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Charlie Davis and Bill Nack

It’s a sad time. Secretariat’s superb exercise rider Charlie Davis died on February 7, and last night Bill Nack, Secretariat’s great biographer and journalist par excellence, left us as well. Two dear friends, and companions on the lifelong run of carrying Secretariat’s torch. Here’s a link to a video I put together in memory of Charlie. I’m glad Bill lived to see it, but I’m sorry neither Penny nor Charlie did. I think they’d have enjoyed it. I hope you do.


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About Looking (homage to John Berger)

My new year’s resolution: look more closely.

My favorite writer John Berger said: “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.  Each evening we see the sun set.  We know that the Earth is turning away from it.  Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.”  LOOKING at something, afresh, as though it were the first time we’d seen it, explodes our preconceptions and challenges our assumptions. 

This is why I love to travel.  Tourism, by definition, places once in unfamiliar surroundings and gives one license to gawk.  I’ve just had the enormous privilege of three weeks traveling in Europe, the first such trip since I was in my 20s.  As one does, we saw a lot of famous art under very crowded conditions.  We jockeyed for position in front of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”; squinted to see Van Gogh’s brushstrokes obscured by our own reflections in the glass that now protects the paintings from vandals; mooed and lowed in a great listless herd through the Sistine Chapel.  Florence at Christmas was less of a zoo; we had a breathtaking, quiet interview with Michelangelo’s David.  And then, at the Uffizi Gallery, a painting of Judith slaying Holofernes slew me. 

It’s the image below:  painted in 1621 by Artemisia Gentileschi — a name I’d not heard before.  I was expecting to be wowed by what I already thought I knew: Caravaggio.  But whereas Caravaggio’s version has Judith meekly decapitating Holofernes as though he were a roasted pig, this one at the Uffizi is all violence and brawn.  Judith and the other woman have him pinioned by the hair and throat, and he’s fighting for his life as the sword severs his jugular.  The spurt of blood, to which this reproduction does no justice, is in the original a great roostertail of crimson gore, worthy of Quentin Tarantino.  I thought, who was this painter, and how many people did she arrange to have executed in her studio in order to get the work right? 

It turns out that Gentileschi was initially a follower of Caravaggio and a protégée of a guy named Agostino Tassi, who raped her, promised to marry her, and then reneged on the promise.  Her family brought charges, and during the trial she was tortured with thumbscrews to “prove her truthfulness”.  Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to banishment, but the sentence was never carried out. 

In the painting, Gentileschi painted herself as the avenging Judith, and the rapist Tassi as Holofernes.  I went into the Uffizi expecting Madonna and Child.  I’d come out with Thelma and Louise.

On the While in Florence I caught a nasty cold and spent Christmas in bed.  So I made a little drawing, as I often like to do when we’re on vacation when I have time and space to really look at something.  When I do, I realize the apples and oranges are not round, but have strange bulbous shapes, and the tassels of a shawl are rarely straight.  I especially like trying to draw fabric, in the way light hits the folds.   

Berger again: “Whenever the intensity of looking reaches a certain degree, one becomes aware of an equally intense energy coming towards one through whatever it is one is scrutinizing.”  That rebounding energy has been described in many ways: the divine, the muse, the light of inspiration.   When I look at art, I try to find, in that point of intersection between the artist and the subject, a burst of energy, like the green flash at the end of a sunset.  That’s where the painting comes alive.   It’s usually in the eyes of a person, a face.  It happened in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where I got tired of crowding around the Rembrandts and Vermeers and instead focused on some small portraits by Jan Steen.  One, the “Baker Oostwaert and his Wife”, filled me with simple, openhearted joy. 

On my return to the States, I became immediately sucked back into the vortex of the known.  Work obligations and household tasks stacked like unwashed dinner plates.  Shrapnel from Trump’s latest detonation hit close to my heart.  By yesterday I had careened back into seeing exactly what I expected to see.  A Facebook row with a conservative friend was turning sharp – and before turning out the light I sent a last reply, calling him racist and ignorant, hesitated, and then punched post.

But this morning the New York Times gave me a little buried gift in this quote from Georgia O’Keefe: “Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see it takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”  I opened Facebook to see that my friend had amended the words that had sent me over the edge, and I amended mine in return.  He’s a hard friend to have, given the gulf between us.  I haven’t really seen him yet.  But maybe this year, if I look harder, I will.

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After Charlottesville

I spent last Sunday reading condemnations of others’ racism after Charlottesville.  I read few investigations of self.

I’ve just returned from a road trip through Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming – country I’ve traversed, and loved, for years.  Impassable red rock craters and spires.  Rigid fields of irrigated potatoes.  Windy plains evoking Mongolian steppes, dotted with antelope.

And every fifty miles or so, a town – sickening, dying, or dead.  I’ve watched these little towns over the years, stopped in their gas stations and eaten in their cafes.  I’ve seen how the movie house closed because it couldn’t afford a digital projector.  How the musty old hotel restaurant, where you could get a steak under the stare of a stuffed buffalo head, has become a Denny’s.  How a grocery store’s converted to an antique shop, as the keepsakes of a rural community bleed out through its last open orifice.  How the diner we used to stop at because of the row of pickups out front is now empty, its windows painted over with dust-covered bald eagles and American flags.  How it doesn’t take long, once the last business goes, for the buildings to bleach like bones.

Of course this is hardcore Trump country.  Businesses are festooned with “Make America Great” signs.  People’s country courtesy comes edged with resentment.  I’ve always been an outsider, and I’m still a customer.  But I’ve felt increasingly like an enemy.  This trip, a motorcyclist passing the other direction flipped us off – I guess just for our Colorado plates.

Still, even after Charlottesville, I carry these people in my heart.

It goes deeper.  My mother’s family came from northern Virginia.  They owned a large farm, worked by slaves.  They lost it to foreclosure around the Civil War, and two separate battles were fought near their land.  The night Richmond fell, a boy of sixteen – my great-grandfather — guarded a dry-goods store with a pistol against fire, Union troops and looting locals.  The landscape lay devastated by combat, the white social structure morally ravaged by slavery.  Its people faced a terrifying future.  My great-aunt wrote, in a memoir depicting our family’s struggle out of that awful shadow: “As a race we were afraid of negroes.  That is the truth.  The talk of keeping them in their place was merely a way of saying, ‘We’ll make them scared of us, so scared they won’t try anything.’”  My great-uncle beat up a black man he’d been friends with as a child — at midday in the town square — because the man refused to call him “mister.”

Outwardly, I am none of these things.  A professional, progressive Boulderite, I harbor no ideologies of racial separation or superiority. I have no trouble condemning the KKK.  But we do not live in the world of Indiana Jones, where good guys punch out cartoon Nazis.  The racism we must confront is not merely the tiki-torch variety.  It’s our own in-group out-group hard wiring, overlaid with the history, power structures and acculturation of our regional, familial, and personal roots.  By this standard, of course Donald Trump is racist.  But so am I.  When I meet a person, among the first things I notice is their race.  Also, a quick flash of wariness.  It has always been there. 

The great damage wrought by Bannon and Trump is that they align such deep-rooted racism with our often legitimate sense of economic loss and cultural fear, and meld them into tribal resentment.  People thus incited do not experience themselves as haters.  What they feel is allegiance and safety.  So they deny being – or at least feeling — racist.  But the hatred and violence engendered are no less real. 

Humans as a species are universally vulnerable to race-baiting like Bannon’s.  Democracy’s defenders should condemn and confront it.  But we — especially people of privilege — should also be honest about ourselves.  The therapy for racism is not righteousness.  It is understanding: of other, of self.

One morning last week we set out before dawn on Highway 50.  The Great Basin opened up ahead, a carpet of black sage stopping at silhouetted cliffs, thrusting to indistinct peaks and ridgelines and tumbling bruises of cloud, dark grey, burgundy, pink — then suddenly breaking into orange fire.  What had been a wash of soulful gloom abruptly turned every color, green, yellow, lavender, each proclaiming its particular self.  Oncoming headlights faded to twinkles, like morning stars.  Mary Chapin Carpenter crooned:

Oh my darling, oh my love,
The things we are made of.

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The Art of Storytelling

For Boulder filmmakers, last Monday was New Years’ Day — the day after the biggest and best celebration of the year, hosted by impresarios extraordinaires Robin and Kathy Beeck.  This year’s Boulder International Film Festival (BIFF) was their latest annual triumph, turning Boulder into an ever-enlarging red dot on the world filmmaking map (disclosure: I edited one of the documentaries screened).  BIFF’s roster served a delicious elixir of cosmopolitan entertainment and social awareness. We all got smashed.

Hopefully it’s not amiss, as we nurse our happy hangovers, to reflect on the stories we tell and consume at such festivals.  We believe, as makers and watchers, that film is an agent for social change.  Films flagged as “call2action” at BIFF featured talkbacks at which local activists brainstormed with the audience to translate message into movement.  At several such gatherings, a participant would ask: how can we get Trump to watch this film?  As if the simple act of watching would change his mind. 

Of course, we know it wouldn’t.  But beyond a little healthy reality-check, it’s appropriate to ask: what is the power of our craft?  Is there a trade-off between telling stories that open others’ eyes and ones that simply make ourselves feel more righteous?  Are the objectives of persuasion and entertainment aligned or in tension?  I worry that it’s the latter – that if our narratives entertain by congratulating us and preaching to others, instead of challenging us and connecting with others, we end up diminishing our power to accomplish the social change to which our projects aspire. 

Take for example the festival’s runaway favorite film, “Chasing Coral” — a vitally important movie that won the Audience Award at Sundance as well as three awards at BIFF.  It follows a team of filmmakers racing to document, through time-lapse videography, a cataclysmic “mass bleaching” event in 2016 that killed 22% of the corals of the Great Barrier Reef due to rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change.  The images they took, shown in the last fifteen minutes of the film, devastate the viewer.  The scope of this silent catastrophe is beyond words, and the “Chasing Coral” team has done an inestimable service in capturing it.

Yet the 75 preceding minutes focus heavily on the exploits of attractive, white Boulderites building gadgets, making witty repartee, jetting to exotic locales and strapping on adventure gear.  It’s “The Amazing Race” for the Patagonia set.  Of course Sundancers and BIFFers love it, because it’s all about us, or who we fancy ourselves to be.        

And we, almost to a person, already understand and agree with the film’s central thesis that climate change is killing corals worldwide.  Indeed, the film pretty much assumes this viewer knowledge and orientation from the opening frame.  The first character it introduces is a former advertising executive who has been a scuba diver for many years (i.e., a very wealthy person) and who has decided to leave corporate advertising and dedicate himself to publicizing the plight of climate-caused coral death. The film assumes viewers will cheer this choice without question or exploration.

It is only at the end of the film, after the devastating time-lapse images, that the film lays out the science of CO2 loading of the atmosphere that causes warming of the oceans, and makes the connection to fossil fuels.  And it does so through a montage of talking-head scientists who lecture nearly to the point of scolding.

Let’s rewind for a minute.  Place yourself in the shoes of a person who is not from Boulder and does not particularly like Boulderites or Sundancers.  A person, more importantly, who thinks the theory of fossil fuel-induced climate change may be a hoax, and that ocean warming may be the result of natural cycles.  Does “Chasing Coral” change your mind?  My worry is that you are so alienated by the assumed politics and liberal cultural markers of the first half-hour that you will never get to the denouement.   You will turn away, just as I do when I try to watch a documentary by Dinesh D’Souza or a debate on Fox News.  If I were watching a documentary on abortion that opened on a group of filmmakers on a mission to “expose abortionists”, I’d have a hard time not immediately turning the channel, even if the film had more nuanced content later on.   I can’t abide the cover, so I never read the book. 

It’s not just a problem for filmmakers.  We all struggle to persuade others across political and cultural divides.  We often try to do so by pointing at ourselves – our superior style, education, numerosity, power.   In bygone days, we could efface ourselves and “let the facts speak for themselves” – that is, back when facts were, well, facts.  Now, it’s undeniably harder.  I still believe in the power of an honestly-told story – but sometimes the teller needs to get out of the way.  

John, Boulder Daily Camera guest editorial

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Cinequest Premiere

Cinequest Premiere

We had a lovely evening showing of Sauti in San Jose. The highlight for me was the presence of Joshua and Favourite, two of the refugees featured in the film. They got to meet other directors, see themselves on the big screen, and tour Stanford campus that afternoon.

“I’m starving,” I said, after the screening, as we repaired to a celebratory dinner of steak and sashimi, chicken piccata and champagne.
“What do they eat in the camp?” One of our companions asked over the main course. “I suppose it’s only chicken and rice.”
“Oh no. No chicken. No rice. We eat posho. It’s a white corn meal. We eat that. And some beans.”
“What about protein?”
“What is protein?  We just fill our belly to the next day, that is all.”
Earlier in the day, Joshua had mentioned to me receiving a text from a friend in the camp that things are very bad right now, that there is no food. “You know, it is sometimes hard to really enjoy what you have when your friends are starving.”
Two worlds, connected by the synapse of media, still thousands of miles apart.

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“Sauti (Voice)” Premiere Screenings

“Sauti (Voice)” Premiere Screenings

Sauti’s US premiere will be in San Jose, CA, at the Cinequest Film Festival, on March 3, 2017.  Click here for tickets!

Its Colorado premiere will be at the Boulder International Film Festival, on March 5, 2017.  Click here for more info!

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“Sauti (Voice)” gains early recognition

Sauti (Voice) has received several accolades and awards before its official premiere:

-Best Woman Filmmaker from the Canadian Diversity Film Festival

-Award of Excellence from Impact Docs

-Award of Merit from Accolade Global Film Competition


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Trump Diaries, Chapter 1: Voices of Inauguration Day


“The imperialist-minded businessman, whom the stars annoyed because he could not annex them, realized that power organized for its own sake would beget more power.”  — Hannah Arendt

Paige and I watched President Trump’s Inauguration Speech, then packed up the camera and headed to downtown Denver to talk with someone more sensible.  Which turned out to be pretty much everybody.  Here are the voices of some of the people we met.

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No on Betsey DeVos

Next Tuesday, the Senate will vote on Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.  You doubtless read about her privatization of Michigan’s charter schools.  You probably also read that she “may have confused” the fact that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a requirement of federal, not state, law.  But for students with disabilities, it gets worse.

IDEA is a federal law implemented at the local level.  Congress has never appropriated more than a small fraction of the dollars necessary to fulfill the law’s requirement of a “free appropriate public education” for all students, regardless of disability. If congressional Oscars were awarded for each year’s “most egregiously unfunded mandate,” IDEA’s budget would be Meryl Streep.  In 2016, Congress put up only 16% of the money necessary to implement the law it requires the states to follow.

The federal requirements are also broad, and open to interpretation.  One key issue: how much progress should a disabled student be expected to make from year to year in order for it to be “adequate” under the law? 

This year, the Supreme Court is deciding a case from Colorado that will determine whether students must make “substantial” progress, “more than de minimis” progress, or some other level of progress to be defined.  This question is crucial for schools and families, because it determines the kind and level of services kids get in schools, and how much those services cost. 

Once the Court decides the legal standard for adequate progress, then the US Department of Education will be responsible for enforcing it, in two ways.  The Department writes new federal regulations, which tend to get copied or incorporated by reference in state regulations, which set school policy.  And the Office of Civil Rights enforces education discrimination laws by investigating parent complaints. 

Betsy DeVos will be taking over the Department of Education at a pivotal moment in the history of special education law.  The new Supreme Court decision may have a profound impact on how states, and schools, provide services for disabled kids nationwide.  If we have an Education Secretary who believes the states should decide these matters, then the federal regulatory enforcement role, the federal enforcement role, and the federal funding role, could all go from twilight into full eclipse.  States with robust special education funding and strong state lobbies, like California and New York, would continue to serve their disabled student populations.  States with weaker funding streams and less commitment would fail these students entirely.  Levels of discrimination, unequal treatment, and denial of basic rights would increase.

These days there’s so much to oppose, and so much action to take, it makes your head spin and you stomach turn.  But here’s another one.  One note of “optimism” to consider: disability crosses party lines.  Coalitions on this issue are possible where other battles are more firmly entrenched.  Your Senator’s position may surprise you.  The link for more info, with a list of HELP Senate committee members, is below.  The deadline is Tuesday.


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The Work Now

I took Trump’s inaugural speech like a punch to the gut.   Some consider his nationalism little different from Reagan’s, applaud his patriotic appeals, celebrate his invocation of God.  But Reagan rallied Americans against a distant menace; for Trump, the enemies are in our midst.  Previous Republicans believed that the tide of world prosperity would lift all boats; Trump will oppose the world’s gain, for he considers it our loss.  Former leaders appealed to the outstretched hands of a merciful God.  Trump’s deity carries a shield to protect us and a sword to “eradicate” our enemies “from the face of the Earth.”

I marched in Denver last Saturday seeking a better vision of ourselves.  I found it.  Progressive women have long counterbalanced the harshness of American individualism and moderated capitalism’s excesses.  From abolitionists to suffragettes, labor crusaders to rainbow pride, women articulate a communitarian core of the American idea.    Their fundamental concerns necessarily include reproductive rights and evolving concepts of gender, ideals that now form the next segments in Martin Luther King’s arc of history, bending towards justice, grounded in love.  They champion freedom of the body, counterpoint to freedom of the sky. 

Aligned, America’s countervailing forces of individualistic liberty and communitarian justice have spawned our greatest national achievements.  Now our national polarity has become an agonizing spasm, triggered by our mirrored fears.   The cure is not some illusion of victory; it is a deeper love. Love of liberty, love of land, love of each other.   This is the work now.

Boulder Daily Camera Editorial Advisory Board contribution, January 28, 2017

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