Saturday, September 28, 2013

Park-less States

I had this idea a long time ago.

Nearly half of the U.S. States don't have National Parks. I suppose if a law was passed tomorrow requiring all States to have a National Park, these would likely be the nominees. Be forewarned, New England is heavily represented on this list:

Alabama: Gulf State Park. Along with Dry Tortugas in Florida this would be the only other park preserving the beauty of America's Gulf Coast.

Connecticut: Pachaug State Forest. Contains within it a National Natural Landmark, the Pachaug Great-Meadow Swamp which has a concentration of pristine Atlantic White Cedar.

Delaware: Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. This Refuge is a critical ground for Atlantic migratory birds, and also has pre-Revolutionary historic sites.

Georgia: Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. This would be the second largest park protecting swamp and marshland after the Everglades, and is home to numerous threatened and endangered species.

Illinois: Shawnee National Forest. Shawnee is filled with spectacular vistas and attractions from waterfalls to caves, near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

Indiana: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. This would be the second Park to protect an element of the Great Lakes, along with Isle Royal in Michigan.

Iowa: Loess Hills State Forest. Containing a National Natural Landmark, this would be the first Park preserving the loess soil region from the last Ice Age.

Kansas: Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. This would be the first Park dedicated solely to the remaining 4% of the once vast tallgrass prairie.

Louisiana: Kisatchie National Forest. Features numerous rare habitats, including calcareous prairies and hillside seepage bogs.

Maryland: Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. A series of refuges this Park would showcase numerous endangered plants and vast numbers of wildlife, including bald eagles.

Massachusetts: Cape Cod National Seashore. Encompassing the Atlantic Coastal Pines ecoregion, this Park would also boast a number of historically interesting sites.

Mississippi: De Soto National Forest. This Park would highlight one of the last tracts of preserved Gulf Coast ecosystem in North America, also sheltering numerous endangered species.

Missouri: Ozark National Scenic Riverways. No preexisting Park has been designated to preserve any part of the Ozarks or the Current River, often touted as one of America's finest for boating.

Nebraska: Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. With a mix of tall and mid-grass prairie, this sites encompasses a National Natural Landmark of the unique sand hills ecoregion.

New Hampshire: White Mountains National Forest. Comprising a significant portion of the state, the Park would include three major and diverse regions as well as a large tract of the White Mountains.

New Jersey: Pinelands National Reserve. By combining three State Forests this Park would have both natural and historical draws, from pygmy forests to former blueberry factory towns.

New York: Niagara Falls State Park. Why this isn't yet a Park is unfathomable.

Oklahoma: Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge. A National Natural Landmark, this Parks would serve not only as a critical bird habitat, but also as a unique oasis in the great plains region.

Pennsylvania: Allegheny National Forest. This Park would be uniquely devoted to showcasing the Allegheny Highlands ecoregion.

Rhode Island: Burlingame State Park. Not surprisingly this Park would take the title of 'Smallest National Park' from Hot Springs in Arkansas.

Vermont: Green Mountain National Forest. This vast forest Park would have a total of eight wilderness areas within it's borders, and preserve the northernmost section of the Appalachian Trail.

West Virginia: George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. A combined site, these forests create one of the largest tracts of public land in the U.S. and significant old growth populations.

Wisconsin: Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. This would be the only Park to actually preserve a section of the Mississippi River.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Album review: The Electric Lady, Janelle Monae

This is an unusual one. First, Monae has been working on a seven-part work that is inspired by Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’. Back in 2007 she put out an EP that was part one, then the album ‘The ArchAndroid’, in 2010, was parts two and three. Three years later we now have ‘The Electric Lady’.

I remember listening to ‘The ArchAndroid and really wanting to like it, but writing it off as having potential, and Monae as an artist to look into. Two pre-released pop singles from ‘Lady’ made me invest in the album: “Q.U.E.E.N.” with Erykah Badu and “Dance Apocalyptic”.

Notably I like these songs in part because I’ve seen ‘Metropolis’. As such the first half of the album makes a lot of sense. I know the scenes she’s thinking of. The conceptual side of the album is definitely stronger for the first half.

The back half is different. It feels more like an extended love letter to soul and R&B. I’m not sure what ties it to ‘Metropolis’. However, the first vocal track on the album has Prince on it, and the album cover is designed to invoke the classic soul era. Perhaps, then, there is supposed to be a more fluid mix of these two themes.

As examples of the love-letter theme from the back half, presumably the track ‘Ghetto Woman’ is an homage to Stevie Wonder, and ‘Dorothy Dandridge Eyes’ must be acknowledging Michael Jackson. Yet, also on the back half, there’s a fascinating track ‘Sally Ride’ which returns to futurism, and stylistically returns to rock. Whether or not the album is pop, rock or R&B I don’t know. There’s a bit of freestyling on there as well. The track ‘We Were Rock n’ Roll’ brings out the theme of Monae’s basic artistic displacement:

“We were unbreakable
  We were like Rock n’ Roll
  We were like a king and queen
  I want you to know…”

Interestingly the title of the track is not ‘We Were Like Rock n’ Roll’. Indeed, the whole idea of a young black woman’s main artistic inspiration being ‘Metropolis’ is a little striking, but more impressive, and a more worthwhile focus, would be Monae’s versatility. The track that best demonstrates this is ‘Look Into My Eyes’, the closing track on the first half. She puts away the electronics, pumps the strings up even further, and sings. The fact that a seeming lounge track straight from Italy in the 60s doesn’t feel out of the place is the strength of the first half. The back half, while it has good tracks, is more of a mixed bag, and the conceptual threads are scattered. Throughout the album are interlude skits, in the oh-so-typical radio show style, with some hits, others misses.

Overall, then, I’d say the album is a solid 'B'. Better than average, certainly, and a good artistic achievement. I look forward to seeing the final two parts of her vision.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sex, Drugs, Violence and T.V.

Did you ever wonder just when television became so sexualized and violent? When gangsters, pimps and drug dealers became our top-rated dramas? It's ratings, but it goes deeper.

It happened over time. It starts with reality television in the 90s, which was also the decade the Sopranos started in. The nineties brought in the newly sexualized and violent content to two areas where drama was socially acceptable: police work and hospitals. Shows like Law and Order and ER brought the shock value, but were okay, since the heroes were cops and doctors. In the aughts is when it shifted to the bad guys being the focus.

There are a few threads here. First, we have the rise of graphic images and scenarios, which I contend for television starts in the 90s and increases in the past decade. Prior to then very graphic stuff wasn't on television. Second, the graphic stuff is increasingly on shows where anti-heroes, generally criminal, are the focus. Dexter, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Oz, Hannibal, and so on. This was not the lineup of characters in the seventies and eighties. Third, television in general is more and more emotionally charged, from reality tv, to the well-scripted dramas, to the news. Take a look at a pretty decent list of best tv shows ( and compare historically. Very few are so emotionally charged before 1990, and if they are, it's sympathetic for characters who you consider good people. If I'm wound up by an episode of M*A*S*H or Cheers, it's because I feel for the difficulties they're going through.

Lastly, while I get that people have for a while been hyperfocused around television – wanting to know who shot JR and who'll win the Super bowl – I feel as though the placation has increased, and due to the emotional intensity, is more dangerous. Watching television can now leave people feeling drained. And that is potentially very dangerous.

Instead of screaming at the Koch brothers, we're screaming at Skyler and Tony Soprano. We are invested in reality tv celebrities, because we want to see our choice make it to the final round. We have so much strong emotion on our televisions, we've saved none for the realities we must conquer to make our world a better place. Which is just the way they want it.

The other night Robert Reich was on The Daily Show, for his film ‘Inequality for All’. I read a lot of Reich for my “Loser Generation” series, and put money where my mouth is for the kickstarter that funded this movie. I am in complete agreement with Reich that money in politics is the most dangerous thing in our society today. I wrote about this at length, and I am motivated to fix and change it.

Yet sometimes I feel pulled between competing passionate subjects. I’m teaching ‘Current Social Issues’ this semester and the goal is to get the kids zealous about big issues. We’ve talked about genocide, modern slavery, and race discrimination regarding the death penalty. They are intrigued, and sort of sad, but not moved. You could say it’s my teaching, but I don’t think so. Because the other night, on dormitory duty, I saw a boy become impassioned by ‘Breaking Bad’ who was unmoved by human trafficking that same morning.

This is part of why the youth generation is a bunch of losers. It applies to Gen Y, the young professionals who aren’t in the streets protesting for equality and wage benefits befitting their dignity and degrees, and to the youth who are currently teens, raised in a decade of wire-tapping and standardized testing that has left them numbed and apathetic. Imagine your day: school is useless, or your job far below your training and education level, you go home and distract yourself with television which leaves you emotionally drained, and then what you don’t do is try and start a social movement, a protest, or a sit-in. And, like, look at Occupy, man. Like the youth’s parents learned, protests are a bummer, demonstrations are a drag. After an unfulfilling day, let’s sit around and get excited by meth dealers, murders and sexual victimization.

“Watching television is like taking black spray paint to your third eye.” ~ Bill Hicks

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Visuals Revisited

I’m a visual guy.

Much of this comes from a rather unique childhood. My father collected rare children’s books, from the turn of the last century to the 50s. I grew up with an appreciation for illustration. My mom owned every Dr. Seuss book, and both parent’s houses were flooded with picture books. Both my parents liked art, so these books were chosen in large part for their visual value.

Rarely have I posted about this. I have posted an influence map, though, which is strikingly visual: Dr. Seuss, Hiyao Miyazaki, Salvador Dali, Alan Aldridge, MC Escher, Mercer Meyer, Graeme Base, Disney, Maxfield Parrish, Jim Henson, Dinotopia. All from childhood. The Disney visual element I wrote up once talking about Mary Blair. Also included in that influence map was The Mind’s Eye series, which I saw at an impressionable age. It, along with the 1993 game Myst, were the most influential things I saw in digital imaging.

I once wrote up what art I want to have in my house when I’m older. Some of those things I already own. Indeed, I just spent a tidy sum framing a number of prints I intend to keep for the rest of my life. It was a birthday and Christmas gift to me. Those now framed are: Mucha’s ‘Four Seasons’, Magritte’s ‘The Treachery of Images’, Giorgione’s ‘The Tempest’, Banksy’s ‘Weapon of Choice’, Panini’s ‘Picture Gallery with Views of Modern Rome’, Picasso’s ‘Three Musicians’, Escher’s ‘Drawing Hands’, and Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’. There is other art on my walls besides.

Last year I taught art history, and already have a lot of art books on my shelves, from ‘The Louvre: All the Paintings’ to beautiful coffee table works such as ‘Kashmir’, ‘The Orient Express’, ‘Medicine: A Treasury’ and ‘The Art of Alice in Wonderland’.

In the slightly more plebian realm I own a number of graphic novels, from ‘Bone’ to ‘Ed the Happy Clown’. I have Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ and Gaiman’s ‘Miracleman: The Golden Years’, but this is as close as I get to trade paperback comic books. Ours was not a family, really, of reading X-Men and Wonder Woman, although my sister briefly was interested in the former.

Not that there weren’t comics. We had collections of ‘Foxtrot’, ‘Doonesbury’, ‘Bloom County’, ‘Calvin and Hobbes’, ‘Dilbert’, ‘Adam @ Home’, ‘Sally Forth’, ‘For Better or Worse’ and ‘The Farside’. As time went on we added more. I now have a good collection of ‘Sherman’s Lagoon’, my mom collects ‘Pearls Before Swine’, and I have particular collections of ‘The Boondocks’, ‘Get Fuzzy’, ‘King Aroo’, ‘Bizarro’, ‘Farley’ and ‘Gordo’.

I did once write something up on here of “20 Comics Artists (if you’re serious aboutcomics) and notably three of them were known to me from their web comics: Kazu Kibushi, who did ‘Copper’, Jeph Jacques, who does ‘Questionable Content’, and Aaron Diaz, who does ‘Dresden Codak’. The only web comic artist I might add to that particular list would be Vitaly S Alexius, who does ‘Romantically Apocalyptic’. This is a beautiful comic, but is not entirely hand-drawn, and so it would be sort of cheating to include.

Web comics are a part of my daily life and routine. Way back in this blog’s infancy, in 2007, I mentioned something to the effect, back when my writing style was pure Jon Carroll wannabe. Way back in 2002 I started reading ‘Sluggy Freelance’, with an impressive archive going back to 1997 or so. I got the books, loved the characters, followed it through high school and on through college. I don’t read it any more. I gave up somewhere around 2009, I think. Maybe later. I own four or five collections of it though.

You never know with web comics. In 2006 the great ‘A Lesson Is Learned But the Damage is Irreversible’ ended, only to publish a new comic in 2012. And for the past almost a year now – nothing more added but that one comic. ‘Mac Hall’ ended, only to be replaced by the same cast in ‘Three Panel Soul’. ‘The Meek’ was a very well-done online graphic novel, and hasn’t updated since November, 2012. Kate Beaton very rarely touches her ‘Hark a Vagrant!’ anymore, it seems. ‘Copper’, mentioned above, stopped updating with a random update in 2009. Little has changed since my ninth post on here, all those years ago.

Every Sunday there was a race between me, my sister and either my mom or dad (mom was more into the race, dad would often just read a different section and wait) to see who got the funnies. Every day, when the paper was delivered, there played out the same ritual. I no longer read any ‘newspaper’ comics except ‘Doonesbury’. I finally gave up on ‘Pearls Before Swine’ and ‘Get Fuzzy’ when I stopped laughing. Web comics have the space and creativity now. ‘Dresden Codak’ isn’t a punch line strip, but I want to know what happens, and am willing to wait months in between beautiful panels to see. Yesterday I got my kickstarter reward for backing his book project, namely an attractive, bound copy of his work. It went right next to the ‘Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics’, collecting the works of Herriman, McKay, and the other pioneers of the genre. The visual legacy I inherited continues on.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Things Kids Should Read in High School

Working off the model I had, these are some books I read, and some I didn't until later, with some I read also having been removed. All in all I think these books would

1) Give them an appreciation for literature

2) Make history more accessible

3) Teach a proper ethics

The last is probably the most important, but not all such works need to be all three.

Freshman Year: The English 9 Catch-All

Catcher in the Rye. Hook 'em quick. Running away from school is fun, but bad.

Romeo and Juliet. Hook those who didn't like Catcher. Teen suicide is bad.

To Kill a Mockingbird. Segregation is bad.

The Power of One. Real bad.

Poetry: Poetry is a good way to express yourself. Some tried and true Freshman winners include Ozymandias by Shelly, Howl by Ginsberg, Ulysses by Tennyson, The Tyger by Blake, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Thomas, The Road Not Taken by Frost, The Weary Blues by Hughes, The Red Wheelbarrow by Williams, A Boston Ballad by Whitman, Because I Could Not Stop for Death by Dickinson, The Tower by Yeats, and Ode on a Grecian Urn by Keats.

Short Stories: Short stories are fun! More tried and true works: The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber by Hemingway, A Rose for Emily by Faulkner, A Good Man is Hard to Find by O'Connor, The Lady or the Tiger? by Stockton, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Bierce, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by le Guin, The Most Dangerous Game by Connell, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Marquez, The Lottery by Jackson, The Yellow Wallpaper by Gillman, On Keeping a Notebook by Didion, A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift, The Telltale Heart by Poe, Harrison Bergeron by Vonnegut,  Man from the South by Dahl, The Nose by Gogol.

Sophomore Year: Western Civilization

The Iliad (selections). Where it all begins. Rage is bad.

Oedipus Rex. Incest is bad.

The Apology. Philosophy, on the other hand, is good. But kills you.

The Bible (selections: Genesis, Exodus, Job, Mark). God is going to be so mad at you...

Julius Caesar. Assassination is bad. Maybe.

Barabbas. Thank God you're not him.

Becket. Having to choose between two all-powerful allegiances is hard.

St. Joan. Even if you know what you're doing, things can still turn out badly.

Galileo. Sometimes selling out isn't a bad thing.

A Man for All Seasons. Having to choose between two all-powerful allegiances is hard, part two.

Candide. Enlightenment won't save you.

Crime and Punishment. Nothing will save you.

"In the Penal Colony". The death penalty is scary.

Hedda Gabler. Bitches be crazy.

Regeneration. World War One was really pointless, tragic.

The Plague. Life is really pointless, tragic.

Junior Year: O beautiful, for spacious skies...

The Scarlet Letter. Thank God we're not a bunch of Puritans anymore.

The Crucible. No, really...(Also McCarthy was a bad, bad man.)

"Benito Cereno" and "Bartleby". Moby Dick is too long, anyway.

"Self-Reliance", "Nature", "Civil Disobedience" and "Life Without Principle", Walden (Selections: Where I Lived and What I Lived For, Solitude, Higher Laws, Housewarming). "Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off track by every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation." Kids love language like that.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Get ready for some uncomfortable conversations.

Death Comes for the Archbishop. There's a lot of America out there.

The Jungle. Socialism is good.

Main Street. Americans are bad?

The Great Gatsby. Americans are complex.

The Grapes of Wrath. Depression is depressing.

A Streetcar Named Desire. Americans are tragic or hot with their shirts off.

The Old Man and the Sea. Fuck it, lets go to Cuba.

The Monkey Wrench Gang. We're not bad people if we save the planet.

Senior Year: Electives

Whatever. Some of the lit I read:

Philosophy (West and East): No Exit, The Painted Bird.

Epic Lit: The Odyssey, The Inferno, Love in the Time of Cholera, The Long Walk, The Alchemist.

Russian Lit: Fathers and Sons, The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya, The Duel, The Overcoat, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Bronze Horseman (also Crime and Punishment and The Nose).