Monthly Archives: March 2006


It’s do-it-yourself day here. I put my library show prints into too large of frames (18×24″), so I spent a little time tonight reprinting, cutting new mats, and getting the frames ready.

As with every DIY project, you have to weigh the money you (might) save doing it yourself against the cost of materials and the time you spend doing mindless work . . . time that you don’t ever get back. I personally find it unconscionable to spend the kind of money that local framing stores want, especially when I know how much it costs and how little they pay their students workers. So for smaller pieces (12×18″ prints or smaller) I do most of my own matting and framing.

Here’s how you can follow along at home.


  • 4-ply Matboard — You can buy 32×40″ sheets of 4-ply board for $5.00 at most art supply stores. Or you can buy the same size 4-ply board from an agreeable framer (in my case, Newtonville Camera) for about $10-12/sheet. Spend the extra money to buy something that has the same color throughout and doesn’t have bent corners. Your bevel cuts will have the same color as the rest of the mat, and you will be able to get more mats out of the same size of board. Of course, buy pH-neutral, lingen-free, archival materials. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
  • 2-ply Matboard — This will be the backing for the matted print. Color doesn’t matter, nor does price. (Just be sure it’s archival.)
  • Frames — The size, style, and manufacturer are you choice. I find metal frames very easy to work with and usually buy pre-built frames from a chain frame shop for about $20-30 each. If you buy metal frames, be sure they’re the kind that you can reassemble.
  • A large flat surface — Preferably taller than a normal table. You will also want . . .
  • A thick 36×40″ (or larger) piece of cardboard — This will protect your flat cutting surface. I find that a clean, unassembled “large” U-Haul moving box works well. (Even nine years after the cross-country move, I take pleasure in cutting up “U-Haul.”)
  • A pencil — To draw guide lines on the board and to sign mats. You do sign your work, right?
  • Metal T-square — 24 inches is as short as you should go; 36 inches is ideal.
  • Mat knife — I like the Logan model 500 knife, but any will do as long as it has a retractable blade that you keep very sharp. I find you need to change cutting edges every 6-8 mats.
  • Flathead screwdriver and wire cutter — For assembling frames.
  • A mat cutter — My mom gave me an Altos 4501 mat cutting system with a 45-degree cutting tool, which works well for 1-6″ borders. Expect to spend about $100 for a decent entry-level system.
  • Acid-free paper and linen tapes — These have a water-activated adhesive that you will use to attach a print to the mat (paper tape) and the mat to the backing (linen tape). You will need scissors to cut the tape. Have paper towels on hand to blot excess water.

That’s it. I keep most of the smaller supplies in a small toolbox along with other odds and ends, such as a 3′ tape measure, a small level for hanging pictures, an anti-static brush, canned air, a little water bowl for the tape, a burnishing tool (for smooting rough edges on a mat), and a Staedtler Mars plastic eraser (which can lift many blemishes without a trace). You don’t have to be this organized; we’re artists after all.

The Technique

First you will need to cut your mat board to the same size as your frame. Measure twice, cut once. Use the T-squre and firm pressure to make the cuts straight.

On the side of the mat that people won’t see, use a straight edge (or your matting system) to draw guide lines for the mat window. A rule of thumb is (if your system doesn’t compensate for it already) make the border 1/8″ smaller than the desired size; your cutting tool needs that much of an offset.

With the cutting tool pressed firmly against the system’s rail, cut from one intersecting guide line to the other. Cut such that the point of the blade is exactly even with the intersecting guide line when you start and stop the cut. This will ensure a clean, neat edge.

Four cuts later, it’s time to attach the backing to the mat. Use the linen tape to make a hinge along the top of the back of the mat. Attach it to the backing board (cut to the same size as the mat with the opening), fold over, press, and allow to dry.

Cut a couple of pieces of paper tape to attach the print. I find it easiest to put some paper towels between the backing mat and the print, attach the wet tape to the back of the print, center the picture in the mat opening, fold it all together, and press firmly until the tape is dry. Remove the paper towels and voilà, a finished, dry mat.

(Note: Images larger than 12×18″ should be dry mounted to prevent warping. That’s beyond any tools that I have, as they range in price and complexity from moderate to severe.)

Put the matted print into a frame, with a piece of thicker archival backing if necessary, assemble it, and you’re done.

For the maximum amount of fun, wait until a half-hour before you need to submit the framed piece.


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You dropped the bomb on me, baby!

Do you live somewhere other than the United States? Did you at one point? Does your country have declared or undeclared nuclear weapons? Perhaps it exploded them in 1998? Perhaps it’s working on a nuclear fuel cycle but not to make bombs (or maybe it does want to try a little . . . but it doesn’t actually intend to make them . . . but it’s its right . . . right?)?

Well I’m still trying to wrap my brain around (1) India and nonproliferation and (2) America’s warming nuclear relationship with India and (3) Pakistan and the bomb and (4) Iran and the PDRK and the bomb. I need more perspective from people whose nations have just recently cozied up to the bomb. If you have an opinion on your nation’s nuclear programs — whether civil or military or “mixed” — please share.

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High-end Indian travel photography

I don’t usually post comments here that I posted on other people’s blogs, but here’s one on Henri Cartier-Bresson at Chapati Mystery.

It seems right to include a bit about travel photography and India and truthfulness. I personally found it difficult to photograph in India partly because I didn’t want to misrepresent it and because I wasn’t sure what kind of photographs I was interested in making at the time — it was a strange transitional period in my life. And the hectic pace of India and my occasional inability to stand out and photograph at the same time, certainly didn’t help.

Go visit Sepoy’s entry for the full discussion. I have only reprinted my part below.

Continue reading

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A mental soundtrack for the Midwest trip?

A while back I mentioned that the music for David Sutherland’s The Farmer’s Wife was the mournful soundtrack that came to mind when I thought of Iowa. The most recent Sutherland film, Country Boys, was a bit disappointing, but the earlier’s splendor remains undiminished.

After listening to Neko Case quite a lot over the last couple days, I suspect that the entire alt-country genre is my mental soundtrack for the place where I lived for so long. When we saw Emmylou Harris in concert a few years back, she said she had always been in love with beautiful sad songs. I thought she had a corner on the market, but it seems there is more than enough there to drive Lisa crazy for many miles.

Poor Lisa.

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Mentally ill people in prisons

On my local news broadcast tonight, I heard a pair of disturbing statistics:

Last week, Team 5 uncovered the case of Nelson Rodriguez, a mentally ill prisoner who took his own life while in Walpole State Prison.

NewsCenter 5′s Janet Wu reported that Rodriguez was among many mentally ill inmates behind bars in Massachusetts, a fact that the Department of Correction acknowledged Monday.

According to the Romney administration, 19 percent of all men in the Massachusetts Corrections system suffer from mental illness and 66 percent of women do.

Advocates for inmates believe the numbers are higher.

Rodriguez, diagnosed as mentally retarded and severely mentally ill, was the last of four suicides in the state prison system last year.

Posted in This is who we are, USA | 1 Comment

Musical zeitgeist?

As seen at The Clutter Museum.

Instructions: Go to your music player of choice and put it on shuffle. Say the following questions aloud, and press play. Use the song title as the answer to the question. NO CHEATING.

How does the world see you?
“The Flowers of Bermuda” (Stan Rogers)

Will I have a happy life?
“The Engine Driver” (The Decembrists)

What do my friends really think of me?
1. “The Gift” (INXS)
2. “Allelluia” (Dar Williams)

Do people secretly lust after me?
“Khvalite Imya Gospodne – Praise The Name Of The Lord” (From Sergei Rachmaninov’s “Vespers” as performed by the Robert Shaw Festival Singers — Apparently not…)

How can I make myself happy?
“You’ll Never Be the Sun” (Emmylou Harris w/ Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt — Make myself happy with sad songs. Brilliant!)

What should I do with my life?
“I’ve Got my Love to Keep Me Warm” (Kay Starr, the Stuhr Remix)

Will I ever have children?
“The Humpty Dance” (Digital Underground — hmm…)

What is some good advice for me?
1. “Telling Stories” (Tracy Chapman)
2. “Unsung Psalm” (Tracy Chapman)

How will I be remembered?
“I Am Weary, Let Me Rest” (The Cox Family)

What is my signature dancing song?
“Stayin’ Alive” (Bee Gees — Absolutely!)

What do I think my current theme song is?
“I’m Bad Like Jesse James” (John Lee Hooker — So you’d better watch out.)

What does everyone else think my current theme song is?
“Puer Natus est Nobis” (The Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos)

What song will play at my funeral?
“Home is Where I Wanna Be” (Bilal)

What type of men/women do you like?
1. “Long Time Gone” (Dixie Chicks)
2. “Sorry You Asked?” (Dwight Yoakam)
3. “Saint Behind the Glass” (Los Lobos)
(I’m doomed.)

What is my day going to be like?
“Sweetest Perfection” (Depeche Mode)

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The Banished

When Tocqueville toured America in the early national period, he visited several prisons:

To sum up the whole on this point, it must be acknowledged that the penitentiary system in America is severe. While society in the United States gives the example of the most extended liberty, the prisons of the same country offer the spectacle of the most complete despotism.

In Democracy in America he recalled the Quakers who sought to add redemption to our criminal justice system.

The public were moved by [the pious individuals'] statements, and the reform of criminals became a popular undertaking. New prisons were built; and for the first time the idea of reforming as well as punishing the delinquent formed a part of prison discipline.

When Bernard-Henri Lévy reprised Tocqueville’s trip for a modern age, he found many American prisons had reverted to simply places for punishment, putting reclamation aside. (Our own Midwest trip this year will likely include a house of correction.) While there are certainly places in America where they lock you up and throw away the key — Louisiana’s Angola Prison, for example — I don’t think BHL’s characterization is correct.

The truth is more insidious because American justice promises redemption to someone seeking a plea and to the incarcerated, and then blacklists ex-cons from civil society after they are released. Second chances, even for the wrongly convicted, are rare. The taint of suspicion is indelible for the acquitted and unprosecuted. Television crime dramas (such as the “Law & Order” franchise) manipulate us to believe that suspects are guilty, even after the “unexpected” plot twist shows that someone else did the crime. The more I read of actual events, the more I am convinced that the U.S. is a nation that throws away people.

It’s even worse if you commit a sex crime involving children. Civil commitment incarcerates “free men” indefinitely after the term of their sentence. Offender registries proclaim (with a bullhorn) that there is no such thing as “past.” I would be among the last people to excuse these crimes; but the perpetuity of punishment seems unusually Kafka-esque.

Some states have so severely limited where sex offenders can live that they are forced into homelessness or driven underground beyond state supervision. Today’s Times examines laws in Iowa that render more than 90% of some towns off-limits.

Posted in This is who we are, USA | 1 Comment


I knew that the Commonwealth project was going to be big, but I only started to get an inkling in January, 2005, when Leslie and I were walking along the levee outside Nicolaus, California.

“Everyone is going to want to buy your book.” For a photography monograph to have more than a hundred plates is unusual. With my project, having just one for each municipality still means 351 images. How does an observer look at that many images? How can they be presented without overwhelming the viewer?

Fortunately (?) I’m quite some distance away from having to worry about publishing the entire series. At last count I have images from about 30 towns. Beth from the Camera Club told me to get cracking, but the last thing I want this to be is anything like birding. Hopedale: check! Brockton: check! Still waiting to see a Chicopee in its native surroundings.

The size of the Commonwealth project opens a possibility I hadn’t expected: subprojects. I had always expected themes to emerge, but in the last half year two new projects have sprung forth. I’ve already shown the first set images from the Signs of Nature series. While photographing on Presidents’ Day I realized the beginnings of the High Tension series.

A month earlier in Tewksbury I photographed the houses of people living under the hum of high tension power lines. Yes, the amazingly high cost of living in the Bay State has led a surprising number of upwardly mobile suburbanites to build their starter dream homes abutting power line corridors, sometimes with the poles in their front yards. In February I continued the series in Littleton, Mass., where I realized people were settling on where they settled. There must be a sort of tension that exists where NIMBY meets an actual backyard. And how much stranger for upper-middle class folks to actually choose to locate near an existing hazard.

When time permits, I’ll post a few of the first images from the High Tension subproject.

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Notes from the jury

The Newton Camera Club’s annual library print show is coming next month. The size of the club has grown rather a lot over the last few years, and we weren’t sure that we would have enough for two prints from every member. We had reasonable success curating the West Newton Cinema show, so we thought about trying it for the library show, too. In the end, members could submit one image to be guaranteed a place on the walls, and a small jury of NCC members would pick one more from the five or so images each member submitted.

I was part of the four member jury. (Four is an even number, and we deadlocked twice. More on that later.) Here’s my tell-all description of what happens behind the closed doors of image selection for a show.

It’s an understatement for me to say that I have a different aesthetic than most of my NCC peers. It didn’t start out that way, but my work has gone in different directions over the last couple of years. I find this unbelievably frustrating, but I’ve stuck with the group mostly for camaraderie and for the occasional guest speaker. I’ve given up on competitions — where an external judge comes in and renders Caesar’s thumbs up or down (well, points actually) to three images on a theme — because the judges never commented on the ideas in my work.

Judge #1 was, in fact, one of the judges for an NCC competition last year. I found his comments on the images to be everything that I hate about judges’ comments about my work: all rules. “Too much negative space here. The subject is dead center. It would be better if that part there were gone. It would be better if there were an odd number of birds. Can we tell the maker to resubmit it with that cropped out? I like the rhythm and color harmony of this. I don’t get it. That’s too different. There’s a nice leading diagonal. I don’t like it when I can’t tell what an image is.”

Judges #2 and #3 have been “shooters” for a long time, make some very capable images, and generally talked more about what they liked in images than what they didn’t. I think everyone tried to give the members who submitted images the benefit of the doubt that certain subjects moved them quite deeply, but there didn’t seem to be much consideration of what the artists themselves probably were aiming to convey. Anyway, it’s hard to do that when you can’t look at a consistently themed series of work from one artist.

Mostly I just ranked the images in order of how much I liked the image content and the execution; the images that bubbled up to the top becoming my two votes added to the group. On a few occasions I suspect that I was a bit more curmudgeonly than I meant to be. The rule I brought with me for the evening was to consistently vote for images that pushed the boundaries of the camera club experience. Abstract images, unusual subject matter (i.e., not birds or golden light landscapes), alternative processes, and unique photographic techniques all made my hit parade. With the exception of the “Every year we see more or less the same picture of a gull or duck standing on a rock in bubbly water. I’m so bored!” outburst, I waited for the spirit to move me to give glowing praise.

Not all of my choices made the final cut, and I’m not sure whether I changed other judges’ minds very often. For one image, I laid out the reasons why I thought one image was definitely better than the other work by one artist: it’s fresh, it’s very contemporary, it has emotion, it’s extremely well crafted, etc. But the rules won when we deadlocked. The other 2-2 split — once again Judge #3 and me on one side versus the rules and Judge #2′s love for rainy images on the other — was more contentious. “This is one of the most interesting, avant garde photos submitted. We have to take it.” When that didn’t work I appealed to the rules. “It has great balance, symmetry, tonality, blah blah blah.” Still no swing from Judge #1. “But what is it?”

Judge #3 solved the impasse. “Judge #4 and I caved last time. This time we win.” That seemed to work, and I’m glad. Last year the artist in question was part of the jury for the Cinema show and said this about one of my pieces: “If you don’t put this image into the show, I’m going to quit the camera club!” Fortunately the requirement of my presence remains untested.

Strangely, the one image that I was sure the jury wouldn’t accept from my entry — the “Commuter Surfers Suck” graffiti from Bolinas, California — was accepted unanimously.

Posted in Always the bridesmaid, Photography | 1 Comment

The Midwest: A Red-State Adventure Preview

“Red states.” “Fly-over states.” “Jesusland.” Christopher Hitchens took a “Red State Odyssey” for Vanity Fair. David Brooks took a tour all over exurbia for the Atlantic Monthly.

We make a big deal about how the country is divided, and usually we do it with rude rhetoric that shows how little distance we’ve travelled on section and class issues since Reconstruction. While balanced, the chapter (entitled “‘Culture Wars’ and ‘Decline’ in the 1990s”) of the book I’m reading now highlights the perception of difference, whether it exists or not. I suspect we actually like to be divided. It’s our way to avoid reconciling the conflicting impulses that have been with us since we landed on this American rock: the missionary zeal to make humanity more perfect and our equally strong desire to be left alone and live the way that seems right to us.

I was born in a blue county in a state that was too close to call for hours in both 2000 and 2004 to parents who voted for Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Pat Robertson, and Pat Buchanan when they were on the ballot. I went to high school in a red county in a very red state that had Democratic governors as long as I could remember and that has a gay mayor. My schizophrenic college town (in the same state where I was born) is just to the left of Ché in the three block radius around the “Zirkle” (a steel monolith that pagans dance naked around in the moonlight) but is ringed by a half-dozen churches and fields as green as John Deere tractors. Now I live in a Democratic, one-party, police-run state that has a Mormon Republican governor who you might be hearing a lot about soon.

I’m a somewhat different person now than I was nine years ago before I started riding the #70 bus through the rougher parts of Watertown and Cambridge. I still yearn for federalism and small government, but riding the bus with other folks who had to choose between the rent and health insurance (like me) and felt people (like me) didn’t care, well that changes a man’s point of view.

This summer I’m taking my left-leaning self and my nominally Republican wife (ha!) and our gas-electric hybrid car on a three-week tour of the Midwest. Based on other trips to the semi-rural middle of the country since we moved Eastward — in 1999, 2000, and 2003 — I would expect to be bored, except baseball and the possibility of reincarnating Tocqueville will save us.

Yes, tomorrow the Kansas City Royals’ singe-game tickets go on sale, and we can round out our trip. We’re trying not to plan out the whole trip in advance, but buying tickets to events really makes that harder. Here’s what we have so far:

  • June 9: Depart the Bay State
  • June 11: Chicago White Sox (vs. Cleveland)
  • June 13: Chicago Cubs (vs. Houston)
  • June 15: Minnesota Twins (vs. Boston)
  • June 17: Milwaukee Brewers (vs. Cleveland)
  • “Jeff’s ancestral homeland tour” of Iowa
  • June 22: Kansas City Royals (vs. Pittsburgh)
  • “Lisa’s ancestral homeland tour” of Kansas
  • June 26: Branson, Missouri
  • June 27: Saint Louis Cardinals (vs. Cleveland)
  • June 29: Cincinnati Reds (vs. Kansas City)
  • July 1 or 2: Home to that place where we live
Posted in This is who we are, USA | Leave a comment

India’s nukes

Our train ride from Jodhpur became increasingly sandier the farther west we went toward Jaisalmer. Somewhere past Osiyan, the scrubby brush along the tracks ends, and the sand takes over completely. By the time we got to Pokaran (or Pokhran) the train shimmied and yawed along tracks warped by the 120-degree heat as they passed over shifting dunes.

On the berth across the aisle from us, two young women rummaged through their backpacks, eventually pulling out the French Lonely Planet guide to India. They were asleep when we boarded the train in Jodhpur, presumably taking the overnight express from Dehli or Jaipur. While they slept, Lisa and I passed our English copy between us, reading about where we were going and where we had just spent the night and the ominous-sounding Marwar, or “region of death.”

The train was mostly empty, and many of the travelers were in the army. Officers in untucked uniforms talked to enlisted soldiers in their civvies. A few of them sat across from us for a while, facing us and carrying on in their halting English. Perhaps a half-hour outside Pokaran I got out my map to see if I could figure out how much farther we had left. (Our train left Jodhpur late, rendering the schedule moot.) Sunil the soldier pointed to Pokaran, his destination. His buddies took a lot of interest in the map actually, and the voice of Rob, my cartographically-inclined coworker, played somewhere in the part of my American brain that I had set aside to keep me out of trouble on the trip: “In many countries, maps and imagery are national secrets.”

I suspected that Pokaran, our next major stop, was the same Pokhran where India exploded five nuclear weapons in 1998 and where they continue “special” weapons activity. But I wasn’t going to ask.

I had previously asked Nimmi about India’s nuclear weapons after learning that her president, Abdul Kalam, was the scientist instrumental in the 1998 weapons tests. What was the mood like? We were mighty proud. So it’s more than strategic deterrence against Pakistan? Absolutely. (A couple of Pakistani coworkers have shared similar sentiments about their nation’s nuclear program over the years, too.)

I’m still amazed. I understand the mental process that justifies a small-scale deterrence against another nuclear nation that you’ve had several wars with. I really do, even if I disagree with it. Like most Americans I wish we could put the nuclear genie back in the bottle, forget Duck and Cover, and not worry about WMDs anymore. Given that Iran is seriously jonesing for a nuke of their own and that A.Q. Khan was doing brisk business before he was officially “shut down,” that seems very unlikely to happen.

But GWB says it’s time for us to stop worrying and learn to love the Indian bomb. India had the bomb in 1974 before the nuclear nonproliferation treaty went into effect, so it’s just correcting past colonial intolerance, wrote one reader to the Times. Or maybe it didn’t have it — like North Korea, Israel, and South Africa, sometimes it’s hard to tell. India’s chargé d’affiares in Washington emphatically claimed today on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, that the India-US nuclear deal was all about nuclear energy, not nuclear weapons. However you explain it away, we’re approaching a point where the NPT is approaching irrelevance as a deterrent.

Still I can see the Indian point-of-view with respect to nukes — both power and (to a lesser degree) weapons. India needs power to continue growing their economy and to serve the hundreds of millions of their citizens without reliable electricity. As with every developed nation, electricity is a national security issue. Supposedly the American part of the deal is about civilian nuclear power, with an impermeable firewall between that fissile material and technology and India’s nuclear weapons “non-program.” We trust India enough to take their fissile material (or MATLAB or whatever) and not use it to make bombs or give it to Pakistan or sell it to al Qaeda. Everything’s above board and on the straight and narrow in India.

Besides, we Americans have our own security issues, so the story goes. We need all of the yummy oil we can get; and we have to keep the man down in Iran. The most interesting thing I read in India was a set of articles in the rather fair-minded Economic Times concerning U.S. interference in energy politics in Central and South Asia. In the very Cold War-esque post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy, the economic development of India and Pakistan — one a vital business partner, the other a vital partner in the war on terror™ — comes second to keeping Iran from getting anything until they give up nukes. Still, it seems like a mixed message to nuclear would-bes.

—  —  —

When we were visiting Bara Bagh on the outskirts of Jaisalmer, we met a couple of bored university students at the maharajas’ cenotaphs who showed us around. All along the horizon were giant wind turbines. “They’re for the military. The city’s power comes from hundreds of kilometers away . . . along with the water.”

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We’re going country!

The worst thing that could happen to radio station managers in my former hometown in the middle of Wyoming was to wake up to the inevitable. For executives with abyssmal ratings, declining ad revenues, and a bored and unenthusiastic listenership, there was only one thing to do: go country. Sure there were already twice as many country-format stations, but . . .

I’m going country. These dispatches started as meditations inspired by travel. Somewhere along the line a whole lot of international economics and Desi life crept in. Despite being an eager dilletante, I’m neither an economist nor subcontinental. Without significantly further focusing on a more limited set of issues, this site runs the risk of moving even farther out into the long tail — that part of the web that is still valuable but rarely found. Without spending more time to read lots of blogs and share in their linky goodness and comment communities, I’ll never increase the number of sites linking here, which is the key to a wider readership. Plus, I’m weary of reading everything online and wondering whether it should become part of an entry here. Truth is, I’m really an old-fashion paper person, reading mainstream sources with their own very good digital counterparts and writing on a broader set of daily topics in my journal to crystalize my thoughts before making a fool of myself online. It’s impossible to move at blog-speed while living the glamorous life of an international playboy.

So I’m retrofitting, going back to basics. These articles are about understanding places and people (American and otherwise) via travel and photography. This summer Lisa and I are taking our own great Red State odyssey, and I want you all to be so ready for an American adventure that you’re breathless with anticipation. That can hardly happen if I keep going as I have been.

If you’re a few of the rare people who have been lured here recently by my outsourcing essay, by my disappointment with David Brooks (whose own writing on the supposed red-blue divide in America has been the sand in my shell), or by links to your own articles about India, please stick around for a little while longer; I’ll try to make it worth your while. If you like what you read, please link to me, leave me a comment, send me an e-mail, invite me to your carnival, whatever.

What? Still need a fix before I cut the cord?! Well, okay . . . 

Now here’s a little Dwight Yoakam for you. . . .

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