I should have been there, which is totally irrational and completely stupid. But there it is. Every September 11th since then I’ve felt a sense of loss — but I’ve also had this uncomfortable feeling that I should feel that loss more. That I should feel the loss deeper. I’ve felt that every September 11th until this year. This year is different.

Every morning, after coffee and a glance out the window, I turn on the computer to check the news. Every morning. I never used to do that. That changed on 9/11/2001. I didn’t know about the World Trade Center until a friend called to tell me about it. I turned on the television about five minutes before the second aircraft struck. So now, every single morning, I check the news.

Yesterday morning, tucked away in my email I saw this subject line: [New Post] thirty-three.

My friend Jamelah had her birthday yesterday. She turned 33. Every year on her birthday she writes a sort of summary of the preceding year — things that happened, things she’s learned, things that went well and things that didn’t, things she did or maybe didn’t do. And she posts a self-portrait.

So yesterday morning after I checked the news. I read Jamelah’s birthday post. And it reminded me that even when horrible things are happening over here, there are wonderful things happening over there. And that sense of loss I usually feel on 9/11 — I didn’t feel it yesterday. Wherever I went yesterday, I saw flags flying at half-mast, and of course that reminded me of the tragedy. But it also reminded me that it was Jamelah’s birthday, and that’s a sweet thought.

I usually chat online with Jamelah for an hour or so (with the emphasis on ‘or so’) every couple of weeks. I’m sure sharing a birthday with a national tragedy must be a massive pain in the ass for her, but yesterday I was glad for it. I’ve got two friends who died eleven years ago yesterday — but I’ve also got a friend who is alive today and given a choice between mourning and celebrating, I’ve got to go with celebrating.

So happy birthday Jamelah. I’ll chat with you in a week or so.


I was reminded today, in a roundabout way on Facebook, that I’m a stingy photographer. I guess I prefer to think of my approach as not being wasteful with film — but since I don’t actually shoot film anymore, that’s sort of ridiculous. In any event, the result is the same: I just don’t shoot a lot of photographs.

I don’t normally dwell on this sort of stuff, but one of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s more famous quotes was posted on Facebook: Your first 10,000 photographs are the worst. It occurred to me that I probably hadn’t shot ten thousand photographs in my entire long and semi-wicked life.

Here’s what I mean. I recently completed a series of photographs for Utata’s Just One Thing project. My contribution — my one thing — was the four miles of the Des Moines skywalk system. I spent six days noodling around in the skywalk. Sometimes I was there in the mornings and sometimes in the afternoon so I could catch different sorts of light. I was there on sunny days, and rainy days, and overcast days. Six days, and I shot a grand total of 177 photographs. That’s it — six days, 177 photos. That’s fewer than 30 photos a session. On average, each day I shot less than the equivalent of a roll of 36 exposure Kodachrome transparency film. Which they don’t make anymore, but you get my point. Not a lot of photos.

skywalk outtake

Out of those 177 photos I used twelve for the project and had eight others I’d consider worth keeping and showing people. So all in all, I got twenty worthwhile images out of 177 exposures. I don’t know if that’s a good ‘keeper’ rate or not; it seems about average for me. Would I have more keepers numerically if I shot more? I don’t know.

I’m not entirely sure why I’m so parsimonious with photography. All 177 photographs for the skywalk series were shot using a digital camera with a 16 gigabyte memory card that can hold nearly 3700 .jpg images, so it’s not a matter of space. I tell myself it’s an artifact of having learned photography using film, but I haven’t shot film in years. Surely I’m more adaptable than that. I mean, even a flatworm can learn to adapt to current conditions.

skywalk outtake

It might be the sort of photographs I shoot. I tend to shoot situations that either require patience or immediate action. Either I find the scene I want to shoot and wait for all the elements to come together in the frame, or there’s no time to wait at all — you shoot or you lose the moment. In the first circumstance I might shoot two or three exposures, but if I’ve prepared myself, that’s all I need. In the second circumstance, there’s rarely a chance for a second exposure. You’ve either got the shot or you don’t.

skywalk outtake

I’m the same way, though, when it comes to writing. Serious writing, that is — the writing I do professionally. When I’m putting words in a row for money, I try to be economical with them. Of course, when I’m just nattering away for my own amusement — like now — I’m a total spendthrift with words. Then I have no sense of moderation at all, at all. I don’t mind wasting words then; I figure there are always more words out there and I’m not likely to run out of them.

The only time I’ve been profligate with film is when I was a working private investigator and had to shoot photographs for the job. Photos of crime scenes, surveillance photos, photos of suspected arson cases, evidentiary photos in personal injury or insurance cases. In those situations, film is cheap. It costs less to have lots of redundant photographs than to have a case fail for the lack of the one photo you really need.

skywalk outtake

I have, on occasion, told myself not to be so stingy with photographs. But it never seems to take. I see the thing I want to photograph, when possible I take a moment to decide on the camera settings (aperture and shutter speed and white balance and all that), then I raise the camera and take a shot — maybe two, sometimes three. Immediately after that I think ‘Got it’ and that’s that. Or I think ‘Nope’ and then I either wait for the elements to all come together again, or I just move on. If I’ve missed it, I’ve missed it. The nice thing about photography is there’s always something else to photograph.

Right now — at this moment — I feel like I should train myself to shoot more photographs. But I suspect that the next time I find myself with a camera in hand and something I want to photograph, I’ll probably do what I always do. I’ll either get the shot or I won’t, and then I’ll move on.

skywalk outtake

this is what we do

It’s hard to explain the affection I feel for Utata — for the community itself, for the staff, for the members, for the very concept of Utata as a place where intelligent, creative people from all over the globe gather to chat, argue, and shoot photographs. We often refer to Utata as a tribe — a neo-tribal virtual collective that’s held together by kinship. But this isn’t a kinship based on consanguinity; it’s a kinship of attitude and spirit and intelligence and exceedingly varied interests.

I feel especially affectionate toward Utata today. That’s partly because today is Labor Day in the U.S. Ever since 1894, the first Monday of September has been a day set aside to acknowledge and honor the economic and social contributions of workers. At least in theory. In reality it seems as if the United State no longer honors men and women who perform labor — only those people who make money off those who labor. So on this day I’m reminded how very special are the men and women who volunteer their time and labor to make Utata work. They don’t get paid, they take some dull and grinding chores upon themselves, they sacrifice their leisure time — and they do it all simply to create and maintain a venue for other folks to be creative. That’s what we do.

Just One Thing badge

This is the other reason I’m feeling affectionate about Utata today: we’ve released our summer project: Just One Thing. It’s a perfect example of what makes Utata unique. The concept is simple: focus creative attention on one thing  (or one type of thing). It might be a specific lawn chair moved from place to place in an Austrian town, or a wildly re-purposed red high heeled shoe, or a woman holding a variety of umbrellas, or a selection of grey post boxes in Canada., or a look at the world deliciously inverted through a glass apple, or the assorted old stuff found jammed in the hollow spaces of an interior wall and uncovered during home renovations.

It’s an odd collection, to be sure, but perfectly in keeping with the sensibilities of Utata. Beyond the obvious conceptual theme, one of the things that holds this project together is a generous sense of wit and whimsy. You will smile as you look through these photographs. And you will have thoughts you’ve never had before. That’s what we do in Utata.