Tuesday, September 30, 2008

(In)to a good year

Like photos, a selective journal can both supplement and supplant memories. Skimming back through my journal provides touchstones to the year past, but the greater narrative needed for Rosh Hashanah has to come from within. This afternoon I will stand at the river bank and cast my sins onto the water, those remembered and those unremembered. And I will renew my prayers for a sweet new year, filled with love and laughter. These rituals too are touchstones, reminders of the greater work needed over the days and year to come if we wish to actually improve our world and ourselves. L’shana tovah.

Monday, September 29, 2008


We went to see Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza earlier this month, and seriously considered going back to see it again before its Boston run ends in a couple of weeks. We’ve seen a lot of Cirque shows at this point, and despite the consistent structure and predictable clowning, many of the acrobatic acts in Kooza still managed to surprise and delight in new ways. Strength, grace, flexibility, teamwork, a sense of play, and a complete defiance of physical limitations and occasionally of physics itself. Those are hallmarks of Cirque shows, and their shows leave me not just in awe of what other people can do, but convinced that I can push beyond some of my own limitations.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Yeah, that’s the ticket

I’m not going to mow our back yard because of the historic crisis in our financial system. And I’m calling on the grass to stop growing, too.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Liberals like new experiences

I don't really have time to develop a proper post, but I watched Jonathan Heidt's Ted Talk about The Real Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives on my lunch break, and I think it's an interesting place to start a discussion about how democrats might alter their message to appeal to more of those moderate voters who are nervous about all this talk of change.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

7 weeks or less

Sarah Palin's relationship to the Alaska GOP establishment and state government has precisely mirrored her relationship to the Wassila town government: take people's support on her way up, then discard them as soon as politically convenient to do so. Her lasting friendships were formed in high school: she has appointed numerous high school classmates to top positions in Alaska's government. But she has hung onto her resentments from that time as well, and it's not clear that she ever matured beyond high school. A consistent theme of her public life has been loyalty to nobody outside her immediate family, demands for fealty from those under her authority, and a fervent pursuit of vendettas. As mayor and later as governor, she fired everyone who crossed her.

Palin has always campaigned on a platform of clean government and ethics reform. She filed ethics complaints against those above her while she was on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. She publicly scolded Ted Stevens for ethical violations when it became expedient to do so, after knowingly depending on those suddenly unethical tactics for years. Advocating for ethics is admirable, but it's clearly just a hunting blind for political attacks when her own ethics are so lacking. Long before the numerous lies she has been telling as a candidate for vice president, she was claiming per diem travel pay for hundreds of nights spent at home, doing something on her tax returns that she's now hiding, appointing utterly unqualified friends to overpaid government posts, and being so vicious in attacking her sister's ex-husband while child custody was being worked out that the judge described her actions as child abuse.

All of this suggests that Sarah Palin's exit from the 2008 presidential campaign, whether it is before or after Election Day in November, is likely to be spectacularly nasty. She has a long potential future in politics, while John McCain does not, so she doesn't need him any longer. Once she leaves the campaign, she will be casting blame in any direction but her own. Campaign managers put words in her mouth. The media was unfair. Bloggers were unfair. The campaign didn't listen to her ideas for campaign strategy. And John McCain lied to her or to the public, whether it was about the vetting process, his campaign positions, her campaign positions. We're already seeing the groundwork laid for a scorched earth exit, as Sarah Palin's husband drops new hints that the vetting process by the McCain campaign was incomplete and rushed. All we need to do is convince Sarah Palin that her political future will be brighter if she leaves before the election, citing ethical problems with the McCain campaign that she is unwilling to tolerate. If she believes that McCain will lose the election anyway, she will certainly get far more press by leaving early. Electus interruptus may not be a foolproof strategy, but it's been so much more fun than abstaining from the race to start with.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Rainbow at Stellwagen Bank

Photo by Michael

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Primary Day next Tuesday

If you live in Carl Sciortino’s district and are voting on the Democratic ballot, the only name you’ll see on the ballot is Robert Trane. But you can still vote for Carl, who is a great state representative (and a really friendly, kind, and interested-in-the-world person). Just write in “Carl M. Sciortino, Jr., 17 Orchard St., Medford” in the next empty box and connect the arrow or fill in the bubble. See www.writeincarl.com for details.

I’ll be doing the same for the Register of Probate position for Middlesex County. Solves the problem of how to vote against John Buonomo. Carl for everything!

Our only other serious choice on the ballot is for Governor’s Council, which rubber-stamps reviews judicial and parole board nominations. I’m voting for Michael Callahan, because his opponent scares me.

This is how I choose to take note of 9/11. Please vote.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How the Huntington Lost the Audience

The Huntington’s first production under their new artistic director is a world premiere of How Shakespeare Won the West, by Richard Nelson. A group of actors decide to leave New York for California during the Gold Rush, having heard that the miners are desperate for entertainment and that they love plays, particularly Shakespeare. This sounds like a great premise, and the program contains some fun historical anecdotes about the popularity of Shakespeare in 19th-century America. After finding our seats and looking through the program, we settled in for the ride.

Well, traveling across the country in the 1840’s was wearying, stressful, and generally joyless. Just like the play!

The story, it turns out, is narrated by the entire company. Non-stop. I mean, they really won’t shut up. And the constant bouncing in and out of role does neither the actors nor the audience any favors. It feels like a Christmas pageant in which each child has been given Very Important Lines so that nobody feels left out.

—Look, now they’re telling the story of how they looked for a comic actor for their troupe.
—Oh, now they’re acting out a scene where they find the comic actor.
—Yeah, it’s a shame he’s not funny, but at least he’s not really trying to be funny, is he?

Of course, in a Christmas pageant, the kids are cute, loving family members are in the audience, and there’s an upbeat story. And, with any luck, there’s more than one song.

The fundamental problems with How Shakespeare Won the West lay squarely at the feet of the playwright. He spends far too long setting up the journey across America and not enough time on the journey. You can see the outline he first developed for the story because so much of it remains in outline form and the later pieces are hurried through. (Though I hesitate to suggest that the play should be longer, because I certainly wouldn’t want to see more of it.) The characters are labeled instead of developed, and there’s no relationship between most of the characters because they’re too busy talking to the audience to interact with each other. In fact, the only complex network of interactions happens during the 15 minutes of dumb show as the characters arrive on stage before the curtain.

There’s one powerful set piece where an Indian chief who does not speak English is deeply moved by a performance of King Lear. The distancing of the constant narration is finally overcome for a few moments, though the playwright steps on the emotional climax in a desperate attempt to segue to the next item on his outline.

By the time the characters arrive in California, they are broken, and so is the interest of the audience. The climax of the play felt like an epilogue, and even then the playwright tacked on a secondary ending that just made it all worse. There was no standout performance. I left with admiration for the settlers and prospectors and performers who sought their fortunes or sought new lives in the great American West, sympathy for the actors who worked so hard to accomplish so little, and a deep and abiding hope that I never have to sit through another Richard Nelson play.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Ask me for money

As an arts council, we have to decide on how much funding to give each project. There are theoretically many different ways we could do this. Even if just one person were making the funding decisions, do you try to spread your funding among as many projects as possible or focus on giving more support to better projects? Do you strictly rank all projects by various criteria, or just put them in buckets of good, better, best? If two similar projects ask for different amounts of money, do you give more money to the project that asked for more money (since they asked for more) or equal amounts (since they are similar projects) or more money to the project that asked for less money (since that project is more efficient or is more likely to happen)?

Each of us can individually make these decisions, but how do we make them as a council of 5 to 22 people? Do we each make our own allocations of the complete budget and then average those allocations? If a majority of the council agrees on a particular level of funding for a particular project, should they just vote to allocate that amount and then let us move on to the remaining projects and the remaining money? Should we assign $15,000 of the funding through an averaged allocation (the first approach), and then allow each council member to allocate $500 of funding? I like variations on this last idea because it makes it more meaningful that each individual person is on the council, and allows a project to be fully funded if a few council members feel strongly about supporting that particular project. On the other hand, the first approach allows a few council members who feel strongly that a particular project should not be funded to reduce the amount of funding that the project receives.

As a further complication, how do we deal with conflicts of interest, since one or two council members may not be allowed to vote on particular grants? And how do we ensure that we meet our guidelines of floors and caps on particular types of grants?

We need a process that is comprehensible, easy to implement, doesn’t require endless rounds of voting, and keeps each council member feeling that their voice matters in the process. Opinions are very welcome.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Rose mallow in our garden

Photo by Michael

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A time of renewal

The arts council is changing. Our chair resigned in the spring, and our current treasurer and chair (one person) is leaving before the end of the year. Three new members have just joined the council this summer, so along with the three of us who joined last fall there is little continuity. And in the next two weeks we will rethink our funding priorities and procedures, taking into account this summer’s survey results.

Far more people mailed back the survey than completed it online, and we ended up with around 100 completed surveys. We can pass this along to other councils as a positive example, since gathering community input can be difficult. And once we’ve collated and analyzed the results, we’ll have some good information about our community’s priorities and interests.

What we then need is a sense of ourselves: who are we as council members, what are our individual and collective strengths and weaknesses, who should we call on to handle particular tasks, and who would it be helpful to recruit to join us? Do we need someone who has experience in the outside grants world, or with local or state politics, or with the school system, or with PR and marketing? Or do we already have those bases covered? In a way we need to do a collective self-interview, and that may be more difficult than interviewing our community.