Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Head

Sue and I went to see the "Head" today. The "Head" is a 25 foot tall, 14 ton mirrored work of art which sits outside of the Paychex Office Building located at 3701 Arco Corporate Center Drive in Charlotte. There was mention of it in the paper on Saturday, and Sue and I enjoy seeing the things that are sometimes listed, so we off we hied to see the "Head."

Now this is no ordinary "head." It is motorized, and divided into six lateral sections, each of which rotate at random, "changing the face", if you will, as it does. That he always returns to his "normal" position is comforting in a way, though I do wonder why he feels the need to repeatedly be looking over his own shoulder. Makes me kind of nervous.

This is a work of art which was installed privately, at least I hope so, in 2007. It was constructed; sculpted would be too much of an artistic term to apply here, this is mechanized art; by Czech artist David Cerney and is known formally as "Metalmorphosis." Hey, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and art is like that. The same piece can mean something entirely different to everyone who sees it. But it was a nice diversion on a hot summer afternoon. With the sun reflecting from the mirrored surface of the "Head", his demeanor did seem to change from time to time. I just wish he wouldn't stare so....

Women's Rights - The ERA that Never Was.

Question: What is the total number of registered voters in the US as of the last Presidential election?

The answer is that there are 169 million registered voters in the United States. 86 million are Democrats, and 55 million as Republicans, with about 28 million others unspecified. Of these, in the 2008 election it is estimated that about 131 million persons cast a vote. Of those votes 70 million were women, and 60 odd million were men.

Given these numbers I am constantly amazed at the fact that the ERA has never been Ratified by the Senate, where it has languished since passing the house in 1972. Since that time the Supreme Court decided Roe V. Wade, and then all the hoopla surrounding the passage of the ERA vanished, seemingly overnight. As a matter of fact, there are women in this country who are under the impression that they have the protection offered by such an Ammendment. With a woman Presidential Candidate in 2008, as well as the 17 Senators and 76 Congresswomen currently serving in the Legislative branch of our government, you would think that this would be a high priority issue.

We have had 3 women Secretary's of State who have traveled the world talking about Women's Rights in places like the Middle East and China. But I have never heard any of them mention the lack of an ERA here at home. The same is true of the 35 women serving as Governors of individual states. Here in North Carolina, we have a woman Governor, Beverly Purdue. She has just lost a battle with the Republican state legislature concerning a new 24 hour waiting period for a woman to seek an abortion. The woman must also watch a film and view photos about the negative consequences of abortion. No mention is made of the children born into inescapable poverty, or abuse. My question is, where are all the women on this issue? Why don't I hear more from the leaders of NOW as they have continued, for almost 40 years, to collect money for Women's Rights? Where is the money going? After all, Congresspersons, as well as Senators, are about the cheapest things that money can buy.

I cannot imagine how the women in America have dropped this ball. They need to band together for the 2012 campaign, making this an issue, and demand the passage of the ERA, without watering it down. The text of the Amendment is short and clear;

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

The ERA was introduced in every session of Congress from 1923 until 1972, when it was passed by Congress, but not Ratified by the Senate, where it had a statute of limitations lasting 7 years for it's passsage. It was even extended an additional 3 years in 1979, but still never Ratified. It was still, at that time, only 3 votes short of becoming the law of the land. It has been re-introduced, and soundly defeated in every Congress since. Why?

Here's the dirty little secret that keeps this Amendment from becoming law. The wording is not limited to just women. It includes all the Gay Lesbian Transgender and Transsexual groups. By its wording it is all inclusive. Should the wording be changed to cover only Women? That would be short sighted and foolishly split the disenfranchised groups asunder, making it impossible to gain any advantage, and perhaps in the process, even roll back some of the Women's Rights that have been gained since the 1970's.

No issue is as easy to tackle as it first appears on the surface. But this is one that needs to be resolved if we are to going to continue roaming the world talking about Equal Rights for Women, as well as Human Rights for All. I urge you to call upon your respective leaders in the Congress and Senate to put this issue to rest. A state by state listing of your lawmakers is attached below. I hope that you will use it.

For your Senator, go to this site;

For your Congressional Representative, go to this site;

Saturday, July 30, 2011

"North Carolina Slave Narratives" Edited by William L. Andrews

Imagine being required to carry a letter with you, signed by 5 men, as a means of introduction to a new city. Nothing strange about that. Now imagine that the letter states that you are "distinguished among your caste." Of course this implies that your "caste" is inferior, and that you being "distinguished" is some sort of accident. It pretty much says, "Hey, he's black, but he's a good 'un." Take a moment and try to imagine how that would feel.

Now imagine having to buy your family from people who "own" them. The price is $3,000 dollars. Where does a slave get the money to undertake something of that magnitude? How can this ever be accomplished? These were the questions with which Lunsford Lane found himself facing in the 1830's as a slave in North Carolina. That he was able to gain his "manumission" and go on to work freely in a segregated state, eventually buying his family and moving them to freedom, is no less than a miracle. Confounded on one side by the law, and on the other side by the unscrupulous men who deal in the slave trade, make it even more so.

Lunsford Lane's story is one of 4 which make up this remarkable book, set here in North Carolina, where tobacco was once king. The 4 different narratives highlight the differences in treatment, even in one state, that slaves were subjected to prior to the Civil War. There were cruel and harsh masters, as well as more benevolent ones, who allowed their slaves to learn to read and write. Imagine considering someone to be benevolent simply because they allow you to do so! It boggles the mind and sets the senses reeling.

This is a wonderful book, edited with forwords to each of the narratives by William L. Andrews. In exploring the journals of these 4 men; and I call them men, not slaves; Mr. Andrews has set before the reader a blatant account of the barbarism and sheer inhumanity of the slave trade as it was practiced here in North Carolina. It's extraordinary to note that in the words of Lunsford Lane, Moses Roper, Moses Gandy and Thomas Jones, their biggest fear was of being sold further "down South", where conditions were even worse than what these 4 men endured in their native state.

The book is well presented and offers the reader another perspective on a portion of our nation's history. As such, it sheds new light where darkness once prevailed.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Jimmy Page - 1957 Skiffle Music

I ran across this gem on You Tube.(Where else?) Jimmy Page, along with 3 of his freinds, just as thousands of other British teenagers in the late 1950's, were influenced by the sounds of Lonnie Donnegan and Buddy Holly. This was a type of music which they were able to play easily, and without much formal training. It was called "skiffle" music. It often included a washboard along with the upright bass. Lonnie Donnegan had launched the whole sound in 1956 with his hit "Rock Island Line." That record would be the impetus for John Lennon to buy a guitar. It appears that Jimmy Page was hit with the same idea. This music was more acceptable to adults in Britian at the time, who had witnessed, only 2 years earlier, the riots which accompanied Bill Haley and the Comets on their "Rock Around the Clock" Tour.

This clip is from the Huw Wheldon variety show on BBC. At the time, England had only 2 stations, and the content was strictly controlled. Rock was not entirely welcome. But there was an innocence about "skiffle" that made it acceptable to the masses. Even parents enjoyed watching their kids play in these bands, which performed at most church functions, or "socials", as they were called at the time. The Beatles, appearing as The Quarrymen, made their first public appearance, at such an event around the same time as this clip from the Huw Wheldon Show.

The most interesting thing about this video for me is the bemused way in which Mr. Wheldon handles the interview portion with the boys. He is surprised that they seem to have no musical ambitions. They all wanted to be biologists of some sort. Glad they chose music instead!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

"Shifty's War" by Marcus Brotherton

This is a very unusual book. It is written as a biography in the first person. Technically, that makes this a "faux" autobiography, but having been pieced together from interviews with "Shifty's" comrades, as well as his family and their letters from him, it is accurate. In addition, the author, who has previously written "Company of Heroes", interviewed Shifty himself, by phone.

The book takes the reader on a first person account through the years leading up to the Second World War. Life in a small town is displayed in almost a sepia tone. In the years leading up to the war, Clincho, Virginia was as rural as it gets. In the hands of the author, the era comes to life as we follow "Shifty" through High School, the Depression, and then the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which ushered the United States into the war.

Growing up, "Shifty" learned to shoot well at an early age, bagging squirrels and other small game for food. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, "Shifty", like so many other Americans, wanted to be in the fight. His shooting skills would serve him well in the next few years.

His volunteering for an all new outfit, paratroopers, makes this a very different read than most other war memoirs. It is a very personal account of a completley candid and typical young man of his generation. There was a job to be done, and everybody pitched in to do it.

The Invasion of Normandy was the monumental task for which these men trained. They would drop in behind enemy lines, forcing the Germans to fight a rear guard battle, even as the tanks and men rumbled ashore on the beaches at Normandy. The actual combat is somewhat different than we have all seen in the epic films, such as "The Longest Day." The confusion, the errors, and the problems faced by these men during the invasion, as well as after, are all laid bare for the reader to process.

Another fine aspect of this book is the way the author has followed up on "Shifty's" life after the war ends. Some of the men from his unit were still holding re-unions as recently as 2009. Some are gone now, victims of time, which respects no accomplishments. It simply marches on over us.

This is an engaging read, nuanced with the memories of not only "Shifty" Powers, but those of the others who fought by his side.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Turtle In the Morning

Just when you think that nature is losing the battle to survive, something happens to give you hope. I live in a typical development, you know the type, 10 feet either side of my house is another house. To create this scenario a large tract of land was cleared and graded. When they were done, there was nothing left, not even a bird. So, it's really a wonderful treat to walk out for my morning paper and see this fellow, sunning himself on my lawn.

He was headed toward the road, intending to cross it in order to reach the creek behind the other row of homes there. He wasn't shy at all, even allowing me to pick him up and gaze into his trusting turtle eyes. I photographed him from every angle, but I like this shot best. Something about it implies communication. He's looking at me, and I'm looking at him. I went back inside to eat, but had to keep getting up to go out and see what progress he had made on his journey.

After about 20 minutes he had reached the side of the road. He was headed in the right direction for the creek, but I was worried about his crossing the street. During the day he has a good chance of making it, but at 8 o'clock in the morning, with everyone leaving for work, crossing the street can be a hazardous undertaking for a turtle. So, I lifted him up, giant that I am, and took him across.

Placing him on a neighbors lawn I pointed him toward the creek. He needed no coaxing from me. His instincts told him to follow the downward grade toward his destination. And 10 minutes later, when I went back to check on him, he was gone. Some of the most beautiful things in life are fleeting moments - and the slow amble of a turtle crossing my lawn on a muggy summer morning is one of those.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

An Open Letter to Senator Harry Reid

This is the text of the e-mail I have just sent to Senator Harry Reid, after being informed by his offices in both Washington, as well as in Nevada, that as the Democratic Party Leader, he only answers questions from people of that state. I hope that you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it. By the way, don't expect a response, because I certainly don't.

Senator Reid,

Having just spoken with several of your different offices, and after having no success in obtaining an answer from Senator Hagan's office, I am furious.

When the Democratic Senator from my home state cannot answer a question on policy, I look to you, as the leader of the Democratic Party in the Senate, for an answer.

I have been told, in no uncertain terms, by your offices in Washington, as well as in Las Vegas, that you do not respond to Democrats in other states. I do not believe this to be true. You are the leader of the Democratic Party. As such, I look to your office for leadership.

Can you explain to the American people why the Senate and Congress have not yet agreed to abide by the terms of the legislation arising out of the 1985 budget crisis? At that time legislation was passed which allows the Treasury to transfer the current Social Security income, from Americans currently working, to pay the monthly checks of the people already on SSI/Disability while the problems are ironed out.

Further, the Treasury Dept can also pay out the $20 Billion per month in interest from the $200 Billion per month which it receives in revenues, leaving the remaining $180 Billion to cover other necessary expenses, such as Social Security.

All societies are judged by the way in which they treat the most infirm among them. The sheer inability of any members of your staff, as well as the inability of our elected officials, of both parties to understand this, is appalling to me.

As a Veteran I can only say that I never thought I would see a day in America where BOTH parties have worked so hard to screw things up, all in the name of partisan interests. There can be no other explanation.

I will be posting this letter on my website for all to see. I have already switched my party affiliation to Independent, and will be encouraging other Democrats to do the same.

A reply from someone in your office would be appreciated, though not expected, and I would even be willing to post it in response on my blog, which is chiefly concerned with books and stories. Unfortunately, this past week I have had to delve into the sordid world of politics. It is an onerous task, best reserved for people like yourself.


Robert Williams
contact info as above

Is God Fair? A Question of Faith.

This is Michelangelo's beautiful work from the Sistine Chapel showing God Creating Adam. Whether or not you believe in Creationism, or even God, the works of Michelangelo are certainly evidence of the beauty we are capable of carrying within us.

Man has been arguing religion for so long now, thousands of years, with no progress having been made concerning the respect for different beliefs. At times it seems more like a war than a theological discussion. And, at times, it has been just that.

I really enjoy stories from the Talmud and the Mishna. They are the codifications of the events, and their meanings, in the Old Testament. The Talmud and Mishna are almost as old as the Bible itself, and though they are chiefly concerned with the teachings of the Old Testament, many lessons can be learned from these wonderful stories. From them have sprung up many Talmudic "type" of stories, which usually illustrate some principle which has already been expressed in either the Talmud or the Mishna. My favorite is the one about "Two Men Coming Down the Same Chimney", which I have posted here before. But there are so many more. Here is another of my favorites, illustrating a basic concept;

Once a man was visiting a small town for the weekend. He attended the local services at the synagouge. When it was time to honor some of the congregants with Torah blessings, he noticed that the Rabbi was calling random people to be blessed, without regard to name, age or community status. After the service he went to the Rabbi to complain about what he perceived to be an unfair practice. The Rabbi said, "You have been in this synagogue only one day, and yet you feel that there is no order here? I have a list, and I make sure that everything is in order. Remember, we are only on this earth for a short time, and that God has a list, too. Rest assured, verything is in order."

The point here is that we never get to see the whole, larger picture. So how can we judge what is fair, or not? Just a thought for the day...

Monday, July 25, 2011

James Brown - "Live at the Apollo"

The one album which every music fan should hear is James Brown's recording "Live at The Apollo." It was recorded on October 24th, 1962 at New York's famed Apollo Theater in the midst of the Cuban Missle Crisis, which had been ongoing since October 18th, and would not come to a conclusion until October 29th.

There are several reasons why this album is an essential part of any music collection. The first is that it almost didn't happen. James Brown funded the recording independently, years before other artists would do so in a routine fashion, when Syd Nathan of King Records refused the money needed to record the show. He thought the idea was foolish. The album went on to become one of the top 100 records of all time.

Secondly, the quality of the recording is superb! The vocals are exceptionally crisp and clear, as are each and every instrument and backup vocal. The gospel like rendition of some of the songs gives the entire album a feel of spirituality and excitement. It's like being in a Southern Baptist Church. The audience reactions are a definite part of the proceedings.

Culturally the album reflects the Northern migration taking place at the time as African-Americans continued, as they had since the years before World War Two, to arrive from the South to the industrial cities of the North, bringing with them their own brand of music.

Having been recorded in the midst of the Cuban Missle Crisis lends an almost religous double entendre to songs such as "I Lost Someone", as well as the medley which begins with "Please, Please, Please." When they reach the part of the medley containing "I Lost Someone", which is the song posted here, Mr. Brown is clearly singing to God. The song is a love song to a lover, but also a prayer for salvation. The plaintive way in which Mr. Brown delivers the song draws your attention to the dark events of the Cuban Missle Crisis,which was taking place just outside the doors of the Apollo, engulfing the entire world. The fact that New York City was a target, and could even have been hit during the show, lends a high drama to the performance.

And finally there is the cover art. It is pure Harlem Impressionist at it's best. This album, with it's R and B songs, as well as early Funk and Soul, would lay the groundwork for the sounds of the 1970's and 1980's , with Parliment and the Funkadelics, not to mention the ground breaking sounds of Bootsie Collins. And let's not forget Michael Jackson's "Moon Walk", which was nothing more than James Brown doing his famous shuffle.

No matter how you view this album, or how you hear it, there can be no denying that this was a seminal album, sown from the roots of Gospel Music and Rhythm and Blues. The sound that was created became known as Soul Music, which eventually gave way to Funk and Hip Hop, and today's Rap Music. The future of those genres was born the day James Brown took hold of a microphone for the first time. The same applies to Chuck Berry, Ike Turner and Little Richard in relation to Rock and Roll. Everything that followed in that genre came from those artists.

This album is not for everyone, but it is an important one in the sense that it was a stepping stone to a new sound. I highly recommend it. If you have never heard this live recording before, you need to give it a try. It's some of the most visceral, and real, music which you will ever hear.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Mint Museum

The Mint Museum here in Charlotte is having a Coco Chanel exhibit, so Sue and I thought we'd take a look at it. This is one of the emblematic Chanel Number 5 bottles manufactured between 1940 and 1955.

These dresses are part of a larger exhibit showcasing the various modes of dress from about 1900 through the years immediatley following World War One. Pre-Coco is not an inapt description of them in their definition of the modern woman just emerging in the 1920's. And the difference when you walk into the Chanel portion of the exhibit is astounding.

Not just a perfume designer, Coco Chanel was known for her clothing styles, men's included. The collection was dimly lit, and photographs were prohibited with a flash, so this photo does not do the collection all the praise which it is due. It is a wonderful collection, encompassing the years between the two World Wars, and then on from the mid 1950's when Chanel re-opened, to the heady years of the 1970's and beyond. She has achieved a certain sense of immortality through her creation of clothing as an art. This suit alone shows the difference in her perception of women as equals in the world of business, as well as academia, than anything which pre-dated it.

This early 18th Century tureen, at least I think that is what it is, is my idea of Early American grace. If I could, I would own, and use, this piece on a daily basis. It's simply that beautiful.

The collection at the Mint Museum is very varied for a museum of such small size. Here's a beautiful wine pot from the Song Dynasty in China. It's hard to believe that these things were formed by human hands now long gone. How wonderful it would be to go back and see it being used by the original owners. The Eastern and Western Cultures have so much in common. Their needs are largely the same, but the Eastern Cultures advanced so much more quickly in the area of art than their European counterparts. At the same time that this wine pot was in use in China, the Vikings were drinking from gourds and crude tin steins.

But now we come to my favorite piece of the entire day. The Turtle. This is an 1856 piece from my home town of Brooklyn New York. How odd that I should find it here in Charlotte. If there was ever a piece of ceramic that appealed to me more than this one does, I don't remember it.

There were plenty of paintings to look at, but with the flash not allowed, and the lighting so dim, it was hard to get any pictures worth printing here. But the entire Museum, as well as the Coco Chanel exhibit, was a real treat to see.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

"Lincoln for the Ages" Edited by Ralph G. Newman

The "stacks" of a local library hold more forgotten history than can be learned in a lifetime. History moves so quickly that often much of it is left behind. And many of these "lost" pieces of the great puzzle can often be found in the "stacks." I go there often.

In this long forgotten and obscure book, published in 1960, are the views and anecdotes relating to President Lincoln, written by 76 distinguished Americans of the time. Many of the stories told here, as in the instances of his law partnership with William Herndon, cast more light on the character of Abraham Lincoln than anything written about him since.

His legal expertise has never been questioned, as in the Patterson case, a murder trial. Lincoln was able to show the innocence of his client through the use of an almanac, proving that the Prosecution's witness was lying when he said he observed the killing in the light of the moon. The almanac showed that there was no moon that night, thus freeing his client.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates, which arose out of the Kansas Nebraska Act debates show his uncanny ability to turn the tables on the most cunning of opponents. Lincoln had previously argued both sides of the Fugitive Slave Act, winning for both sides in different trials of the same charge. Out of the fierce debate roiling the country concerning the Kansas Nebraska Act, Lincoln was able to rise to national prominence with his scathing oratory and homespun appearance, both of which he used like scapels.

The plot to kidnap him enroute to Washington, D.C. on the eve of his inaguaration is more fully explained here in 3 pages than anywhere else. The plan was to hold him for ransom, the release of the Southern States from re-joining the Union would be the price. The plot was uncoverd in Philadelphia, and folied in Baltimore.

During his Presidency, Lincoln learned to use the press to his advantage, encouraging them to visit with him often. He would usually greet them with a hearty, "What news have you?" He would then go on to grill them, and in the process gave out far less information than he received. His relationship with the press would become the launching pad for the Presidential news conferences, which were first held by his sucessor to the Presidency, Andrew Johnson.

Lincoln's foreign policy is largely ignored in light of the Civil War, but on that frontier he was most active, and astute. Knowing that England could easily ally itself with the South posed a tricky situation for Lincoln. He could not afford to fight them, which would haved tied up the naval resources necessary to fight the Confederacy, as well as run the blockade against privateers. Yet, when 2 Southern envoys were being transported via an English ship to London for a conference with the Queen, the United States Navy, without the President's authorization, seized the ship and imprisoned the men. Lincoln took this situation and turned it to his advantage. He released the ship, and later the men, with a word to the British that we would brook no meddling in the ongoing conflict. He then issued his controversial Emancipation Proclamation, turning our own Civil War into a moral cause which Britian already supported, thus turning them into an ally. Prior to this, Britian had already shipped 8,000 troops to Canada for insertion in the Civil War, intending to fight for the South. After the Proclamation these troops were withdrawn.

France was posing a problem as well. They had invaded Mexico, with promises from the Confederacy that they could gain a foothold in America if they would support the South. Lincoln solved that one as craftily as he did the British problem.

We have all been taught about "Seward's Folly", the seemingly silly purchase of Alaska from Russia. But what we weren't taught was the relationship of Russia at the time to France and England, with which Russia had just lost a war. She needed two things badly; the first was cash, hence the sale of Alaska. The second thing they needed was to get their navy into a safe harbor. Lincoln allowed them to moor their fleets off San Francisco and Norfolk, thus covering two perimeters with a seemingly neutral force at no expense to ourselves. The mere presence of the Russian fleet made certain that no country would attempt to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy.

In politics Lincoln had no equal. Confronted by men such as Salmon Chase, William Seward, Edward Bates, and Simon Cameron as rivals, he made them all members of his cabinet, where he could keep an eye on their political ambitions.

Lincoln never considered the South to have left the Union, so there simply was no provision in the Constitution for punative action against the Southern states after the war had ended. Thus, his last directive was to "Let 'em down easy." Evidently no one was listening, and the next 100 years would see the South mired in racial discontent and constant upheaval. Had Lincoln lived, this may not have happened.

This is a wonderfully enriching book for any Lincoln scholars to sink their teeth into. Remember, the only thing new is the history you don't know.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Conrad Schumann - Cold War Icon

This photograph is one that has been ingrained in my mind since I first saw it in August of 1961. It is of Conrad Schumann, an East German soldier who was standing guard on the Eastern side of the newly laid barbed wire, which would shortly after become the Berlin Wall. As all of the educated people of East Berlin began leaving East Germany in the years previous to this photograph, the Soviets decided to partition Berlin.

Schumann, who was only 19 at the time this photo was taken, made his decision to defect to the West based on two things. The first thing that he saw that morning was a young girl handing flowers across the wire to her mother, whom had been stranded in the Eastern section. The second, and deciding factor in his leap to freedom, were the people on the other side of the fence shouting to him in German, "Come over, come over!"

So, he did, and was immortalized in this photograph taken by Peter Leibing. Schumann quickly became a symbol of Communist oppression in the Cold War. He remained in West Germany even after the wall had come down in 1989. In 1998, suffering from depression, he killed himelf. He was only 56 years old.

Whether feelings that he had betrayed his homeland were responsible for his suicide, or not, will never really be known. But the gift he left behind is this image of a man, caught in circumstances beyond his control, making a split second decision to join the forces of light, leaving the darkness of oppression behind him.

This decision would affect him, and the lives of the scores of people who followed later, some in tunnels beneath the wall, for the rest of their lives.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Einstein and Spinoza

Einstein's religious beliefs were a direct result of his love of Spinoza'a ethics in dealing with the dual questions concerning God and Free Will. Baruch Spinoza, like Einstein, was Jewish. He was a philosopher in 17th Century Amsterdam, where he was ex-communicated for his belief in Causal Determinism. (I did not know that the Jewish faith did ex-communications, having only heard previously of the practice in conjunction with the Catholic Church.) Causal Determinism is the belief that the existence of a superior being reveals itself in the harmony of nature and the natural order of all things. Einstein was interested in Spinoza as a way of reconciling science with his own religious beliefs.

I think that Einstein would be in agreement with the words of the late Pope John Paul II when he said, "Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes." I think he would have accepted that. I know that I do. It assumes the worst of both religion and science, while at the same time recognizing the strengths that each of the two bring to the human condition. In other words, it is a position of moderation.

In November of 1920, Einstein traveled to Spinoza's home in Leiden, Amsterdam for a visit. He even signed the guest book. The signature beneath his is that of Harm Kamerlingh Onnes, the nephew of the famed physicist, who accompanied him on the trip to Leiden. The visit so moved Einstein that he later wrote a poem about Spinoza, titled, "On Spinoza's Ethics." I have reprinted the poem here, first in German, and then followed by the English translation. I have credited both translations to their sources at the end of each translation. The two lines in italics are ones which Einstein wrote and then put a line through, replacing them with the lines immediately following. I have included them here simply because anything Einstein thought, or wrote, must be important in some way, even if I do not fully understand it. The Latin phrase in the third line of the second verse translates as "For God's sake." Einstein uses the phrase here to call out Spinoza's aversion to faith alone, noting that the philosophy of amor dei "leaves him cold."

Zu Spinozas Ethik

Wie lieb ich diesen edlen Mann
Mehr als ich mit Worten sagen kann.
Doch fürcht' ich, dass er bleibt allein
Mit seinem strahlenen Heiligenschein.

So einen armen kleinen Wicht
Den führst du zu der Freiheit nicht
Der amor dei lässt ihn kalt
Das Leben zieht ihn mit Gewalt

Die Höhe bringt ihm nichts als Frost
Vernunft ist für ihn schale Kost
Besitz und Weib und Ehr' und Haus
Das füllt ihn von oben bis unten aus

Du musst schon gütig mir verzeih'n
Wenn hier mir fällt Münchhausen ein
Dem als Einzigem das Kunststück gedieh'n
Sich am eigenem Zopf aus dem Sumpf zu zieh'n

Du denkst sein Beispiel zeiget uns eben
Was diese Lehre dem Menschen kann geben
Mein lieber Sohn, was fällt dir ein?
Zur Nachtigall muss man geboren sein

Vertraue nicht dem tröstlichen Schein:
Zum Erhabenen muss man geboren sein.

Written circa 1920.
Transcribed from ms. facsimile, Albert Einstein Archive, 31-018

On Spinoza's Ethics

How I love this noble man
More than I can say with words.
Still, I fear he remains alone
With his shining halo.

Such a poor small lad
Whom you'll not lead to freedom
The amor dei leaves him cold
Mightily does this life attract him

Loftiness offers him nothing but frost
Reason for him is poor fare
Property and wife and honor and house
That fills him from top to bottom

You'll kindly forgive me
If Münchhausen here comes to mind
Who alone mastered the trick
Of pulling himself out of a swamp by his own pigtail

You think his example would show us
What this doctrine can give humankind
My dear son, what ever were you thinking?
One must be born a nightingale

Trust not the comforting façade
One must be born sublime

©2007-2008 English translation by Jonathan Ely

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Moon Landing - 1969

42 years ago today and I still rember the thrill of watching it. It was a Sunday and the Monday papers in New York, even the normally staid New York Times, all ran the date line as Moonday, July 20th, 1969.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Red" with Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis, John Malkovich and Mary-Louise Parker

Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and John Malkovich are all former CIA contract agents. They are retired. In the 1980's they were involved in some of the secret killings in Guatemala. Their commander at the time was the man who is now Vice President and running for the office of President. With so much of his past to hide, he orders the former agents to be killed. But he doesn't count on the friends that these men had made over the years.

Frank, played by Bruce Willis, is assaulted by a SWAT team in his own home. Only his former training allows him to escape. Now he has to find out why he is being targeted. To do that he must reassemble his old team. Quickly contacting his old friend Joe, played by Morgan Freeman, who is in a nursing home, the two begin the search to find out who is targeting them, and why.

Frank has fallen in love, over the phone, with a CIA operator, played perfectly by Mary-Louise Parker, who works out of the Kansas City office of the company. They plan to retire somewhere together. But, when all the mayhem begins, she is not so sure she wants to pursue the relationship. So, Frank does the only thing he can do, he duct tapes her and loads her into his car while trying to explain the circumstances in which he has found himself trapped. She is, to say the least, skeptical. But, still, she does admit that it's a pretty exciting first date.

Frank takes her out to the desert where another old comrade lives in seclusion. Marvin, played by John Malkovich, lives underground, literally. He is paranoid from years of CIA experiments with LSD, but is still as sharp as they come. The trio then hook up with Helen Mirren, who plays a former assassin, and her Soviet lover, whom she was once forced to kill in order to prove her loyalty to the "company." She shot him 3 times in the chest and left him for dead. When he recovers, he realizes that she truly loves him, or else she would have shot him in the head, just to be sure.

Just how this group takes down the Vice President and all of his security forces cannot be adequately described her without doing an injustice to this witty and fast paced script. Although this type of film is not my usual fare, it kept me entertained from the opening scene until the last.

This is a serious spoof of both the espionage that we, as nations, actually engage in, as well as a satire of the action movies that come of these real life exploits. With an action packed and witty script, this movie delivers. Add in some fantastic cameos by Ernest Borgnine and Richard Dreyfuss and you have a very entertaining film.

Monday, July 18, 2011

"Barbra's Wedding" at the Old Courthouse Theater, Concord NC

"Barbra's Wedding" opened the "Living Room Reading Series" in Concord yesterday. It was a 2 person play, starring Jonathan Ewart and Melissa Bowden as a married couple living next door to Barbra Streisand on the day of Ms. Streisand's wedding in 1998.

As usual, the show was flawlessly produced and directed by Jonathan M. Ewart, 37, who has stated that his goal is to "share lesser-known plays with the community.”

“Barbra’s Wedding” was written by Daniel Stern, and concerns Jerry Schiff, played by Jonathan Ewart, and his wife Molly, played by Melissa Bowden, and the events that occur on the day of their famous next door neighbor's wedding. Ms. Streisand is about to be married to James Brolin, and Jerry and Molly are not invited.

Jerry is particularly upset due to the fact that he was the star of a now forgotten TV series, and as such considers himself a peer of Ms. Streisand's. This oversight brings out all of Jerry's feelings of failure and inadequacy, drawing him into a comical confrontation with his wife over these very issues. She is happy and content, while he feels bitter and betrayed.

With powerful performances by both Mr. Ewart and Ms. Bowden, the couple, through the rantings of Jerry, and the strength of Molly, are forced to finally confront who and what they are, both as individuals, as well as a couple.

This is yet one more triumph for Mr. Ewart and his "Living Room Reading" series. If you are anywhere near Charlotte you should check them out. Their link is posted here;

Sunday, July 17, 2011

"Bridge of Spies" by Giles Whittell

This is the true story of 3 men, poised at the center of the Cold War, and whose actions, although not intended to do so, changed the direction of that conflict. Their story is the beginning of both Russia and the United States making a committment to what later became known as detente. That they did so out of a confluence of events which were designed to produce results of the opposite nature makes this incredible story even more so. This also marked the beginning of both the CIA and the KGB in the administration of govermental policy. President Eisenhower, as well as Premier Kruschev, have acknowledged that they both felt "not in control" of the situation as it unfolded.

President Eisenhower knew of, and condoned the high altitude U-2 flights. But not this one. Officially, the existence of these flights were denied by the United States. On May 1st, 1960 just months before a summit between Eisenhower and Kruschev in Moscow, one of the U-2's, carrying pilot Gary Powers, was shot down over Russia. This is precisely the incident which Eisenhower was trying to avoid in the months leading up to the summit.

The U-2's mission was to photograph the last remaining area of Russia that had not been searched for nuclear missles, or, as we call them today, WMD's. Lee Harvey Oswald, a US Marine, working radar out of Atsugi Air Base in Japan, was later implicated as having provided some of the intelligence necessary for the shoot down of Gary Powers' U-2 to have taken place.

Powers was flying a defective plane that day. It was known throughout the unit as a "dog." When the Soviets got lucky and downed the plane with one missle, Gary Powers had plenty of time to think as he fell from 70,000 feet. He was able to climb out of the plane rather than eject. He decided not to use the poison needle with which he had been provided, saving it for future use if needed.

As all of this was happening, an American student, Frederic Pryor, who had taken advantage of a summer program allowing foreign students to take a rare look inside Russia, was arrested and charged with espionage. He had been unwittingly recruited by the CIA in "tourist" style espionage, taking pictures of bridges and buildings, some of which were of military significance.

Powers and the American youth would both be eventually exchanged for the biggest Soviet Spy ever caught in America, William Fisher, aka, Rudolf Abel. He had resided in deep cover in the United States for years, and such was his value to the Soviets, that he would later be exchanged for both Pryor and Powers. That this exchange would later take place during the same week as John Glenn successfully orbited the earth aboard Friendship 7 was no coincidence. But that was still 2 years away. First would come the trial, and imprisonment of Gary Powers for espionage. He was faced with life imprisonment, or possibly death.

The trial took place in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration, just after the Soviet-American summit, which had been scheduled for the same time, had been cancelled. Powers received 10 years imprisonment, as a sign of Soviet humanity. He would not have to serve the entire sentence, as the Soviets wanted Rudolf Abel returned.

The exchange was to take place at two locations, and at the same time. The first was to be at the so-called "Bridge of Spies", actually named the Glienicke Bridge, in Berlin. This was the "other" check point used during the cold war for transfer between East and West Germany. The most famous one was "Check Point Charlie", located only a few miles away. It is recreated in exact detail in the film version of John LeCarre's novel "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold." That check point would be the location for the second exchange.

This is a fascinating book for serious students of the Cold War. There are so many layers to this story that it is possible to get lost in the myriad of secrecy. What is true? What is true, but misleading? The book also delves into the 1960 Presidential election between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. Was there a connection between politics and the ill advised flight of the defective U-2? And what was the common link between news reporter Joe Alsop and John Kennedy in this operation? Why did they lie about a Soviet missle gap when there was none? Remember, there would have been no need for the U-2 flights had the truth of the missle gap been known.

Had Gary Powers been successful in his flight over Plesetk, he would have discovered the 4 operational ICBM's. This was the extent of the Soviet nuclear arsenal with which Premier Krushchev had threatened to "bury the West." It is also the nuclear stockpile which John Kennedy, along with the help of Joe Alsop, purported to exist.

With it's careful research, and a cast of real life characters, this is a gripping read of the Cold War, and three of its principal players.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

"Classical Gas" by Mason Williams

This is the original version of the film that was later shown on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968. It differs only slightly from the one that aired. The video was begun as a student film project in late 1967 with the original music to have been Beethoven's 5th Symphony. When Mason Williams, who was then a writer on the show, saw the film, he suggested, and then wrote, the new music for it. After obtaining permission from the films creator, the "Classical Gas" video made its debut on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in July 1968. The recording went on to become one of the bestselling instrumental recordings ever made.

The original video from the show has not been seen since 1968. Legal reasons are the chief culprit. This version was made using the original student film, which was never aired. It has been re-edited to "Classical Gas" and aside from a couple of frames is almost identical to the one shown on the Smothers Brothers Show over 40 years ago.

Note: The original student film, set to the Beethoven piece, was titled "God Is Dog Spelled Backward."

Friday, July 15, 2011


In America today, it is time. Time to stop the politics as usual and demand a change in the way in which our elected officials conduct themselves to our detriment.

It is time to cease the partisan bickering which has this nation so divided, so mired in debt, that we cannot even imagine being solvent again.

It is time to cut the staffs and office allowances of ALL Congress persons and Senators.

It is time to stop all Congressional and Senatorial pay until such time as they have produced a budget.

It is time to stop subsidizing the Senate Cafeteria, where lawmakers earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year have their meals subsidized by your tax dollars, as they debate whether or not to fund school lunch programs for the needy.

It is time to end the Health Care Debate and make available to all Americans the healthcare which our elected officials enjoy. With the bureaucracy already in place, this is a no-brainer. Any other proposals are just smoke and mirrors.

It is time to clean house in Washington, where Congress gets an automatic raise each year, unless they vote against it. (See the 27th Amendment to the Constitution, which took 203 years to ratify.)

It is time to stop Cost of Living increases for Senators and Congress persons while the elderly and disabled, subsisting on far less money, are denied the same.

It is time to draw a line in the sand, not just with the terrorists abroad, but also the homegrown ones in the Tea Party, who are empowered by the apathy of those who are presently in power.

It is time for the People (remember them?) to take back America. We don't want to change the Constitution, just the folks who are administering it so ineptly. I was born in a country that was the richest on the planet, yet today we are one of the largest debtor nations in the world.

It is time for action, yet also a time for restraint. We do not want to burn cars in the street, like the French, but we can. And so we demand an end to the gridlock which has seized the minds of our representatives in Washington. And we demand it now, not after next year’s election.

So, let's begin with a massive phone campaign to our individual representatives in the nation's capital. Below are the links for you to obtain the phone numbers of your Congress person and Senators. I strongly urge you to call them and hear for yourself the ignorance and detachment with which your call is received. And as you interact with these people, remember that you pay them. That's right, the Congress person gets about $189,000 per year from you, but you also pay the cost of each of the people you speak with on the phone. With most Senators maintaining several offices, all staffed by professionals, even with the help of some volunteers, the cost is staggering! And many of the most incompetent staffers are relatives and friends of the elected officials. At one time this was called Nepotism.

Let them know that you will stay away from the polls next year. Let every politician in America become a member of a government elected by a minority of its citizens. Let them walk on eggshells, knowing that their legitimacy is a facade.

I am open to any and all ideas, which will kick these people in the rear end and get them going, or get them gone.

For your Congress person's contact information go to;

For your Senator's contact information go to;

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Don't Tread On Me!

I called the offices of Mitch McConnell, the Senator from Kentucky, this morning with a simple question about the budget impasse. Since he is leading the charge, I thought it would be illuminating to ask about the thought process behind the Senator's obstructionist position on the looming budget default, including the comment by some Republicans that they "don't care if it destroys this nation." (Charlotte Observer Forum- July 12th- Ted Hayes)

With the deadline coming faster than a freight train I wanted some answers to simple questions, like what would be shut down, etc. After 7 calls to Senator McConnell's 7 different offices, all of which we pay for, I got no further than an "I don't know" from the Washington Office. This was better than the "I'm not sure" that I received at 3 of his other offices. Remember, we pay these people.

Calling the White House was an equally frustrating experience. After 6 calls, during which I was sent repeatedly to the Comment Line, which I specifically asked to NOT be connected, I was HUNG UP on, twice!

With Congressional members carrying guns, a White House staffed by people so ill informed that it makes you sick, and the audacity of politicians of both parties in their treatment of their constituents, who just happen to be their bosses, it is no wonder that so many people are losing faith in America.

Notice to Mitch McConnell and President Obama; your mutual lack of leadership, coupled with an unwillingness to compromise on anything, along with the complete lack of compassion for the average American, has set the tone for political change in America. It will not be business as usual during next years election. We will not tolerate the mindset of voting for the "lesser evil" anymore. We, the People, demand real change, and we need it now. You may have the tanks, but you don't have our hearts and minds anymore than you do the people of Iraq or Afghanistan. You have forfeited the honor of serving the People. And you have, in effect, forfeited your own honor as well.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

New Ways to Feel Worse

It seems that there is no end to the new ways we invent to make ourselves feel worse. Take something as simple as the weather for example. In the winter it gets cold, and not content with merely being cold, we have come up with the "Wind Chill Factor", which is the seeming effect of the wind making the true temperature "feel" colder than it actually is. And now, with the dog days of summer upon us, we have the "Heat Index", another set of factors which combine the actual temperature with the lack of wind, and abundance of humidity, to let us know that we are feeling hotter than we already are. This, to me, seems a dubious practice.

It's kind of like during the Carter years. We all knew we were miserable, but they had to come up with the "Misery Index" to describe our fiscal discomfort. A way to intensify it. This heat index, as well as the wind chill factor seems about the same to me. It is specifically aimed at making you feel worse than you already do.

When I was a kid I loved when it hit 100 degrees. I would go bike riding just to say I had riden in the intense heat. There was a sense of accomplishment in dealing with it, rather than a dread of the weather. I understand that the climate has changed, and that for some groups, myself included, this new information is necessary. But it sure doesn't make me feel any better.

I went out yesterday, against all the advice of the newspapers and radio. And guess what? They were right. The air was bad, and inside of an hour I was home, feeling terrible. So, what's the answer? I don't know. But I'm going out again today. To paraphrase Dylan Thomas, I will not, "Go Gentle into That Good Night." Nor will I disappear into the blaze of a hot summer's day.

Note: The Dylan Thomas analogy may be a stretch, but it was worth the try. Here is the poem by Mr. Thomas;


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Mr. and Mrs. Smith" with Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery

Alfred Hitchcock was a very funny man. The legendary director, most well known for his films of suspense, had a very dry, and wry, sense of humor. In the early 1970's when a writer for Esquire showed up at his home for an interview, he was ushered into the kitchen to wait. He was also told to help himself to a drink from the refrigerator. Opening the door the writer was confronted with a wax head replica of Hitchcock, on a platter! When Hitchcock walked in, seconds later, the writer was hard pressed to conduct the interview for which he had come.

Aside from the film "The Trouble with Harry", a story about a neighbor whom everybody wants dead, Hitchcock did very little comedy. In almost all of his films there is an element of humor that sets the audience up for some unexpected and shocking moments. But flat out humor was a genre in which Hitchcock did very little work. That's what makes this film so interesting.

Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery play Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a couple happily married, although there are a few quirks in their relationship. For instance, when they fight with one another it can last for days. During these fights, the record being 8 days, Mr. Smith neglects his legal practice and the couple remain in their apartment, engaged in a silent war. Only when one apologizes can an argument be called off.

At the end of a 3 day fight- pictured silently in the opening scene, which is almost Chaplinesque in it's layout- Mrs. Smith asks Mr. Smith if he had to do it all again would he still marry her? This is very dangerous ground to trod!

Arriving at his office he is greeted by an official from the state in which they were married. This official explains that due to a glitch in the survey of the town where they were wed, they are in fact, not wed at all. Mr. Smith, not knowing that the same official has visited Mrs. Smith, says nothing to her about it. This is the set up for the rest of the movie, which plays as smoothly as anything by Frank Capra.

A great departure from his usual fare, this film is sharply written, and of course flawlessly directed by the master himself. No Hitchcock film would be complete without his trademark "cameo" appearance, and this film is no different. But you have to really watch for it as this film was made in 1941 when the famed Director had a slimmer profile. Here, courtesy of You Tube is the walk on scene- Hitchcock making his entrance from the left, crossing the entranceway of the apartment building.

Monday, July 11, 2011

"The Big Roads" by Earl Swift

When I was in the Navy one of the things I missed most about being home in America was driving around in cars. Especially freeways. At the time I didn't have a drivers license, but there were always cars available. You could rent one through a friend, or just ride around as a passenger, eating junk food and enjoying the scenery as it flew past.

Over time I became interested in the old signs I saw on the side of the road. They said "Eisehower Interstate Highway", or something like that. The conventional theory is that General Eisenhower, during World War Two, was so impressed with the German highways that he saw great value in building such a system here in America. From a military standpoint this makes sense. Historically it is only part of the story which Mr. Swift lays out in this sprawling history of the Interstates which we take for granted.

The desire for good roads in America goes back to the earliest days of the first settlers. Footpaths and trails were the common means of travel for the Native Americans, but the settlers built carts and needed a way to transport their goods from settlement to settlement. These muddy trails were usable for about half of the year. The winters were the worst times, often leaving the settlers stranded in their own villages until the spring thaw, and even then they still had to contend with the mud.

Nothing much had changed by the late 1800's. There were a few National Roads, most notably the Baltimore National Pike, which was really the beginning of modern day Route 40, but the country was still a hodgepodge of muddy, uneven roads by the late 19th century. And then along came the bicycle.

After the Civil War large tricycles made their appearance. They were clumsy and somewhat dangerous, being about 6 foot off the ground. Then came the two wheelers, with the same large front wheel, and a miniscule rear one. Even getting up on one of these machines was an accomplishment, riding one on cobblestone streets was truly an ordeal. Clearly, smooth and even roadways were called for. This is when our desire for modern roads first sprang up.

The author expertly traces the roots of our modern highway system to Carl Fisher, a bicycle maker in Indiana. Beginning as a sixth grade dropout, he entered into the bicycle business, popularizing the new, sportier models that we have come to know as today's bicycles. With this venture came the need for new roads.

After the First World War, with the automobile becoming a more modern means of transportation, people like A.V.Williams in Maryland, began buying up all the World War One tanks and mounting plow blades on them. Heavy equipment was born.

In the years between the two wars many ideas were floated for a national roadway, but not much progress was made. Thomas MacDonald was one of the earliest pioneers in this effort. He envisioned a system of roads not too far removed from what we have today.

All of these efforts were not unopposed. The newer and bigger roads would mean the death of many smaller towns, along with the Mom and Pop businesses which dotted the countryside. Lewis Mumford was one of these opponents. His arguments against the roads were both social and economic. And, largely, his predictions have come to pass.

One of the best examples of the struggle for modern roads and how they should be built, or not, concerns the section of Route 70 which runs to downtown Baltimore and then comes to an abrupt end. Thousands of people were forced from their homes for a section of this road which was never built. The city and state became the owners of the properties, which they held for 20 years without building the road. When they tried to sell these properties years later, the values had gone up, and the original, displaced, owners filed suit for the return of those properties. They won.

This is a very thoroughly researched book on the history of Americ'a Interstate highway system. It will change the way in which you perceive the history of these roads as you drive them.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Party

Sue and I had our Anniversary Party yesterday. Our daughter Sarah, along with our son in law, Mike, set up the backyard and made everything really beautiful for our special day. Mike worked on the yard set up, while Sarah did alot of cooking!

In addition to the usual platters of cold cuts and chicken tenders, there was an abundance of rice dishes, fruits and vegetables. And let's not forget the cake, also made by Sarah. The weather was dicey, with an overcast sky that finally gave way to a warm and muggy day. Setting up a couple of fans kept the flys down to a minimum, as well as providing a breeze under the canopy.

My favorite Aunt Gloria and Uncle Bob came from Florida, which was a real treat as I don't get to see them that often. This was only the 3rd time since our wedding that we have seen them! That's Sarah and Michael in the picture with them.

There was a mixture of friends, relatives and neighbors, numbering around 2 dozen. This was well short of the approximately 40 odd invitations sent out, but made for a more relaxed and less crowded time. Some of our old neighbors from our last house came and met some of our new neighbors. People exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses, and it was really nice to see some new friendships branching off from our own.

And no party would be complete without a few of my favorite librarians. This is Tammy, Sabine and Trish from the Mooresville Library. I was really glad they took the time to show up, they have become an important part of my life in the last few years. I truly believe that they should have a sign hanging over the library counter which reads, "The Psychiatrist Is In", similar to the one in the "Peanuts" comic strip. It was no surprise to me that they knew a couple of the other guests. They know everybody.

So it was a great day, culminating in the cutting of the cake. And when everyone had gone home, and all the trash had been taken out, we were able to reflect back a bit on the highs, and lows, of the last 25 years. At 57 years old, I'm not sure we'll ever hit a 50th Anniversary, but I have no complaints. Thanks everyone for making our day so special just by being here.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Space Race

Yesterday's final launch of the space shuttle reminded me of the first space launch with a manned capsule by the United States. It was in May of 1961, a mere 3 weeks after the Soviets had put their first man in space with Yuri Gagarin's flight. Both flights were breakthroughs. Literally.

The idea was to see if a man could ride a rocket, puncture the atmosphere, and then return to earth alive. This was really an intense moment for our nation as we tried to catch up to the Soviets in a race to put the first man on the moon. With the score at 1-0, in favor of the Soviets, this was a riveting event. With 2 explosions of Redstone rockets already behind us, no one knew just what would happen that morning when Alan B. Shepard took off for his 15 minute flight.

I was on a "split" session for 1st grade, meaning that the school was overcrowded, making it necessary to have a morning class, and then an afternoon one. I was lucky. I had the afternoon class, which meant that I got to watch the liftoff, as well as the subsequent recovery of the capsule at sea.

For the next 8 years we watched with bated breath as the rockets kept going up; bigger and better rockets, carrying bigger and better capsules. There was the first orbit by John Glenn in a single man Mercury capsule, followed by the 2 man Gemini program, which gave us the first "space walk", proving that a man could perform simple tasks in a weightless environment. Then came the 3 man Apollo program, our final stage in reaching the moon.

Who can ever forget that 1968 Christmas Eve orbit of the moon, with the reading of Genisis? And 7 months later, in July of 1969, we walked the surface of that planet. As I watched yesterday's lift off of the last shuttle I was filled with mixed feelings. I'm not sure what real benefits we actually derived from the space program. But I'm sure glad we did it.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Ancient Art Of Sawgrass

This drawing is titled "The Basket Lady Sketch" by Randy Leibowitz Dean. It hangs in our kitchen. The woman in the sketch represents the Gullah people, who, descended from African slaves, and live on the outer islands of Georgia and South Carolina. They practice the art of sawgrass weaving, producing highly coveted baskets of all shapes and sizes. The art form is ancient, first being done to make baskets for the sifting of grain, and then for the storage of that same grain. With time came competition, with villages competing with one another to produce the finest baskets. Then slavery came and almost obliterated this art form, which fortunately was handed down for generations.

And the passing of the torch continues, with the yougsters of the area obtaining their licenses to sell in public, like this young man who was posted at the entrance to the Aquarium in Charleston the other day, busy weaving sawgrass into roses. There are also market places where specific strawgrass artists sell their own unique baskets and other forms of strawgrass art. It's amazing to watch them weave with such expertise, changing them from simple blades of grass into useful, and also beautiful, objects.

These roses will never wilt, or fade away. And having seen them made makes them all the more special. Historically, the Gullah are the remains of an African tribe which settled near Savannah, Georgia. They located themselves by the Ogeechee River, which gave birth to the name "Geechee", which is usually a derogatory term employed by others when referring to the Gullahs. Of all the African tribes affected by slavery, the Gullah have been the foremost in retaining their cultural roots. Even their language is based on their African heritage, with many words adopted during the "Middle Passage", lending an influence of Jamaican and Creole, along with Bahamian dialects thrown in, giving the language a musical, lilting sound. Along with the arts and crafts that have been passed down, Gullah stories, food and folk beliefs still make up this unusual community, which spans the coast from Georgia to North Carolina.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Writing As I Speak - A Study In Contrasts

The one thing of which I have never been accused is the title of this post; "Writing As I Speak." I don't. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, "You couldn't handle it!" The truth is, at times, neither can I! Let's just say that it's all a matter of taste. I read some blogs that are laced with profanity, veritable lessons in the use of certain words as verbs, adverbs, nouns and adjectives; sometimes all at once! Again, it doesn't make the writing, or the writer, less valid, it's just not my style. However...

Speaking with me in person can be quite an experience to someone not at ease with the use of profanity as normal grammar. But, I come by it in an honest, or as near an honest, way as possible. My Dad taught me to curse when I was about 3. It was a wonderfully glorious word, actually a compound word, having both a maternal component, making it a noun; along with an action part, making it a verb. So, it was, I suppose, a noun-verb.

The occasion of this lesson in the art of compounding words lay in the fact that the guy who had just cut us off probably did do that with his mother when he got home. Nevertheless, at three years old, the remark was probably one that my Dad should have avoided making in the presence of one so young. And, for good reason...

My immediate reaction was to ape the word in my high pitched 3 year old voice, which prompted my Dad to say, "Don't say that word in front of your mother." He said it with an earnest quality, one with which I was unaccustomed, and, seizing on the fear that I perceived in his tone; children are very attuned to parental fear and unafraid to employ it as a weapon; I promptly burst into the kitchen when we arrived home, and denounced my mother as a fornicator of her own mother, which quite frankly shocked the hell out of her! Not to mention my Dad, who, employing the age old tactic of turning the table, said, "We don't use words like that! Go to your room!" Never much of a pushover; even at that age, I knew something was amiss; I replied, "But you use that word all the time!" Stretching the truth, even when so young, was not beyond my capabilities. However, I was still banished to my room.

Over the years, growing up in Brooklyn, I was able to refine my verbal skills, and still later, 8 years at sea travelling the world, I honed my abilities in this regard, to the point that I was able to curse in about 10 languages, including Greek and Arabic!

I make a really concerted effort to control my tongue when children are present, not wanting to contribute to their demise, thus creating another me. But, in conversation with most adults I'm afraid that I sometimes slip back to my days at sea and "cuss like a sailor." I make no apology, for I believe, as Clarence Darrow did, that "There are too damn few words as it is, and I think we should use all of them."

So, if you meet me on the street, don't be surprised, or offended, if I speak differently than I write. When all is said and done, "It's Only Me."

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sabbath Candle Water Fountains and Other Stuff

This is the water fountain just outside the entrance to the Aquarium in Charleston. I couldn't help but try to light it, due to it's uncanny resemblance to a Sabbath candle holder.

Sue and I took a few days off to celebrate our anniversary. We went to Charleston, and then on to Myrtle Beach. The first night we stayed in this beautiful Civil War Era bed and breakfast.

Inside the aquarium there was the usual assortment of coral reef exhibits and all the fish that inhabit them. This spiny looking fellow, with a long Latin name, which I can't spell, was one of my favorites. It must be a lonely life, covered with spines like that. With whom can he cuddle?

I love the old Customs House. It's identical to the one in Baltimore, though this one is located on a wide avenue and surrounded by palm trees, which gives it a whole different look.

From Charleston we headed to Myrtle Beach, about an hour to the North. This was the view from our room. Usually we get a room on a higher floor, but these palms gave the room a sense of privacy, so we were happy to share the balcony with them. They came with some small greenish lizards and we did our best to make them feel welcome, or maybe it was vice versa.

On the way out of Myrtle Beach we stopped at Huntington State Park. It's a very beautiful nature preserve where you can watch egrets, herons, and other wading birds as they play cat and mouse with the alligators. No feeding of the animals is allowed, so you never can tell which one is going to try and eat someone else, people included!

We left Myrtle Beach at 11 AM for the 4 hour drive home. After several unmarked detours, a flat tire, an ignorant tow truck driver, and a couple of rain storms, we arrived home 11 hours after starting out. This is the longest ride on record from Myrtle Beach to Charlotte since about 1925. In spite of the long trip home, it was great to get away for a few days.

Hope everyone had a fabulous Fourth of July!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Still On Vacation...

Still on vacation, be back tomorrow, maybe!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy 25th Anniversary Sue!

Sue and I have been married 25 years today. What's the secret? I couldn't tell you. You'll have to ask Sue. I suspect that she will tell you that it is a committment. (She has probably thought, many times, of having me committed!) Seriously, marriage is a committment, not an obligation. It means always being there for one other with the Faith that it will all work out. And for us, it has.

That's not to say it's been one blissful joyride. To be sure, it hasn't been. And that's what makes this anniversary so very special. There was a movie once, called "Love Story." I'm sure you all remember it. "Love means never having to say you're sorry." That's bull! Love is knowing that you can say just that, and be forgiven. It's not being afraid to say that you're wrong. I've gotten quite good at it over the years.

An understanding of one anothers weaknesses, and the strength to not exploit those flaws, is essential. Recognizing the good things that each of us brings to the relationship is also very important. Partners.

Money has never been much of a problem for us, as there has never been an abundance of it. We also have always pooled our money in one account, out of which all bills are paid. There is no division of finances. We are a team. Sometimes Sue has made more than I, and other times I have made more than her. But it's always been ours.

It hasn't always been roses, and we, like everyone else, had to learn to live with things about one another that we didn't like. But for us it has worked out well. I can't imagine where I would be, or what I would be doing, had I not met Sue.

I don't know if we will ever get to our 50th Anniversary, but I do know that I wouldn't trade these last 25 years for all the tea in China. Happy Anniversary Sue, I love you.

Here is part of our honeymoon story, which I first printed here 2 years ago;

July 4th came and the wedding was for 4 o'clock at the Church with a reception to follow at the Greenspring Valley Golf and Hunt Club. We were set up in a big tent on the edge of the golf course with food catered.

My best man, Seth Herman, along with Michael Held, were both on hand at the church to handle any problems associated with Ben, who lived around the corner, should he decide to make an appearance. I think the plan was to put him in the trunk of a car until Sue and I were gone, but nothing ever did happen.

4 PM came and Sue was late and I was worried and pissed off. She arrived 10 minutes later and I took my place at the Altar as she began the march down the aisle with Keith and Shane. I was overcome with the beauty of her walking towards me to spend our lives together.

Arriving at the Altar she turned to face me and we held hands. The Pastor blessed us and did the vows. I was crying the whole time. Whether it was from release that the last 2 years were behind us or because I would never know how our courtship would’ve gone without all the problems, I can’t really say. But I was very happy when Sue said I do and the Pastor pronounced us Man and Wife.

We went to the reception and it was really very nice. The weather was just perfect- not hot and no rain. We had about 80 people in all, including my Dad and his new wife Alice. My favorite Aunt Gloria and Uncle Bobby were there also. And they had bought along Nana, my Grandmother on my Dad's side. She was very happy and smiling. It was the last time I would ever see her and I am happy to remember her like that.

Most of the reception is a blur. I remember leaving and the boys were looking a bit apprehensive, wondering if we were ever going to come back for them. They were staying with their Grandma Marlene and her husband Grant. Sue and I were going to Mexico. Our plane didn’t leave until the following morning so we stayed at the hotel by the airport.

We got in the room and Sue went to change clothes- coming out of the bathroom ready to consummate our marriage. I was busy with the envelopes we had received as presents. Sue told me to put them down, “Don’t you want to see what’s under here?” she said, referring to the sexy outfit she had on. I looked at her and said, “I know what’s under there- I want to see what’s in the envelopes!”

Fixing me with a hard look in her eyes she said, “Put the envelopes down and consummate our marriage.” I did- but then went back to the envelopes…

The next morning we flew to Cancun, Mexico. At the time Cancun was new, having just been created on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico as an economic way out of the devastation wrought by a bad hurricane a couple of years before that had virtually wasted their economy. Also the traditional tourist areas of Tijuana, Mexico City and Acapulco were plagued with crime. Cancun would be the new tourist destination. Surrounded by Inca ruins there was a lot to see and do.

Our first night was a misadventure. The hotel had us on the 7th floor with a beautiful view of the sea. But the room was sweaty- it was actually humid and there was moisture on the walls! We called the front desk and they said they would be right up. After an hour or so we called again. This time they said there was no one available to fix anything until the morning. We asked for a new room and were told there were none. We tried to stay in the room but it was really uncomfortable. Usually I would be a screaming maniac in order to get my due, but I didn’t want Sue thinking she had made a mistake in marrying me so I had to be calm.

By midnight we had finally agreed on a course of action. Taking our luggage we went down to the lobby and set up on the sofas. We even brought pillows down with us. The manager asked what we were doing. We told him we couldn’t move until the morning when our air conditioning was fixed. A room was found immediately on the 3rd floor. This was actually an improvement because we could seee the iquanas on the beach and began feeding them with the chocolate covered almonds from the snack bar in our room. At $6 a pack the iquanas were very appreciative and began hanging out beneath our windows.

The next day we began exploring, signing up for all the tours to the ruins. Sue wanted to see the Pyramids. We took a bus and headed off to see them. When we got there a little kid was selling ices and was really aggressive at it. I told him no about 10 times before he went away. Sue and I made the climb up and then back down. By this time we were sweating and thirsty. Spying the boy with the ices I went to get some. When he recognized me he said, “No ices for you Senor!” before huffily walking away. Kind of like the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld!

One day we went snorkeling and after we were through were resting at the edge of the lagoon. I saw a rowboat, abandoned and drifting towards the mouth of the lagoon. Having some sense of respect for small boats I dove in and did a power crawl type stroke to overtake the boat. I flopped into it and rowed back to shore thinking I had impressed my bride with my aquatic prowess. Sue went to use the ladies room and I went to the bar for a drink. That’s when all the exertion I had put forth hit me. I never even got to order. I passed out and slid to the floor! Sue attributes this to the ices I had eaten in a small village we passed through on the way. They were really good, but in retrospect they probably contributed to this whole ordeal.

Coming to after only a few seconds I tried to get some help but no one would pay any attention to me! I started to crawl out of the shack that was a bar on the edge of the jungle trail. I didn’t get very far before I had to stop and just lay there, sweating and heaving. The Mexicans that passed me pronounced me a “Gringo addicto,” a drug addict. The Americans who passed me by took me for a drunk Mexican. But no one would help me!

Sue was with the tour bus which was about to leave. She would not go without me and so they came back to find me. I think they were afraid of getting into trouble if they lost an American. I was carried back to the bus and the driver mixed Coca Cola with salt and made me drink it. Before long I was back to myself, but I think I scared the hell out of Sue! The rest of our time was spent in the markets and shops, buying souvenirs and gifts for the kids.

The time passed too quickly, and then we were home again. But it was a beautiful trip and made me realize how empty all my previous travels had been without someone special by my side.