Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Dictators and Public Art

Between Sandy and the election, does anyone need a laugh, as Ricky Gervais would say?

I've been much too humble here (of course) to mention my dedicated and extensive public service to the City of Manhattan. But a couple years ago, my friend the mayor Jim nominated me for the city's newly created Arts and Humanities Board. A ha! A chance to determine where Manhattan's massive arts budget goes, and perhaps the chance to help create new artistic programs for the public good (visions of Charlottesville's Art in Place program danced in my head). The reality, of course, is that this body was created almost solely to break a procedural deadlock over what statue should go up in the middle of the city's new and heavily trafficked roundabout -- that is, go on top of the existing base that has sat uncompleted since the money ran out.


Our advisory commitee has no budget, and the Tea Party-controlled city commission is unlikely to do anything except chip in a very small amount if we can privately raise lots of money to pay for something. Somehow I'm pretty sure they aren't open to pushing the artistic envelope, either.

But fear not. After 18 months spent drafting bylaws and setting up rules for a competition (imagine how much simpler it must be for a dictator to get a statue of himself up on a public square ...), the entries have rolled in. And to my mind the winner is clear! Clich├ęd statues of heroic pioneers? Hah, we are much too sophisticated for that around here. I give you, in the spirit of Claes Oldenburg (the Minneapolis Cherry anyone?), the brilliant proposal that will most assuredly get my vote:

Only two problems. We don't actually have a real bakery in town, and we don't grow wheat in the Flint Hills. Stay tuned for results. Excessively procedural democracy to the rescue!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Breaking the Silence

"How can you be so political and never mention the election on your blog?," many of you have asked (ok not many, but actually a couple). A lot of my friends -- and especially Mom -- know that I'm so disillusioned and disgusted with American politics that I watch no "news" shows and mostly only read/click on sports. (And anyway, I read histories of politics all day for work.) I certainly wouldn't subject myself to the debates, which border on the surreal (as if exactly what phrase Obama used to describe a disgusting attack that every American obviously abhors is meaningful compared to climate change and women's rights and the macroeconomics of record levels of inequality. Could we at least agree to disagree about real issues?) But to satisfy my loyal readers ... and as I wait for Jeanine and Sheila and Kristin and Rob and Brent and Sarah to all finish half marathons ... I've decided to break the silence -- in the form of a Top Ten list: The Top 10 Things I Wish Obama Would Ask/Say to Romney at the Next Debate but Sadly Probably Won't.

1) Ok, I'm confused governor. I understand and respect (though disagree with) the argument that many honest conservatives made after the financial crisis erupted that we should do nothing -- no stimulus, no mortgage-relief polices, just let the market clear. But now the Right's talking point is that I "didn't do enough for the economy" -- and this after not a single Republican voted for the stimulus and every one of my jobs bills thereafter was severely watered down or killed. So which is it -- should we have done nothing, as the economic theory dominating your party claims? Or, if I should have done more, what in particular, and why did your side fight me every step of the way? The last time I checked, conservatives believed that the markets create jobs, not presidents.

2) Your side accuses liberals of being weak-kneed, dependency-inducing hippies when we even hint that inequality (at its highest level in 80 years) harms our social fabric and puts more people into poverty and, oh yeah, unnecessarily kills people who can't afford health insurance. I agree, of course, that we need some inequality so people have incentives to work and risks and innovation are rewarded. So don't call me a leveler. But what if I told you (to quote ESPN films' 30 for 30 series), that too much inequality stunts economic growth. Based on you tax proposals and comments about the 47% of moochers you don't care about, it's fair to assume that you're not especially concerned with inequality. But please explain specifically why, given that our economy is 75% personal consumption, inequality is not checking top-line growth (and reducing corporate profits)? And I mean specifically, governor. If you don't agree with Keynes's consumption function, do you agree with Modigliani's critique of it or Freidman's and why?

(Look ... a historian can always dream. As I've complained about for years, the Left has been totally clueless on this one. The NY Times's recent article on inequality and the economy was breath-taking, as a friend put it, writing that a "growing body" of research suggests that rising inequality harms economic growth. Yeah, growing body of research since Keynes wrote about it in 1936!]

3) Funding Planned Parenthood is the sideshow. You have stated repeatedly that you will appoint justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade. Is this correct? In the words of Al Gore debating Dan Quayle, do you support a woman's right to choose?

4) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints believes that the US Constitution -- the original one -- was divinely inspired. But the original Constitution defined enslaved African Americans as each equal to three-fifths of a white person. As historian Gary Wills put it, "Does the fact that the Fourteenth Amendment was an addition to the originally inspired document mean that God first limited black rights in a directly inspired document, and only restored them in a non-inspired amendment"?

5) Your church only allowed African Americans to become priests in 1978 (and only then after the feds threatened the loss of tax-exempt status). You turned 21 in 1968. During the next decade, what were your attitudes on this question? What specific steps did you take to bring the Latter-Day Saints into the twentieth century?

6) You said on Meet the Press, "I'm not in this race to slow the rise of the oceans or to heal the planet. I'm in this race to help the American people." Interesting, as I was under the impression that Americans live on the planet. Please provide specific examples of how Americans lives will be helped by climate change.

7) My advisers keep dropping the ball on the recovery debate, somehow forgetting to remind the media that reduced tax revenues from the Great Recession (to say nothing of the Bush tax cuts and two extended wars) caused the vast majority of the increase in the debt during my administration. So let's go over the basics here. Maybe if we dropped the overheated rhetoric for a moment, we could agree that the deficit was already spiraling before I took over (Um, remember that the budget for a president's first year is passed before the new administration takes office). While it is very true that I did increase spending significantly in 2009 on top of what was already appropriated -- to save the auto industry and reduce unemployment -- this spending was temporary -- a lot more temporary than the Bush tax cuts and those two little wars. And while the question of whether I should have cut spending more is a legitimate one (even if most economists across the political spectrum agree that such cuts would have hurt a fragile recovery), spending over the budgets I controlled went up an (annualized) .4% a year. Even the Wall Street Journal's MarketWatch webpage (yeah, those radicals) concluded that “federal spending is rising at the slowest pace since Dwight Eisenhower." So I guess my question is, do you think politics have anything to do with the savage exaggeration of my spending, or do you think these exaggerations would have been the same if I were a Republican?

8) Considering that your grandfather immigrated to the United States from Mexico (where he had gone after the Church outlawed polygamy), why are you so opposed to immigration? Also, your grandfather took federal funds under a program set up to help political refugees. Why did your grandfather take a handout from the federal government?

9) Do you think Petter Northug can regain his dominant form of a couple of years ago?

10) Look, I almost feel sorry for you -- it's pathetic that you score less than me, a Black Muslim, when Americans are polled on the who's-more-of-a-regular-guy? and who-would-you-rather-have-beers-with? questions. I realize you're not allowed to drink beer, and that's cool -- though I really wish you'd do something about the stupid beer laws in Utah, so I can drink my favorite Epic Hop Syndrome on tap when I'm visiting the Ex-Wife's bar in Salt Lake. But sometimes, deep down, don't you wish you were cool like me and could introduce Wilco onto the stage? Do you even know who Wilco is? I mean, how cool am I here, despite using the term "gold records"? And by the way, notice the song's a prayer. Read some Neibuhr you dumb %$#@.

[Warning: This clip may induce severe nostalgia for vintage Obama. But that's the point. Forward to a centrist in Ohio or Virginia.]

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Marathon weekend was fantastic, even if Jeanine couldn't be there. All the money and time and early morning beat-the-heat runs were worth it. Before Minneapolis, I stopped over for a night in Northfield, MN, to give a talk at Carleton (and sell 5 books!). And unlike returning to my high school over the summer, which disappointed, Carleton and Northfield remain just about the perfect place to go to college. If anything I de-reromantized the place during school, and it's even better now that it has some real restaurants, an amazing new arts center, a real rec center, etc. I also got to have lunch with my fellow Nordic-dork friend, Christopher.

I had time for a few miscellaneous stops around the cities like the Groveland Tap, which remains resolutely resistant to the food revolution. And I got to see Murph's Bluegrass band in action at Patisserie 46.


They are too small to read, but the yard signs are for Keith Ellison, the only Muslim member of the US House, and against the anti-gay marriage amendment to the Minnesota constitution. After all my time in Utah and Kansas, it was fun to be in a place with a true range of politics.

Flash forward to about 7:52 on Sunday morning, when, after meeting up with Murph outside the Metrodome, I made a wrong turn on my way to corral 1 and somehow ended up at the back of corral 3. A couple minutes of pushing my way through the throngs didn't accomplish much, so let's just say there was a bit of frantic barricade jumping involved.

The first few miles of a marathon, I now realize, are pretty much bliss for a runner. The pace is easy, and you can enjoy the surroundings -- which in this case meant a continuous street party (though I missed the MN Supreme Court justice and former Viking playing his tuba, which is apparently quite the tradition) and the Minneapolis lakes. I went out too fast, of course, and a few miles in someone said we were running at about a 3:05 pace (3:15 was the Boston-qualifying goal). This was surprising news, because I hadn't seen the 3:05 pace group (the guy carrying balloons leading people to exactly a 3:05) -- turns out there was no 3:05 pace group. What really helped was that my GPS watch went screwy at about mile 8, I think after scratching my back. This was my first watch malfunction during a race in 4 years, which I took as a sign to relax already. So for a few miles, completely out of character, I turned off the watch and just enjoyed the running and the thousands of spectators. And seeing Annie (Murph's wife) at mile 11 was great, too (apparently I told her, "Hey, this is fun"). Spectators' signs provided a great diversion. My favorites were "Paul Ryan would have finished by now," "Stop here for a beer -- you know you're only running from your problems," and "This parade sucks."

I went out in 1:33:33 (7:08 miles). My logic was that if I could run the second half at my originally planned pace of 7:19s (I did reset my watch halfway), I'd come in just under 3 hours 10 minutes. I'd say it started feeling hard around mile 18, and 18 to 21 were probably the most boring and also the mentally toughest because the hills of miles 21 to 23 still lay ahead. But then the hills were a non-event (thanks, Utah), and turning onto Summit Avenue was a fantastic moment. At this point I could tell that my quads and calves were shot (but, thankfully, I had no back issues), and the last mile was truly hard because I didn't have much room for error, especially because the clocks were gun time and thus I wasn't sure how much cushion I had between gun time and chip time (the latter being the official time based on when I actually crossed the start line). I kept imagining the 3:10 pace group creeping up behind me like something out of a horror film, but thankfully I never saw it, crossing the line with a chip time of 3:09:27 and a gun time still under 3:10. I finished 433rd out of 8782 runners, 385th among males, and 69th in my age group. The party at Murph's and the elk burger at the Happy Gnome, one of my favorite gastropubs, capped off the day perfectly.

Wish I'd remembered to get a haircut.

How does my time compare, you might wonder? Here are some marathon times of note:

2:03:38 male world record
2:15:25 female world record (disputed due to use of pacers)
2:20:59 winning M 40-44 time Sunday
2:32:37 winning F overall time Sunday
2:36:57 winning F 40-44 time Sunday
"Two hour and fifty-something" Paul Ryan's purported time
2:59:36 Lance Armstrong's debut NYC time (proudest of this comparison, especially with doping!)
3:07:27 women's world record from 1967 until 1970
3:09:27 my actual time
3:15:16 winning M 65-69 time Sunday (hold steady for a mere quarter century and I win this group!)
4:01:25 Paul Ryan's actual time
4:16:41 average time Sunday (all ages and sexes)
4:17:36 median time for males in U.S. marathons in 2011

In any event, the best part was that I beat my Boston-qualifying time by more than 5 minutes, which means I'm all but assured of getting into the race (I place to run it in 2014) because I'll be in the second-to-last but not last registration group.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Boston or Bust (via Minneapolis)

I'm off in a few hours to Minneapolis/St. Paul to run the Twin Cities Marathon (with a pit stop in Northfield to give a paper at the alma mater). My goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon -- so I'll need to run it in less than 3 hours and 15 minutes. I'm not sure what to think ... I'm finally practically injury free, and I've done the training, but I'm also pretty sure I picked a plan with too few miles at race pace. And I have no idea what the first one will feel like. We'll see. It can't go any worse than this: