Happy fucking fortieth anniversary, America.
I can still remember clearly the 6th of June, 1968. That's the day I learned that "Bob" was short for "Robert." To my mind, there were two Kennedy brothers running for president that year. I knew the Kennedys were a big family, and they all seemed to be in politics. So, to my seven-year-old mind, it followed. It was incredible to me, then, that not one but both of them managed to get shot in the aftermath of the June 5th California primary. And the next morning, when it was announced that Robert F. Kennedy had died in the early hours of June 6th, I remarked, "Boy. I wonder how Bobby's doing."
It wasn't until years later that I also discovered "Jack" was a nickname for "John." Politics was confusing to me back then. But ultimately it didn't matter so much in 1968, since our family was actually Clean For Gene that year. All the same, these two pieces of Kennedy kitsch adorn my walls to this day, as a remembrance of days gone by and in celebration of a time when we enshrined our beloved martyred leaders in terry cloth.
The Great Depression actually started long before most of us took notice. I'm not talking about a status-quo cultural landscape of capitalist exploitation and class division. I'm talking about hundreds of thousands of subsistance farmers, isolated for generations, cut off from the latest advances in agricultural best practices, turning region after region of fertile land into fallow, erosion-damaged rural slums.
For the Roosevelt administration and those at the forefront of the New Deal, this situation suggested but one solution: RELOCATION! Created for just this purpose, the Resettlement Administration fanned out across the country, spreading the gospel of cooperative farming and planned "greenbelt" communities. But despite the government's best efforts, farmers insisted on private ownership over collectivism.
Eventually, the RA was folded into the Department of Agriculture's Farm Security Administration, and -- after the necessary purge of a few grumbling hardliners -- shifted its focus to providing small farms with loans and agribusiness training. To help disseminate its progressive agenda, the FSA's Information Division hired some of the greatest photographers of the era to document the face of rural poverty, as well as its relief at the hands of the goverment.
In the process, such notables as Walker Evans,Dorothea Lange,Gordon Parks and Marion Post Wolcott provided evidence of all the New Deal's pet ills: land mismanagement, urban blight, inadequate sanitation, poor health conditions, race discrimination, ignorance and so on. Their body of work for the FSA has it all: history, asthetics, ideology, irony, empathy and above all, an incredible attention to detail.
The Library of Congress hosts a huge online collection of these photographs. If you spend enough time browsing this site, you're left with an awesome, undeniable sense of the nation's crisis in its full scope. It's as if the entire country had turned into Jacob Riis' Fourth Ward.
To make sure you don't miss the ideological slant of the material, many of the photos sport such evocative titles as "Cheap partly-constructed houses lacking water and sewage, Lockland, Ohio", "Houses which have been condemned by the Board of Health, but are still occupied by Negro Migratory workers, Belle Glade, Fla" and "The poorer the land, the more frequently one sees religious signs along highways, Alabama."
Critics of the FSA cite the often transparent staging of some of the scenes, or decry their blatant explotation of human misery to further a political agenda. But we're not here to debate that point. Whatever the motivations or machinations behind these photos, their sheer, powerful beauty can only be applauded. The only fault I can find with this collection is its sheer volume. I have wasted many an hour pouring through seemingly endless catalogues of decrepit buildings, filthy children and demeaning labor. I have become addicted to photos of people canning tomatos and crating celery.
As the thirties turned to the forties, and the country shifted to a war footing, the photographic unit of the FSA moved over to the Office Of War Information. There, it spent its final years documenting militarty adventures overseas and industrial activity here at home. Ironically enough, the same photographers who began the project taking pictures of the coerced relocation of squalid farm dwellers went on to document the forced relocation of Japanese Americans.
Readers are strongly encouraged to visit the Library of Congress Documenting America site.
Here are just a few samples of what you'll find:
I can't remember when my fascination with the American presidents began. Growing up with a character like Richard Nixon on the national scene probably had something to do with it. But to borrow the title from a popular book from the era, it didn't start with Nixon. Turns out, they're ALL a bunch of characters! The great ones are awe inspiring, the mediocre ones provoke hilarity, the scoundrels counjure up a fearful sense of wonder, even the obscure ones achieve cult status, specifically because they are so obscure.
The presidency is a magnet for both conspiracy theorists, and aspiring songwriters. I myself have used our commanders in chief as a sleep aid. Before I had it memorized, I used to combat insommnia by reciting to myself the order of presidential succession. I'm an avid collector of presidential trivia. I fantasize about visiting all the presidential birth and death places (and gravesites). I'm consumed with envious admiration at the industry of Sarah Vowell.One of my goals is to acquire a complete set of presidential china.
Of course, I'm not the only one with presidential fever, and there are plenty of tourist attractions catering to my affliction. During our recent visit to South Dakota, my wife and I had occasion to visit a couple of them. Sure, we saw the big stone-headed kahuna, Mount Rushmore, but it was merely the largest and most famous. We found the Presidential Wax Museum in Keystone to be just as entertaining, and almost twice as time consuming.
Since amateur photography is welcomed at the museum, I managed to capture a small handful of photos. I also purchased a few dandy postcards in the gift shop. But, surrounded as I was by natural beauty and historic squalor, I apportioned only a small part of my digital storage space to the darkened museum. Luckily, history buff Mary Harrsch offers over a hundred supplemental photos on her Flickr site.
Our other favorite presidential attraction was the heart of downtown Rapid City, which features many prominent bronze statues of our chief executives on its street corners. World traveler Galen Frysinger has most of 'em up on his site, but I myself managed to snap two that he missed. On the subject of missing things, I can't believe we passed this one up. But it came up at the end of a long day of driving (we pulled down over twelve hundred miles for the whole trip), and we just couldn't bear to stop, even for something as great as this.
Bonus question: Who are the gentlemen in the above photo, and what do they all have in common?
I travelled all over the United States when I was in a touring band, but I never made it up to the Dakota Territory. Consequently, I never got to see the Black Hills, the Badlands or Mount Rushmore. This summer, my wife and I finally made the pilgrimage.
We probably should have made the trip before we became vegans, however. Buffalo meat was on every menu. If we hadn't packed lots of food to take with us, we might have starved. As it was, we took a couple of ill-advised culinary gambles which left me feeling ill on more than one occasion. But what the hell: I got to see my stone presidents.
We took our fair share of photos, and even took our video camera out on its maiden outing (I'm afraid to even look at the footage). But none of them came anywhere near to being as cool as the ones my wife recieved from an old friend of the family when we got back. It seems her family made the trek back in the late 30s while the carving was still incomplete.
Unfortunately, whoever scanned them had a little trouble with his equipment. The pixels on these pix are a big as the pores on giant Abe Lincoln's nose. But, to paraphrase the military, you post with the jpegs you've got. Regardless, they're a treat, if only for a glimpse into the safety standards of the era. And how about that guy standing in the middle of the Badlands in a suit and tie? That's some commitment.
I remember reading somewhere that Japanese collectors regularly decend upon the US and buy up every piece of old vinyl they can find. I witnessed this phenomenon first hand one day when I visited my favorite comic store. I found the owner packing up his entire roomful of old five-for-a-dollar comics for delivery to a collector in Japan. Now I'm afraid to visit that country for fear of finding everything I've been looking for on sale for unreachably astronomical prices.
When my wife took a business trip to Japan recently, I warned her not to return without a suitcase full of that country's national treasures. I'm happy to report that she did well. Now it's payback time!
Okay, I admit it: you can get Pockys and Hello Kitty junk just about anywhere. And we're afraid to try most of this stuff -- not because we're squeamish but because we've vegan. There's nary a recognizable character in the ingredients list. The cats took a strong interest in my wife's suitcase when she got home, so I'm bettting there's fish in some of them.
I can guess what's in them just by looking at the pictures on the packages. One appears to be slices of leek deep fried and coated with chili powder. Another looks like freeze-dried edamame. There's a couple that I'm afraid to describe for fear of being slashdotted by coprophagia enthusiasts.
Without a doubt, my favoriteis the one with the drawing of the three snack superheroes: Pot-Leaf-Head Disco Man, Uniformed Coffee-Headed Mexican and Green-Tea-Headed Percussionist Just Getting Out Of The Shower.
Since we wouldn't eat any of these treats ourselves, my wife took them into the office. But they sat there in the public area for weeks and nobody touched a one. I'm going to give my co-workers a shot next, but I don't hold very high hopes. Hopefully, we'll find somebody who'll take an interest.
My wife travelled to Japan last week -- a quick work trip that netted her almost as many flight hours as actual time in Tokyo. She had problems connecting with her luggage, and the jet lag was staggering. But she managed to return home with some pretty nice pix.
For one thing, the cherry trees were in full bloom, and one can hardly take a bad picture of those. She was also able to document some truly awesome moments spent in front of the television. (Nice flat panel -- gotta love a business trip). But most important, she made sure to find the statue of Hachiko, which she'd never heard of before she encountered it in her guidebook.
Hachiko was a two-year-old white Akita whose master died at work one day. The pup spent the next 12 years in front of the Shibuya train station, waiting for him to return. Fortunately, the station master more or less adopted Hachiko, and he became not only a fixture at the station, but also a national celebrity. When he died in the 1930s, a bronze statue was erected in his honor. It was melted for scrap during the Second World War, but was replaced in the late 40s, where it remains one of the most popular attractions in the city. Hachiko's stuffed remains are on display at the National Science Museum.
My wife didn't really have much time to drink otherwise of Tokyo's pleasures. She did manage to watch some manic children's programs, snap some nice citiscapes and capture some of the local color. She also brought home a big pile of odd Japanese treats. However, since I forgot to resize these photos before I uploaded them, I squandering my entire Flickr bandwidth allotment for the month. So the candy pictures will have to wait.