More pieces of my brain

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Doesn’t matter where you are; have a picnic

The most heartbreaking moment in  “Where to Invade Next”, Michael Moore’s new movie,  occurs in an interview with a Norwegian prison warden. The film, as you may have heard, is about Moore “claiming” various good ideas from other countries for the United States. He even carries a flag that he pretends to plant on sundry sovereign soils.

He’s in Norway to look at the prison system there. It is, as you might expect, dedicated to rehabilitation, which means granting human dignity to every prisoner. The inmates have separate rooms, with TVs, normal beds, windows that look out on rolling farmlands, and private showers. Moore even interviewed a murderer in a prison kitchen, where he brandished a cleaver while laughing self-consciously.

And crime rates in Norway are way below the U.S.’s, even proportionally speaking. Recidivism is way below ours too, even though the prisons are nicer. So, Moore asks the warden, where did you guys get the idea for this kind of prison?

“From you,” he said. “Your Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment.” And he spread his hands impatiently, as if to say, “you invented this stuff. We’re sorry you’re so misguided right now; nevertheless, we’re grateful for your principles.”

The movie paints an overly simplistic view of the countries it visits. In the wake of increasing immigration pressures, Norway and Germany and France have stopped being quite so touchie-feelie. The pressures of civic debt in all European countries have made social services perilous. And Tunisia is under fierce assault from Islamic extremists.

But here’s the thing: Michael Moore is right. He’s right about what ails this country; he’s right that money has corrupted and distorted everything. He’s right the way Bernie Sanders is right. Other candidates may be more qualified, more competent, more electable, but Bernie Sanders is right.

America invented a functioning democracy; it just forgot to read the owner’s manual.

There are some big laughs in Michael Moore’s pursuit of being right, and some useful reminders of our own morally ambivalent history, but it all goes down like smoothly, like good flan.

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Kevin Fagan of the Chronicle has long written wonderful, incisive pieces about the homeless. He won the national James Aronson Award for Social Justice Reporting. Lately, he’s been on something of a roll, saving two very nice nuns from eviction and later, maybe doing the same thing for a 97-year-old woman. He uses the stories to make subtle points about the nature of power in our very affluent bio-region, and also to comfort the afflicted.

On the other hand, the Chronicle revealed its naked institutional bias by assigning noted dog sympathizer Steve Rubenstein to cover the conflict over unfettered doggie access to various GGNRA properties. The story contained not a single quote from a cat owner. Do we not matter, Steve? Are we just dust under the heels of history, Steve? Would you want cats to run free attacking babies and stealing their breath, Steve?

June 2009-8

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There’s always trouble when friends have serious disagreements.

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The thing I like about that link above: It’s entirely theatrical. Things go along normally, and someone acts out, and all hell breaks lose. True chaos is hard to capture.

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I am reading “The Invention of Nature” by Andrea Wulf. It’s a biography of Alexander von Humboldt, who is probably unknown to you, but who was in the first half of the 19th Century the most famous man in Europe. He was an explorer, geologist, botanist, vulcanist, author, artist, meteorologist and bon vivant. Wulf calls him the last great polymath.

He went to school with Goethe, attended swanky salons with Simon Bolivar, sat in the White House with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison discussing science and politics — they violently disagreed about slavery. Lord Byron wrote a poem about him, Coleridge used his theories in his nature poetry,  and Darwin said he’d memorized one of his books.

Also, Humboldt spent three years exploring South America, mostly on foot. He took a train trip across Russia in 1829, a daunting prospect for a 60-year-old man. He inspired John Muir in his life’s work; hence Humboldt County and a few other Humboldts . And he invented isotherms and proposed the notion of a canal across Panama.

Everywhere he went, he poked and prodded and took measurements and collected samples of everything he found, from mosses to rocks to bird skeletons. He drew pictures of the great Inca calendars that combined art and science in a densely-packed circular matrix. He was careless about money, and he never married nor, as far as is known, had any carnal relationships. He believed that everything in nature is connected, part of a living breathing organism called life.

That seems like an obvious idea now; it’s just that he was the first one to think it.

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Since Jon Carroll Prose has turned into something of a Mom and Pop store, I thought it would be good to feature photos from the Tracy Johnston portfolio, together with her very own words. As follows:

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“I took this photo in 2010 at a huge grain market just outside Kano, Nigeria. The worker was taking a break from milling casava flour in a small sheet-metal shed, and I thought he looked both tired and beautiful. When I got home, I realized my image was the reverse of those iconic American photographs of white miners covered by coal dust.”

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I know the new Bay Bridge is made of old Starbucks cups and insect spittle, but until it falls down, we should take advantage of the pleasures it provides. There is one, and I think it should be in the guidebooks. Call it the Eastern Display.

You’re driving east along the cramped, noisy industrial wasteland of the lower deck. You enter a tunnel — not the cool domed tunnel above, but a kind of flattened tube. You emerge into the flooding sun and move towards the sky, the day opening out before you. And in the center of your vision is the tower of the new bridge, slender and elegant and ascending rapidly toward ineffability.

Besides, you know you want to go to Oakland.  It’s the new Brooklyn.

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Photography by Tracy Johnston

Marketing by Michelle “Increase your social media presence” Mizera

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23 thoughts on “More pieces of my brain

    1. I’d say America invented a good republic. The jury is still out on this democracy idea and, at the moment, things are not looking so good.

      I believe Humboldt is also credited with re-inventing the modern university, though I’m too lazy to pop over to Wiki and confirm this.

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  1. Dear Jon,

    Is this a Freudian slip:? “Mom and Pope store”

    Thanks for writing such interesting columns. My partner, Paul, cried most of the way through Moore’s “Where to Invade Next.” I felt very sad, too. Kids in France and Finland seemed valued so much more than our kids in America. Prisoners are treated with respect instead of being thrown in solitary for 42 years as the recently released Black Panther was. Labor is valued, but so is vacation time….

    Sincerely, Annette

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  2. Dearest Jon, I adore your blog. Your wavy with words tickles my interest and enhances my brain. You write of things I know of or want to. Well, I could have never seen Steve of MineCraft and been happy but the Steve links were a clever link dance. Please keep writing and sharing. It’s a connection to better days. How’s Pancho? Most sincerely, Vennie Yancy.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  3. Just wanted say thank you for staying in touch. After 35 years reading you, sometimes writing in, I would have missed your tutelage.

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