Serb graffiti. Equal parts defiant and clever. In the first one, I wonder if they’re playing on the year parallel, which is a whole other layer.

2001 Space Odyssey reference on then-President Kostunica’s apartment building, Belgrade, Serbia, 2001

Belgrade, Serbia, 2001

“Bill, are you married?”


“It’s a pity, we could give you our best girl. To get her out of this place.”

Camp for displaced Kosovo Serbs, Belgrade, Serbia, 2002

My first day in Kosovo, nowhere to stay yet, walking around with my backpack on. School had just reopened, for kids who were just back from muddy refugee camps in Macedonia. Must have felt like the first day of the rest of their lives. I wonder how they’re doing now as adults.

Pristina, Kosovo, 1999

Pristina, Kosovo, 1999

A few days after I arrived, the UN plane I had taken from Rome - the only plane shuttling aid workers in and out of postwar Kosovo at the time - crashed into a mountain on descent and killed everyone aboard.

Memorial service, Pristina, Kosovo, 1999

Memorial service, Pristina, Kosovo, 1999

Yeah, but the next day it was totally different, all cleaned up. Was I trying to show that the postwar city lacked proper trash collection? No, I was cold, feeling sick, and standing under an overpass out of the November rain, wondering what to do.

Pristina, Kosovo, 1999

Pristina, Kosovo, 1999

That time I accidentally walked out into a minefield. Kosovo, 2001.



Discovering the Moomins, a storybook universe created by Finnish artist Tove Jansson in the early-mid 20th century was, to me, like opening a previously unseen door to a previously unknown way of being.

Moominhouse in Moominland theme park, Finland

Tove Jansson

The books were ostensibly for kids, but I’d say barely. The complexity and Nordic undercurrents make them a satisfying and unorthodox read for adults. Jansson was first and foremost an artist, gay when it was illegal in Finland, and illustrated magazine covers for anti-fascist magazines during the rise of Hitler. In fact it’s said that the Moomins’ world was her artistic response to war, a humanistic, idealistic antidote to despair and thugs on the march. In that world, friends are friends, adventures are to be had, predators are few, respect and kindness (but not necessarily over-sentimentality, this is Finland after all) is valued, and you can always find another bed in your house for a guest, even an odd one.

The atmosphere is understated but very specific, one that quivers with elusive qualities just under the surface - most strongly felt in the original stories and illustrations, somewhat less so in the good but uneven 90s animated TV series - that are hard to pin down but add up to a immersive experience if you’re open to it. It’s an atmosphere that’s at times thorny but never truly scary, fun but not saccharine, communal-minded but not kumbaya. Infused with nature’s power that can turn surprisingly dark: storms, floods, a comet, encroaching winter personified by the menacing Groke. The way characters talk, interact, and respond to both crises and joys has a deeply human, non-cheesy essence without seeming to try too hard to do so.

So I was eagerly anticipating the new Moomins series, called Moominvalley, that began production last year in Finland. I backed their Indiegogo campaign and followed the progress of development. The production team seemed to be pledging proper allegiance to the guiding spirit of the original work, and Jansson’s niece was involved. I almost went up to NY to catch the US premiere at an animation festival.

But I had some concerns as well. My daughter and I are maybe too used to the original drawings and the character voices of the 90s series. The voices they were hiring for the English versions were exclusively British, which I worried could undermine the eccentric northern-ness of it all. The animation was computer-generated 3D, which looked lush and evocative but also a bit too perfect, much like, say, the Backyardigans with a softer color palette.

This week I received the entire season one as a perk for being a backer. Last night we gathered to give episode one a chance to be its own thing.

I’m sad to report it was a near-total failure. I don’t say that as a critic looking to be snarky. I say it as someone who desperately wanted to like it, even if it was different. We all went to bed in silence afterward, maybe it says everything that we didn’t want to say a word about it.

Moomin and Little My

The main sin was a complete swing-and-miss at capturing Jansson’s spirit. I watched the familiar characters moving around and saying and doing things, and was utterly unmoved. The story/writing was weak, disjointed, and felt disconnected from the original material. Like a committee decided to write their own story that vaguely echoed Jansson’s. (There were also annoying small things, like why is Little My sitting on an open paint can?)

It wasn’t funny. It tried to be somewhat zany/madcap presumably to grab our attention.

The character voices were slightly different-sounding British accents that made no real effort to be a ‘character’, it was just the actors’ natural voices. The effect overall was to flatten out most of the personalities. Except for Little My, who resembled the Little My of the books but was overdone; a caricature and not a very endearing one, even for her ornery, mischievous self.

The vaunted new animation, which should have been a redeeming strength, was supposed to evoke Jansson’s painterly style and colors, and ramp up the paradise-quotient. Which it does, a bit. But within the first few moments, my daughter complained “it’s too perfect”.

Overall, my takeaway was: this is what happens when a team approach inadvertently dampens the singular vision of an artist, in favor of commercial viability. Or maybe that Jansson’s particular artistic sensibility was simply too long ago, fading into the past, and even a well-intentioned creative group trying to carry the torch couldn’t fully grasp - let alone reimagine successfully - the true nature of that vision. Or maybe I’m a curmudgeon, I hope not.

I mean, in short, to me it was shockingly off-base. I didn’t think they’d get it this wrong. Pretty but pastiche at best. I’m sure some people will like it, it’s harmless enough and looks nice in a modern way. Maybe the next episodes will get better*. Personally as a fan I couldn’t find one thing to truly resonate with. Maybe the originals are too precious to me and I can’t get around that. I feel bad for the production crew, I’m sure they did their best and were excited about it.

But wow, what an initial let-down at least. I asked my daughter (age 13) today for her reaction, she said she was actually ok with the voices, but overall “I was so disappointed, so sad that I don’t like it. I didn’t want to even keep watching it.”

*[UPDATE] We did decide to stick with it and it does get somewhat better after episode one. I still say that first episode is inexplicably poor, especially to kick off the series, and I stand by my critique. But after watching a couple more, things seem to be stabilizing a bit. Still uneven narratively, still way too British, still too Nickolodean-channel in the visuals. But after that abysmal start there’s been a noticeable uptick in the Tove Jansson influence. Some attempts to be true to the literary source material and characterizations but other times they’re making up chunks of the story out of whole cloth, or making fairly huge changes that seem kind of pointless (meaning that don’t make it better).

Seems they’re not sure how much to trust the original work, and how much to create something new that will please today’s viewers. Which is understandable. If you’re making it for existing fans who may be Tove Jansson purists, they might not be as interested in the writing team’s own creative detours. If you’re making it for those who are new to Moomins, I’m not sure how they would really ‘get’ any of it anyway.

My daughter and I admitted maybe we’re at least getting used to it. Not ready yet to say we like it, but we’re still watching.

Snufkin and Moomin in the new series

Snufkin and Moomin in the original books

Advance still image of Moomin in the new series. Pretty, isn’t it? Gave me hope.

Making a List

Here's one list for starters, not perfect, there are others out there. Adjust or make your own checklist. No need to quibble too much about each action item, the basics are pretty clear.

Plenty of people are worried, but there are those who say that individual actions are pointless, delusional, that the level of change required has to come first from business and government.

BS. How will it ever come from the top? If it comes from the bottom first. Stop waiting for the perfect political leadership to save us, it will never come. If enough people think differently and are willing to act, to leap fervently into action, we've got a shot. It will take time to build but the top-down changes will follow.

It's especially required of us in the DC area to push a cultural shift, with our combo of knowledge, resources, and access to policy-makers who may live right down the street.

We are all both the problem and the solution. Each of us needs to own that and act, everyday, not just leave it for some other sucker. It’s like traffic: everyone wishes others would get off the road.

Everything we do supports the systems that are leading us rapidly down the wrong environmental path. We don't need to be perfect, and we can still have fun, noble, full lives and dreams - even as we strive to change everything. We do need to try harder, to understand better, multitask, think beyond ourselves more, and to keep at it. Not just in the short-term, but forever. Accept that the right to privileged lives of thoughtless abundance and carefree comfort and convenience is already revoked.

Dutch street photography - in the 1890s!

Tremendous work, the 1890s like you’ve never seen. Great instinct for both the moment and the whole frame, like if Cartier-Bresson had been around 40 years earlier. Also striking is the sense of place and mood. Like you’re there. But how was he shooting so quickly with the film limitations of the time?

Tesla Girls

Yes, we bought a Tesla. I won't try to become a car reviewer, but a few thoughts and initial impressions:

It's an incredible car, electric or otherwise. I feel like performance, design, engineering, tech are all astounding, unbelievable, better than anything I thought I would ever own in this lifetime. Fun and beautiful and sturdy-feeling. No cons except not cheap. Some 'asset management' was required to make it happen, which took some doing and even sacrifice.

More than anything, it feels like an investment in the future. Meaning getting onboard with where things are going and need to go, with the goal of helping to get there quicker. Nudging the market. It's amazing how quickly you pass gas stations and notice how crummy and archaic they seem.

I was actually somewhat of a naysayer. I was all for an EV in theory (both of us were), but worried about the car’s cost and the logistics of charging. Neither one of us wanted a fancy car for the sake of fancy. In fact the minimalism of much of the Tesla design approach suits us. For the purchase cost we found a way, in part because it became a matter of living our values. For the charging, charging cost, and range, now that I get how it all works I have zero concerns. Especially for a Tesla EV, since they have their own slick 'supercharger' stations all over the place, with many more on the way soon.

And yesterday as I was tooling around solo for a bit, I had the bizarre, surreal experience of blasting God Save the Queen (on the great sound system with its own unlimited streaming service):

"No future, no future" - a decades-ago fit of nihilism, as I simultaneously found myself in that future that wasn't supposed to happen, in a world already radically different from back then; wondering/worried about our own future, yet feeling just a little clearer on how we might get there after all; and gliding along in what it might look like. Time-travel.

4th of July 2014

[Last year’s 4th of July post is here]

One thing I’ve noticed myself doing lately in conversation is finding excuses to bring up how far back I can trace my ancestry in America.

On my father’s side (hey look, I’m doing it again!), the Crandalls go back to Elder John Crandall, who came over from England in the early-mid 1600s. He was apparently an associate of Roger Williams, who established the state of Rhode Island. John Crandall — same name as my father — was among a group of two dozen souls that settled Westerly, RI (amazingly his homestead still stands, not far from a Wal-Mart). He seems to have been at least somewhat of a dissident-minded pilgrim, which would have endeared him to Williams, who sounds like my kind of guy for his progressive attitudes on slavery, native Americans, and religious freedom. Thomas Jefferson was known to quote Williams. So I reckon that gives me only a few degrees of separation from the Founding Fathers.

On my mother’s side, our first ancestor was 7-year-old Hugh Fraser. In 1707, legend has it little Hugh was kidnapped off the street in Paisley, Scotland and shipped off to America as an indentured servant, ending up on a Maryland tobacco farm. Basically a trafficked child. As traumatic as it must have been, Hugh grew up to marry the owner’s daughter and take over the place. (I guess white privilege extends pretty far back as well, but that’s another discussion.)

The farm was on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, just across the water from where my mother lives now. The memorial for my mom’s companion Ed Becke, who passed away last year, was held in old St James Church, which existed during Hugh Fraser’s life 300 years ago. Maybe he heard of it, or went there at some point. Maybe I was sitting/standing/walking where he did the same. I find that incredible.

So there are two family links to pre-George Washington America. Not too shabby, as my father might have said.

I love thinking about history in ways that make it more personal and resonant.

Lincoln would often ride his horse from his summer cottage to the White House, passing quite close to where I now live. He surveyed the burial of Civil War soldiers in the cemetery I pass going to my daughter’s ballet lessons. Lincoln’s son Robert died a few years after my house was built — within the house’s ‘living memory’ if you will — which somehow brings Lincoln himself closer.

My parents were married by James Reeb, a Unitarian minister and civil rights activist who would later be murdered by white racist thugs in Selma in the early 1960s. Another reason I haven’t quite forgiven the South yet. His death sparked a national outcry that helped bring about the Voting Rights Act, which Lyndon Johnson signed into law, it so happens, on the day of my birth. Reeb officiated the wedding at All Souls Church, where my parents first met, and where more recently we had my father’s memorial service.

So why bring all this up, aside from a kind of bragging? I certainly believe America belongs to those who arrived yesterday just as much as 400 years ago. Seeing photos of the kids coming across the Mexican border lately, and imagining their plight, made me think of Hugh Fraser. As our country seems more and more unhinged, perhaps it just helps me feel more anchored in where we came from. And since many on the right often lay claim to the legacy of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, maybe I as a progressive feel compelled to point out that distant history is mine too. And not even that distant. I can learn about Roger Williams and his brave, ethical, humanist stances and think, yeah, I’d associate with that guy too.

Enjoyed being interviewed the other day for a book project on the intersection of photography and spirituality. Took me back to advice I got many years ago from the great Viktor Kolar, “to take your work to a more spiritual level as an artist, you must first develop your sensibilities, then learn how to make them visual”. We talked about receptivity, attentiveness, letting go, channeling instead of contriving photos. All so much more important than gear or technical considerations.

The Waiting Room is in great company at Politics and Prose! Thanks to staff for putting it out front and center!