How to Cut Children’s Screen Time? Say No to Yourself First.

NY Times Published: JULY 13, 2015

Parents are often at fault, directly or indirectly, when children and teenagers become hooked on electronic media, playing video games or sending texts many hours a day instead of interacting with the real world and the people in it. And as discussed in last week’s column, digital overload can impair a child’s social, emotional and intellectual growth.

This sad conclusion of many experts in child development has prompted them to suggest ways parents can prevent or rectify the problem before undue damage occurs.

“There’s nothing about this that can’t be fixed,” said Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard-affiliated psychologist. “And the sooner, the better.”

As Susan Stiffelman, a family therapist, put it in The Huffington Post, today’s parents are unprepared “to deal with the intense pull and highly addictive nature of what the online world has to offer. As parents, we have an opportunity to guide our kids so that they can learn habits that help them make use of the digital world, without being swallowed whole by it.”

Two experts at the Harvard School of Public Health, Steven Gortmaker and Kaley Skapinsky, offer a free guide, “Outsmarting the Smart Screens: A Parent’s Guide to the Tools That Are Here to Help,” as well as healthy activities to pursue to counter the weight gain that can accompany excessive screen time. Young children should not have their own cellphones or televisions in their bedrooms, they say, adding that even with teenagers it is not too late to set reasonable limits on screen time.

Dr. Steiner-Adair, author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” cited two common parental behaviors that can strongly influence a child’s tendency to abuse electronic media. Some parents are perpetually tuned into their own devices, responding to every ping of their cellphones and tablets, receiving and sending messages at times that would enrage Miss Manners. Other parents fail to establish and enforce appropriate rules for media engagement by their children.

Young children learn by example, often copying the behavior of adults. I often see youngsters in strollers or on foot with a parent or caretaker who is chatting or texting on a cellphone instead of conversing with the children in their charge. Dr. Steiner-Adair said parents should think twice before using a mobile device when with their children. She suggests parents check email before the children get up, while they are in school, or after they go to bed.

One girl among the 1,000 children she interviewed in preparing her book said, “I feel like I’m just boring. I’m boring my dad because he will take any text, any call, any time, even on the ski lift.” A 4-year-old called her father’s smartphone a “stupid phone.”

Dr. Jenny S. Radesky, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center who with two colleagues observed 55 groups of parents and children at fast-food restaurants, noted that 40 of the adults immediately took out mobile devices and used them throughout most of the meal. Often more attention was paid to the devices than to the children.

The researchers also found that when parents were absorbed in their own devices, the children were more likely to act out, apparently in an attempt to get their parents’ attention.

Dr. Steiner-Adair is especially concerned about parental failure to pay full attention to their children “at critical times of the day, like when taking children to and from school. This should be a cell-free zone for everyone — no Bluetooth for parents or devices for the kids. The pickup from school is a very important transitional time for kids, a time for them to download their day. Parents shouldn’t be saying, ‘Wait a minute, I have to finish this call.’  ”

Likewise, she said, when parents come home from work, “they should walk in the door unplugged and use the first hour they’re home as time to reconnect with the family. Kids hate the phrase ‘just checking’ that parents frequently use to justify a very rude, infuriating behavior.”

Nor should parents or children be using devices when the family dines out, the psychologist said. “The art of dining and the connection between delicious food and nourishing conversation is being lost, not just in restaurants but at home as well,” she said.

Dr. Steiner-Adair attributes a recent 20 percent increase in accidental injuries seen in pediatric emergency rooms to caretakers’ failure to pay full attention to those they are supposed to be watching, like infants and toddlers in the bathtub or children on the jungle gym. “Your reaction time and attention is not the same when you’re texting or talking on a cellphone,” she said.

Ms. Stiffelman, author of “Parenting With Presence,” realizes that attempts to change digital behavior can meet with resistance. But, she said, it is important to be fearless and decisive, and to avoid negotiations.

“Acknowledge your kid’s upset without delivering long lectures about why they can’t have what they want,” she said. “Children grow into resilient adults by living through disappointment. It’s O.K. for your kids to be mad, bored or anxious about missing out on what their friends are up to online.”

She and other experts urge parents to establish device-free times of day, like the first hour after school and the hour before bed. Cellphones and tablets should not be allowed at the dinner table.

Ms. Stiffelman suggests parents “make time for real-life activities with your kids that let them know that they’re worth your time and undivided attention. Do things together that nourish your relationship.”

As for controlling the time children spend on digital media, the Harvard guide states emphatically that it is the parents’ responsibility: “Since the devices can be turned on anytime, you as a parent need to monitor their use, keep track of time, and then make sure the agreed upon rules are followed.”

July 13th, 2015
The Laziness Dogma

By Paul Krugman
NY Times Published: JULY 13, 2015

Americans work longer hours than their counterparts in just about every other wealthy country; we are known, among those who study such things, as the “no-vacation nation.” According to a 2009 study, full-time U.S. workers put in almost 30 percent more hours over the course of a year than their German counterparts, largely because they had only half as many weeks of paid leave. Not surprisingly, work-life balance is a big problem for many people.

But Jeb Bush — who is still attempting to justify his ludicrous claim that he can double our rate of economic growth — says that Americans “need to work longer hours and through their productivity gain more income for their families.”

Mr. Bush’s aides have tried to spin away his remark, claiming that he was only referring to workers trying to find full-time jobs who remain stuck in part-time employment. It’s obvious from the context, however, that this wasn’t what he was talking about. The real source of his remark was the “nation of takers” dogma that has taken over conservative circles in recent years — the insistence that a large number of Americans, white as well as black, are choosing not to work, because they can live lives of leisure thanks to government programs.

You see this laziness dogma everywhere on the right. It was the hidden background to Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent remark. It underlay the furious attacks on unemployment benefits at a time of mass unemployment and on food stamps when they provided a vital lifeline for tens of millions of Americans. It drives claims that many, if not most, workers receiving disability payments are malingerers — “Over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts,” says Senator Rand Paul.

It all adds up to a vision of the world in which the biggest problem facing America is that we’re too nice to fellow citizens facing hardship. And the appeal of this vision to conservatives is obvious: it gives them another reason to do what they want to do anyway, namely slash aid to the less fortunate while cutting taxes on the rich.

Given how attractive the right finds the image of laziness run wild, you wouldn’t expect contrary evidence to make much, if any, dent in the dogma. Federal spending on “income security” — food stamps, unemployment benefits, and pretty much everything else you might call “welfare” except Medicaid — has shown no upward trend as a share of G.D.P.; it surged during the Great Recession and aftermath but quickly dropped back to historical levels. Mr. Paul’s numbers are all wrong, and more broadly disability claims have risen no more than you would expect, given the aging of the population. But no matter, an epidemic of laziness is their story and they’re sticking with it.

Where does Jeb Bush fit into this story? Well before his “longer hours” gaffe, he had professed himself a great admirer of the work of Charles Murray, a conservative social analyst most famous for his 1994 book “The Bell Curve,” which claimed that blacks are genetically inferior to whites. What Mr. Bush seems to admire most, however, is a more recent book, “Coming Apart,” which notes that over the past few decades working-class white families have been changing in much the same way that African-American families changed in the 1950s and 1960s, with declining rates of marriage and labor force participation.

Some of us look at these changes and see them as consequences of an economy that no longer offers good jobs to ordinary workers. This happened to African-Americans first, as blue-collar jobs disappeared from inner cities, but has now become a much wider phenomenon thanks to soaring income inequality. Mr. Murray, however, sees the changes as the consequence of a mysterious decline in traditional values, enabled by government programs which mean that men no longer “need to work to survive.” And Mr. Bush presumably shares that view.

The point is that Mr. Bush’s clumsy call for longer work hours wasn’t a mere verbal stumble. It was, instead, an indication that he stands firmly on the right side of the great divide over what working American families need.

There’s now an effective consensus among Democrats — on display in Hillary Clinton’s planned Monday speech on the economy — that workers need more help, in the form of guaranteed health insurance, higher minimum wages, enhanced bargaining power, and more. Republicans, however, believe that American workers just aren’t trying hard enough to improve their situation, and that the way to change that is to strip away the safety net while cutting taxes on wealthy “job creators.”

And while Jeb Bush may sometimes sound like a moderate, he’s very much in line with the party consensus. If he makes it to the White House, the laziness dogma will rule public policy.

July 13th, 2015
About Face


Curated by Kristina Kite and Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

Artists: Joan Brown, Brian Calvin, Maria Lassnig,
Dianna Molzan, Christina Ramberg, Diane Simpson

July 18 – August 29, 2015
OPENING Saturday July 18th 7-9pm

Kayne Griffin Corcoran

July 9th, 2015
akio nukaga

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Opening Saturday July 11, 2015. 6PM

Heath Los Angeles

July 8th, 2015
Lucie Rie: A Retrospective

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 10.42.49 AM
Bowl with pink stripes (c. 1980)

The Japan Times
JUL 7, 2015

‘Lucie Rie: A Retrospective’
July 7-Aug. 30

To commemorate 20 years since the death of Lucie Rie, one of Europe’s most renowned studio potters of the 20th century, the Chiba City Museum of Art is presenting her creative legacy through a retrospective of her work.

Recognized internationally, Rie proved particularly popular in Japan, where collections of her pieces have been displayed at many shows. This exhibition brings together approximately 200 items, spanning the course of her career and the development of her brightly colored, modernist yet delicate works.

Included among the exhibits will be some pieces from her collegiate years, which were recently discovered by the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art, and are being shown in Japan for the first time.

Chiba City Museum of Art

Thanks to RS

July 7th, 2015
Screen Addiction Is Taking a Toll on Children

NY Times Published: JULY 6, 2015

Excessive use of computer games among young people in China appears to be taking an alarming turn and may have particular relevance for American parents whose children spend many hours a day focused on electronic screens. The documentary “Web Junkie,” to be shown next Monday on PBS, highlights the tragic effects on teenagers who become hooked on video games, playing for dozens of hours at a time often without breaks to eat, sleep or even use the bathroom. Many come to view the real world as fake.

Chinese doctors consider this phenomenon a clinical disorder and have established rehabilitation centers where afflicted youngsters are confined for months of sometimes draconian therapy, completely isolated from all media, the effectiveness of which remains to be demonstrated.

While Internet addiction is not yet considered a clinical diagnosis here, there’s no question that American youths are plugged in and tuned out of “live” action for many more hours of the day than experts consider healthy for normal development. And it starts early, often with preverbal toddlers handed their parents’ cellphones and tablets to entertain themselves when they should be observing the world around them and interacting with their caregivers.

In its 2013 policy statement on “Children, Adolescents, and the Media,” the American Academy of Pediatrics cited these shocking statistics from a Kaiser Family Foundation study in 2010: “The average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of different media, and older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours per day.” Television, long a popular “babysitter,” remains the dominant medium, but computers, tablets and cellphones are gradually taking over.

“Many parents seem to have few rules about use of media by their children and adolescents,” the academy stated, and two-thirds of those questioned in the Kaiser study said their parents had no rules about how much time the youngsters spent with media.

Parents, grateful for ways to calm disruptive children and keep them from interrupting their own screen activities, seem to be unaware of the potential harm from so much time spent in the virtual world.

“We’re throwing screens at children all day long, giving them distractions rather than teaching them how to self-soothe, to calm themselves down,” said Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard-affiliated clinical psychologist and author of the best-selling book “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.”

Before age 2, children should not be exposed to any electronic media, the pediatrics academy maintains, because “a child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” Older children and teenagers should spend no more than one or two hours a day with entertainment media, preferably with high-quality content, and spend more free time playing outdoors, reading, doing hobbies and “using their imaginations in free play,” the academy recommends.

Heavy use of electronic media can have significant negative effects on children’s behavior, health and school performance. Those who watch a lot of simulated violence, common in many popular video games, can become immune to it, more inclined to act violently themselves and less likely to behave empathetically, said Dimitri A. Christakis of the Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

In preparing an honors thesis at the University of Rhode Island, Kristina E. Hatch asked children about their favorite video games. A fourth-grader cited “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” because “there’s zombies in it, and you get to kill them with guns and there’s violence … I like blood and violence.”

Teenagers who spend a lot of time playing violent video games or watching violent shows on television have been found to be more aggressive and more likely to fight with their peers and argue with their teachers, according to a study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

Schoolwork can suffer when media time infringes on reading and studying. And the sedentary nature of most electronic involvement — along with televised ads for high-calorie fare — can foster the unhealthy weights already epidemic among the nation’s youth.

Two of my grandsons, ages 10 and 13, seem destined to suffer some of the negative effects of video-game overuse. The 10-year-old gets up half an hour earlier on school days to play computer games, and he and his brother stay plugged into their hand-held devices on the ride to and from school. “There’s no conversation anymore,” said their grandfather, who often picks them up. When the family dines out, the boys use their devices before the meal arrives and as soon as they finish eating.

“If kids are allowed to play ‘Candy Crush’ on the way to school, the car ride will be quiet, but that’s not what kids need,” Dr. Steiner-Adair said in an interview. “They need time to daydream, deal with anxieties, process their thoughts and share them with parents, who can provide reassurance.”

Technology is a poor substitute for personal interaction.

Out in public, Dr. Steiner-Adair added, “children have to know that life is fine off the screen. It’s interesting and good to be curious about other people, to learn how to listen. It teaches them social and emotional intelligence, which is critical for success in life.”

Children who are heavy users of electronics may become adept at multitasking, but they can lose the ability to focus on what is most important, a trait critical to the deep thought and problem solving needed for many jobs and other endeavors later in life.

Texting looms as the next national epidemic, with half of teenagers sending 50 or more text messages a day and those aged 13 through 17 averaging 3,364 texts a month, Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Research Center found in a 2012 study. An earlier Pew study found that teenagers send an average of 34 texts a night after they get into bed, adding to the sleep deprivation so common and harmful to them. And as Ms. Hatch pointed out, “as children have more of their communication through electronic media, and less of it face to face, they begin to feel more lonely and depressed.”

There can be physical consequences, too. Children can develop pain in their fingers and wrists, narrowed blood vessels in their eyes (the long-term consequences of which are unknown), and neck and back pain from being slumped over their phones, tablets and computers.

This is the first of two columns on electronic media use by children and adolescents. Next week: Parents’ role in children’s use of electronics.

July 7th, 2015
Perfect Likeness

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Annette Kelm
First Picture for a Show
2007. Chromogenic print. 6 1/4 × 7 3/4 inches

Through September 13, 2015


July 5th, 2015
The Man that saw America

Robert Frank Credit Katy Grannan for The New York Times

NY Times Published: JULY 2, 2015

Last May, Robert Frank, the world’s pre-eminent living photographer, returned to Zurich, the orderly Swiss banking city, cosseted by lake and mountain, where he grew up. When an artist who made his reputation by leaving returns home, mixed feelings are inevitable, and that was especially true for Frank, whose iconic American pictures are notable for their deep understanding of human complication. ‘‘I know this town, but I certainly feel like a stranger here,’’ he said.

As he walked through the immaculate Zurich city center, with its many statues, gilded shop signs and fountains, Frank was ‘‘just amazed how well organized everything is, how perfect everything is.’’ The Swiss, he explained, do not throw coins into fountains, because ‘‘they have everything they need. They don’t believe in wishing wells. Only the poor have to hope.’’ Deciding he wanted to ride a streetcar, Frank surveyed the different lines. ‘‘I usually don’t get a ticket on the tram,’’ he explained. ‘‘This town is rich enough.’’ He said he never worried about being caught by inspectors, and he didn’t seem worried. He seemed the way he typically did — fully present and yet filled with personal mystery. ‘‘I don’t know where that one goes, so we’ll take it,’’ he said, and was soon bound for a working-class district of the city.

Frank has always been a picture-maker unconcerned with his own appearance, and sitting quietly beside the streetcar window, he wore the usual faded work shirt, frayed pants and one too many mornings of stubble. A sturdy man who never uses socks, a winter hat or gloves, Frank is now 90, and in the cool Swiss air, he had on a new blue down coat. His melancholy eyes rarely betray anything, but as he gazed out at the city of his youth, there was the sense of a man wary, defended, skeptical, yet willing to be engaged. In his pocket he carried an Olympus camera.

Frank had come to Switzerland to receive the Roswitha Haftmann Prize for lifetime achievement, Europe’s most lucrative fine-arts award, though he doesn’t need the money. His photographs command steep prices, and nothing about his current way of living is much different from his days as a young man, when, he says, ‘‘I decided if I swore off socks, I had more money for books.’’ Several years ago, Frank sold the paintings given to him in the 1940s by an impoverished friend, Sanyu, who became a renowned modern Chinese painter. Frank received millions of dollars, but wealth so discomfited him he used it to create a foundation and gave it away.

Acclaim was likewise anathema. By the 1960s, just as his work was gaining a following, Frank abruptly moved on from still photography to become an underground filmmaker. Ten years later, with all the glories of the art world calling to him, Frank fled New York, moving to a barren hillside far in the Canadian north. Over the years, when museums asked to exhibit his work, when universities like Yale sought to award him honorary degrees, he would think, Let someone else have it, and decline. ‘‘He never crossed over into celebrity,’’ says the photographer Nan Goldin. ‘‘He’s famous because he made a mark. He collected the world.’’

The tram entered a scruffy immigrant neighborhood not far from where Frank’s father, Hermann, had his business importing radios and record players, for which Hermann himself designed cabinets that Frank describes as ‘‘horrible.’’ Frank carried two rolls of film, but all the way out he only gazed out the window. He could have been anybody. Back in the 1950s, when Frank was making what amounted to private photographic studies in public places, one of his skills was remaining inconspicuous in casinos, restrooms and elevators. Here, near the end of the tram line, suddenly the camera appeared. There was a single click. Nothing beyond the window looked unusual. Then Frank pointed to a construction crane, its boom passing below a church steeple clock. ‘‘This is Zurich,’’ he explained. ‘‘The crane. The clock. The church. Functional.’’ It was the one picture of the day.

Sixty years ago, at the height of his powers, Frank left New York in a secondhand Ford and began the epic yearlong road trip that would become ‘‘The Americans,’’ a photographic survey of the inner life of the country that Peter Schjeldahl, art critic at The New Yorker, considers ‘‘one of the basic American masterpieces of any medium.’’ Frank hoped to express the emotional rhythms of the United States, to portray underlying realities and misgivings — how it felt to be wealthy, to be poor, to be in love, to be alone, to be young or old, to be black or white, to live along a country road or to walk a crowded sidewalk, to be overworked or sleeping in parks, to be a swaggering Southern couple or to be young and gay in New York, to be politicking or at prayer.

The book begins with a white woman at her window hidden behind a flag. That announcement — here are the American unseen — the Harvard photography historian Robin Kelsey likens to the splash of snare drum at the beginning of Bob Dylan’s ‘‘Like a Rolling Stone’’: ‘‘It flaps you right away.’’ The images that follow — a smoking industrial landscape in Butte, Mont.; a black nurse holding a porcelain-white baby or an unwatched black infant rolling off its blanket on the floor of a bar in South Carolina — were all different jolts of the same current. That is the miracle of great socially committed art: It addresses our sources of deepest unease, helps us to confront what we cannot organize or explain by making all of it unforgettable. ‘‘I think people like the book because it shows what people think about but don’t discuss,’’ Frank says. ‘‘It shows what’s on the edge of their mind.’’

On a trip upstate, Frank visited a Fourth of July celebration in rural Jay, N.Y., and photographed two girls in white dresses skipping beneath a huge, diaphanous American flag. ‘‘Something I really like is a big flag,’’ Frank says. ‘‘Here, people are so proud of it. In other countries you don’t feel they’re so proud of their flag.’’ Like most things with Frank, that cuts two ways. Foreign, uncompromisingly independent, Frank loathed the provincial prevarications of nostalgia. At closer inspection, the flag is torn, while along the photograph’s edge is the only visible face: a sneering boy. That the flag is transparent means that in ‘‘The Americans,’’ a reader looks, in effect, through the cloth to the image on the next page — to segregated New Orleans, where Frank made his best-known picture.

Frank passed through the city in 1955 and took a photograph of a row of passengers on a Canal Street trolley — whites in front, blacks in back. In the moment, life stilled into such clarity that Frank’s shutter needed to move only once. What he says attracted him then was something filmic: ‘‘Five people sitting, each occupying a frame.’’ But it’s a black man, his forehead creased, whose complex expression makes the picture. ‘‘He’s looked at that street many times,’’ Frank says. Plenty of photographs were taken during Jim Crow. Frank’s gift was to transcend reportage and tell you something about the condition — how oppression felt.

When Frank began his expedition upriver into the heart of American ambivalence, photography remained, as Walker Evans said, ‘‘a disdained medium.’’ Only a few American art museums collected photographs. Most of the published images portrayed figures of status. One notable exception was the work of Dorothea Lange. Frank respected her compassion but considered her Dust Bowl pictures maudlin — triumphalist takes on adversity. ‘‘I photographed people who were held back, who never could step over a certain line,’’ he says. ‘‘My mother asked me, ‘Why do you always take pictures of poor people?’ It wasn’t true, but my sympathies were with people who struggled. There was also my mistrust of people who made the rules.’’ That impulse seems particularly potent today, during our charged national moment — our time of belated reckoning with how violent, enraged, unbalanced and unjust the United States often still is. To look again at the photographs Frank made before Selma, Vietnam and Stonewall, before income inequality, iPhones and ‘‘I can’t breathe,’’ is to realize he recognized us before we recognized ourselves.

Frank grew up in ‘‘a sad household.’’ In the 1930s, Zurich radio was full of Hitler. ‘‘That voice cursing the Jews,’’ he says. ‘‘You couldn’t turn off the voice.’’ Hermann Frank had been an excellent Sunday photographer, but securing the material comforts of Persian carpets and fine goose liver was his priority. ‘‘My father married my mother because of money. It became the most important thing in order for them to feel good. If my father had a good day, dinner would end and my father would take out his wallet and give my mother 100 Swiss francs.’’ Frank was repelled: ‘‘I was driven by negative influence. I wanted to get away.’’

In 1947, family friends who lived in Queens met the boat that carried Frank to the United States. The next day, they showed him Times Square: ‘‘The crowd! The crowd! I never was used to such a big crowd, and they were so enthusiastic about being there. It was America! Those big signs!’’ At a coffee shop, Frank encountered a waitress who flung everyone’s silverware onto the table. In that moment of democratic informality, Frank knew New York was where he wanted to be. ‘‘In Paris you’d see African people on the subway, and they were African. Here in America they are Americans. There is no other place like this.’’

The sheer diversity and scale of the United States thrilled Frank. ‘‘It’s a big country,’’ he says. ‘‘Coming from Switzerland, it’s vast.’’ Because there was such freedom of mobility, he could go many places, and in all of them he saw heightened experience — including, to his surprise, the masses of people who ‘‘looked desperate.’’ Some, like him, were getting by, but for many others the American promise never took. Early on in New York he met a former soldier who ‘‘would wear his uniform from the Marines every day. Even though he was not in the Marines anymore. He asked me to rent a place with him. I did for a few months. He didn’t have a job. Nice man. Lost. They get lost.’’

Over the years, ‘The Americans’ would follow the trajectory of experimental American classics like ‘Moby-Dick’ and ‘Citizen Kane’ — works that grew slowly in stature until it was as if they had always been there.
Frank got commercial photography assignments from magazines like Harper’s Bazaar while also roaming around New York, following ‘‘my own feelings.’’ His way of living resisted convention —‘‘I never worried about insurance’’— as did his work. For American photographers at the time, the professional apotheosis was Life magazine. Henry Luce, the publisher, favored linear, neatly partisan narratives, and Life’s editors repeatedly rejected Frank. Frank’s photographs suggested life was more fraught: ‘‘I leave it up to you,’’ he says. ‘‘They don’t have an end or a beginning. They’re a piece of the middle.’’

Frank was also passed over by Magnum, the elite consortium of photographers led by Robert Capa: ‘‘Capa said my pictures were too horizontal, and magazines were vertical.’’ The photographer Elliott Erwitt knew Frank then and says, ‘‘It was the beginning of that kind of photography that Robert did, seemingly sloppy, but not — and very emotional. The acceptable pictures then were sharp and technically excellent. But the pictures of Robert Frank were very different.’’ To Frank, the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea of a ‘‘decisive moment’’ in photography seemed reductive. Frank was in search of ‘‘some moment I couldn’t explain,’’ and periodically went off on his own to make pictures of Peruvian farmers, Welsh miners and French street children. His unwillingness to compromise led to breaks with friends like Erwitt. ‘‘I became a professional doing what people expected from me,’’ Erwitt says. ‘‘We all respected Robert’s talent and ability and knew he was difficult and fought with everyone — could be quite vindictive with some. We just dissolved the friendship. I felt he felt I’d gone the wrong way, the nonartist way.’’

In the late 1940s, Frank met a teenage dance and art student named Mary Lockspeiser, whose pale eyes and luminous complexion were perhaps especially compelling to a man who saw the world in black and white. ‘‘She was young, but I thought, Why not?’’ says Frank, who was nine years older. ‘‘She was alive for everything.’’ They married, and had two children: Pablo, named, he says, after the cellist Pablo Casals, and Andrea — ‘‘She was named for a boat that sank.’’ His sense of humor is just black enough that you wonder when he’s joking.

The family lived, as Mary put it in an interview with the Smithsonian Institution, ‘‘very chaotically in every way.’’ They scavenged the sidewalks for furnishings and inhabited desolate, formerly industrial downtown neighborhoods. The Franks were young artists, and struggled as parents; Pablo and Andrea were often left to themselves. ‘‘I felt we weren’t made for it,” Frank says. Mary was ‘‘a young woman who wanted to work, and I was running after my career,” he says, adding that ‘‘it was very, very hard, almost impossible to live with me.’’

Frank absorbed artistic influences all over New York. Edward Hopper’s moody office-scapes, restaurant interiors and gas pumps were not in fashion when Frank discovered the painter: ‘‘So clear and so decisive. The human form in it. You look twice — what’s this guy waiting for? What’s he looking at? The simplicity of two facing each other. A man in a chair.’’ Frank’s creative day to day was informed by the Abstract Expressionist painters he lived among. Through his window, Frank studied Willem de Kooning pacing his studio in his underwear, pausing at his easel and then walking the floor some more. ‘‘I was a very silent unobserved watcher of this man at work. It meant a lot to me. It encouraged me to pace up and down and struggle.’’ He also saw the downside of an artist’s life: ‘‘I used to watch de Kooning work, and then I’d walk down the street and see him drinking and lying in the gutter. Somebody’s bringing him upstairs. You drink because you have doubts. Things seem to crumble around you.’’

Since there ‘‘weren’t so many artists in photography to meet,’’ Frank says, he became interested in the work of only one photographer: Walker Evans. Evans’s images of battered roadside prewar America were, as the photographer Tod Papageorge writes, Frank’s ‘‘sourcebook’’ for his own rendition of the American scene. Frank sought Evans out, and soon the older man was inviting Frank to his Upper East Side apartment to help him photograph objects like tools arranged on a table. ‘‘If I put a piece of cheese on the table and said, ‘Photograph it,’ ’’ Frank says, ‘‘his would be different from my piece of cheese. His pictures were more careful. I was fast. Hurry! Hurry! Life goes fast.’’

Evans wore English shoes and patrician airs. Frank had become close to raffish Beats like the poet Allen Ginsberg, and when Evans was hospitalized, he asked Frank not to bring ‘‘any of those friends of yours up here.’’ Frank believed that despite the humanity in his pictures, Evans ‘‘felt he was better than other people. That was something I couldn’t stand.’’

Evans admired talent, and he became Frank’s champion, encouraging him to complete a Guggenheim application to support the photographic journey that would become ‘‘The Americans.’’ Evans wrote him a recommendation, calling him ‘‘a born artist,’’ and helped plan his itinerary.

Frank left his family behind in 1955 and went off to see Miami, Los Angeles and 10,000 miles in between through the windshield of a black Ford Business Coupe. He packed two cameras, many boxes of film (kept in a bag to protect them from the sun), trunks, French brandy (‘‘Sometimes you need a little drink; it changes your attitude’’), AAA road atlases and one book, which was really a map of another kind, Evans’s ‘‘American Photographs.’’ Evans and others had suggested destinations like the Gullah communities of the south Atlantic coast, but Frank was often spontaneous.

The first destination was Michigan. ‘‘I went to Detroit to photograph the Ford factories, and then it was clear to me I wanted to do this. It was summer and so loud. So much noise. So much heat. It was hell. So much screaming.’’

As Frank searched for pictures, he stayed in cheap motels: ‘‘You’d always find them down by the river.’’ The first stop in a new town was usually a Woolworth’s department store. His favored shooting settings were public — sidewalks, political rallies, drive-ins, churches, parks. He wanted to find the men and women others would consider unremarkable, as well as the symbols and objects that defined them. Falling into a place-to-place rhythm, he took pictures of bystanders, vagrants, newlyweds, Christian crosses, jukeboxes, mailboxes, coffins, televisions, many cars, and those many flags.

It was an investigation, and in every frame there is pent-up atmosphere, pressure in the air, a sense of somebody’s impending exposure — maybe Frank’s. ‘‘Photography can reveal so much. It’s the invasion of the privacy of the people.’’ Accordingly, there was an element of tradecraft. ‘‘I felt like a detective or a spy. Yes! Often I had uncomfortable moments. Nobody gave me a hard time, because I had a talent for not being noticed.’’

He was neither tall nor short, did not appear to maintain regular relations with razors, scissors or blankets and dressed in a way that brought to mind the bottom of a suitcase — ‘‘I didn’t change clothes too much.’’ The Ford fit the man. ‘‘I loved that car. It was like any car, inconspicuous,’’ he says. ‘‘I called it Luce — the only connection I ever had with Mr. Henry Luce.’’

Years later, the photographer and curator Philip Brookman learned just how committed Frank was to making pictures. The two men were visiting Frank’s troubled son Pablo on Thanksgiving at a psychiatric hospital. Many families were there. At one point a patient sang a very clear and beautiful song she called ‘‘Sad Movie.’’ Brookman, moved, crept his hand toward his camera, but he worried that taking a photo would be inappropriate. As the moment passed, he heard a familiar, gruff voice: ‘‘You should have taken it.’’

When Frank raised his camera and shot, the process was blurry quick, meaning he could capture what he saw as he perceived it. People, Frank says, ‘‘don’t like to be caught in private moments. I think private moments make the interesting picture.’’ It says something about Frank that his favorite ‘‘Americans’’ photograph shows the only people who caught him in the act. A black couple resting on the grass in a San Francisco park looks toward the lens in outrage. Beyond them are white city buildings. What is conveyed is how it feels to be violated wherever you go.

Frank says he was most drawn to blacks: the bare-chested boy in the back of a convertible; the woman relaxing beside a field in sunny Carolina cotton country; the dignified men outside the funeral of a South Carolina undertaker, who uncannily bring to mind the day President Obama eulogized Clementa Pinckney. At first, the South was to him ‘‘very exotic — a life I knew nothing about.’’ Then, in November 1955, Frank was traversing the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River, ‘‘just whistling my song and driving on,’’ as he says, when a patrol car pulled him over outside McGehee. The policemen’s report noted that Frank needed a bath and that ‘‘subject talked with a foreign accent.’’ Also suspicious were the contents of the car: cameras, foreign liquor. Frank was on his way to photograph oil refineries in Louisiana. ‘‘Are you a Commie?’’ he was asked.

from Kerouac’s never-finished play, ‘‘The Beat Generation,’’ into a proto-‘‘Seinfeld’’ shaggy-dog story, indie cinema before the idea existed. Credit John Cohen/L. Parker Stephenson Photographs via Getty Images
Ten weeks earlier, Emmett Till was murdered a hundred miles away. ‘‘In Arkansas,’’ Frank recalls, ‘‘the cops pulled me in. They locked me in a cell. I thought, Jesus Christ, nobody knows I’m here. They can do anything. They were primitive.’’ Across the room, Frank could see ‘‘a young black girl sitting there watching. Very wonderful face. You see in her eyes she’s thinking, What are they gonna do?’’ Because his camera had been confiscated, Frank considers the girl his missing ‘‘Americans’’ photograph. Around midnight a policeman told Frank he had 10 minutes to get across the river. ‘‘That trip I got to like black people so much more than white people.’’

Coming to America after growing up listening to tyranny on the radio, Frank had been foremost a grateful émigré, and early pictures suggested it. Now, through a lens, the country darkened, and Frank became, the photographer Eugene Richards says, ‘‘a loaded gun.’’ Four days later, in New Orleans, Frank photographed the line of faces looking through the trolley windows. Once he saw that girl in McGehee, he says, he knew what to look for.

As he drove, Frank was in the grip-flow of his imagination, finding pictures everywhere, so many pictures that he now says of the period: ‘‘You don’t have it that good all the time. I was on the case.’’ Occasional hitchhikers advised Frank where to go next and spelled him behind the wheel while he slept in the back seat or quietly raised up and snapped their pictures, as he did on U.S. 91 outside Blackfoot, Idaho. Sometimes he gave people rides — workers, prostitutes — but Frank did not seek personal connections. ‘‘The people in ‘The Americans,’ I watched,” he said, adding, ‘‘I wanted to take the picture and walk away.’’

One ‘‘Americans’’ photograph came from a dimly lit New Mexico gutbucket: ‘‘It was a tough bar. You had to shoot from your hip.’’ In Elko, Nev., Frank photographed the play at a gaming table: ‘‘It’s very seldom you get a picture of people gambling. The management and the gamblers don’t want you to take pictures because they have wives. Or mothers! Or grandmothers! Or daughters!’’ At political gatherings, where credentials were required for admission, Frank was not above filching some from a stranger’s jacket.

You could operate that way if you were on your own, but Frank was married, and those years were hard on the family. In photographs from the 1950s, the children are inevitably bright-eyed, Mary is distantly aglow and Frank grim. From the road Frank wrote to Mary, ‘‘Your letters are often sad.’’ When they all met up in Texas and drove west for a few weeks, Frank found it ‘‘stressful. You go out, you’re gone. You come back, you’re tired. You’ve hunted for pictures. You want peace.’’ His family became the subject of his book’s wistful last photograph. Taken from in front of the car through the windshield, weary, overwhelmed faces and half the Ford are visible. ‘‘It’s personal, it’s melancholy, it’s sentimentality — all the things you try to stay away from. Also, I’m the person who’s not there. This is what it takes, the picture says.’’

Frank took more than 27,000 photographs. Returning to New York, he sequenced the best 83 into what he thought of as a film on paper. Walker Evans wrote him an introduction to help place it. But who would publish images of groping teenagers, drifters, cross-dressers, poor blacks, a harassed mother? At first, only Robert Delpire in Paris would. Frank’s inability to find an American publisher frustrated him. He came to feel he needed a more like-minded advocate. So, Frank says, ‘‘I turned to Kerouac.’’

It was early September 1957 when Frank heard about ‘‘On the Road,’’ a novel that had just been praised in The New York Times as ‘‘the most important utterance yet made by the generation.’’ Frank ‘‘liked the speed of it, taking you back and forth across the country, his descriptions of the landscape in the morning, the little towns, which he describes with such exquisite beauty — the love for America.’’

He found Kerouac ‘‘at a New York party where poets and Beatniks were. Some painters. Everything happened downtown.’’ When Frank showed the writer his pictures, Frank says he was empathetic. ‘‘Kerouac personified what I hoped I’d find here in America. He was interested in outsiders. He wasn’t interested in walking the middle of the road.’’ Seizing the moment, Frank asked if Kerouac would introduce ‘‘The Americans.’’ ‘‘Sure,’’ Kerouac said. ‘‘I’ll write something.’’

His family became the subject of his book’s wistful last photograph. Taken from in front of the car through the windshield, weary, overwhelmed faces and half the Ford are visible.
One reason many other artists believe, as Nan Goldin says, that Frank ‘‘has never taken a false step’’ is that Frank always puts art above sentiment. ‘‘I try to get out of sentiment’s way when it comes near me. A few steps backward and to the left and don’t look back.’’ Frank says there was no hesitation about jilting Evans for Kerouac, but informing his mentor that he was forsaking him for Kerouac ‘‘was a difficult moment.’’ He says Evans’s essay was ‘‘too flowery and made no sense,’’ adding, ‘‘The friendship survived, but that was it. Never mentioned again.’’ Their relationship became ‘‘colder and more distant.’’

Frank admired Kerouac’s propulsive methods: ‘‘He lay on the floor all evening long. He’d write 20 pages about it the next morning.’’ Introducing ‘‘The Americans,’’ Kerouac told a reader nothing about Frank’s biography. Instead, he supplied an ecstasy of overture: ‘‘With one hand he sucked a sad poem of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.’’

Yet ‘‘The Americans’’ was initially unappreciated in the United States. The editors of Popular Photography derided Frank’s ‘‘warped,’’ ‘‘wart-covered’’ ‘‘images of hate.’’ That the photographs were blurry, asymmetrical, shot at oblique angles and deliberately informal attracted more screeds. The problem was, as the critic Janet Malcolm would later explain, ‘‘no one had ever made pictures like that before.’’

At first, it was other American artists who were enthralled. Out in Los Angeles, Ed Ruscha was sitting in an art-student cafe when a classmate brought in a brand-new copy of the book. Suddenly ‘‘there weren’t enough chairs for everyone; we were craning our necks, looking at it page by page. It’s like — You know where you were when John F. Kennedy was shot? I know where I was when I saw ‘The Americans.’ ’’ For Ruscha, in Frank’s hands the camera became a new kind of machine. ‘‘I was aware of Walker Evans’s work. But I felt like those were still lives. Robert’s work was life in motion.’’

Frank was not yet well known, but he and Mary were a glamorous couple at the crossroads of the New York arts scene. He personally was a camera, a tough, sensual receptor with an enticing remove that made others draw near. The people Frank admired were judgmental, unpredictable artists who satisfied his need for heightened experience. The jazz musician Ornette Coleman ‘‘didn’t like many things — a very hard critic,’’ while the filmmaker and musicologist Harry Smith lived to insult people, lit fires, yelled ‘‘Heil Hitler’’ in Jewish restaurants and yet was ‘‘the only genius I ever met. He was open to how people could reveal something for other people,’’ Frank says. ‘‘He lived uptown like a hermit, all alone with all his windows closed.’’

Among photographers, Frank considered Diane Arbus ‘‘a special woman! I went to her house. She was eating something. She said, ‘Do you want some?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I took a bite. Almost impossible to eat. She said, ‘Yeah, I put too much salt in.’ She wanted to see my reaction. Why not? I liked her work. You could say, This is Diane Arbus.’’

Frank was closest to Ginsberg, Kerouac and their circle, and says he was inspired by Ginsberg’s relationship with the poet Peter Orlovsky: ‘‘Of course they were lovers, but he learned a lot about freedom from Orlovsky. They could live on the edge of society, the edge of American behavior. They made me want to be freer.’’ Frank would sit clothed in a room full of naked, stoned men as Ginsberg read from poems like ‘‘Kaddish.’’ ‘‘It’s wonderful to fall in with a group like that. You watch them live, and it’s so different from what you’d seen. Their art, their sexual lives, what truth they believed and preached and wrote. Ginsberg was a real prophet. He saw a different, more accepting America.’’

Frank once chauffeured Kerouac and his mother from Florida to Long Island; the author of ‘‘On The Road’’ didn’t drive. ‘‘It’s a better way to find out about the world if you don’t. He was true talent. He had a sad end. He couldn’t handle his fame. It drove him into a corner, made him drink, want to forget.’’ Frank found closer personal understanding with James Agee than he did with Evans, Agee’s collaborator on ‘‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,’’ and yet, Agee, too, was ‘‘always sweating and drinking, always a bottle close by. He was one of the saddest people I met, one of the suffering men.’’

When he wasn’t interested in someone, Frank could be pitiless. ‘‘I’m friendlier now. I had no patience.’’ He roiled with brutal standards: ‘‘In Provincetown, a guy showed me his pictures and asked me what I thought. I tore them up. Now I hate myself for that. Then I had to.’’

One day the painter Mark Rothko invited Frank to his studio for a talk. It was a dark space with only a row of windows on the ceiling because, Frank says, Rothko ‘‘liked the light to come in different colors. He had a daughter he worried about. He asked for advice on young people. I said I couldn’t help him.’’

Being an artist, husband and father continued to be arduous for Frank. During the ’60s, he seemed tired, angry and beaten-down to friends like the filmmaker Jonas Mekas, who recalls Mary once stopping him on the street to ask if she could borrow a dollar for groceries. The marriage struggled. But at the same time, Frank’s achievement was slowly becoming understood, a momentum that continues. The best photographers today, like Paul Graham, consider it still revelatory that someone could shape the endless onrush of American experience into a full portrait of the country. Frank’s book, Graham says, ‘‘expresses a yearning in us all to find meaning and a pattern, a form to life.’’

Among the many qualities that enabled Frank to achieve something so ambitious was his profound ambivalence. He was always that way personally, and it was how he could locate the full spectrum of any given feeling in the inscrutable faces of strangers. Critics like W.S. Di Piero believe his genius for expressing emotional complication came from an artistic innocence, the ability to look at the world as a child does — without the intrusions of experience. When June Leaf, Frank’s wife of 40 years, discussed with me this way of her husband’s seeing, she described being shown by his aunt a picture of Frank as little boy. ‘‘I looked at it, and I thought to myself, That’s exactly the same expression he has now: ‘What is going on here?’ That’s the secret of his perception of the world. And that’s ‘The Americans.’ That marvelous perception comes into the room. It’s ‘What is going on here?’ None of us know until he takes a photograph. Other than the photograph, he doesn’t know what is going on.’’

Over the years, ‘‘The Americans’’ would follow the trajectory of experimental American classics like ‘‘Moby-Dick’’ and ‘‘Citizen Kane’’ — works that grew slowly in stature until it was as if they had always been there. To Bruce Springsteen, who keeps copies of ‘‘The Americans’’ around his home for songwriting motivation, ‘‘the photographs are still shocking. It created an entire American identity, that single book. To me, it’s Dylan’s ‘Highway 61,’ the visual equivalent of that record. It’s an 83-picture book that has 27,000 pictures in it. That’s why ‘Highway 61’ is powerful. It’s nine songs with 12,000 songs in them. We’re all in the business of catching things. Sometimes we catch something. He just caught all of it.’’

As ‘‘The Americans’’ thrived, Frank’s success weighed on him. In the early 1970s, his friend the photographer Edward Grazda received a piece of mail from Frank written on a scrap of ledger paper. The postmark was the remote mining village in Nova Scotia where Frank and his new companion, Leaf, had escaped the admirers clamoring outside his New York door. ‘‘Ed, I’m famous,’’ it read. ‘‘Now what?’’

Rare is the great figure — Marcel Duchamp, Jim Brown — who departs at the top of his game. That the man who made ‘‘The Americans’’ would leave photography was such a shocking decision that people in the arts still speculate about it. ‘‘He was painfully compassionate,’’ Peter Schjeldahl says. ‘‘Maybe he didn’t want the pain anymore.’’

Frank put it this way in 1969: ‘‘Once respectability and success become a part of it, then it was time to look for a new mistress.’’ He says now that the issue was creative fulfillment: ‘‘I didn’t want to repeat myself. It’s too easy. It’s a struggle, such a struggle to make something good, to satisfy yourself. That was relatively easy for me in photography. It’s immediate recompense. You’ve achieved what you set out to achieve.’’ The composer David Amram, a friend of Frank’s, says, ‘‘The last thing he wanted to be was what Miles Davis called a human jukebox — always be what made him popular.’’

Introducing ‘The Americans,’ Kerouac told a reader nothing about Frank’s biography. Instead, he supplied an ecstasy of overture: ‘With one hand he sucked a sad poem of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.’
In 1959, even as Barney Rosset, the American publisher of literary renegades like Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence, released ‘‘The Americans,’’ Frank decided to ‘‘put my Leica in the cupboard’’ and began filming a silent movie with his downtown neighbor, the painter Alfred Leslie. ‘‘Pull My Daisy’’ adapts a scene from Kerouac’s never-finished play, ‘‘The Beat Generation,’’ into a proto-‘‘Seinfeld’’ shaggy-dog story. A railway brakeman and his artist wife host a church bishop for dinner, which is disrupted by a visit from a group of fizzed-up hipster impresarios who settle in to riff the night away.

Leslie’s loft was used as a set; their friends were the actors: Ginsberg, painters like Larry Rivers and Alice Neel and a cameo for the adorable Pablo Frank. Amram, who composed the music, recalls the shoots as ‘‘an insane party; everybody being juvenile and nuts. Leslie was a hostage negotiator — ‘Allen, if you’d please put your pants back on!’ ’’ Frank remembers Kerouac filling up on applejack and carrying on until he fell asleep. Later he ad-libbed the narration in three increasingly inebriated takes.

‘‘Pull My Daisy’’ was indie cinema before indie existed, the pure underground. There was scarcely any budget; the paychecks are still in the mail; only college students and avant-garde cineastes knew the film existed. But it endures as a cultural document — here were the Beats — and because nobody had ever seen anything like it. ‘‘If that came out of ‘The Americans,’ that’s a giant step,’’ Ed Ruscha says. ‘‘It’s almost totally different. I felt like it was guys on a hijinx. Films were usually professional enterprises done in Hollywood. This was choppy and crude and gutsy.’’ When Frank invited friends to a screening, he says, ‘‘they were happy somebody looked at the world in a different way.’’ Viewers still feel similarly, which pleases Frank, ‘‘especially because people didn’t really like my later films.’’

Across the next 40 years, Frank would release 31 mostly short, genre-eluding, quasi-documentary movies that met with even less success than ‘‘Pull My Daisy.’’ He says that working outside the studio system, operating ‘‘completely against the rules of how you made a film,’’ was challenging. And yet he filmed work that was, Jonas Mekas says, ‘‘very important. Same as Andy Warhol, he comes with his own world, his own sensibility, his own style.’’ The projects attracted a range of actors (Christopher Walken, Joseph Chaikin, Joe Strummer) and co-writers (Sam Shepard, Rudy Wurlitzer). Frank’s subjects were recondite: a book signing for a writer who never turns up; a day in the life of a country letter carrier. Another, about indigenous American music, strayed and became a film about Frank. As Laura Israel, Frank’s longtime film editor, says, ‘‘He’s all about the detour.’’

Frank also made a series of jagged, strangely absorbing personal films about friends and family that were so unlike anything preceding them that collectively they constituted a small documentary wave of their own. Three were about Pablo, a fragile, tortured adult whose life was increasingly derailed by schizophrenia. Another film, ‘‘Me and My Brother,’’ began as an adaptation of Ginsberg’s poem ‘‘Kaddish’’ and then, following the familiar digressive pattern, became an account of Peter Orlovsky’s relationship with his schizophrenic brother, Julius. Frank explains that he was always drawn to extremes: ‘‘There can be good extremes, but I had more connection with the other half.’’ And Julius, Frank felt, ‘‘was on the edge of something. I felt he would calm down and tell what it was like to be in this place.’’ Frank considered his filmmaking career ‘‘a failure,’’ because ‘‘often I don’t want to reveal. But because it wasn’t going well it kept me going.’’ Defeat perversely encouraged Frank; he liked what he couldn’t do. Except that he could.

Frank’s most celebrated turn as a filmmaker came in 1972 when the Rolling Stones, in Los Angeles completing their album ‘‘Exile on Main Street,’’ invited him to photograph them for the cover. The musician who most influenced Frank’s work was Bob Dylan, who so frequently reinvented himself: ‘‘Dylan has the talents to move on.’’ But Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and the rest of the Stones were the world’s most celebrated outsiders, unregenerate avatars for collecting transgressive impulses into hits. At a fleabag Los Angeles inn, Frank recalls, they were instantly themselves. ‘‘Jagger said, ‘Let’s rent a room.’ I sat them down in chairs and made them use hotel furniture. That’s their life. Hotel rooms. Hotel rooms and polish.’’

The band was soon to go on tour, and they invited Frank and his Super-8 along. In the resulting film, ‘‘[expletive] Blues,’’ the band and its entourage are becalmed travelers ordering room service, gargling, masturbating, getting it on with drugs and groupies, moving through places they have no connection to, looking for ways to overcome lethargy and longueur. Frank now says of the experience: ‘‘I didn’t care about the music. I cared about them. It was great to watch them — the excitement. But my job was after the show. What I was photographing was a kind of boredom. It’s so difficult being famous. It’s a horrendous life. Everyone wants to get something from you.’’

Frank showed Jagger a rough cut. ‘‘He looked at it and then he said, ‘Richards came out better than me.’ Probably was right.’’ Richards agrees, of course: ‘‘One of Mick’s hangups is himself. Robert made the better man win! It’s a very true documentation of what went down.’’

a collaborator and friend. Frank and Seymour were photographing each other. Credit From Raul Van Kirk
The Stones’ lawyers worried that the explicitness would create problems and forbade screening it unless Frank was in attendance. As a result, the all-but-unavailable ‘‘Blues’’ is a celluloid apparition. The novelist Don DeLillo watched a cheap bootleg reproduction. He’d admired Frank’s photographs for the way they ‘‘imply a story or a sociology,’’ but the film, De­Lillo thought, was different. ‘‘There’s nothing behind it. There’s something pure.’’ In DeLillo’s ‘‘Underworld,’’ as characters view the film, De­Lillo describes at length its crepuscular, edge-of-time feeling.

Since the 1970s, Frank’s subversive approach has made him a godfather to young filmmakers. ‘‘The strength of his films is in what he says is problematic,’’ Jim Jarmusch says. ‘‘The beauty is they don’t satisfy certain narrative conventions.’’ Out in Texas in 1995, Richard Linklater was just beginning his film career when he staged a Frank retrospective at a theater in Austin. ‘‘If Robert Frank weren’t so acclaimed as one of the most influential photographers of all time, he’d have a much larger profile as an American indie filmmaking icon,’’ Linklater says. ‘‘It seems our culture struggles with the idea that someone could be that groundbreaking in more than one area. If it were just the films, I think he’d be credited as a founding father of the personal film.’’ He adds: ‘‘Beyond that, there’s this tremendous range of a restless, searching artist pushing the boundaries of the documentary, experimental and more traditional narrative forms.’’

During his 1969 short documentary, ‘‘Conversations in Vermont,’’ Frank portrays Pablo and Andrea confronting their youth spent growing up with a mother and father who put their art first. ‘‘You always said you wanted normal parents,’’ Frank challenges his children. That same year, Frank and Mary separated and Frank immediately began life with Mary’s friend June Leaf.

Overwhelmed in New York, craving ‘‘peace,’’ Frank asked Leaf to go to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, to find them a home. It was winter. She bought a pair of thick boots and flew north: ‘‘He knew I’d do anything for him,’’ she says now.

‘If Robert Frank weren’t so acclaimed as one of the most influential photographers of all time, he’d have a much larger profile as an american indie filmmaking icon.’
They moved to Mabou, where the March wind was so strong you had to walk backward. They knew nobody, and the house they’d purchased overlooking the sea was, in the local expression, ‘‘after falling down.’’ As a young woman, Leaf was given a prestigious Paris studio to work in, and now in Mabou, she found she had sufficient inner creative stamina to make art in what her husband calls ‘‘a sad landscape’’ where ‘‘the sheep ate all the trees.’’

Rebuilding the house became their creative collaboration. ‘‘You learned a completely different rhythm of life,’’ Frank says. ‘‘It has to do with keeping warm and getting your food. That occupies most of your time. It’s severe. With time we found two friends.’’

Soon came devastation. Frank’s daughter, Andrea, aspired to become a teacher and a midwife. She was radiant, with flashing, dark eyes that infatuated Frank’s young photographer friends. Leaf likens her to Frank himself: ‘‘marvelous, like him. She intimidated people because she made everybody want her to love them. She was so similar to him — stern, critical, sexy, tough. Very tough. She was interested in life!’’ In 1974, Andrea died in a plane crash. She was 20.

Frank went immediately to the United States, leaving Leaf alone and wretched on a Nova Scotia island in winter, frightened that Frank would no longer love her because she could not fully share his grief.

Within a year of Andrea’s death, Pablo had cancer as well as schizophrenia. ‘‘Pablo,’’ Leaf says, ‘‘was a bird, a butterfly. The drugs he later took and the death of his sister pushed him over the edge into illness. That changed Robert incredibly, slowly, agonizingly. He became a sweet father to Pablo, where before he’d been explosive. Very critical, dictatorial, authoritarian, like many European fathers. Pablo was so ethereal, funny, charming, sweet. The illness made Robert a better father. He had to be.’’

For many years after leaving New York, Frank remained relentlessly productive; he made films and resumed taking photographs, personal images of a very different style from street photography. In 1972, a Japanese first-time publisher named Kazuhiko Motomura collaborated with Frank on ‘‘The Lines of My Hand.’’ An expanded American edition was published in 1989, and became a book crucial to American photographers. Jim Goldberg describes it as ‘‘a road map for the rest of us.’’ Many of the most powerful pictures are of Pablo, his face ravaged by illness. Photographs are distressed, dripping with tears of paint, rived with scratched-out messages. Of his son, Frank writes: ‘‘What a hard life we have together. I can’t take it.’’

In and out of institutions, Pablo committed suicide in 1994. ‘‘Robert was always attracted to mad people like Julius Orlovsky,’’ Leaf says, ‘‘because he had nothing of that in him. So it’s fate, isn’t it, Pablo.’’ Eventually, Frank gave in to grief. ‘‘It takes concentration for me to work and the wish to succeed,’’ Frank says. ‘‘I didn’t have it anymore.’’ With such loss, he said, ‘‘you have to cope every day, and it doesn’t go away. You try hard to find some peace and acceptance.’’

Frank dislikes talking about any of it: ‘‘It’s not good to look back too much. It’s often sad. Better to look forward.’’ I felt I should ask him about Leaf’s descriptions of his children. He didn’t disagree with anything she’d said. Then he sighed: ‘‘I could’ve helped him. He would’ve needed another family. A real mother, a real father to take care of him. I think about that too often, because it’s too late.’’

Frank and Leaf now live most of the year in a building off the Bowery that has open hearths and rough surfaces and feels like a vertical farmhouse, a Manhattan version of Mabou. In a neighborhood now awash in tony boîtes and boutiques, Frank and Leaf are remnants of vanished bohemian New York. In Frank’s musty basement studio, amid a jumble of contact sheets, Camus novels, toy crocodiles and checkerboards, ‘‘EAT’’ is scrawled on the wall in yellow. ‘‘Patti Smith wrote that,’’ he says.

Visitors are always stopping by. Leaf receives them bright-eyed — ‘‘I’m a bouncy!’’ Frank watches warily, but with an eyebrow raised. ‘‘He’s always waiting for something extraordinary,’’ Leaf says. Frank and Leaf married in 1975, while passing through Reno, Nev., an echo to the eloping couple in ‘‘The Americans.’’ Over the years Leaf has developed what she calls ‘‘a bad habit of studying Robert.’’ Once she asked me, ‘‘Do you think Robert’s elusive?’’ Instead, Frank answered: ‘‘I used to be. I didn’t like to explain anything.’’

‘‘You still don’t,’’ she said, ‘‘and you don’t like things to be explained, and I’m a great explainer. It’s a miracle we lasted this long!’’ At 85, Leaf has a grave, mystical face that resembles Georgia O’Keeffe’s. She sees her husband clearly — ‘‘You have no idea how mean Robert can be’’ — and with delight. In Philip Brookman’s 1986 documentary on Frank, ‘‘Fire in the East,’’ Leaf says: ‘‘He goes through life in this wonderful secret way, in the water, under the water. And things just come to him. So he’s like a fish, a beautiful fish in the dark, lighting up the water.’’

Although Frank still retains a certain Swiss civility, he enjoys provocation in others. He refers to the French celebrity photographer Francois-Marie Banier, notorious for insinuating himself into the affections of wealthy older women, as ‘‘the bad-man friend of mine.’’ Onstage at Lincoln Center, when his chosen interviewer, Charlie LeDuff, asked about the state of Frank’s rectum, Frank was amused at the general mortification.

Some days Frank is a steel door; others he is impish, a trickster. Not long after he renounced his Leica, word circulated among other photographers that he was entering photo contests under assumed names and winning. Ask him how he is, and Frank may reply, ‘‘Fifty percent!’’ What does that mean? ‘‘If it goes below 50 percent, my red light goes on!’’ One day, he loves crowds. Another day, crowds are ‘‘impossible.’’ A third pass, and the dark eyes gleam, and there’s nothing like ‘‘a medium-size crowd.’’ His terse style of speaking sometimes produces epigrams: ‘‘It’s the misinformation that’s important.’’

‘‘Take that seriously,’’ warns Brookman, who has known Frank since the 1970s. ‘‘He loves misleading people.’’ When Frank is feeling affectionate, his puckish banter is seductive to younger artists — especially photographers. Many men have felt for a time like a second son to Frank, only to abruptly find that some sort of personal fission has occurred, the focus of Frank’s guarded eyes has moved on and they’ve been purged. His longtime gallerist Peter MacGill has grown accustomed to offering consolation: ‘‘Robert hurts the people he’s closest to.’’ One photographer, in an anticipatory gambit, stopped talking with Frank for more than two years. When I met MacGill, he warned me, ‘‘Everybody who knows him gets periodically fired.’’

‘‘It’s that you’re not a contestant anymore for something extraordinary,’’ Leaf says. ‘‘We all fall short. It’s the way a man desires a woman. This is the one! He’s always hoping somebody will change the view of the world.’’ The personal quality Frank perhaps values most is autonomy, and when others want too much from him, he gets prickly and feels exploited; it’s time to leave. ‘‘It was always important to him to remain independent of Switzerland, his family, Life magazine, Cartier-Bresson, Evans and go forward, keep pushing,’’ Brookman says.

There have been unbroken bonds. Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery, says Frank and Motomura always ‘‘were devoted, even though Robert didn’t speak Japanese and Motomura didn’t speak English.’’ Another person on whom the door has never closed is Peter Kasovitz, the gregarious owner of K&M Camera in New York. Many in Frank’s community wonder why Kasovitz should be spared. Frank, whose father sold electronics, says Kasovitz is the consummate independent operator: ‘‘He doesn’t go by others’ rules. He just runs things in a way he believes.’’

For decades, Frank refused honors and exhibitions. He once skipped a private celebration for the Museum of Modern Art’s new photography curator because he wanted to test the set of tires he’d just acquired for his Subaru. But lately, he attends his openings; this summer he accepted an honorary degree from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

Frank retains the spontaneous enthusiasm of a much younger man. In his tenth decade, he is still a free-form outsider seeking untried situations, fresh leaps — and nothing pleases him more than picking up on the scent of something exceptional. Last year, after receiving intriguing letters postmarked North Carolina from an itinerant laborer named Gustavo, Frank set off to find him. He discovered Gustavo in Winston-Salem painting a house, he says, but ‘‘I was disappointed in him. He was ordinary. He seemed not to be possessed by anything. He just drifts.’’

A more satisfactory result came after an unannounced knock on the door from a California family. The father, Leaf says, ‘‘was a junk collector looking for a masterpiece.’’ Recently he’d purchased three pictures. ‘‘One looked like it was from Woolworth’s, and he thought it was a Boucher. The second was the worst thing you ever saw. He thought it was a de Kooning. The third, somebody tells him it’s a Sanyu. He looks it up and sees Robert knows him.’’ So the family crossed the country by car to show Frank the painting possibly by Sanyu. ‘‘You don’t have to open your eyes to see it’s not a Sanyu painting,’’ Leaf says. ‘‘He doesn’t mind. He’s a speculator! He’s happy!’’ Eventually, Leaf and Frank had to go out. ‘‘What do you want to do?’’ Leaf asked their visitors.

‘‘Nothing,’’ came the answer. ‘‘We came to see you.’’ The family made their hosts tortillas from scratch and drove off for Louisiana to surprise an aunt.

Frank found all of this immensely satisfying. ‘‘I liked his directness. Completely direct. I could tell them about Sanyu. They had no interest in June or in my photographs.’’ And so Frank decided that the father should have his masterpiece after all. ‘‘I sent them two of my photographs. I wonder if they found out what people pay for a print like that.’’

July 4th, 2015
Bernie Sanders’s Revolutionary Roots Were Nurtured in ’60s Vermont

Bernie Sanders held his son during a meeting in 1971 with colleagues from The Vermont Freeman in Burlington, Vt. Credit Frank Kochman

NY Times Published: JULY 3, 2015

BURLINGTON, Vt. — When he came to Vermont in the late 1960s to help plan the upending of the old social order, the future presidential candidate Bernie Sanders brought with him the belief that the United States was starkly divided into two groups: the establishment and the revolutionaries. He was a revolutionary.

“The Revolution Is Life Versus Death,” in fact, was the title of an article he wrote for The Vermont Freeman, an alternative, authority-challenging newspaper published for a few years back then. The piece began with an apocalyptically alarmist account of the unbearable horror of having an office job in New York City, of being among “the mass of hot dazed humanity heading uptown for the 9-5,” sentenced to endless days of “moron work, monotonous work.”

“The years come and go,” Mr. Sanders wrote, in all apparent seriousness. “Suicide, nervous breakdown, cancer, sexual deadness, heart attack, alcoholism, senility at 50. Slow death, fast death. DEATH.”

Chalk some of this up to being young and unemployed. Mr. Sanders, now 73, has had a steady, nonrevolutionary job for quite some time now. His current workplace, the United States Senate, is not exactly known for its thrill-a-minute dynamism. But through his long evolution from outraged outsider to mainstream man in a suit, Mr. Sanders has remained true to his original message: sympathy for the downtrodden, the impoverished and the disenfranchised in the face of the rich and the powerful.

Back then, he was part of a crowd of like-minded young people who converged on Burlington at a time when America seemed to be rewriting its history on the spot. Students, hippies, labor organizers, trust fund kids, urban escapees, impoverished anti-Vietnam War campaigners and environmentalists yearning to be closer to the land — they came because they believed that change was coming and that they had found the right place for a revolution.

Mr. Sanders was barely 30, full of restless energy, with wild curly hair, a brash Brooklyn manner and a mind fizzing with plans to remake the world. Short on money but long on ideas, he found employment where he could, supporting himself through odd jobs like carpentry work.

“Freelance journalist” has always been on the list of things he did before he began running for statewide office, futilely, as a Liberty Union Party candidate in the 1970s. But the description is a bit of a stretch. A look through his journalistic output, such as it was, reveals that he had perhaps a dozen articles published — interviews, essays, state-of-the-nation diatribes — most in The Freeman.

part of the author Greg Guma’s collection. Credit Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for The New York Times
They provide a useful insight into the formative thinking of the man who would go on to become Burlington’s first socialist mayor, then a senator and now a presidential candidate who is drawing crowds in the thousands with his unapologetic leftist message. The writings also reflect the particular mood in this one little spot in Vermont in an era of extraordinary turmoil in America, when the social fabric seemed in danger of ripping apart over issues like the Vietnam War, race and poverty.

Among Mr. Sanders’s efforts was a 1972 essay on sexual politics, “Man — and Woman,” which drew unflattering attention recently after Mother Jones magazine included it in an article about him. Its opening passage, which deals with men’s sexual fantasies, is meant to be satirically provocative but comes across as crassly sexist. (Mr. Sanders’ underlying point, expressed less feverishly farther down in the article, is that men and women should rethink how they deal with one another.)

Another essay mocked what Mr. Sanders felt to be the soul-destroying nature of conventional education.

“If children of 5 are not taught to obey orders, sit still for 7 hours a day, respect their teacher, and raise their hands when they have to go to the bathroom, how will they learn (after 17 more years of education) to become the respectful clerks, technicians and soldiers who keep our society free, our economy strong, and such inspiring men as Richard Nixon and Deane Davis in political office,” Mr. Sanders wrote, referring to the president and the Vermont governor at the time.

People in Mr. Sanders’s circle back then remember visiting the future senator at his small apartment in Burlington. “It was subsistence living,” said Greg Guma, the author of “The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution.”

Mr. Guma knew the young Mr. Sanders as a kitchen-table fulminator and political organizer, not as a writer. At their first meeting, he recalled, Mr. Sanders “kind of berated me” when Mr. Guma asked who he was.

“He said he was unimportant and it was all about the movement, and then it kind of escalated. ‘If you don’t support the movement, I don’t want your vote,’ ” Mr. Guma said. “Obviously he’s become more adept at cultivating voters.”

Mr. Sanders’s articles in The Freeman were consistent with the newspaper’s ethos. The paper, which had humble production values and cost $10 for a year’s subscription in 1971, was founded in 1969 by Roger L. Albright, a former minister, as a place for like-minded leftists to opine in outraged tones about the issues of the day. Often, apparently, they did it for free.

“Pay? You’ve got to be kidding — I don’t recall ever getting paid,” said Marvin Fishman, now 77, who wrote about prison issues for the paper. (He had spent a year in prison on a marijuana charge.)

“We were broke, they were broke, everybody was broke,” said Frank Kochman, who was recruited for the paper when Mr. Albright rescued his stranded Volkswagen bug from a snowbank, and who was its general manager and co-publisher from 1971 to 1973. “If we had a little money, we’d try to pay something.”

Mr. Sanders contributed only sporadically. He interviewed a “labor agitator” and an old-time farmer, and he wrote some articles about health, including one in which he cited studies claiming that cancer could be caused by psychological factors such as unresolved hostility toward one’s mother, a tendency to bury aggression beneath a “facade of pleasantness” and having too few orgasms.

“Sexual adjustment seemed to be very poor in those with cancer of the cervix,” he wrote, quoting a study in a journal called Psychosomatic Medicine.

One article, to observe the 10th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, argued that despite its many failings, Cuba had made great progress in health care and education. “The American press and mass media have been stepping up their usual distorted and inaccurate reporting,” he wrote.

In “Reflections on a Dying Society,” he declared that the United States was virtually going to hell in a handcart. Its food was laden with chemicals; its environment was being ruined; the threat of nuclear annihilation or “death by poison gas” was increasing; people were suffering from malaise and “psychosomatic disease”; citizens were being coerced and duped by the government and the advertising industry; and the economy was based on “useless” goods “designed to break down or used for the slaughter of people.”

“The general social situation, to say the least,” he wrote, “does not look good.”

Later in the 1970s, Mr. Sanders took a steady job with a Liberty Union colleague making filmstrips about important events in American history, many from the colonial period, and selling them door to door to schools. (He also made a half-hour film about his hero, Eugene V. Debs, the labor organizer who ran unsuccessfully for president five times.) They worked on a shoestring out of Mr. Sanders’s house, said the colleague, Ron MacNeil.

“I think our motivation was that we were interested in American history,” Mr. MacNeil said.

But that was after Mr. Sanders had run, and lost, various statewide races as a Liberty Union candidate. By 1972, when he ran as the party’s candidate for senator and governor (he lost both races by very wide margins), he had begun publishing The Movement, an occasional newsletter.

He put together the whole thing himself, said Doris Lake, another early Liberty Union candidate, and focused on the issues that were consuming him. One edition included a letter Ms. Lake had written to her supervisor, and had shown to Mr. Sanders, complaining about working conditions in the eyeglass-lens factory where she worked the night shift, Ms. Lake said.

But for Mr. Sanders, everything was about ideas to make the world better, both in real life and in The Movement.

“I believe there was a lot of editorializing on philosophy,” Ms. Lake said. “At the time, we were thinking that the important thing in politics was to educate people, to get them to understand what was happening in the world, rather than to get elected.”

July 4th, 2015
Europe’s Many Economic Disasters

By Paul Krugman
NY Times Published: JULY 3, 2015

It’s depressing thinking about Greece these days, so let’s talk about something else, O.K.? Let’s talk, for starters, about Finland, which couldn’t be more different from that corrupt, irresponsible country to the south. Finland is a model European citizen; it has honest government, sound finances and a solid credit rating, which lets it borrow money at incredibly low interest rates.

It’s also in the eighth year of a slump that has cut real gross domestic product per capita by 10 percent and shows no sign of ending. In fact, if it weren’t for the nightmare in southern Europe, the troubles facing the Finnish economy might well be seen as an epic disaster.

And Finland isn’t alone. It’s part of an arc of economic decline that extends across northern Europe through Denmark — which isn’t on the euro, but is managing its money as if it were — to the Netherlands. All of these countries are, by the way, doing much worse than France, whose economy gets terrible press from journalists who hate its strong social safety net, but it has actually held up better than almost every other European nation except Germany.

And what about southern Europe outside Greece? European officials have been hyping the recovery in Spain, which did everything it was supposed to do and whose economy has finally started to grow again and even to create jobs. But success, European-style, means an unemployment rate that is still almost 23 percent and real income per capita that is still down 7 percent from its pre-crisis level. Portugal has also obediently implemented harsh austerity — and is 6 percent poorer than it used to be.

Why are there so many economic disasters in Europe? Actually, what’s striking at this point is how much the origin stories of European crises differ. Yes, the Greek government borrowed too much. But the Spanish government didn’t — Spain’s story is all about private lending and a housing bubble. And Finland’s story doesn’t involve debt at all. It is, instead, about weak demand for forest products, still a major national export, and the stumbles of Finnish manufacturing, in particular of its erstwhile national champion Nokia.

What all of these economies have in common, however, is that by joining the eurozone they put themselves into an economic straitjacket. Finland had a very severe economic crisis at the end of the 1980s — much worse, at the beginning, than what it’s going through now. But it was able to engineer a fairly quick recovery in large part by sharply devaluing its currency, making its exports more competitive. This time, unfortunately, it had no currency to devalue. And the same goes for Europe’s other trouble spots.

Does this mean that creating the euro was a mistake? Well, yes. But that’s not the same as saying that it should be eliminated now that it exists. The urgent thing now is to loosen that straitjacket. This would involve action on multiple fronts, from a unified system of bank guarantees to a willingness to offer debt relief for countries where debt is the problem. It would also involve creating a more favorable overall environment for countries trying to adjust to bad luck by renouncing excessive austerity and doing everything possible to raise Europe’s underlying inflation rate — currently below 1 percent — at least back up to the official target of 2 percent.

But there are many European officials and politicians who are opposed to anything and everything that might make the euro workable, who still believe that all would be well if everyone exhibited sufficient discipline. And that’s why there is even more at stake in Sunday’s Greek referendum than most observers realize.

One of the great risks if the Greek public votes yes — that is, votes to accept the demands of the creditors, and hence repudiates the Greek government’s position and probably brings the government down — is that it will empower and encourage the architects of European failure. The creditors will have demonstrated their strength, their ability to humiliate anyone who challenges demands for austerity without end. And they will continue to claim that imposing mass unemployment is the only responsible course of action.

What if Greece votes no? This will lead to scary, unknown terrain. Greece might well leave the euro, which would be hugely disruptive in the short run. But it will also offer Greece itself a chance for real recovery. And it will serve as a salutary shock to the complacency of Europe’s elites.

Or to put it a bit differently, it’s reasonable to fear the consequences of a “no” vote, because nobody knows what would come next. But you should be even more afraid of the consequences of a “yes,” because in that case we do know what comes next — more austerity, more disasters and eventually a crisis much worse than anything we’ve seen so far.

July 4th, 2015
Sonny Madrid 1945 – 2015

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The cover of the first Lowrider Magazine from January 1977.

NY Times Published JULY 1, 2015

Sonny Madrid, who as a founder of Lowrider magazine helped spread Chicano political activism by pairing it with coverage of the tricked-out cars that found popularity among Mexican-Americans, died on June 22 in San Jose. He was 70.

The cause was prostate cancer, his son Mario said.

Car customization took off after World War II, especially in East Los Angeles, where returning Mexican-American veterans applied their skills to old cars, modifying them so that they would almost scrape the ground. Early lowrider cars were optimal for slow cruising. They became a tool of cultural pride — enthusiasts began forming car clubs in the early 1950s — and differentiation from the mainstream. When Lowrider first appeared, in 1977, it became the scene’s bible.

“What Sonny wanted to do was change the image of the lowrider, so people could see they were normal, hard-working individuals like everybody else,” his sister Gloria Flores said.

Mario Manuel Madrid was born on Jan. 19, 1945, in Yuma, Ariz., and moved to San Jose, Calif., as a teenager. In the summers, like many Mexican-Americans of his generation, he worked on farms. An admirer of Cesar Chavez’s work with the United Farm Workers, he became politically active.

He was one of a group of young Mexican-Americans who agitated for change at San Jose State University, whether by working to establish minority scholarships or bringing speakers like Reies Lopez Tijerina, a controversial leader of the Chicano rights movement, to campus. He did not graduate.

Mr. Madrid was also fascinated by cars. By the 1970s, lowriders could be elaborate affairs, with artwork painted on the exteriors, lavishly reupholstered interiors and hydraulic systems giving them lift and bounce. They became a kind of Chicano folk art, and Mr. Madrid understood their power as a potential unifying force.

Each of the three founders of Lowrider magazine — Mr. Madrid, Lorenzo Gonzales and David Nunez (who died in 2011) — contributed $1,500 to help get it off the ground. About 1,000 copies of the first issue, dated January 1977, were put together with a mimeograph machine and a saddle stapler.

Mr. Madrid was Lowrider’s “light bulb, the idea guy,” said David Gonzales, creator of the Homies toy line, who got one of his early breaks doing a regular cartoon strip for Lowrider.

The magazine was originally distributed by hand, sometimes using Mr. Madrid’s 1954 Chevy panel truck. The magazine was sold from the trunk during car events or community parties, or placed in Mexican-American grocery shops and liquor stores. The founders made trips to Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles, the main cruising strip for lowriders, to spread the word, eventually opening an office there.

Lowrider also began promoting its own car shows, including the 1979 Supershow at the Los Angeles Convention Center, which drew 20,000 people.

Inspired by activist magazines like Con Safos and La Raza, the earliest issues of Lowrider were not just an appreciation of “motorized sculpture,” as Mr. Madrid called the cars in a 1998 interview; the issues also included articles about media representation of Mexican-Americans, prisoner rights and police abuse and misconduct.

Mr. Madrid wanted a publication that could serve as a collective memory for the Mexican diaspora across the American West and Southwest. “We used the vehicles as a medium to bring in the people,” Lorenzo Gonzales said. “The ex-con, he felt part of the magazine; the guy with the nice car, he felt part of the magazine; the young Chicano college guy, he felt part of the magazine.”

Despite circulation increases, tied in part to the bikini-clad models on the covers — still a feature of the magazine — Lowrider suffered financial losses, and in 1985 the owners lost control of it. It was eventually brought out of bankruptcy by Alberto Lopez, who had worked in marketing and advertising on the initial run, and who reintroduced the magazine in 1988 with the help of Lorenzo Gonzales and others.

“Sonny set the template,” Mr. Lopez said. “We just made it bigger.”

By the 1990s, lowrider culture had grown exponentially, even internationally, thanks in part to the prominence of West Coast hip-hop, whose stars would often feature lowrider cars in their videos. For a time, Lowrider was the best-selling automotive title on the newsstand.

After parting ways with Lowrider, Mr. Madrid lived mostly in Visalia, in California’s Central Valley, occasionally helping a political candidate or a Chicano musician or young publishing entrepreneur.

In addition to his son Mario and his sister Ms. Flores, Mr. Madrid is survived by his longtime partner, Linda Camargo; another son, Lennon; and four other sisters, Sylvia Rodriguez, Irene Morales, Eleanor Barraza and Evelyn Aguilar.

“He was the Myspace of his time — connecting all the kids from all the different neighborhoods,” said Gilbert Chavez, publisher of Streetlow, a magazine based in San Jose for which Mr. Madrid occasionally wrote and which will devote a coming issue to his legacy. Lowrider, he added, “was like a yearbook,” and Mr. Madrid, “was in parks, at local events, in neighborhoods taking pictures of regular people. That’s the heart of lowriding.”

July 2nd, 2015
What Nerve!

Robert Hudson
Diamond Back
c. 1960s
Welded steel with paint
72 x 52 x 40 inches

What Nerve!
Alternative Figures in American Art,
1960 to the Present

July 8 – August 14, 2015

Focusing on four groups of artists practicing away from the cultural capitals of New York and Los Angeles, What Nerve! presents an alternative history of American art since the 1960s. As the exhibition’s curator, Dan Nadel, has written, “When confronted with a system that seems impenetrable, outsiders tend to band together.”

The Chicago-based Hairy Who exhibited together from 1966 to 1969. Its members were Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum. Funk Art took root in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s and 1970s and is represented in the exhibition with works by Jeremy Anderson, Robert Arneson, Joan Brown, Roy De Forest, Robert Hudson, Ken Price, Peter Saul, and Peter Voulkos. In Ann Arbor, Mike Kelley, Cary Loren, Niagara, and Jim Shaw formed Destroy All Monsters as students in the 1970s. Forcefield members Mat Brinkman, Jim Drain, Leif Goldberg, and Ara Peterson, active in Providence from 1996 to 2003, created fictional personas complete with pseudonyms and elaborate garments.

This exhibition reassesses the artists associated with these four groups, providing a new understanding of their influence on contemporary art history. Distinct as their artworks are in style, period, and place, the artists all share a common set of concerns. Inspired by a wide array of influences including folk art, advertising, primitive art, comic books, and fetishism, they all favor figurative imagery that diverges from the predominant artistic style of the time.

The groups presented here emerged from close collaboration and, in the case of Destroy All Monsters and Forcefield, experimental living arrangements. All of them embrace alternate aesthetics and unconventional media. Lawn chairs, purses, comic books, chain metal shrouds, and a video installation join rarely seen paintings and drawings.

Matthew Marks

July 2nd, 2015
Robert Rapson | Ships


Rattoello, no date
ceramic and glaze
13 X 3 X 3 inches

June 27 through July 28, 2015

Organized by Steven Baker

In Partnership with Creative Growth

Robert Rapson was born in 1951 in Wellington, New Zealand. Growing up, Rapson spent time observing passenger liners coming and going on the wharves where his father worked. He enjoyed the rituals of travel by sea; friends gathering to wave their goodbyes, musical groups playing on the wharfs as the ships left the harbor for parts unknown. In his late teens, he sailed to Europe on an Italian liner, the “Angelina Lauro”. That experience cemented his love of boats and the sea and thus began a lifelong obsession.

After losing his job in the 1980’s and fearing as he put it, “sitting around doing nothing”, be began to experiment with ceramics at age 40. Living with clinical depression, the process of making these boats at a community arts center helped give his life meaning. Rapson says he sees his art as “an evolution of my managing depression and growing older and something of an obsession”.

-Steven Baker

South Willard Shop Exhibit

June 27th, 2015
Hey California, Justice Scalia discovers the 10th ring of hell, and we are it

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Hippies at the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, Calif., in 1969. (Associated Press)

The Los Angeles Times: June 25, 2015

As the United States of America evolves, slowly becoming a more tolerant and inclusive nation, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is getting left behind, and now he’s taking out his wrath on California and hippies.

It’s not hard to understand why Scalia has worked himself into a lather. This has been a horrible week for him, as he voted with the losers on two landmark court rulings: Obamacare and gay marriage.

He began with a somewhat rational dissent on Obamacare, hand-wringing over the “discouraging truth that the Supreme Court of the United States favors some laws over others, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to uphold and assist its favorites.”

But then he went from hand-wringing to knuckle-dragging on the gay marriage decision, arguing that the court was patrician, pretentious, egotistical and out of touch with America because its justices are successful lawyers (would we want otherwise?) who went to elite schools and grew up in either the elitist East or the wifty West but not the heartland or the South.

“Not a single Southwesterner or even,” Scalia wrote, “to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner. (California does not count.)”

Do you hear that, Californians?

We are so peculiar that Scalia put us in parentheses, like we had to be quarantined. (Is there any coincidence that the swing vote came from a California native, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy?)

We are west of the West, chiseled off the map and sent floating out to sea in our flip-flops and board shorts, an island of the lost and irrelevant.

I’m not sure how the vast millions who live in the solidly conservative inland and valley empires of California feel about being told they are not true Westerners, here in the state that gave the nation Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.

But apparently in Scalia’s world, they are off the scales like the rest of us. That might not seem entirely rational, but we’re talking about Justice Scalia, after all, who still seems to be twitching over the hippie movement a half-century after it happened. In mocking a majority opinion reference to intimacy and spirituality, Scalia wrote:

“Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.”

I don’t know what hippies have to do with it, but we’ve got plenty of them in California, and no shortage of carnal malefactors of all sexual persuasions.

Justice Scalia has discovered a 10th ring of hell, and we are it.

There’s only one thing to do, California.

I say we tear our clothes off, fill the streets and party like hell.

June 26th, 2015
flat world

Peter Halley
Rectangular Prison with Smokestack, 1987,
acrylic, fluorescent acrylic, Flashe, and Roll-a-Tex on canvas,
2 1/4 x 124 1/2 inches (183.5 x 316.2 cm)

Organized by Karma, New York

Richard Artschwager
Tauba Auerbach
Will Boone
Jeff Elrod
Robert Grosvenor
Peter Halley
Lee Lozano
John Mason
Charlotte Posenenske

Opening reception: Friday, June 26, 2015, 6:00-9:00pm

David Kordansky

June 24th, 2015
No Time to Be Nice at Work

NY Times Published: JUNE 19, 2015

MEAN bosses could have killed my father. I vividly recall walking into a hospital room outside of Cleveland to see my strong, athletic dad lying with electrodes strapped to his bare chest. What put him there? I believe it was work-related stress. For years he endured two uncivil bosses.

Rudeness and bad behavior have all grown over the last decades, particularly at work. For nearly 20 years I’ve been studying, consulting and collaborating with organizations around the world to learn more about the costs of this incivility. How we treat one another at work matters. Insensitive interactions have a way of whittling away at people’s health, performance and souls.

Robert M. Sapolsky, a Stanford professor and the author of “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” argues that when people experience intermittent stressors like incivility for too long or too often, their immune systems pay the price. We also may experience major health problems, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and ulcers.

Intermittent stressors — like experiencing or witnessing uncivil incidents or even replaying one in your head — elevate levels of hormones called glucocorticoids throughout the day, potentially leading to a host of health problems, including increased appetite and obesity. A study published in 2012 that tracked women for 10 years concluded that stressful jobs increased the risk of a cardiovascular event by 38 percent.

Bosses produce demoralized employees through a string of actions: walking away from a conversation because they lose interest; answering calls in the middle of meetings without leaving the room; openly mocking people by pointing out their flaws or personality quirks in front of others; reminding their subordinates of their “role” in the organization and “title”; taking credit for wins, but pointing the finger at others when problems arise. Employees who are harmed by this behavior, instead of sharing ideas or asking for help, hold back.

I’ve surveyed hundreds of people across organizations spanning more than 17 industries, and asked people why they behaved uncivilly. Over half of them claim it is because they are overloaded, and more than 40 percent say they have no time to be nice. But respect doesn’t necessarily require extra time. It’s about how something is conveyed; tone and nonverbal manner are crucial.

INCIVILITY also hijacks workplace focus. According to a survey of more than 4,500 doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel, 71 percent tied disruptive behavior, such as abusive, condescending or insulting personal conduct, to medical errors, and 27 percent tied such behavior to patient deaths.

My studies with Amir Erez, a management professor at the University of Florida, show that people working in an environment characterized by incivility miss information that is right in front of them. They are no longer able to process it as well or as efficiently as they would otherwise.

In one study, the experimenter belittled the peer group of the participants, who then performed 33 percent worse on anagram word puzzles and came up with 39 percent fewer creative ideas during a brainstorming task focused on how they might use a brick. In our second study, a stranger — a “busy professor” encountered en route to the experiment — was rude to participants by admonishing them for bothering her. Their performance was 61 percent worse on word puzzles, and they produced 58 percent fewer ideas in the brick task than those who had not been treated rudely. We found the same pattern for those who merely witnessed incivility: They performed 22 percent worse on word puzzles and produced 28 percent fewer ideas in the brainstorming task.

Incivility shuts people down in other ways, too. Employees contribute less and lose their conviction, whether because of a boss saying, “If I wanted to know what you thought, I’d ask you,” or screaming at an employee who overlooks a typo in an internal memo.

Boors in the Workplace

These are the rude behaviors by bosses most often cited in a recent survey, in descending order of frequency.
• Interrupts people
• Is judgmental of those who are different
• Pays little attention to or shows little interest in others’ opinions
• Takes the best and leaves the worst tasks for others
• Fails to pass along necessary information
• Neglects saying please or thank you
• Talks down to people
• Takes too much credit for things
• Swears
• Puts others down

These are the rude behaviors people most often admit to seeing in themselves.

• Hibernates into e-gadgets
• Uses jargon even when it excludes others
• Ignores invitations
• Is judgmental of those who are different
• Grabs easy tasks while leaving difficult ones for others
• Does not listen
• Emails/texts during meetings
• Pays little attention to others
• Takes others’ contributions for granted
• Belittles others nonverbally
• Neglects saying please or thank you

Source: A survey by the author of 605 people in 17 industries.

Customers behave the same way. In studies I did with the marketing professors Deborah MacInnis and Valerie S. Folkes at the University of Southern California, we found that people were less likely to patronize a business that has an employee who is perceived as rude — whether the rudeness is directed at them or at other employees. Witnessing a short negative interaction leads customers to generalize about other employees, the organization and even the brand.

Many are skeptical about the returns of civility. A quarter believe that they will be less leader-like, and nearly 40 percent are afraid that they’ll be taken advantage of if they are nice at work. Nearly half think that it is better to flex one’s muscles to garner power. They are jockeying for position in a competitive workplace and don’t want to put themselves at a disadvantage.

Why is respect — or lack of it — so potent? Charles Horton Cooley’s 1902 notion of the “looking glass self” explains that we use others’ expressions (smiles), behaviors (acknowledging us) and reactions (listening to us or insulting us) to define ourselves. How we believe others see us shapes who we are. We ride a wave of pride or get swallowed in a sea of embarrassment based on brief interactions that signal respect or disrespect. Individuals feel valued and powerful when respected. Civility lifts people. Incivility holds people down. It makes people feel small.

Even though a growing number of people are disturbed by incivility, I’ve found that it has continued to climb over the last two decades. A quarter of those I surveyed in 1998 reported that they were treated rudely at work at least once a week. That figure rose to nearly half in 2005, then to just over half in 2011.

Incivility often grows out of ignorance, not malice. A surgeon told me that until he received some harsh feedback, he was clueless that so many people thought he was a jerk. He was simply treating residents the way he had been trained.

Technology distracts us. We’re wired to our smartphones. It’s increasingly challenging to be present and to listen. It’s tempting to fire off texts and emails during meetings; to surf the Internet while on conference calls or in classes; and, for some, to play games rather than tune in. While offering us enormous conveniences, electronic communication also leads to misunderstandings. It’s easy to misread intentions. We can take out our frustrations, hurl insults and take people down a notch from a safe distance.

Although in surveys people say they are afraid they will not rise in an organization if they are really friendly and helpful, the civil do succeed. My recent studies with Alexandra Gerbasi and Sebastian Schorch at the Grenoble École de Management, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, show that behavior involving politeness and regard for others in the workplace pays off. In a study in a biotechnology company, those seen as civil were twice as likely to be viewed as leaders.

Civility elicits perceptions of warmth and competence. Susan T. Fiske, a professor at Princeton, and Amy J. C. Cuddy, a professor at Harvard, with their colleagues have conducted research that suggests that these two traits drive our impressions of others, accounting for more than 90 percent of the variation in the positive or negative impressions we form of those around us. These impressions dictate whether people will trust you, build relationships with you, follow you and support you.

The catch: There can be a perceived inverse relationship between warmth and competence. A strength in one can suggest a weakness of the other. Some people are seen as competent but cold — he’s very smart, but people will hate working for him. Or they’re seen as warm but incompetent — she’s really friendly, but probably not very smart.

Leaders can use simple rules to win the hearts and minds of their people — with huge returns. Making small adjustments such as listening, smiling, sharing and thanking others more often can have a huge impact. In one unpublished experiment I conducted, a smile and simple thanks (as compared with not doing this) resulted in people being viewed as 27 percent warmer, 13 percent more competent and 22 percent more civil.

Civil gestures can spread. Ochsner Health System, a large Louisiana health care provider, implemented what it calls the “10/5 way.” Employees are encouraged to make eye contact if they’re within 10 feet of someone, and say hello if they’re within five feet. Ochsner reports improvements on patient satisfaction and patient referrals.

To be fully attentive and improve your listening skills, remove obstacles. John Gilboy told me about a radical approach he took as an executive of a multibillion-dollar consumer products company. Desperate to stop excessive multitasking in his weekly meetings, he decided to experiment: he placed a box at the door and required all attendees to drop their smartphones in it so that everyone would be fully engaged and attentive to one another. He didn’t allow people to use their laptops either. The change was a challenge; initially employees were “like crack addicts as the box was buzzing,” he said. But the meetings became vastly more productive. Within weeks, they slashed the length of the meetings by half. He reported more presence, participation and, as the tenor of the meetings changed, fun.

What about the jerks who seem to succeed despite being rude and thoughtless? Those people have succeeded despite their incivility, not because of it. Studies by Morgan W. McCall Jr., a professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California, including those with Michael Lombardo while they were with the Center for Creative Leadership, have shown that the No. 1 characteristic associated with an executive’s failure is an insensitive, abrasive or bullying style.

Power can force compliance. But insensitivity or disrespect often sabotages support in crucial situations. Employees may fail to share important information and withhold efforts or resources. Sooner or later, uncivil people sabotage their success — or at least their potential. Payback may come immediately or when they least expect it, and it may be intentional or unconscious.

Civility pays dividends. J. Gary Hastings, a retired judge in Los Angeles, told me that when he informally polled juries about what determined their favor, he found that respect — and how attorneys behaved — was crucial. Juries were swayed based on thin slices of civil or arrogant behavior.

Across many decisions — whom to hire, who will be most effective in teams, who will be able to be influential — civility affects judgments and may shift the balance toward those who are respectful.

Given the enormous cost of incivility, it should not be ignored. We all need to reconsider our behavior. You are always in front of some jury. In every interaction, you have a choice: Do you want to lift people up or hold them down?

June 24th, 2015

Linda Stark
Fixed Wave, 2011
Oil on canvas over panel
36 x 36 x 3 inches (91.4 x 91.4 x 7.6 cm)

JUNE 26 – AUGUST 15, 2015


Thomas Duncan

June 22nd, 2015
How California’s drought could spur an ecological rebirth

By Brandon Keim
The Guardian Published: 21 June 2015

Jennifer and Lawrence Kesteloot like to begin the day with breakfast in their San Francisco backyard garden. For the last several months, they’ve had guests: iridescent green-and-red Anna’s hummingbirds, drawn by wildflowers planted to replace what had been dead brown turf grass and concrete.

The Kesteloots hadn’t considered hummingbirds when imagining their garden. Mostly they were concerned about not using much water amidst the deprivations and uncertainties of California’s drought.

The ecologically rich plantings, the beds of California poppies and wild lilacs, were the idea of a local garden company, which is part of a burgeoning industry that offers landscaping that is both water-efficient and biodiverse.

“Most people still look at their backyards as an aesthetic. They don’t think so much about the science of it, the activity and the life,” said Elisa Baier, owner of Small Spot Gardens, which designed and installed Kesteloot’s garden.

But as homeowners and property managers replace their water-hungry turf, increasingly many are finding that the moment is ripe to revegetate — paying attention not only to water, but to nature. With drought may come rebirth.

Now, says Jennifer, the hummingbirds are a source of daily delight and her backyard is a striking example of the future’s lush possibilities.

To the Kesteloots’ credit, they’d been content to let their turf patch go brown rather than watering it for the sake of appearance. In California – and indeed throughout the drought-stricken south-western United States – few sights are so environmentally inappropriate as bright green turf grass.

Closely cropped bright-green landscapes are a powerful cultural fixation, but attitudes continue to harden against them.

Environmentalist Michael Pollan has likened lawns to littering and public urination, and California governor Jerry Brown pledged in April to replace 50 million square feet of lawn with drought-tolerant landscaping. That figure amounted to slightly less than two square miles, or .04% of all California turf, but it signified the future direction.

But if lawns are to go, what will replace them? Drought-tolerant plants save water, but they’re not necessarily nature-friendly. Many non-native plants support few insects and animals. They’re green but barren, and some landscapers servicing the growing demand for low-water yards have been criticized for using non-natives with low habitat value.

Worse yet, some simply cover lawns with crushed granite or mulch, replace them with astroturf, even paint dead brown grass green. Which might not have occasioned much lament, had the drought happened a few decades ago – but urban nature is blossoming, with scientists and nature-lovers celebrating the bounty of life possible in cities and suburbs.

“Obviously having drought-resistant plants, whether they’re native or not, is good,” said Peter Bowler, an ecologist at the University of California, Irvine and director of the school’s arboretum. “But why stop there? Why not go the extra step and focus on native plants that benefit the whole ecosystem? I think this is a positive opportunity.”

At the arboretum, Bowler worked with the Tree of Life nursery, a native-plant specialist, to plant more than twelve acres of turf with drought-tolerant native coastal species, including cacti and buckwheat and sage. There’s a state-owned wildlife sanctuary near the arboretum.

Pacific pond turtles and roadrunners now nest in the sage scrub, said Bowler. So do threatened Pacific gnatcatchers. Songbirds stop to forage on their migrations from South America to the Arctic and back again. “It’s helping sustain intercontinental biodiversity as well as local biodiversity,” said Bowler, and campus-wide native plantings now save 750,000 gallons of water per year.

Some California municipalities now offer turf-replacement rebates, but the greatest obstacle to nature-friendly cities is cultural. Urban ecology is popular, but many people are just starting to learn what’s possible in everyday environments. “Lots of my clients go on nature hikes. They love to have a guide say, ‘Look at that bird! And this plant used by Native Americans!’ But they don’t yet think that way about their backyards,” said Baier. “With a little assistance, they could.”

Baier, of Small Spot Gardens, is less rigid than Bower about non-native plants. What matters most, she said, is picking species that insects and animals use. Ultimately the patchworks of gardens and parks will become rich regional habitats in what had been nature-impoverished.

The benefits are not restricted to biodiversity: plenty of studies describe nature’s positive health effects, from psychological well-being to lower rates of autoimmune diseases. But wildlife provides human benefits, too.

For Kesteloot, who has a particular interest in insects, her backyard is now home to a menagerie that includes monarch butterflies, Jerusalem crickets, bumble bees and honeybees. Watching the bees is another source of satisfaction, she said — though the hummingbirds, known for acrobatic aerial displays, remain her favorites.

“The boys go way up in the air, then nosedive straight down and make a little chirp noise,” she said. “You know they’re showing off for the ladies. It makes us so happy.”

Thanks to Jonathan Maghen

June 22nd, 2015

June 19th, 2015
We avoid the word terrorism when the victims are black – not just when the killer is white

By Jamiles Lartey
The Guardian Published: June 19 2015

Terrorism, at least in our national imagination, springs from an ideology of insurgence. Terrorism is radical. It seeks to upset and overturn a society, and to shake it to its foundations. But in America, there are few ideologies less insurgent than the doctrine of white supremacy.

Dylann Roof has been charged with nine counts of murder and one charge of weapons possession after the horrific shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday night, and has reportedly said that his shootings were intended to start a race war. Since then, much has been made about the semantics of whether to call the massacre an act of terrorism, a hate crime or a mass shooting – and whether any of these terms are mutually exclusive.

On Thursday night, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart – perhaps the closest thing there is to the voice of liberal white America’s collective conscience – unqualifiedly declared the shooting an act of terrorism and skewered “the disparity of response between when we think people that are foreign are going to kill us and us killing ourselves.” Stewart is right, of course: if Roof had brown skin and a Muslim-sounding name, there would be no national conversation about just what to call the Charleston shootings.

But the rush to pin some people’s unwillingness to call the killings an act of terror on a subconscious bias towards or against the individual who committed the act obscures another important factor in how we choose to interpret, and in turn, identify them.

Roof’s alleged acts were, by all indications, driven by a violent and extremist interpretation of an ideology that is as old as America itself. The murder of nine innocent black people because of their race doesn’t cut against the American grain in the same way that the spectre of Islamist terrorism does – it rides the grain all the way to its logical conclusion.

Roof’s reportedly declared motivation – that black people “rape our women” and are “taking over our country” – are some of the most durable rhetorical pillars of America’s centuries-long entanglement with the doctrine of white supremacy. After emancipation and the end of the American civil war, the competing mythic caricatures of the black male as a violent rapacious “buck” or a docile “sambo” collapsed violently into the former. The lynching era, which claimed thousands of black lives, was predicated predominantly on the notion that white femininity needed to be protected from the threat of hypersexual black males.

And during reconstruction as blacks struggled to gain and use the franchise, whites began to feel keenly the political implications of having outnumbered themselves with human chattel property. Nowhere was this more true than South Carolina, where blacks made up 57% of the population, according to the 1860 US census. Charleston was one of several southern cities – New Orleans, Norfolk and Atlanta were others – where throughout the 1860s, threatened by the prospect of becoming a minority to an “inferior” black population, whites rioted and invaded black neighborhoods to attack men, women and children. Only in the largest incidents have history books even bothered to record the damage, like the 48 murdered and 166 injured in New Orleans in 1866.

That same year, when a band of whites killed 46 black people in Memphis, the Memphis Avalanche opined that, “the late riots in our city have satisfied one thing: that southern men will not be ruled by the negro … The negroes now know, to their sorrow, that it is best not to arouse the fury of the white man.”

It’s unknown, as yet, whether Dylann Roof planned his attack to coincide with the 193rd anniversary of Denmark Vesey’s failed 1822 slave revolt in Charleston, or with Juneteenth (the celebration, on 19 June, of the emancipation of America’s last enslaved people), or if both are a mere coincidence. Vesey’s role in founding the Emanuel AME church, certainly seems to hint at a connection with the former. What we can tell from the patches on his jacket celebrating apartheid in South Africa and the minority-white ruled, defunct state of Rhodesia, is that Roof clearly felt some connection to a time and place in which white power over black people was near-total and understood as natural. He may have felt that the wholesale slaughter of nine black people was the way to act on that feeling; he allegedly intended to use that slaughter to start a larger war.

That’s terrorism any way you slice it – but in the long view of American history, it’s certainly not insurgent, revolutionary or new. Using the word “terrorism” to describe violence exclusively against America’s non-white people is a historical first, but the terror visited exclusively upon America’s non-white people is not.

Thanks to Jonathan Maghen

June 19th, 2015

June 13th, 2015
Ornette Coleman 1930 – 2015


NY Times Published: JUNE 11, 2015

Ornette Coleman, the alto saxophonist and composer who was one of the most powerful and contentious innovators in the history of jazz, died on Thursday morning in Manhattan. He was 85.

The cause was cardiac arrest, a representative of the family said.

Mr. Coleman widened the options in jazz and helped change its course. Partly through his example in the late 1950s and early ’60s, jazz became less beholden to the rules of harmony and rhythm, and gained more distance from the American songbook repertoire. His own music, then and later, became a new form of highly informed folk song: deceptively simple melodies for small groups with an intuitive, collective language, and a strategy for playing without preconceived chord sequences. In 2007, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his album “Sound Grammar.”

His early work — a kind of personal answer to his fellow alto saxophonist and innovator Charlie Parker — lay right within the jazz tradition and generated a handful of standards among jazz musicians of the last half-century. But he later challenged assumptions about jazz from top to bottom, bringing in his own ideas about instrumentation, process and technical expertise.

Challenges to the traditions of jazz were the hallmarks of Ornette Coleman’s long career. By Erica Berenstein on Publish Date June 11, 2015. Photo by Martial Trezzini/European Pressphoto Agency.
He was also more voluble and theoretical than John Coltrane, the other great pathbreaker of that era in jazz, and became known as a kind of musician-philosopher, with interests much wider than jazz alone; he was seen as a native avant-gardist and symbolized the American independent will as effectively as any artist of the last century.

Slight, Southern and soft-spoken, Mr. Coleman eventually became a visible part of New York cultural life, attending parties in bright satin suits; even when frail, he attracted attention. He could talk in nonspecific and sometimes baffling language about harmony and ontology; he became famous for utterances that were sometimes disarming in their freshness and clarity or that began to make sense about the 10th time you read them.

Yet his music was usually not so oblique. At best, it could be for everybody. Very few listeners today would need prompting to understand the appeal of his early songs like “Una Muy Bonita” (bright, bouncy) and “Lonely Woman” (tragic, flamencoesque). His run of records for Atlantic near the beginning of his career — especially “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” “Change of the Century” and “This Is Our Music” — pushed through skepticism, ridicule and condescension, as well as advocacy, to become recognized as some of the greatest albums in jazz history.

His composing voice, and his sense of band interplay, was intact by 1959, and this was the moment when he caught the ear of almost every important jazz musician in the world. He wrote short melody sketches, nearly always in a major key, which could sound like old children’s songs, and, in pieces like “Turnaround” and “When Will the Blues Leave?,” brilliant blues lines. With the crucial help of the trumpeter Don Cherry, he organized his band to act like separate hearts within a single organism.

Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman was born in Fort Worth on March 9, 1930, and lived in a house very near one of the many railroad tracks crisscrossing the area. According to various sources, his father, Randolph, who died when he was 7, was a construction worker and a cook, and his mother, Rosa, was a clerk in a funeral home; both, he liked to say, were born on Christmas Day. He attended I.M. Terrell High School — the same school that three of his future bandmates, the saxophonist Dewey Redman and the drummers Charles Moffett and Ronald Shannon Jackson, would later graduate from. Other graduates from the same school included the saxophonists King Curtis, Prince Lasha and Julius Hemphill; the clarinetist John Carter; and Red Connor, a bebop tenor saxophonist with no discographical trail who, Mr. Coleman often said, influenced him by playing jazz as “an idea,” rather than as a series of patterns.

Mr. Coleman’s melodies may be easy to appreciate, but his sense of harmony has been a complicated issue from the start. He has said that when he first learned to play the saxophone — his mother gave him an alto saxophone when he was around 14 — he didn’t understand that because of transposition between instruments, a C in the piano’s “concert key” was an A on his instrument. (He also seems to have believed that when he was reading CDEFGAB, a C-major scale, he was playing the notes ABCDEFG.) When he found out the truth, a lifelong suspicion of the rules of Western harmony and musical notation began.

In essence, Mr. Coleman believed that all people had their own tonal centers, and that “unison” — a word he often used, though not always in its normal musical-theory sense — was a group of people playing together harmoniously, even if in different keys.

“I’ve learned that everyone has their own moveable C,” he said to the writer Michael Jarrett in an interview published in 1995; he identified it as “Do,” the nontempered start of anyone singing or playing a “do-re-mi” major-scale sequence. During the same conversation, he remarked that he always wanted musicians to play with him “on a multiple level.”

“I don’t want them to follow me,” he explained. “I want them to follow themselves, but to be with me.”

Learning by ear, he played alto and then tenor saxophone in rhythm-and-blues and society bands around Texas, backing up vocalists and practicing the honking, gutbucket style that made stars out of Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb. But he had already become entranced by the new kind of jazz known as bebop, and by Parker’s heady, imaginative phrasing.

In 1949, he joined Silas Green From New Orleans, a popular traveling minstrel-show troupe on its last legs. He was fired in Natchez, Miss., he said, for trying to teach bebop to one of the other saxophonists.

In Natchez, he joined the band of the blind blues singer Clarence Samuels. While on tour with the group, he said, he was beaten by a gang of musicians outside a dance hall in Baton Rouge, La., for playing strangely; as the climax of a story he would repeat ever after in variations, they threw his saxophone down the street, or down a hill, or off a cliff.

Soon after the Baton Rouge experience, he moved to Los Angeles in 1953 to play with the R&B bandleader Pee Wee Crayton. In 1954, he married the poet Jayne Cortez, with whom he had a son, Denardo. They divorced in 1964. Mr. Coleman’s survivors include his son, who played drums with him on and off since the late 1960s, and a grandson.

Also in 1954, he bought a white plastic alto saxophone, which became a visual emblem of his early years. He stayed in Los Angeles for six years, finding a core group of musicians who were not only interested in playing his music but also helped define it, including the trumpeters Mr. Cherry and Bobby Bradford, the drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, and the bassist Charlie Haden.

These musicians were the exceptions; during his Los Angeles period, many wanted nothing to do with Mr. Coleman, a long-haired Jehovah’s Witness dressed in clothes made by his wife. In Mr. Cherry’s description, he “looked like some kind of black Christ figure, but no Christ anybody had ever seen before.”

In early 1958, Mr. Coleman made his first album, “Something Else!!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman,” for the Contemporary Records label. In a six-week run at the Hillcrest Club in late 1958 with a quintet — Mr. Coleman’s group now included Mr. Higgins on drums, as well as the pianist Paul Bley, and some of the music exists on tape — Mr. Haden’s style quickly reoriented itself around the bandleader, and there is no recording of Mr. Coleman that holds closer to the model of Charlie Parker. But he adhered less to a strict rhythmic grid than Parker did: Operating on his own sense of time, he raced and flagged and played his own proud blues lines, diatonic runs, and plump, raw, crying notes.

Mr. Coleman made one more record for Contemporary, “Tomorrow Is the Question!,” with Percy Heath and Red Mitchell on bass and Shelly Manne on drums — and, significantly, nobody on piano; the lack of a pianist to root the music in chords would characterize the sound of Mr. Coleman’s music for a long time thereafter. Then the Ornette Coleman Quartet — with Mr. Cherry, Mr. Haden, and Mr. Higgins — recorded six numbers for Atlantic in May 1959. (John Lewis, the pianist for the Modern Jazz Quartet, had championed Mr. Coleman to Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records.)

This session was released as “The Shape of Jazz to Come.” This was the first great Coleman band, built entirely of musicians empathetic with him; the record’s great swing and harmonic freedom, its intuitive communication between Mr. Coleman and Mr. Cherry, and its remarkable ease with nonstandard ways of playing jazz made it a classic. But it was not released before a few other events made Mr. Coleman notorious.

Later that year, Mr. Coleman was invited to the School of Jazz in Lenox, Mass., a summer institution run by John Lewis. He played in an array of concerts and workshops, fascinating some of the teaching musicians there and alienating others. He had an impact. “I believe that what Ornette Coleman is playing will affect the whole character of jazz music profoundly and pervasively,” the critic Martin Williams wrote upon hearing him at Lenox.

Then, with his quartet, he hit the Five Spot Café in Manhattan in November 1959 for his first New York gig, a two-week engagement that stretched to two and a half months. (In an unusual move, critics were invited for an early preview on the first night.)

It suddenly became fashionable that winter for journalists to ask established jazz musicians what they thought of Mr. Coleman’s jolting music. Many said, essentially, that he was unformed but promising. John S. Wilson of The New York Times heard him at the Five Spot and wrote a few months later that he had found his playing “shrill, meandering, and pointlessly repetitious” — although by that time Mr. Wilson had already begun revising his opinion. The trumpeter Roy Eldridge did his due diligence on Mr. Coleman before forming an opinion. “I listened to him high and I listened to him cold sober,” he said. “I even played with him. I think he’s jiving, baby.”

In the quartet, Mr. Coleman and Mr. Cherry could be soloing together harmoniously, yet very loosely, sometimes clashing and sometimes flying together; Mr. Cherry described it as playing as if every note were the tonic note, the home note of a song’s key. Mr. Haden helped the music cohere by creating a strong tonal center, and the front-line musicians were only loosely tied to the pulse of the drummer. (Later, Mr. Coleman would coin a term for the music’s guiding principles: “harmolodics,” a contraction of harmony, movement and melody. He claimed to have been working on a book about harmolodic theory, but it was never completed or published.)

In a little under two years, the group made enough music for nine records with Atlantic, including “Free Jazz,” made with a “double quartet” of four musicians in each audio channel. It was not quite “free jazz,” though. Despite the great harmonic mobility among all the musicians, Mr. Coleman relied on polished written melodies to cut the piece into episodes; rhythmically, Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins swung hard, and not in free rhythm.

Mr. Coleman’s music had such a force that even John Coltrane said, in 1961, that 12 minutes he had spent on stage with Coleman amounted to “the most intense moment of my life.”

Around this point Mr. Coleman’s group began to rupture. Disaffected with the normal business practices of jazz, Mr. Coleman started seeking more control for his music and better pay; raising his price brought his bookings down to a dribble in 1961. Mr. Haden was hospitalized for heroin addiction; Mr. Cherry, needing work, joined Sonny Rollins. In 1962 Mr. Coleman rented the Town Hall, the New York performance space, to play with his new trio, which featured David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on drums, and on one piece, with a string quartet.

It was the beginning of Mr. Coleman’s public career in classical music, a much more dissonant and self-consciously European-modernist body of work. He retreated from performance and did not return until 1965, thereby separating himself from the emergence of New York’s free-jazz scene.

When he reappeared, at the Village Vanguard jazz club, he was playing trumpet and violin as well as alto saxophone. He wrote music on a well-paid commission for “Chappaqua,” a movie about drug addiction by the Avon cosmetics scion Conrad Rooks. Mr. Coleman’s work was rejected by that filmmaker, even though the music, for jazz quartet and orchestra, was eventually released by Columbia Records.

In 1966 he made the album “The Empty Foxhole,” with Mr. Haden on bass and his son on drums. Denardo Coleman was 10, and it sounded as if his influences might have been free jazz and his own prepubescent limbic system.

In the late ’60s, Mr. Coleman bought an industrial building in prefashionable SoHo, on Prince Street, and began his do-it-yourself life in earnest, calling his building Artists House and producing concerts. He formed a new band that included Dewey Redman on tenor saxophone; among its albums, for Blue Note and Columbia, were “New York Is Now!” and “Science Fiction.”

In the early ’70s, Mr. Coleman began writing a concerto grosso called “Skies of America,” eventually recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1972. It was the purest demonstration of his harmolodic principle, with parallel lines for orchestra members to play as written, rather than transposing to fit their instruments’ home keys.

In 1973, he traveled to the Rif mountains of Morocco to collaborate with the famed musicians of Jajouka; a short recording of these encounters, with the Jajouka reed players’ untempered approach, confirmed his belief that the “concert key” system of Western tonality was misguided, appeared on his album “Dancing in Your Head,” released in 1977.

It was that album that marked the beginning of Prime Time, Mr. Coleman’s first electric band (it included two guitarists), and a new chapter in his music. Loud, jagged and densely woven, it took few cues from rock; nonetheless, it had an influence not only on the outer circles of jazz but on what would later be called post-punk, the sound of late-’70s bands like the Pop Group and the Minutemen.

Meanwhile, Mr. Coleman was releasing records with Prime Time on his own Artists House label, founded in 1977 with the record producer and lawyer John Snyder, and on A&M Records at the same time. He appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in 1979, one of the few jazz artists to do so. He moved his base of operations to a building on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side, made his son his manager, and worked with Caravan of Dreams, a new performance center and record label based in his hometown, Fort Worth. For his performances there to open the club in 1983, he was given the key to the city.

In 1985, he collaborated with the guitarist Pat Metheny on the album “Song X”; in 1987, he released “In All Languages,” a double album with Prime Time on one disc and his original acoustic quartet on the other. And in 1988 he released “Virgin Beauty,” a Prime Time album with the Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead on board at times as a third guitarist. In 1991, he played on Howard Shore’s soundtrack to the film “Naked Lunch,” based on the novel by William Burroughs.

By this time Mr. Coleman was the avant-garde establishment. He was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master fellowship in 1984, and was made a MacArthur Foundation fellow in 1994; he had reached old-master status on the jazz-performance circuit, and gave regular concerts — again with a white saxophone, but metal, not plastic — that were well publicized and well attended, if sometimes curious or outrageous.

He played for four nights at Lincoln Center in the summer of 1997, presenting “Skies of America,” conducted by Kurt Masur; his old quartet music; and a strange show called “Tone Dialing” (after his 1995 album of the same name), with dancers, video, circus performers walking on nails and broken glass, and Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson.

Mr. Coleman formed a new quartet in 2004, with two bassists and Denardo Coleman on drums, and started a new record label, Sound Grammar. In 2007, the same year he won the Pulitzer Prize, he received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award and performed at the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee. To the alarm of the audience, he passed out from heat stroke, recovering at a nearby hospital.

His performing schedule became more sparse in his last five years; his final public performance was at Prospect Park in Brooklyn in June 2014, as part of a tribute to him organized by his son.

“One of the things I am experiencing is very important,” he said in his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech. “And that is: You don’t have to die to kill and you don’t have to kill to die. And above all, nothing exists that is not in the form of life because life is eternal with or without people, so we are grateful for life to be here at this very moment.”

June 11th, 2015
richard rezac

Untitled (14-03)
painted maple wood and cast bronze
27-1/2 x 19 x 3 inches

Through June 20, 2015

Marc Foxx

June 10th, 2015
Exploring the Roots of Grayson Perry and His Varied Artwork

Screen shot 2015-06-06 at 9.10.15 PM
The installation “Provincial Punk” contains over 50 works dating to 1981. Credit Stephen White

NY Times Published: JUNE 3, 2015

MARGATE, England — A blond homemaker in heels and a skirt suit walks past a road sign that has been vandalized and marked with the words “bungalow depression.” Moments earlier at her suburban house, she waters the plants and dusts the television as Lou Reed sings “Walk on the Wild Side.”

The housewife in the video (“Bungalow Depression,” 1981) is played by Grayson Perry, the cross-dressing British artist who won the Turner Prize in 2003 for his outlandish ceramic pots and has since broadened his practice to an array of disciplines. The film is being screened in his new solo show, through Sept. 13, at Turner Contemporary, a gallery in the English sea resort of Margate.

Mr. Perry, 55, is known today as much more than a ceramicist. He’s a maker of etchings and tapestries satirizing Britain, a radio lecturer and author on the art world, and a presenter of award-winning sociological television programs in which he makes tapestries, pots and sculptures of individuals he meets. He has just designed a fairy-tale-like house in Essex (available as a vacation rental) that’s a shrine to an imaginary Essex woman.

Mr. Perry in 2011-12 curated an exhibition at the British Museum that included some of his own works (“Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman”), and has shows this year at the Pera Museum in Istanbul and at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in Sydney. His works can fetch as much as 450,000 pounds, or about $687,000, according to his dealers, the Victoria Miro Gallery. Yet Mr. Perry’s eclecticism has led some critics to assert that his talks, writings and public appearances are more interesting than his creative output. In a scathing review of the Margate show, for example, Jonathan Jones of The Guardian wrote, “Grayson Perry would be a very good artist if he never made any art.”

Wearing a T-shirt and paint-splattered trousers, Mr. Perry said in a recent interview at his studio in London that he never reads reviews of his exhibitions.

“I love the way it grates on some people,” he said. “They have a set of criteria that I don’t measure up against very well.”

Mr. Perry said his multipronged pursuits had much to do with “always having enjoyed interaction with the media.” When he started out, he said, it “was seen as vulgarizing, the idea that you would hanker after attention.”

“Now,” he added, “it’s the most valuable currency of all in the age of the Internet: clicks is what we’re all after.”

The Margate exhibition, which Mr. Perry has dubbed “Provincial Punk,” contains more than 50 works dating as far back as 1981.

The show’s curator, Fiona Parry, said, “We felt that this was a time to revisit the whole practice of an artist who is now an extremely well-known figure, and see where some of his ideas and interests come from.”

The gallery’s director, Victoria Pomery, said that Mr. Perry was a “perfect fit” because he was originally from Essex, an area close to Margate, and that his art was accessible. “A lot of our visitors have never been in a museum or gallery in their life,” she said.

The exhibition consists of roomfuls of Mr. Perry’s pots, etchings and wall-length tapestries. These are interspersed with his earliest creations: primitive vases and plates in muddy tones; wild painted sketchbooks, filled with motorcycles and nude women; and grainy films.

The pots touch on aspects of Mr. Perry’s youth in Essex. As he recalls in his 2006 autobiography, “Grayson Perry: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl,” he grew up in a family that was torn apart by his mother’s decision to leave his father for the milkman, literally. Young Grayson was forced to cohabit with a physically aggressive stepfather, and created a rich imaginary world to escape to.

One personal piece in the exhibition, a golden vase with delicate floral motifs, is titled “Football Stands for Everything I Hate” (1996). It features rows of soccer shirts bearing mordant messages such as “working class and proud,” “pub bores,” “cockney” and “my stepfather.”

“I was a lot angrier and more black-and-white then: I might not make that pot now,” Mr. Perry said with a loud chuckle. “It was just before I went into therapy.”

What about his stepfather?

“He’d still be on it now,” Mr. Perry deadpanned.

After art school, he took up ceramics and soon turned what was an archaic medium into a vehicle for raw self-expression. By then, he was a cross-dresser, and today he still appears as Claire, his female alter ego, at receptions and openings, where he is sometimes accompanied by his wife, Philippa Perry, a psychotherapist, and their daughter, Flo, now 22.

Contradictions abound in Mr. Perry’s art, too. The array of vases in the exhibition’s opening room, displayed in individual vitrines, look like delicate antiques from afar. But up close, they’re contemporary and crude, juxtaposing, for example, prim catalog ads for ladies’ waistcoats with graphic depictions of women in bondage. Some of the other pots in the room look more humdrum, perhaps because there are nearly two dozen of them. Much more absorbing are the prints and tapestries in the next sections: products of Mr. Perry’s draftsmanship.

Charles Saumarez Smith, secretary and chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the 247-year-old artist-run institution to which Mr. Perry was elected in 2011, said he viewed Mr. Perry “more as a graphic artist than as a potter,” describing him as “a first-rate printmaker of extraordinary invention and imagination, with a great deal of intelligent social commentary.”

The etching “Map of Nowhere” (2008), on view in the show, is a self-portrait where Mr. Perry hovers, God-like, over a meticulously drawn medieval landscape. At his heart are patches of territory marked “despair” and “doubt.” Elsewhere on the map of his body, philosophical landmarks such as “mortality” and “the limits of reason” sit near prosaic ones like “kidults,” “Internet dating” and “trendy wine bar.”

Mr. Perry’s graphic skills are further showcased in his giant tapestries, which he draws on a computer and then has woven. “The Walthamstow Tapestry” (2009) shows a man’s trajectory from cradle to grave past a cornucopia of brands: from Woolworth’s, Coca-Cola, Mercedes and Chanel to Prada, easyJet, Ikea, and Marks & Spencer.

Is the work an indictment of modern-day consumer society?

“Not in such a clear, progressive, public-service” way, Mr. Perry said.

The angry and provocative denunciations of Mr. Perry’s youth have given way to milder forms of satire, exemplified by his witty new book on the art world, “Playing to the Gallery.”

Mr. Saumarez Smith said Mr. Perry ultimately represented “that very anarchic streak of independent-mindedness” characteristic of British art, describing him as “this generation’s Hogarth.” He was referring to William Hogarth, the 18th-century painter, printmaker and satirist, who was viewed in his day “as a slightly oddball artist, but of huge contemporary significance.”

June 6th, 2015
Bill would limit efforts to recoup Medi-Cal costs from patients’ estates

The state of California sued Linda Conder in March, seeking $120,000 her mother held in a bank account when she died in 2010. Medi-Cal had paid that amount to cover her mother’s care between 1999 and 2003. (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Times Published: June 5, 2015

The state’s Medi-Cal program has long looked to the estates and heirs of deceased Californians to recoup public money spent on their healthcare in the last years of life.

But the practice — including suing survivors and filing liens against the homes of poor families — is coming under attack in Sacramento.

On Thursday, the state Senate approved, 33 to 0, a bill by state Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) to order major changes in the Medi-Cal recovery program. It now goes to the Assembly.

If signed into law, Senate Bill 33 would limit the state’s ability to go after homes “of modest value,” allowing survivors hardship exemptions for homes with fair market value of 50% or less of the county average. It would also prohibit seeking money from the estates of surviving spouses.

The bill targets California-specific provisions of the recovery program, which are more aggressive than required by federal Medicaid regulations.

Hernandez took interest after learning that many poor families were reluctant to sign up for Medi-Cal because they didn’t want the state collecting after they died. Taking from estates and heirs “needlessly prolongs poverty,” he said Thursday.

“Californians shouldn’t be forced to put their house on the line in order to receive basic healthcare services,” he said.

Since 1993, California has recovered more than $1 billion from Medi-Cal recipients’ estates — and that number could swell as thousands more low-income people sign up for Medi-Cal as part of the Affordable Care Act. Almost a third of all Californians get some kind of assistance from Medi-Cal.

The $1 billion seized came from the estates of Medi-Cal recipients who died leaving behind assets, often their homes. If heirs do not voluntarily pay off the Medi-Cal debt, or win hardship exemptions, California officials file lawsuits to collect the debt in court.

The state’s recovery efforts take many survivors by surprise. Linda Conder, a 67-year-old Whittier woman, said she had no idea she could have taken steps to protect her mother’s assets from collection.

The state sued her in March, seeking $120,000 her mother held in a bank account when she died in 2010. Medi-Cal had paid that amount to cover her mother’s care between 1999 and 2003.

“If you’re wealthy enough, you can set it up in a certain way” to avoid collection, she said. “We didn’t know that. We don’t have attorneys working for us. That’s not the way everyday America works.”

Proponents of national collection efforts note that Medicaid (called Medi-Cal in California) was intended as a last resort for people with no means to pay for healthcare — not a way to preserve assets they hope to pass down to heirs.

“Medicaid has been and should be the program of last resort for people who really have nowhere else to go,” said Matt Salo, executive director of the National Assn. of Medicaid Directors. “For people who do have options, for people who do have means, you really shouldn’t be relying on Medicaid for long-term care coverage.”

This year, the state also sued the five children of Trinidad and Maria Acosta to collect the $160,000 that Medi-Cal paid for the couple’s nursing home stays before they died. The Acostas left behind one asset, their home in the Cypress Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.

The immigrants from Guadalajara, Mexico, had worked hard to reach that goal — Trinidad as a welder, Maria a seamstress. One day, they thought, the two-bedroom home would be passed down to their five children: Maria, Juan, Rigoberto, Francisco and Gabriela.

But after the Acostas died, the state Department of Health Care Services sued their children, seeking more than $160,000, money that could come from only one place: the 1,056-square-foot home in which they were raised.

Federal law requires states to recover from the estates of deceased people who received Medicaid assistance for long-term medical care, including nursing homes. But California takes it one step further, collecting for nearly all medical services for people 55 and older covered by Medi-Cal.

There are exceptions. The state doesn’t collect if the person who died has a child under age 21, or a child who’s disabled. If there’s a surviving spouse, the state holds off until that spouse dies.

When Trinidad Acosta died in 2000, the state didn’t collect the $72,000 that Medi-Cal had spent to cover his stay in a nursing home because his wife was still alive. But after Maria Acosta died in 2011, the state put in a $162,000 claim against her estate — for the $90,000 Medi-Cal spent on her health coverage, plus the money it had spent on her husband.

The couple’s daughter Maria Villegas said the only way they can pay that bill is to sell their parents’ home on Arvia Street. It’s a shame, she said, because her parents had worked hard to pay off the home.

“I saw my parents struggle to buy that home and pride they had in keeping that house,” Villegas said. “It was a legacy they left to us.”

Selling the home to pay the Medi-Cal collectors would not be easy; two of her brothers live in the home and are unemployed, she said.

“God willing, they have a lot of years ahead of them. Where will they go? They’ll be homeless,” she said.

Margaret Hoffeditz, chief of the recovery branch of the state Department of Health Care Services, said the state will not evict heirs from a home. Rather, the state would place a lien on the property and collect only when the home is sold — even if it’s decades later.

“We’ve never forced the sale of a home…. We’re not in the business of tossing people out onto the street,” Hoffeditz said.

The department also allows heirs to make hardship claims and will, in some cases, reduce or forgive Medi-Cal debts, she said. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the department granted more than 100 hardship claims, agreeing to reduce or eliminate the debt.

The state’s compassionate collection efforts are of little comfort to Anne-Louise Vernon, a 60-year-old unemployed woman who said she was forced to choose Medi-Cal when she signed up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act because she did not make enough money to be eligible for other policies.

Now, the premiums that Medi-Cal pays for her policy with Kaiser Permanente — about $600 a month — are accumulating as a bill that will be collectible from her estate, which would include a home in Campbell, near San Jose.

“Remember, now it’s against the law not to get health insurance,” Vernon said. “To be forced into a debt against your will, it’s ugly.”

Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill from Hernandez last year, citing financial considerations. Limiting Medi-Cal estate collection could cost the state about $25 million a year, by some estimates.

Hernandez said he is optimistic about the bill’s chances this year. “Gov. Brown has the power to stop estate recovery,” he said Thursday, “either through the budget or by signing this bill. I trust that he will make the right choice this year.”

June 5th, 2015
California Farmers Dig Deeper for Water, Sipping Their Neighbors Dry

A field of drought-stricken almond trees in the Central Valley await the chipper. Scarcity of water has always been an issue in the valley, which gets only about 10 inches of rain a year. Credit Chad Ress for The New York Times

NY Times Published: JUNE 5, 2015

Early one morning in late April, Parvinder Hundal stood beside a hole in the ground at the edge of his almond farm near Tulare in the Central Valley of California. The hole, which was about the size of a volleyball and was encased in a shallow block of concrete, was the opening of a well, one that went hundreds of feet into the earth. He had paid $100,000 to have it drilled, but it wasn’t producing water. Mr. Hundal was hoping that if he cleaned out the well, the water would start flowing again.

On the nearby trees, some leaves had turned yellow and the almond husks appeared smaller than usual. In February, Mr. Hundal received emails from various water districts, informing him that, because of a historic drought that has left reservoirs nearly dry, he would most likely get no surface water to irrigate his 4,000 acres of crops this summer. Not one drop.

Mr. Hundal watched as his nephew, his right-hand man, prepared to lower pipe into the hole. “We’ll have water by the end of the day, I hope,” Mr. Hundal said.

Mr. Hundal is an optimist. An immigrant from Punjab in northwest India, he arrived in California in 1986 with little money and, through a combination of borrowing and shrewdness, he managed to make a small fortune through farming. But he’s also a pragmatist. Since he can’t count on the virtually unlimited surface water he’s been allotted in the past, he’s been looking for water underground. This year, Mr. Hundal spent $300,000 to hire a contractor to dig three new wells, including the one in Tulare. Those didn’t pan out. So he wired $670,000 to a broker in Texas to buy his own used drill. No water, no problem. Mr. Hundal will drill when he wants.

There’s a well-drilling boom in the Central Valley, and it’s a water grab as intense as any land grab before it. Drilling contractors are so swamped with requests that there is a wait of four to six months for a new well. Drilling permits are soaring. In Tulare County, home to several of Mr. Hundal’s almond farms, 660 permits for new irrigation wells were taken out by the end of this April, up from 383 during the same period last year and just 60 five years ago — a figure rising “exponentially,” said Tammie Weyker, spokeswoman for Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency.

The new drill that Mr. Hundal ordered from Texas should be up and running in a few weeks. He says it can push 2,500 feet into the ground, tapping new aquifers and making way for wells that can produce thousands of gallons of water a minute. He plans to drill at least six new wells on his various farms across the Central Valley: Four of them are in Tulare, and two are on property 100 miles north.

“It’s about survival,” he said. “Everybody is pulling water out of the ground.”

“Nobody is bothered,” he added. “The neighbors aren’t bothered. Everybody is doing what they’ve got to do.”

It turns out, though, that some people are bothered — very bothered — and are growing hostile. That’s because the drilling has serious side effects. Rampant drilling causes underground water levels to fall. When shallow farm and domestic wells that serve residences dry up, the underground bounty goes to those who can afford to dig deeper.

When it comes to drilling for water, there are few rules and no boundaries. Generally, farmers who follow a set of modest regulations can drill on their own land.

California passed stronger regulations last year that are intended to govern underground drilling. Details of the rules are still being worked out. But even then, the rules won’t have any real effect for 25 years or more, says Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“You drill a well on your property, you draw it out, even if it means you draw from under your neighbor’s property,” he says. “You’re drawing water from every direction.”

Underground water supply isn’t fenced or restricted; it is moisture held in the soil, rocks and clay, and drawn through wells like soda through a straw.

In a normal year, Mr. Famiglietti says, 33 percent of California’s water comes from underground, but this year it is expected to approach 75 percent. Since 2011, he says, the state has lost eight trillion gallons from its overall water reserves, two-thirds of that from its underground aquifers.

“We can’t keep doing this,” Mr. Famiglietti says.

The draining of the aquifers creates another hazard aboveground. As water is pulled from the spongy layers below, the ground above collapses, creating what is known as subsidence. Where subsidence is the worst, the land can sink as much as a foot each year.

Water scarcity and buckling land have neighboring farmers eyeing one another warily. Relations are fraying, with the drilling threatening to revive tensions that have been subdued for half a century or more, when farmers last relied so heavily on groundwater, says Gary Sawyers, a prominent lawyer on water rights in the region. But now, with the expansion of agriculture in the Central Valley and the planting of thirsty, year-round crops like almonds, the demand for water is much greater.

“It’s the same situation as 60 or 70 years ago,” Mr. Sawyers says, “but squared, or on steroids.”

Worth More Than Gold

On Aug. 18, 1962, President John F. Kennedy landed in a helicopter near an enormous dusty bowl in the northern Central Valley. He had come for a groundbreaking ceremony at the future site of the San Luis Reservoir, which would eventually store hundreds of billions of gallons of the water from the Sierra Nevada to the north.

Speaking from beneath an ornate tent to hundreds of sunbaked listeners, President Kennedy said that coming to the area, he could see “the greenest and richest earth producing the greatest and richest crops in the country, and then a mile away see the same earth and see it brown and dusty and useless — all because there’s water in one place and there isn’t in another.”

The construction in 1963 of the California Aqueduct system changed all that. Before it was built, farmers had relied on wells for their water, which led to the land collapsing. The surface water irrigation meant less pumping and led to “widespread groundwater recoveries, and subsidence essentially ceased in many areas,” notes Michelle Sneed, a senior scientist at the United States Geological Survey.

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Scarcity of water has always been an issue in the Central Valley, which gets only about 10 inches of rain a year. A German immigrant named Henry Miller, who was a pioneer in the region in the latter half of the 1800s, developed a system of canals and founded the region’s first irrigation company for farmers. A legend, he was called the Cattle King of California, and he “realized early on that water was ultimately of higher value than gold in California,” according to a biography edited by the German Historical Institute.

The value of water has become acutely real to Mr. Miller’s great-great-great-grandson Cannon Michael, who is the president of the Bowles Farming Company.

Tall and well spoken, Mr. Michael is the product of an elite boarding school and the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in English. After 15 years working at Bowles — which has $25 million in annual sales, about 15 percent of that profit — he became president of the family enterprise just last year.

It wasn’t the easiest time to take charge.

Sitting at a conference table in his ranch-style offices, Mr. Michael displayed a Google Earth map on a large monitor on the wall. The map showed the area in and around his 10,500-acre farm, not far from the San Luis Reservoir, in the northern part of the Central Valley — much closer to Silicon Valley than to Los Angeles.

On the map, some areas were yellow, others red. Yellow areas, he said, had suffered moderate subsidence. Red meant real trouble — in some of those red areas, the land had been dropping nearly a foot a year, on average, since 2008.

“That’s our diversion point,” Mr. Michael told me.

Sack Dam is the place on the San Joaquin River where surface water finishes its long journey from the north and is diverted onto the farms of Mr. Michael and his neighbors. Because Mr. Michael’s farm is a parcel from the Miller farm, established in 1858, he has high-priority access to surface water. That is particularly important now, because in times of scarcity, these senior water rights holders — generally, farms established before 1914 — get their water allotment before farms with lower-priority rights, like those owned by Mr. Hundal.

But now there’s a problem for all the farmers, no matter what rights they have to surface water: Heavy drilling by farmers near Sack Dam is causing the land to cave in so much that the water is having trouble taking its normal path. Further subsidence will make it hard for water to get through Sack Dam to Mr. Michael’s farm and those of his neighbors.

“Water traditionally flowed with gravity,” as Mr. Michael put it. “It isn’t going to run uphill.”

One of the hundreds of farms in the Sack Dam area belongs to Mr. Hundal. He and Mr. Michael have never met, so in one sense, there’s no particular connection between them. But like all the farmers in the region, they are connected by water.

This year, thanks to his senior status, Mr. Michael will get surface water, about 50 percent of his usual amount, a hardship that means fallowing about 2,500 acres of wheat, cotton, alfalfa and tomato fields. By happenstance, the water that he and his neighbors get this year comes from a source that historically supplied the lower-priority water rights holders in Tulare. Those farmers, including Mr. Hundal, won’t get any water.

Another connection between these farmers has to do with subsidence, as Mr. Michael showed on his map. He found Mr. Hundal’s farm, about 20 miles northeast of Sack Dam. It was colored yellow and red to signify heavy subsidence, and the stream of color connected all the way down to Mr. Michael’s diversion point.

Mr. Michael doesn’t rebuke Mr. Hundal or others for drilling. “You take away a guy’s surface water,” he said, “and he’s going to do what he has to do to survive.” But his tone hardened when he talked about what could amount to a $10 million bill to install a pump to push the water uphill at Sack Dam if the subsidence worsens.

“We could make a legal case that these folks are causing the issue,” he said of the farmers who are drilling near the dam.

Chase Hurley, the manager of the San Luis Canal Company. “Based on current California law,” he said, “you can dig as many holes as you want.” Credit Chad Ress for The New York Times
That sentiment is shared by a number of the senior water rights holders, says Chase Hurley, the manager of the San Luis Canal Company, which manages water for about 45,000 acres, including Mr. Michael’s land. Mr. Hurley says the farmers with senior rights have been rumbling about a way to “get this thing straightened out” or else go after the other farmers in court. They are focused on drillers within about five miles of the dam.

Mr. Hurley tells them they don’t have a very good legal case. “Based on current California law,” he says, “you can dig as many holes as you want.”

Besides, he adds, which landowners would they sue? Farmers whose land borders Sack Dam, or those a few miles out, like Mr. Hundal?

Geology isn’t neat, and the underground aquifer is like a giant earthy sponge, explains Ms. Sneed of the United States Geological Survey. And not all the holes in the sponge connect; sometimes, drilling in one well might drain a hole at a distance and not affect one nearby. There is no simple way, she says, to trace a crater to the particular well that sucked the groundwater out of it.

Mr. Hundal, 57, drove me around his farms in his Ford F-250 pickup truck and described growing up on a farm in India, getting a college degree and immigrating to San Francisco. Seven years after he arrived, he had a master’s degree in agronomy from Chico State and 20 acres. Then, a few years later, he bought 90 more acres — “that was a really risky step,” he said. He smiled at the audacity. He said he borrowed the $650,000 for the new land and grew almonds, long before it was common to do so.

Possible solutions to the water shortage, like using pipes to connect farms so they can share water more efficiently, could take years to put in place. Credit Chad Ress for The New York Times
Now he takes in $14 million in sales from his collection of farms, mostly almond orchards. He hires 25 farmworkers from February through October, but still tends to a lot himself, using a jury-rigged tractor to plant almond and cherry trees. He and his wife recently bought a second home at Pebble Beach for $8 million.

At one of his farms in Tulare, he stopped at a rectangular reservoir six feet deep and a quarter of the size of a football field. “When we get water, we put it here,” he said. It was, on that April day, a dusty bed, with patches of green.

I told him about Mr. Hurley’s concerns about the heavy drilling.

“That’s just baloney,” Mr. Hundal said. “I don’t think it’s causing problems.” He said the subsidence could be caused “by heavy ground.” (His is not a position supported by science.)

Besides, he said, “They take our water and don’t want us to drill.”

Mr. Hurley driving beside a canal managed by his company. Credit Chad Ress for The New York Times
I told him that some of the farmers with senior water rights have talked about suing farmers drilling near the dam — not Mr. Hundal necessarily, but maybe ones closer to Sack Dam.

“They can do that,” but it would be a “waste of time in court,” he said, kicking a cloud of dust. Mr. Sawyers — who works for farmers on both sides of Sack Dam — says that a lawsuit over subsidence could be the first of its kind. He couldn’t recall another. But neither has there been such a drought in recent history. “The current circumstances,” he says, “may give rise to all kinds of new lawsuits.”

This is not to say a lawsuit is imminent or even likely. Mr. Hurley, who runs the water management company, has helped the farmers with senior water rights try diplomacy. Their group has spent $250,000 to help the districts to the east study how to fix the subsidence. Farmers on both sides of the dam have talked of jointly developing an underground reservoir that would be replenished with floodwaters. But floodwaters, even under normal climate conditions, are released only about every four years, Mr. Hurley says. Other possible solutions, like using pipes to connect farms so they can share water more efficiently, could also take years.

Many farmers in the Central Valley agree on a collection of nemeses that includes the news media, regulators and environmentalists. But now there are new tensions. Chris Hurd, a farmer in the region for three decades, still contends that environmental interests and regulators are most to blame for water scarcity, but he notes that comity among farmers has started to fray. “The infighting that’s going on is going to get real bad,” he says. It’s “one year at a time,” he explained of farmers’ mind-set. “Most guys can make money if they can figure out how to get things wet the next 120 days.”

“Guys are overdrafting right next to each other,” he says of the water drilling, adding that he recently saw one farmer’s wells go dry just days after a farmer half a mile away put in a deeper well.

But “what’s going to drive it to the forefront,” he says, is not farmer losses but “when a lot of domestic wells will go dry this summer.”

The Race to Drill Deeper

What’s bad for California farmers is turning out to be good for Michael Higgins. He owns Summit Power & Supply, a company in Austin, Tex., that buys and sells drilling equipment, for water and oil wells. He gets six calls a week from Golden State farmers, up from one every two months just two years ago.

“They’re getting frantic,” Mr. Higgins says.

When Mr. Hundal went to Texas to shop for drills, he discovered something remarkable: Mr. Higgins’s customers were familiar names. “I knew everybody,” Mr. Hundal says. “It was amazing.”

Mr. Higgins has delivered drilling rigs to Bakersfield, Goleta, Madera, Orland, Porterville and other places in California. Two of the drills he sold went to a contractor in Los Banos, and in late April those drills were used to put new wells on the Bowles farm run by Mr. Michael.

For all his concerns about drilling, Mr. Michael decided he had no choice but to join the drillers as a long-term “insurance policy.” Plus, with reduced surface water this year, he says he needs to pull the water from somewhere. He says he’s drilling wells — costing $100,000 each — that go only a few hundred feet deep, above the layer that seems to cause ground collapse.

Two simple, if contradictory, themes have emerged among farmers: One, we’re all in this together. Two, it’s every man for himself.

Steve Laird, who has a small farm in the area, puts it this way: “When it comes down to it, it’s either mine or yours. You do what you have to do to survive.”

Mr. Hundal’s new drill arrived from Texas in the middle of May. Then another challenge arose: He had reached a handshake agreement with a licensed driller to operate the drill, but the driller, Mr. Hundal said, started “dragging his feet.”

Mr. Hundal suspected the reason. “He wants big money. He smells that,” he said. “I can’t drill without a license.”

As he waited to start drilling a new well, Mr. Hundal discovered that his neighbor was also drilling across the street, just 100 feet away. Mr. Hundal thought it was possible that the neighbor’s well would suck up his water.

“It’s crazy, but I can’t tell him to drill away from me,” Mr. Hundal said. “It’s his land, not mine.”

If his well goes dry, Mr. Hundal said, “I’ll have to drill another one and go a little deeper.”

June 5th, 2015
Alice Mackler

glaze, clay
10 x 5.25 x 4.9 in
25.4 x 13.3 x 12.4 cm

Through June 21, 2015

Kerry Schuss

June 2nd, 2015
Our Water-Guzzling Food Factory

Fritz Durst farms 12 crops and raises cattle on 6,000 acres in Zamora, Calif. This irrigation canal has been dry since 2013. Max Whittaker for The New York Times

By Nicholas Kristof
NY Times Published: MAY 30, 2015

LET’S start with a quiz.

Which consumes the most water?

A) a 10-minute shower.

B) a handful of 10 almonds.

C) a quarterpound hamburger patty.

D) a washing machine load.

The answer? By far, it’s the hamburger patty. The shower might use 25 gallons. The almonds take up almost a gallon each, or close to 10 gallons for the handful. The washing machine uses about 35 gallons per load. And that beef patty, around 450 gallons.

The drought in California hit home when I was backpacking with my daughter there recently on the Pacific Crest Trail, and the first eight creeks or springs we reached were all dry.

The crisis in California is a harbinger of water scarcity in much of the world. And while we associate extravagant water use with swimming pools and verdant lawns, the biggest consumer, by far, is agriculture. In California, 80 percent of water used by humans goes to farming and ranching.

That’s where that hamburger patty comes in.

I grew up on a sheep and cherry farm near Yamhill, Ore. I worked for a year for the Future Farmers of America, and I still spend time every year on our family farm. But while I prize America’s rural heritage, let’s be blunt: It’s time for a fundamental rethinking of America’s food factory.

A mandarin orange consumes 14 gallons of water. A head of lettuce, 12 gallons. A bunch of grapes, 24 gallons. One single walnut, 2 gallons.

Animal products use even more water, mostly because of the need to raise grain or hay to feed the animals. Plant material converts quite inefficiently into animal protein.

So a single egg takes 53 gallons of water to produce. A pound of chicken, 468 gallons. A gallon of milk, 880 gallons. And a pound of beef, 1,800 gallons of water. (Of course, these figures are all approximate, and estimates differ. These are based on data from the Pacific Institute and National Geographic.)

You can also calculate your own water footprint at National Geographic’s website.

Our industrial food system produces food almost miraculously cheaply. In 1930, whole dressed chicken retailed for $6.48 per pound in today’s currency, according to the National Chicken Council; in real terms, the price has fallen by more than three-quarters. And, boy, is the system good at producing cheap high-fructose corn syrup!

Yet industrial agriculture imposes other unsustainable costs:

• It overuses antibiotics, resulting in dangers to the public from antibiotic-resistant diseases. About four-fifths of antibiotics sold in the United States are for livestock and poultry — even as 23,000 people die annually in America from antibiotic resistant infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

• Farming overuses chemicals such as pesticides, some of them endocrine-disruptors that have been linked to possible cancer, obesity and reproductive disorders.

• Factory farming is often based on treating animals, particularly poultry, with ruthless cruelty.

To this indictment, we can add irrational subsidies and water engineering projects that have led to irrigation in areas where it doesn’t make sense. Today, California, despite the drought, is effectively exporting water (in the form of milk, beef, walnuts and produce).

Most of agriculture’s irrationalities aren’t the fault of farmers but arise from lax regulation and mistaken pricing, and that’s true of water as well. Traditionally in the West, water was mostly allocated on a first-come basis, so if you acquired water rights more than a century ago you can mostly still access water for uses (two gallons per walnut!) that no longer make sense in an age of scarcity.

As for the foolishness of agricultural subsidies, until recently, the federal government paid me, a New York journalist, $588 a year not to grow crops in Oregon. I rest my case.

Let’s be clear that it’s unfair to blame farmers for the present problems. We’re the ones eating those water-intensive hamburgers, and we’re the ones whose political system created these irrationalities.

Like most Americans, I eat meat, but it’s worth thinking hard about the inefficiency in that hamburger patty — and the small lake that has dried up to make it possible.

Maybe our industrial agriculture system is beginning to change, for we’re seeing some signs of a food revolution in America, with greater emphasis on organic food and animal rights. Just a week ago, Walmart called on suppliers to stop keeping calves in veal crates and hogs in gestation crates.

Something good could come from the California drought if it could push this revolution a bit further, by forcing a reallocation of water to the most efficient uses. But remember that the central challenge can’t be solved by a good rain because the larger problem is an irrational industrial food system.

May 30th, 2015

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Chris Martin, For Paul Thek (Lobsters), 2008-2012, Oil, spray paint, collage on canvas 45 x 37 inches (114.3 x 94 cm), CM0115



Richard Telles

May 29th, 2015
The Insecure American

NY Times Published: MAY 29, 2015
By: Paul Krugman

America remains, despite the damage inflicted by the Great Recession and its aftermath, a very rich country. But many Americans are economically insecure, with little protection from life’s risks. They frequently experience financial hardship; many don’t expect to be able to retire, and if they do retire have little to live on besides Social Security.

Many readers will, I hope, find nothing surprising in what I just said. But all too many affluent Americans — and, in particular, members of our political elite — seem to have no sense of how the other half lives. Which is why a new study on the financial well-being of U.S. households, conducted by the Federal Reserve, should be required reading inside the Beltway.

Before I get to that study, a few words about the callous obliviousness so prevalent in our political life.

I am not, or not only, talking about right-wing contempt for the poor, although the dominance of compassionless conservatism is a sight to behold. According to the Pew Research Center, more than three-quarters of conservatives believe that the poor “have it easy” thanks to government benefits; only 1 in 7 believe that the poor “have hard lives.” And this attitude translates into policy. What we learn from the refusal of Republican-controlled states to expand Medicaid, even though the federal government would foot the bill, is that punishing the poor has become a goal in itself, one worth pursuing even if it hurts rather than helps state budgets.

But leave self-declared conservatives and their contempt for the poor on one side. What’s really striking is the disconnect between centrist conventional wisdom and the reality of life — and death — for much of the nation.

Take, as a prime example, positioning on Social Security. For decades, a declared willingness to cut Social Security benefits, especially by raising the retirement age, has been almost a required position — a badge of seriousness — for politicians and pundits who want to sound wise and responsible. After all, people are living longer, so shouldn’t they work longer, too? And isn’t Social Security an old-fashioned system, out of touch with modern economic realities?

Meanwhile, the reality is that living longer in our ever-more-unequal society is very much a class thing: life expectancy at age 65 has risen a lot among the affluent, but hardly at all in the bottom half of the wage distribution, that is, among those who need Social Security most. And while the retirement system F.D.R. introduced may look old-fashioned to affluent professionals, it is quite literally a lifeline for many of our fellow citizens. A majority of Americans over 65 get more than half their income from Social Security, and more than a quarter are almost completely reliant on those monthly checks.

These realities may finally be penetrating political debate, to some extent. We seem to be hearing less these days about cutting Social Security, and we’re even seeing some attention paid to proposals for benefit increases given the erosion of private pensions. But my sense is that Washington still has no clue about the realities of life for those not yet elderly. Which is where that Federal Reserve study comes in.

This is the study’s second year, and the current edition actually portrays a nation in recovery: in 2014, unlike 2013, a substantial plurality of respondents said that they were better off than they had been five years ago. Yet it’s startling how little room for error there is in many American lives.

We learn, for example, that 3 in 10 nonelderly Americans said they had no retirement savings or pension, and that the same fraction reported going without some kind of medical care in the past year because they couldn’t afford it. Almost a quarter reported that they or a family member had experienced financial hardship in the past year.

And something that even startled me: 47 percent said that they would not have the resources to meet an unexpected expense of $400 — $400! They would have to sell something or borrow to meet that need, if they could meet it at all.

Of course, it could be much worse. Social Security is there, and we should be very glad that it is. Meanwhile, unemployment insurance and food stamps did a lot to cushion unlucky families from the worst during the Great Recession. And Obamacare, imperfect as it is, has immensely reduced insecurity, especially in states whose governments haven’t tried to sabotage the program.

But while things could be worse, they could also be better. There is no such thing as perfect security, but American families could easily have much more security than they have. All it would take is for politicians and pundits to stop talking blithely about the need to cut “entitlements” and start looking at the way their less-fortunate fellow citizens actually live.☐

May 29th, 2015
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