Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter, Paul Rubens and Aunt Gloria

This was originally posted here on Easter Sunday 2011. It is one of my favorite paintings by Rubens, and it very easy to see why. Happy Easter!

This is a wonderful painting by Peter Paul Rubens, a German born painter. I am unsure of its name. Rubens moved to Antwerp when he was 10 years old in 1587. His works speak for themselves and he is considered to be one of the Masters of the Flemish painters, as well as one of the chief influences of the "Baroque Period."

His paintings are largely religious in their themes, and he was unique, for his time, in painting Christ as empowered, rather than as a victim. His father had been persecuted for his religious beliefs and fled from Antwerp to Germany, seeking religious freedom. It was there that Peter Paul Rubens was born in 1577. When the elder Mr. Rubens died in 1587, his widow returned, with the young Peter Paul, to Antwerp, where he was destined for great things, both as an artist, as well as a diplomat.

Rubens was fluent in Latin and Greek, and became a messenger to a noblewoman, the Countess of Lalaing. Although he disliked court life, he did make friends and forge alliances, which would be of aid to him in his later years as a diplomat.

When he returned home to Antwerp, he made the decision to become a painter. A student of three masters —Tobias Verhaecht, Adam van Noort, and Otto van Veen, he honed his skills, until in 1598 he was accepted as a Master in the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke. He was now a Master Painter at the age of 21.

By 1616 Rubens would go on to paint what is often considered to be the companion piece to this painting. It was called "Christ Risen." Google him and look at some of his extraordinary art.

Meantime; Happy Easter to all those who observe. And let the rest eat chocolates!

This cross was made for me by my favorite Aunt Gloria from her Palm Sunday palm leaf. It's going in the car... Thanks, Gloria!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

"Funny Little Bunnies" - Silly Symphony (1934)

If you’ve ever wondered how the Easter Bunny gets ahold of all that candy for the Easter Baskets, this cartoon is for you. The “Silly Symphony” series of cartoons were created by Disney Studios as a way to compete with the “Merrie Melodies” and “Looney Tunes” cartoons, both of which were produced by the main studios, and were coming to dominate the market after the heyday of Popeye and Betty Boop had passed.

Although these little cartoons lacked the chronic cast of characters pumped out by the other two studios, they did fill a niche market for cartoons which appealed to a younger audience; about 5 and 6 years old. With their splendid imagery and musical scores, they may have been short on dialogue, but they more than made up for it with the happiness they gave to so many younger children.

Happy Easter to any of the younger visitors to this site; including my own 4  grand-daughters; I hope that the Easter Bunny fills you up with all the sweetness you need to get through another year doing what you all do best; spreading that sweetness around! 

Friday, March 29, 2013

“Il Transporto di Cristo al Sepolcro” - Antonio Ciseri (1870)

“The Transport of Christ to the Sepulcher" by Antonio Ciseri is one of the most harrowing of all the paintings concerning Good Friday. It was painted over a period of 6 years, between 1864 and 1870 in Italy. Ciseri was actually born in Switzerland, but by age 12 he was studying under the tutelage of Ernesto Bonaivuti and later, Giuseppe Bezzuoli, both of whom would inform his works with their own unique styles.

In this dark and foreboding painting Christ is being carried by the Faithful to the Sepulcher, from which he would miraculously rise on what became known as Easter Sunday. The imagery is not the standard one of Christ borne on the cross; or even hung upon one. Rather, the artists intent seems to have been geared more towards humanizing Jesus as body and flesh; as someone who was once touched by others, just as he once touched them.

No matter what your religious beliefs; I happen to be Jewish; the solemnity of Good Friday, encompassing Faith within its sorrow, cannot be ignored. Without Faith, there can be no good deeds, and without good deeds there can never be Salvation. This holds true not only for Christians, but for people of any Faith who believe in something higher than just themselves.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Keith Richards and Norah Jones - "Love Hurts" (2004)

Norah Jones and Keith Richards are two of the most mercurial musicians of our time. From Ms. Jones forays with Little Willies, to her own stellar career, encompassing everything from folk to rock and even jazz, she has it all. She sings, plays and writes; making her a true triple threat.

And, when coupled with the equally mercurial Keith Richards, who plays jazz, blues and sizzling rock and roll; even when not driving the Rolling Stones; you can get some very impressive results.

Take this 2004 performance of "Love Hurts" by the duo at a memorial concert for Gram Parsons, who is often associated with this song although he did not write it. But ever since his passing, Emmylou Harris has uses it in her closing set as a tribute to this great artist.

Parsons and Richards became  friends when Richards convinced Parsons to quit the Byrds, who were about to tour South Africa, playing to segregated audiences. So,  Parsons quit the Byrds and went to live with Richards for a while after that, with the two becoming life-long friends. He even played a large part in creating the solo on “Wild Horses” from the “Sticky Fingers” album.

Here, Ms. Jones and Mr. Richards pay tribute to Mr. Parson’s with this song,  written by Felice and Boudleaux  Bryant in 1960 and first recorded by the Everly Brothers. Gram Parsons did it on his  posthumously released album "Grievous Angel", which was released sometime after 1973.    

It has become a staple in the finale of many concerts, often used to lull the audience back down from the frenzy of the evening’s entertainment. In the hands of these two fine artists however, it becomes a tribute to a great friend and well-loved songwriter. Through his music, and the people who play it, Mr. Parsons will live forever.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Colonoscopy - Not Always Routine

Last Thursday I went in for a routine Colonoscopy. For those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the term, a colonoscopy is a procedure whereby a fiber optic cable is inserted into your intestines via your anus; which is a tricky procedure at best; requiring well trained hands and eyes on the part of the doctor who performs the procedure. The only thing missing from the equation is an allowance which must be made for the doctor’s hearing, which may not always be on a par with his skill in the hands and eyes department.

To be fair, I am a difficult case. I am afflicted with a defective gene called HLA-B27, and as a result of this I have several medical conditions which turn the standard procedure of performing a colonoscopy into a tricky affair. With the patient needing to be “prepped” for the procedure by the means of a very potent chemical which makes Ex-Lax sound like a Hershey’s Kiss, the preparation can leave the patient devoid of any of their daily medications, and even open to dehydration. Such is the case with me.

Because of my medical problems I have always felt it incumbent upon myself to make these concerns and needs known well in advance; just as I did with this “procedure”. I even wrote my concerns in large block letters on each of the myriad of forms I was required to fill out prior to the event. So, in essence, everyone concerned with the performance of my colonoscopy had a veritable road map, if you will, of my medical problems, as well as any concerns I had about the course of my treatment, which was scheduled to last 3 hours, start to finish. Those concerns included extreme pain, dehydration, and the possibility of perforating my colon, which is one of the things that killed my mother.

7 hours and 45 minutes after entering the facility where my colonoscopy was being performed, I was released with my blood pressure 50% higher than normal; dehydrated; and with a bruised colon. During the procedure the doctor had come close to perforating my colon and I was rushed into another area of the building, with the doctor running alongside my wheelchair holding my IV aloft. He looked as white as a sheet at a Klan rally, which did much to ease my concerns and fears.

Some x-rays were taken and there was some whispering between the doctor and the x-ray tech before the tech insisted on having a real opinion of the x-ray rendered by the Resident doctor on call. This was done very quickly and it was decided that my colon had not been perforated, which would have resulted in a need for the same type of surgery which began my mother’s march toward death. So that was good.

The reason I am writing this is to help dispel a troubling concern I have about these procedures being done at an alarmingly increasing pace, with no regard for the individual patient and any special medical needs which our rapidly aging population may require. There seems to be no criteria for the impaired or special needs patient when it comes to a colonoscopy.

My advice; for what it may be worth; would be to perform this procedure in a hospital, where the patient can be “prepped” while attached to an IV, with any applicable daily medications infused through the IV. The patient can also recover from the procedure without the threat of having to be transferred to the hospital if they don’t “wake up.” That is exactly what happened in my case; I was scolded awake, in extreme pain, dehydrated, and being yelled at; threatened with hospitalization unless I “woke up.”

Millions of these procedures are performed each year without any problems at all. While this is laudable, it has also ushered in a sense of complacency which is completely at odds with the severe complications that may arise when dealing with a patient who is both elderly and compromised. And, it is especially galling when you have provided a “road map” showing every concern and pitfall which might be expected while dealing with your body.

The doctors who perform these procedures, and the staff who support them, all have degrees and certifications in their fields. And I respect those as emblems of their knowledge. On the other hand, I bear every scar and mark of trauma from anything which has ever happened to me. In that respect there is no greater authority on my body than I. You might say that I hold a Post Doctorate in being me. The only thing which I ask is that this knowledge be granted the same respect as I grant theirs.

Interesting note; the people at the facility where the doctor performed my procedure have called me, apologizing for the problems which occurred, and asking how I was doing. The doctor fled the scene faster than the assassins in Dealey Plaza, and in spite of a call which I have placed to his office, as of this writing, I have not heard back yet.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"Lonely are the Brave" with Kirk Douglas and Gena Rowlands (1962)

Kirk Douglas has described this film as being amongst his favorites. The story takes place in the modern day west of the early 1960’s. The Wild West had been long gone by that time, but sometimes people are unwilling, or even unable, to change with the times. Jack Burns, played by Kirk Douglas, is such a man. Riding his horse across the freeway is just one of the many ways he chooses to show his pure contempt for the modern world with its myriad of rules and excess regulations. He carries no identification, has no driver’s license, no military record, and as a matter of fact; if he weren’t standing before you; he officially would not exist.

But when he sets out in order to get arrested so that he can break his friend out of jail, he finds that though his spirit for the fight has not diminished over the years, the fight has become harder than it ever was. With all of these fences and signs and rules, a man could lose his most valuable asset; himself.

When his friend Paul Bondi; played by Michael Kane; decides to stick out his final 2 years in prison, Jack breaks out without him, igniting a manhunt which includes the Sheriff; played with great sympathy by Walter Matthau; and also the Deputy Sheriff; viciously portrayed by George Kennedy.

Throughout the movie Paul Bondi’s wife, Jerry; played by Gena Rowlands in stretch pants; is on the sidelines, rooting for her husband’s best friend, while reviling the modern world which cannot accept an individual for what he is.

In the end, when justice is served, the viewer has to wonder what justice really is. Is it just a set of rules which must be followed at all costs? And, does the crime of being true to oneself, and a set of values, ever justify squashing the individual spirit? Reminiscent in many ways of “Cool Hand Luke”, which also featured George Kennedy, and even “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, this film will stay with you long after you have watched the ending credits. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

"Smuggler Nation" by Peter Andreas (2013)

Americans have always had a strange and fascinating relationship with smuggling. From the molasses used for the making of rum, all the way to the present day and the smuggling of illicit drugs; and people; we have changed precious little over the centuries. And in this all-encompassing new book by author Peter Andreas, the reader gets a look at not only the smuggling itself; but the geo-political forces which drive it, making it possible for the drug trade to thrive even as we throw every available resource at the problem.

The author has cleverly divided the book into 5 sections; beginning with “The Colonial Era” and culminating with “The Modern Age.” While much of those two chapters were familiar to me, it was the other 3 which really put the “hook” into this book. During the Colonial Era, the average American did all within his power to avoid paying taxes on anything possible. Molasses was the chief ingredient in the making of rum, and so it was one of the first items to be smuggled to the colonies in order to avoid paying the tax imposed by the British. This is what Samuel Adams, along with many other merchants, did.

The American Revolution sort of set the template for the course of the next 2 centuries as the British threw up their blockade and we immediately began to “run” it. The main political problem which caused the blockade was twofold; first, we were in open rebellion to the Crown; second, the English and French were at war, with both sides attempting to supply their armies from America. There was also another component involved, as the blockade running served the purpose of diverting the other sides’ naval resources in their fight against one another. Of course, this put the newly founded United States in a precarious position, but trade was all important to the new nation.

The French, who were fighting with the British in the Napoleonic Wars, grew increasingly irritated with our new nation over the duplicity of our so-called “neutrality”.  The United States was supplying both sides; resulting in the brief “Quasi War” in 1798. It was also about this time when the British began to board our ships in search of contraband, as well as English citizens who had illegally emigrated to the former colonies. To do so, at the time, was against the law. This led to the War of 1812. And even in that war there was the smuggling of arms and ammunition to be dealt with.

After the War of 1812 came a period of relative posterity for America as she grew from a former colony into a respected nation. But slavery was now the issue. After the importation of new slaves was put in force, smugglers turned to the islands of Jamaica and Cuba to buy slaves illegally, who would then be transported to New Orleans, which had become the center of the illegal slave trade. As a matter of fact, New Orleans, along with the pirate brothers Jean and Pierre Lafitte, had been instrumental in winning that war. It was the first, but not the last time, that our government would turn to criminals for help in a time of war. The War of 1812 also made a millionaire of John Jacob Astor, who was engaged in the smuggling of furs through Canada. Clearly, smuggling was not only a way to make a fortune, but was also an entryway into high society.

During the Gilded Age, that era from the 1870’s through the gay Nineties, some of the most unusual smuggling took place. With “hoopskirts” being the style of dress for most women of fashion, it became commonplace for them to smuggle anything that would fit beneath their skirts. Many women came home from trips abroad with boxes of cigars suspended beneath their skirts. With no female Customs Agents to search them, it was a winning proposition. Yards and yards of silk could be wound around a woman’s body and hidden beneath her fashionable dress. The list of items smuggled in this fashion is endless.

With the end of the Gilded Era came the end of the 19th Century and many of the taboos that had defined it. The two most prevalent ones were sex and drugs. Prostitution, along with the first forms of birth control, were both banned. So, they both became extremely desirable to obtain. The trafficking in condoms was a big surprise to me. I never thought of it as something illegal, or even out of reach. But, in the later years of the 19th Century, and on through the First World War, these little devices were not only smuggled, but were also made by bootleggers.

Before latex rubber had been perfected, animal skins were the most prevalent type of condom. When the importation of them was stopped, smugglers simply turned to buying animal skins, and made them here at home. Fortunes were made. And, when the First World War broke out and the United States entered it, the government once again turned to illicit sources to provide the necessary amount of condoms to “protect” our troops while overseas.

Pornography was also a staple of the smuggler in the 19th Century. With the advent of photography had come the ability to reproduce sexual images, which were in great demand. When the problem got too prevalent, the government made up a campaign concerning “White Slavery”, as a way to scare people away pornography. Meantime, they were getting ready to pounce on liquor as the ultimate evil with an experiment called “Prohibition.” The only thing accomplished with that experiment was a mirror image of the violence and wide spread glamorization that would mark the War on Drugs some 60 years later.

When World War Two rolled around, the United Sates once again turned to the organized criminals and smugglers to help take down the Italian dictator Mussolini. Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano were involved in that effort, and rewarded with being allowed to become the largest distributors of heroin in the United States. It was the Corsican run, Marseilles based, “French Connection”, which operated for over 20 years, supplying the entire eastern coast of the United Sates with their poisonous product.

Vietnam brought new problems to the table, and by the time the United States declared an all-out “war” on drugs in 1980, many people felt the war had already been lost. And to a large extent that is true. With the passage of NAFTA in the 1980’s the distribution of drugs became even more complex and difficult to stem. And when we backed the Afghan rebels against the Soviets in the 1970’s, we really dropped the ball. We never seem to learn that working with the bad guys will always result in a bad return.

With this very thoroughly researched and well written book, Mr. Andreas has once again delivered a powerful insight into the subject of which he writes.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

"Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad" - Jerry Lee Lewis (1983)

Jerry Lee Lewis grew up in a religious atmosphere. His two cousins; the legendary Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart,  also made their fortunes entertaining people using the gospel; Mickey as a performer, and  Jimmy as a preacher; entertaining people in his own unique way. But  Jerry Lee took a slightly different path, and wound up entertaining people by playing rock and roll, with gospel music, also making a fortune in the bargain. See the difference? Neither do I.

This recording of the iconic country ballad “Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad” was evidently inspired by Mr. Lewis knowing the song; which was written in 1890; coupled with his having just recently seen the TV movie “Mr. Horn”, with David Carradine and Richard Widmark. That film was made for TV and later remade into the feature film “Tom Horn” with Steve McQueen. It’s the story of an overly idealistic frontiersman, cavalry scout and bounty hunter who takes things too far, and is hung for his excesses in 1903.

The book was originally written as a novel by William Goldman and found its way to television in the late 1970’s. Apparently, Mr. Lewis had seen the film and remembered the old gospel song from his youth. The song was written by a Baptist Minister named M.E. Abbey as a hymn, with the only written part being the chorus. The other lyrics were added later by Eliza R. Snow. Curiously the song was copyrighted in 1890 by Abbey and Tillman, with no mention of Ms. Snow’s contribution. The song has been a staple in country music for almost a century now, with recordings by just about everybody from the Carter Family to Linda Ronstadt.

The message in the song is pretty clear; life is like a mountain railway, with cliffs on one side and a steep wall of rock on the other. That’s the path of the “straight and narrow”. No room for error. The engineer is all of us, who must work hard at keeping the train on the track against the overwhelming obstacles which life constantly heaps in our path. And of course, there is always someone who watches over us, lending an unseen hand when the going gets too rough for us to handle.

"Life Is Like A Mountain Railroad"

Life is like a mountain railroad
With an engineer so brave
We must make this run successful
From the cradle to the grave
Watch the curves, the fills the tunnels
Never falter, never fail
Keep your hand upon the throttle
And your eye upon the rail.

Oh, blessed Savior, thou wilt guide us
Til we reach that blissful shore
Where the angels wait to join us
In God's grace forever more.

As you roll across the trestle
Spanning Jordan's swelling tide
You behold the union depot
Into which your train will glide
There you'll meet the superintendent
God the Father, God the Son
With a hearty, joyous greeting
Weary pilgrim, welcome home.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

"Saps at Sea" - Laurel and Hardy (1940)

“Saps at Sea” is one of the most famous of all the Laurel Hardy shorts, primarily because it speaks to the stress of the common man. Just as in Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”, in this film the workers are exploited by bosses more concerned with the bottom line than with the well-being of their fellow human beings. And, just as in real life, all people have different breaking points, as evidenced by the diverse reactions of Stan and Ollie to the constant exposure to the sound of the horns in the factory where they work.

While Stan is not at all bothered by the mundane task and repetitive noise, the more intellectually inclined Oliver is literally driven nuts by it all. When he is forced to take some time off for his mental health it becomes evident that we live in a world devoid of silence. This is a very funny look at life in the modern world. And, although over 70 years old, this film is still applicable today with the 24/7 news cycle and the ever present social media leaving us even less silence than ever before.

Friday, March 22, 2013

"Twenty Flight Rock" - Two Versions

Paul McCartney is just one of the many musicians influenced by the late, great Eddie Cochran. When Paul performed his version of “20 Flight Rock” for John Lennon in 1957, he was only 14 years old and Mr. Cochran only had a few more years to live; leaving his mark on the world of rock music forever.

Eddie Cochran was Elvis and James Dean rolled into one. Touring with Gene Vincent, he passed away on Easter Sunday, April 17, 1960 in a car crash outside of Bath, England where they had been touring, just having done a show in nearby Chippenham the night before.

His recording of “20 Flight Rock” was charged with all of the sexual innuendo of a Chuck Berry record, and infused with the sensuality of the “old”, pre-army Elvis. He looked clean, but beneath the surface; barely; there was still the rebel in him, and it showed; or rather made it-self heard in his music.

The video above is from “Chaos and Creation at Abbey Road”, which was a promotional film for the Paul McCartney album “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.” There is a shorter version with Sir Paul doing only the Eddie Cochran number, but the “big machine” will not allow me to upload that one. You can also watch the entire film on You Tube, and it’s really worth the time. Filmed in the old Abbey Road studios, and employing some of the old analog equipment which the Beatles actually used, Paul regales the audience with experiments and explanations of recording techniques, as well as entertains with some old Beatles songs and a few of his own from the album. The results are really entertaining.

Compare Paul’s version of “20 Flight Rock” with that of Eddie Cochran’s below, and see how close he nails it. Of course, the sound quality will be very different, but the music is there, even on the old film.

One of the things I love to do is compare the old versions of songs with new and different interpretations. Sometimes the beauty is in the difference; but other times the magic is in the way someone can “channel” that original energy, even after so many years. It’s a tribute to Mr. Cochran that he influenced a generation over 50 years ago, and that his music still holds validity today. Here is Mr. Cochran doing his iconic hit “20 Flight Rock” from the film "The Girl Can't Help It."

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Real Women Have Curves

I love these new mannequins. They look like real women. Not those scrawny alley-cat looking Goth models slinking down the runways at Milan or in Paris or New York. These mannequins look like real women; ones who hold real jobs, and have real kids like so many of us do. In an age where a woman is valued more for her looks than her brains, this is a very refreshing change.

As a boy growing up in the 1960’s and early ‘70’s, I was always confused at how women wished to be perceived. In the films and books of the times, women were housewives and mothers, nurses, waitresses etc. And the models were all waif-like and almost asexual; I never could get the “hots” for Twiggy.

As the women’s movement grew and changed their perceptions of themselves; in many cases freeing them from a life of few selections; something strange happened. For decades men had been accused of valuing women only for their sexuality, and men had to learn a hard lesson in how to treat women properly. Then came the confusing part; many women took Roe vs. Wade as being the apex of victory in the Feminist Movement. Indeed, it is a pet peeve of mine that women never did push further for the ERA after Roe was decided. Instead they took the sexual equality as being the victory itself, rather than merely a component of a larger goal. And until this very day, America remains one of the only industrialized nations on Earth without an Equal Pay Act for Women.

The war against women is full on in America today, with many of the leading culprits being women politicians who have been elected, in large part, by women. It will never cease to amaze me at how many women turned out the vote for Hillary Clinton as she traveled the world demanding Equal Rights for women, while remaining silent on the same issue at home. Condolezza Rice and Madeleine Albright, along with every woman congressperson and senator, all share the blame in this.

Excuse my rant; I am just happy to see that someone, somewhere, is taking a vital step towards having women view themselves through the lens of accomplishment rather than the size of their dress. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Spring Has Sprung

Well, spring has officially sprung once again, and most of the nation will be glad to see it arrive! The past winter was unpredictable and fraught with strange and dangerous weather, which we will all be glad to see gone. Here in the Charlotte area we were lucky, with only one light dusting of snow last month. The rest of the state didn't do quite as well, with some flooding and wind damage, but nothing when compared to the storm related damages elsewhere.

As you can see, we have completely re-done our backyard, extending the patio and adding a couple of fountains and a reflecting pool. We even had a few sculptures placed in order to give it a more unique flavor. Once everything begins blooming, it should be even more beautiful.

Actually, that is Stowe Botanical Gardens on Gaston County, about 40 minutes from our house. I was thinking of posting this for April Fool’s Day, but changed my mind. The gardens were spectacular, though spring was still three days away from making its arrival when I took this photo last Sunday.

Spring is a time of renewal. Everything that left for the winter comes back again. And the cycle starts all over. For me, there is a strange comfort in that; knowing that the end of one season marks the beginning of the next; somehow that makes it easier to wade through the winter months, “waiting for the sun.” 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The God Particle

The new breakthrough on the so-called “God Particle” could mean that the world will cease to exist billions of years from nw. Heck, I could’ve told you that in 1st grade. The whole story here contains the elusive Higgs boson particle, thought to be the main ingredient in “mass”; in other words the block upon which everything tangible rests. The most comical part of this whole experiment, at least for me, is the uncertainty which permeates all of their claims. Examine the quotes carefully and you will see that the latest claim is based on the previous inconclusive claim.

So, in essence, we now have proof that the earlier claim was erroneous, but in the right direction, thereby proving the latest claim, which, if you read the article all the way through ends with the assertion that “"It may be the universe we live in is inherently unstable, and at some point billions of years from now it's all going to get wiped out." Does that mean we should just stop working to make the world a better place?

I believe in science. I believe in Darwin and evolution. They make absolute sense to me. Carbon dating seems to be an accurate measure of the age of the objects which we find in archaeological digs the world over. All of those things yield a vast amount of knowledge which is of great value in understanding ourselves and how we got to be where we are today. But to spend time and money to prove that which is unprovable, and not even worthy of the result, is ludicrous.

What good is it to know that we will be unsustainable in billions of years? There is so much work to be done now in saving the planet from ourselves, and feeding the hungry; not to mention taking care of those who are physically ill; that the unproven “knowledge” of ultimate doom gained by these experiments is really worthless.

I used to sit and watch the Mercury and Gemini flights take off during our “race” to the Moon with great excitement. Nothing came of it. And we’re getting ready to go back, though no one has adequately explained to me what for.  I love science, and I believe in furthering man’s knowledge about his beginnings.

The Egyptians had the Book of the Dead and concentrated on the next life, thus speeding the decline of their empire. The Christians have the Apocalypse to look forward to, thus engendering a fight with the Islamics who share the same fatalistic view of humanity. Their course of action already has us on that path,  and making good time towards a future based on conjecture at best;  superstition at the worst. And now science has joined in on the chorus of doom and gloom.

Just as many millions of others around the world, I would love to know where we are heading. But first, I want to fix the here and now. And the atom smashing experiments; with their unfounded predictions of ultimate demise; leaving us only billions of years to exist, prove to me that we've still got plenty of time.

Here is the article which prompted me to write whatever it is that I just wrote;

A newfound particle discovered at the world's largest atom smasher last year is, indeed, the Higgs boson, the particle thought to give other matter its mass, scientists reported today (March 14) at the annual Rencontres de Moriond conference in Italy.

Physicists announced on July 4, 2012, that, with more than 99 percent certainty, they had found a new elementary particle weighing about 126 times the mass of the proton that was likely the long-sought Higgs boson. The Higgs is sometimes referred to as the "God particle," to the chagrin of many scientists, who prefer its official name.

But the two experiments, CMS and ATLAS, hadn't collected enough data to say the particle was, for sure, the Higgs boson, the last undiscovered piece of the puzzle predicted by the Standard Model, the reigning theory of particle physics.

Now, after collecting two and a half times more data inside the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) — where protons zip at near light-speed around the 17-mile-long (27 kilometer) underground ring beneath Switzerland and France — physicists say the particle is the Higgs. [In Photos: Searching for the Higgs Boson]

"The preliminary results with the full 2012 data set are magnificent and to me it is clear that we are dealing with a Higgs boson though we still have a long way to go to know what kind of Higgs boson it is," said CMS spokesperson Joe Incandela in a statement.

Dave Charlton, ATLAS spokesperson agreed, the new results "point to the new particle having the spin-parity of a Higgs boson as in the Standard Model," referring to a quantum property of elementary particles.

To confirm the particle as the Higgs boson, physicists needed to collect tons of data that would reveal its quantum properties as well as how it interacted with other particles. For instance, a Higgs particle should have no spin and its parity, or the measure of how its mirror image behaves, should be positive, both of which were supported by data from the ATLAS and CMS experiments.

Even so, the scientists are not sure whether this Higgs boson is the one predicted by the Standard Model or perhaps the lightest of several bosons predicted to exist by other theories.

Seeing how this particle decays into other particles could let physicists know whether this Higgs is the "plain vanilla" Standard Model Higgs. Detecting a Higgs boson is rare, with just one observed for every 1 trillion proton-proton collisions. As such, the LHC physicists say they need much more data to understand all of the ways in which the Higgs decays.

From what is known about the particle now, physicists have said the Higgs boson may spell the universe's doom in the very far future. That's because the mass of the Higgs boson is a critical part of a calculation that portends the future of space and time. Its mass of 126 times the mass of the proton is just about what would be needed to create a fundamentally unstable universe that would lead to a cataclysm billions of years from now.

"This calculation tells you that many tens of billions of years from now there'll be a catastrophe," Joseph Lykken, a theoretical physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., said last month at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"It may be the universe we live in is inherently unstable, and at some point billions of years from now it's all going to get wiped out," added Lykken, a collaborator on the CMS experiment.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Warren Haynes with Joe Bonamassa - Live (2011)

This is Warren Haynes performing at the 2011 King of the Blues Finals with Joe Bonamassa at the House of Blues in Los Angeles on September 1st 2011. I ran across the video on Facebook in a posting by a mutual friend, Charles Calloway. The video immediately blew me away. The interplay between these two fine guitarists will mesmerize you as they work around one another, creating tension in a musical duel, and then wrapping it all up together in tandem.

While reminiscent of many fine guitarists; and remaining true to the roots of blues; these two have managed to create a unique style of their own. Being totally unfamiliar with both of these artists, I immediately turned to google to find out what I could about them.

Individually they have both been pushing the boundaries of music since very early ages, with Joe receiving his first guitar at age 4, and playing Stevie Ray Vaughn riffs by age 7. Meantime, future fellow guitar player Warren Haynes received his first guitar at age 12. His preference is the ’58 Gibson Les Paul, most likely because of the influence of Duane Allman, who played the ’58 model, rather than the ’59 usually employed by other musicians such as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. There is actually a tonal difference in these two models of the Les Paul, primarily due to the wood used in their construction. I’ll have to look into that one a bit further.

In terms of age, the two are separated by 17 years, with Joe being the younger of the two, born in 1977. Joe was raised in a 4th generation musical family. His parents owned a music store in the town of New Hartford, New York. He credits his great-grandfather and grandfather with his talent and love for music. They played trombone and guitar. So, he comes by his talents naturally. It’s in the genes. He has played with B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Beth Hart, Paul Rodgers, Leslie West, Jon Lord, Vince Gill, Sandi Thom and Glenn Hughes, to name a few. A founding member of the group Bloodline, he has been active in the music scene for almost 2 decades.

Warren Haynes was born in 1960 and has been a longtime guitarist for the Allman Brothers Band, as well as a member of the group Government Mule. Originally from Asheville, North Carolina, he has spent many years performing with artists as diverse as Dicky Betts, David Allan Coe, and the Phil Lesh Friends group. His preference in guitar is the Gibson Firebird and Gibson ES-335, although he sometimes plays a Les Paul.

Just a short bit of biography on these two fine guitarists. Music is multi-generational, and a constantly evolving process. As technology changes musicians are able to push the boundaries of sound further and further, creating newer and more exciting sounds with each passing year. When that technology is used to further a long established genre; such as the blues; the results can take the listener, as well as the musician, to greater and greater heights. This performance by Mr. Haynes and Mr. Bonamassa is a fine example. Thanks, Charles! 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

"All Standing" by Kathryn Miles (2013)

I usually post music on Sundays, but since this is St. Patrick’s Day I offer a review of this new book by Kathryn Miles. It concerns a ship called the Jeannie Marie and the Irish famine of the late 1840’s, which is why one part of my multi-ethnic family came to America in the first place. Erin go Bragh. (Éirinn go Brách.)

Cast aside all you think you may know about the Great Potato famine which struck Ireland in the late 1840’s, leading to a mass exodus of Irish immigrants to America, when you read this fascinating account of what you don’t know about it. And there’s quite a bit, beginning with the oft held, and incorrect, notion that the blight began in Ireland. It didn't.

In an all-encompassing book about the famine, author Kathryn Miles strips away the myths and presents the realities in clear and concise terms. And, in doing so, she has written a wide ranging account of how, where and why the blight hit Ireland the hardest. Even that revelation sets the reader back; wasn't the potato famine confined to just Ireland? What has Europe to do with it; or Canada and America for that matter? Throw in South America and some bat guano bound for the farmlands of New York, mix in a bit of timber from Canada bound for Europe in the holds of the bat guano infested ships, and you have a worldwide pandemic. So, in essence, the Irish were the main victims in this world wide saga of trade, greed and corruption, capped off by total ignorance of how this disease was formed and spread.

Exploring the nature of commerce in the early part of the 19th Century can be very interesting, as the world powers became what they are today. The Industrial Revolution was just a stone’s throw away in years at the time of these events; which encompass not only the story of the famine and its social consequences; but also tells the story of a remarkable vessel and the man who built her.

That man, John Munn, is the hero of this book, and the owner/builder of the Jeanie Marie. While all of the other ship builders were continuing to build their ships just as they had for decades; with no room to stand erect below decks; Mr. Munn was constructing the Jeanie Marie at his own expense in order to keep his workers from being unemployed. With this simple act of kindness a ship was born like no other in her time. While the other “coffin” ships; as they were known due to the rate of death among the passengers; were losing hundreds of immigrants per voyage due to a lack of fresh air in the holds, as well as a diet not fit to sustain them, Mr. Munn designed his vessel so people could stand erect below decks. He also initiated another great idea; feed them.

When the Jeanie Marie left Canada on her maiden voyage bound for Liverpool, she passed Grosse Ile, the anchorage for the quarantined passengers. There were 84 present as the Jeannie Marie left on her outward voyage. In addition to the famine, these ships held passengers who were sick with typhus, as well as dehydration and mal-nutrition caused by the meager shipboard diets with which they were provided.

Earl Grey is the real villain in this tragedy. He actually commissioned barges; totaling 43,000 sq. ft. apiece; to be constructed in the harbor at Liverpool, accommodating approximately 40,000 refugees on each barge, or 1 sq. ft. per person. People were forced to sleep in shifts even as they were dying of the fever; and in some cases even the healthy were confined to this pestilent atmosphere where they were sure to become sick also. This illness, along with the rigors of the voyage awaiting them to Canada, meant many would never make it. With little room to stand; and ships Captains who exploited the passengers with rotten food; hundreds died on each voyage. I shall never drink his tea again.

As Commissioner of the Poor, Earl Grey did virtually nothing to aid these people. The British considered it to be a problem for Canada and the United States to resolve. And the United States merely let the passengers land and then fend for themselves. In many cases they were exploited as manual labor, from the big cities of New York to the building of the transcontinental railroad.

This book is a long overdue look at the so-called “Irish” potato famine, as well as homage to the thousands upon thousands of immigrants who didn't complete their journeys. The scars of the famine ran deep for many decades after, and in a myriad of ways contributed to the later Irish struggle for freedom in the early 20th century, beginning with “Bloody Sunday” in 1916.

A remarkable book for the light it sheds upon the true origins of the blight which caused the potato famine to begin with, it is also an indictment of a system which exploited a whole nation of people in order to enrich themselves. The biggest lesson to be learned here is that of not keeping all of your eggs in one basket. Had the Irish simply been allowed, or encouraged, to vary their crops, the whole history of the famine would be drastically different. But then again, there would be far fewer Irish pubs in New York, and there wouldn't be a St. Patrick’s Day Parade. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

"Thicker Than Water" with Laurel and Hardy (1935)

This was the last “two-reeler” made by Oliver and Hardy, the iconic comedy duo of the 1920’s and 30’s. During the 1950’s, when I was growing up, these films were shown on TV each afternoon, right after the Three Stooges. Then it was time to eat dinner. You can imagine the problems attendant to expecting your child to act civilized at the table after watching an hour of those two acts! Food fight comes to mind.

In this story, Ollie is in hot water with the wife over some money that was supposed to be used to make a payment on their furniture. He lent it to Stan, who in turn paid Mrs. Hardy for his room and board. Stan then convinces Ollie that it would be a much better idea if he were to simply use his savings account to pay for the furniture outright. This sets off a chain of events which leads to a very funny climax.

While watching the interplay between Stan and Ollie with Daphne Pollard as Mrs. Hardy, and James Finlayson as the furniture man, I couldn’t help but notice how much Abbott and Costello, as well as the Three Stooges, were influenced in some of their routines. “Who’s on First?” is just a variation on a theme first used by Laurel and Hardy. And the tedious tasks which always lead to slapstick comedy in the Three Stooges films can all be traced back to Laurel and Hardy as well.

In modern times; for me being the 1960’s; Stan Laurel’s influence on Dick Van Dyke could not be denied. He even received a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award at the Oscars in 1961, just 4 years before his death. Hey, in comedy, timing is everything.

Stan Laurel was Charlie Chaplin’s understudy in the British Comedy Troupe led by Fred Karno and appeared with him in “Fred Karno’s Army". He even came to America with Chaplin in 1916 when Fred Karno took the troupe to America. The two quickly became immersed in the silent films which were being turned out and both went on to become comic legends, with Laurel even winning an Academy Award in 1932 for his appearance in “The Music Box.” He remained a British citizen until his death.

Oliver Hardy was born in Harlem, Georgia which is the site of the Laurel and Hardy Museum. He attended the University of Georgia where he studied Law, sang, and danced ballroom style. For a man of his physical stature he is said to have been extremely graceful and light on his feet. Approached by the Lubin film Company to play the role of a large man in one of their silent films, he soon “caught the bug” and headed to California where he teamed up with Stan Laurel.

This film was directed by James W. Horne and produced by the Hal Roach Studios for Metro Goldwyn Mayer. The following link will take you to the Laurel and Hardy website and museum, which is based in Harlem, Georgia where Oliver Hardy was born.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Ides of March

One of the most oft used and overly simplified phrases in the English language comes from “Julius Caesar”, the play by William Shakespeare. There has never, in my memory, been a March 15th that has passed without someone making reference to the phrase “Beware the Ides of March!” We all know, or should know, that on this date in 44 B.C., Julius Caesar, the Emperor of the not yet “Holy” Roman Empire was assassinated by a group of Senators, including his trusted friend Brutus. But that’s about as far as the average person can tell you about the date, or the event; including me. So, I decided to google around a bit and see if I could come up with a more satisfactory explanation of the date and the phrase. Here is what I have found;

In Rome, before the advent of Christianity, there was a festival held each March 15th to celebrate a woman named Anna Perenna. Just who she was, and whether she really existed is a bit of conjecture involving mythology and also the Roman poet Ovid. He wrote a book of Greek myths which he called “Metamorphoses.” She was also written about by the poet Virgil. In Ovid’s he tells 2 stories about her, which to my un-classically educated mind will require further study to fully comprehend. In his book there was a woman by that name who gave cakes to the Plebeians, who were driven from Carthage in 494 B.C. The Plebeians were the working class, subject to the whims of the more successful Patricians, who comprised the Ruling Class in Rome. Her act of mercy caused her to flee as well after the suicide of her sister Dido. Who Dido was and why she committed suicide is still a nystery to me, but something I will likely look into in the future.

According to Ovid, once Anna arrived in Latium, she ticked off the wife of Aeneas, and then fled, afterward being carried off by someone named Numicus, who was the god of a stream. When Aeneas' servants went to find her, they were able to track her as far as the river, where they found that she had been turned into a water nymph.

It is believed by some historians, that Caesar was killed on the Ides of March because on that day he would have been alone with his leading Senators, while the general populace was off celebrating the holiday. Ovid even wrote about this theory, opining "On the Ides of March the plebs celebrated the Annae festum geniale Perennae near the banks of the Tiber. Rome was, therefore, empty of the lower classes. Is this why the nobles chose the day for the assassination of Julius Caesar?" (Ovid, Fasti iii. 523-42, 675-96).

And then, of course, is the now famous exchange between Caesar and a soothsayer in Shakespeare's immortal play as he left the theater, bound for the Senate, where he was warned not to go;

Caesar:  Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry "Caesar!" Speak, Caesar is turn'd to hear.
Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
Caesar: What man is that?
Brutus: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
(Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2, 15-19)

All of this has left me with more question than answers, and in the process, has left me doubly beware of the Ides of March!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

"Heaven" by Los Lonely Boys (2003)

Los Lonely Boys is one those groups of musicians who make up the rules as they go along. They meld the rhythms of salsa with pop music, and even some country, to bridge cultures and create their own unique sound. This live performance captures the group’s style perfectly; they take their music seriously; but never lose sight of the real goal, which is to make good music while enjoying them-selves.

I wanted to post the Spanish language version of this song, but it is not available on You Tube. On their first album they did a double sided disc, with DVD performances on the reverse side. Every song sung in English was so much better when captured in Spanish. Even without knowing all of the words, the melody is carefully nuanced, and the message of the song is never lost.

I’m taking a day off today; well actually not if I’m posting this. I just mean that today is a day to enjoy the early spring weather with a good book outside. The music is an added bonus. Have a great Thursday if you are reading this, and I will see you here tomorrow. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Melvin the Moon Man, Monopoly and Money

I really don’t remember what made me think of this old board game from 1959, but I did, and it brought back some great memories. I was about 4 years old at the time, and apart from “Candyland”, this is the first board game which I remember playing. Monopoly and Scrabble were staples in my home, but I was way too young to understand those games. My parents, like so many in the 1950’s, had friends over on Saturday nights to play games like Parcheesi and Monopoly. It seems that no one does that anymore.

The point of the game was to traverse the board, which is a replica of the moon’s surface; complete with craters; accumulating “Moonbucks” as you went along. Movement around the board was controlled by a dice cage which tumbled two dice which determined how many spaces your “spaceman” could move. At the end of the game the astronaut with the most money was the winner. I actually learned to count on this game, which used denomination of ones and fives for currency. 

When I say that I learned to count, I don’t mean to imply that I was stacking up bills like the banker at a blackjack table, but I did learn to count the pieces of paper I accumulated in my rounds. I think my brother and I counted all the bills as ones to determine the winner. He may have been older than me, but at 5 and a half he couldn't count any better that I could at 4, so it all worked out.

Anyway, I was thinking about the Melvin the Moon Man and the Moonbucks used in the game; probably in a subconscious response to the news about the Federal Budget and deficits. I kind of believe that money is an abstract, with no intrinsic value of its own, after all there isn't enough money; or even precious metals; in the world to cover all of the expenditures we have made and now owe money for.

 Well, what is money? It’s merely a system by which we keep count of our transactions. When the Indians ruled the continent they used wampum, a certain pinkish part of shell which they all agreed was “special”, and therefore valuable. That’s what we need today; something which we can all agree upon to accept in exchange for the goods and services which we use. So, I advocate the “point system”.

Simply put, since there is not enough real money to go around, we need to create some without risking inflation, or loss of wealth to anyone who already has that attribute. It’s an admirable thing to create wealth; just as it is equally despicable to prevent those less fortunate from surviving in a decent manner.

Remember Monopoly? I always liked that game; you got $1,500 to start out with. It came from the “bank” which, presumably, just printed it. We did this aboard ship one time and actually had to “print” our own additional bills to cover the $1,500 for all of the players. Different caliber bullets were used in place of the different pieces which came with the game. If you had one of the real pieces, it meant you had been in from the start, or else purchased your place at the table from another player. That was usually a cigarette - left or right handed – both were accepted as currency.

Simply put, doing away with “real” money; which has no real value, being backed by nothing; and replacing it with Moonbucks or Monopoly money would be a viable answer to almost every problem imaginable.  That this can all be done without bankrupting anyone, or redistributing anyone’s private wealth makes it all the more attractive as a solution.

Under this plan, all debts would be reduced to zero. There would be no balances left on credit cards. This will put people at risk of bankruptcy on an even keel, and spark some buying amongst the people who have been waiting out the “recession” before buying that new car or truck. People who own their homes get to keep them, but must keep paying the mortgage. People with equity get to retain their equity. People who rent and are in debt would get debt forgiveness and a stipend of about $25,000 in Moonbucks, or Monopoly money to start them off.

Just think about it before you laugh. I am not advocating socialism, communism, or any other “ism” for that matter. I’m just trying to let everyone know that money is only valuable as long as we all agree to accept it as such. Meaning that money; when not backed by enough “precious” metals; is worthless, just as Moonbucks or Monopoloy money is. It only has purchasing power because you have it.

For those afraid that most people would choose not to work; be assured that their 25,000 “points” would cover the necessary expenses to keep those people out of poverty without costing you a cent. If they do decide to work, they get to add to that, increasing their purchasing power. Rich people remain rich without the necessity of having people living in the streets, or families without a roof over their heads.

Taxes would be a thing of the past as they are currently levied; you could go to a fee based economy instead; with those who work using their points towards roads and transportation to get them to work. The ones who choose to remain at home would still have access to light rail and buses which would be manned by the same people who man them now. So, if you have money, or a job, or both; you’re not threatened in anyway.

Well, it will probably never happen; although I do believe that it is the only alternative left. We have tried everything else to no avail, and the catchphrase “There has to be a certain amount of poor people for there to be rich people” is just not true. Imagine, under my plan, you could actually cut out the “money” printed here and spend it. Laugh if you will, but Melvin would understand. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"The Slaves' Gamble" by Gene Allen Smith (2013)

When the War of 1812 broke out, the slaves being held by the American colonists were faced with a very serious choice. Should they stand by their owners (which was/is a horrible way to describe another human being) or, rather, should they align themselves with the British, forming a devastating rearguard action which surely would have altered the course, and fate, of the war in favor of the British. They were promised their freedom in return. And who could blame them if they chose that course of action? Freedom is a very seductive incentive.

It is really very hard to draw any firm conclusion as to the intentions of the slaves during the war. While some of the stories recounted in this fascinating book about a long overlooked chapter of American history would indicate that the slaves were looking to the British for salvation; as with the slaves who fled Washington, unwittingly forming a “rear guard” for the British soldiers; other stories show that many African-Americans; both slave and freedmen; stayed the course with their fellow countrymen.

As a matter of fact, the largest obstacle which faced the British Army as they converged on Washington was the presence of an artillery battery manned by both black and white sailors, who had scuttled their ship and then hauled the guns overland to Washington in defense of the capitol. If the white militias had not run from their posts, Washington may not have been burned.

Filled with the flavor of the era in which the events took place, the author has done a magnificent job in telling the story of historical figures, who, until now, may have ended up lost in the dust heap of history. My favorite character in this whole ensemble has got to be George Roberts, an African-American who worked aboard the privateers who were running the British blockade. Aboard the Sarah Ann, cruising off the Bahamian coast, he was taken prisoner with 5 other men; all chosen at random; by the British, who accused them of being from English citizens. The ships owners in Charleston vouched for him and he was released, and in 1814 became a crew member on the privateer Chausseur until April of 1815, after the war had ended the previous December.

The story of the Chausser would make an excellent book all upon its own merit. For 8 months that ship lurked off the coast of the British Isles, raiding, sinking and capturing a total of 17 ships, impacting the British where it hurt most; in the pocket. At one point Captain Boyle of the Chausseur had a notice posted upon the door of Lloyds of London, which drove up shipping rates. He also declared the British Isles to be under blockade; which indeed they were! Its stories like this which bring history to life, giving it the human dimension which helps to keep it from being lost. While it’s easy to forget the dates of any particular exploit; authors such as Mr. Smith, make certain that the events themselves will live on forever.

Another aspect of this book which was educational, as well as entertaining; was that the burning of Washington by the British was not done out of sheer cussedness; which is how we all learned about it in school; but was, rather, done in retaliation for the Americans having previously burned down part of Quebec.
In the final analysis, the slaves were pawns in the struggle between the Americans and the British. The choices which they were forced to make placed them on both sides of the conflict, whether they wanted to be, or not. It would be another 4 decades before African-Americans would get another chance to prove themselves in battle for a country which treated them as chattel. And even that war would not free them from the bondage of their color. That would come later, as men and women began to see one another in terms other than the shade of their skins, and instead by the things they did. These men and women all contributed something of value to a struggle which still continues today.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Midnight - Cat Napping at Noon

This is Midnight, doing what he does best, which is sleeping. That is when he's not eating. It's a lazy day with just a hint of Spring coming and he knows it. Gone are the cold winter nights and the chill of the days. This is life as it was meant to be lived; curled up, dead to the world; basking in the relative warmth of the afternoon.

It's not easy being a cat; especially my cat. He never gets to come inside; no pun intended, as he is a real life "tomcat"; he has no real friends and is always on the lookout for the coyotes and other airborne predators which inhabit the same world as he does. We have reached a mutual understanding, with respect for one another's quirks. He has come into the house a few times; but just as quick as Huckleberry Finn could shuck a pair of shoes, he was gone. His favorite song has got to be "Don't Fence me In."

I'm terribly allergic to cats, and do all I can to stay away from them. But this guy captured my heart about a year and a half ago when someone abandoned him and he needed to be fed. The neighbors all warned me, but I wouldn't listen. No matter, I needed a friend. And each morning; although he still does not bring me my paper; he is at the door waiting for his tuna, having eaten all his dry food during the earlier hours. And each morning I fill it back up.

About 9:30 we both take a nap; he sleeps on the porch while I retire to the bedroom. And when I wake up, he is almost always awake and waiting for me to brush his fur with a corn broom. That's about as close as I can get to petting him. But through the handle of that broom Midnight and I have formed an unlikely bond. He depends upon me to feed him; I just depend upon his being there. And you know, we never let one another down.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

"Let It Be" - The Beatles (1970)

On January 31, 1969 the Beatles, along with organist Billy Preston, recorded the first complete version of “Let It Be.” Written by Paul McCartney in memory of his mother, who was named Mary, the song is about   her, and her death from cancer in 1956, when McCartney was about 14 years old. 

The song was composed after he had a dream about her; of which he said; "It was great to visit with her again. I felt very blessed to have that dream. So, that got me writing “Let It Be." He had interpreted the dream as being about the problems the Beatles were having as a group and he felt that his mother was telling him that, "It will be all right, just let it be."

The song was first recorded by The Beatles, but was first released by Aretha Franklin in January 1970; one year after it was recorded by the band; but still several months before it would be released on The Beatles own album. The reason for this was that the “Let It Be” album got hung up in legal disputes, resulting in its being released after the band’s last album, “Abbey Road”, which was recorded in the summer of 1969 and released in September. Many people still think that “Let It Be” is The Beatles final album, but that is incorrect.

This song has been recorded by hundreds of artists over the years; including a wonderful rendition by Ray Charles; but this version, with its very personal connection to the singer/songwriter will always ring the truest in my ears.

The song itself is about surrendering to a higher power; one that will help make things right; if you will only have faith and “Let It Be.” And, sometimes, in our lives, when we are confronted by the roiling waters of the rapids that beat all about us, that is all we can do. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

"Fly My Kite" with Hal Roach and His Rascals (1931)

This is probably the first “Little Rascals”/”Our Gang” episode which I remember watching. It’s interesting to note that the name on the credits is “Hal Roach and His Rascals.” They went through two more changes in name as the years passed, finally becoming known mainly as “The Little Rascals.”

In this 1931 episode, “Grandma”, who is really just an old lady in the neighborhood, is having her usual day of fun with the neighborhood kids. She reads to them, feeds them and even boxes with them. The children are all from poor families and presumably the parents are all out working during the day, leaving the children at “loose ends.” She is the anchor which holds their little world in place.

Grandma’s son-in-law, a mean fellow named Dan, has promised to let Grandma stay in her home until she passes away. He had previously broken Grandma’s daughter’s heart with his philandering ways, which she blames for causing her daughter’s early death. With no money of her own to live on, she is forced to accept the promise that Dan will always take care of her.

But when Dan and his new girlfriend arrive at the home unexpectedly, they find Grandma roughhousing with the neighborhood kids. The girlfriend tells Dan that unless Mom moves out, she won’t move in. Grandma, hearing the arrival of the cab with Dan and his girlfriend in it, tells the kids to hide.

When Dan tells Grandma that he is kicking her out and sending her to the poorhouse, all seems lost. As Dan leaves the home he checks the mail, finding a letter informing Grandma that she is in possession of some gold bonds which will make her secure for the rest of her life. Dan takes the letter to an attorney who informs him that the bonds are transferrable and worth about $100,000; more than Grandma can ever hope to use in the few years remaining to her. He quickly returns to her home in an attempt to retrieve the bonds. Meantime, Grandma, while packing her belongings, has given the worthless bonds to “Chubby” for a tail on his kite.

Dan rushes home from the lawyer, and once there, he crushes Grandma’s glasses and reads the letter to her, informing her that the bonds she once held are worthless. But he’s in for quite a surprise when she informs him that the bonds have “gone up”. When he realizes that she has given the bonds to “Chubby”, he rushes outdoors to retrieve the kite, and the bonds. Meantime, Grandma, while packing her belongings, has seen the letter through the “lens” created by the fishbowl where the letter has been laying and dispatches the children to help “Chubby” retain the now valuable kite.

These films were the basis for many of life’s lessons in morality, honesty and hard work. In spite of the stereotyping of everyone in these films; the helpless old Grandma; the fat kid “Chubby”; the racist portrayal of Stymie and Buckwheat; and even the villainous son-in-law, complete with an evil looking moustache; were a staple each morning before I went to school. And, sometimes I think I learned more about life from these old films than I ever did in in class.

Friday, March 8, 2013

"For Greater Glory" with Andy Garcia and Peter O'Toole (2012)

In 1917, as the United States went to war with Germany, Mexico had a Revolution. The new President, Plutarco Calles, had promised all kinds of land reforms, but by 1926 he was instituting some of the most draconian laws ever imposed on the citizens of Mexico. He outlawed the Catholic Church, making it a crime to worship in public and even in the privacy of one’s own home. To ensure that his edict was enforced he sent out troops to pillage the churches and hang the Priests.

Economic boycotts were used at first to bring down the regime, but this action only inflamed President Calles further, sparking even more killings.

Peter O’Toole plays the Priest who is executed for continuing to hold mass, and his death sparks a nascent movement, turning it into a full blown conflict between the Mexican people and their government. That conflict would echo around the world, moving officials at the Vatican to implore President Calvin Coolidge to undertake some sort of diplomatic role in the conflict just south of our border.

The League for Religious Liberty (LNDR) sprang into life, with soldiers and citizens working clandestinely to arm the citizens and take back their churches. With the aid of a sympathetic General Gorostieta, who is played by Andy Garcia, the group becomes powerful and threatening to the established government. The General is not religious, but is married to a very devout Catholic, played by Eva Longoria, who does not believe in violence and is torn by the actions of her husband, who believes in the freedom of worship.

Expertly written by Michael Love, this movie is as pertinent today as it was when the actual events took place almost 100 years ago. Able acting by all, including Eva Longoria, the film raises timeless questions about freedom and morality, as well as the responsibility of governments to protect their people, and not exploit them.

Based upon the true life events of the movement which became known as the “Cristiada”; which restored religious freedom to the people of Mexico; the movie calls to mind a question which still baffles us today. When is it right to fight against religion; and is it ever right to fight for it? 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Andrew Jackson

There are quite a few of our earlier Presidents, who, unlike Washington and Jefferson, were not raised on plantations, but rather came from the ranks of the settlers who were expanding our borders through sheer sweat and hard toil. Abe Lincoln comes immediately to mind in this regard. His boyhood home has been long gone, although there is a cabin at Knob Creek in Kentucky which belonged to a neighbor which is similar to the one in which Lincoln would have been born. Andrew Jackson’s story is somewhat the same.

Jackson, our 7th President, was born in Waxhaw, which is on the border of North and South Carolina, making it hard for historians to accurately pin down the exact location, on March 15, 1767, just in time for the Revolutionary War. Although too young to serve as a soldier; as did his 2 brothers; he did serve as a courier in the final year of the war when he was 13.

This was the year in which a British officer ordered him to clean his boots, which the young Jackson refused to do. The British officer used his sword on the boy, leaving him with a severe gash in his hand. The hand would heal, but his hatred of the British would remain with him until his death. This was also the year in which he lost both his brothers and his mother to smallpox and ships fever, leaving him orphaned at the age of 14. For the next few years he lived with relatives and served time apprenticing as a saddle maker.

The Andrew Jackson State Park is located just about where he was born. There is no structure to replicate his boyhood home, although there is a small school cabin which served the children in the area when they were not working on the family farms.

The biggest attraction at the site is the massive sculpture done by Anna Hyatt Huntington. It’s an equestrian statue, showing Jackson astride a horse, much as he is often depicted at the battle of New Orleans in 1814. It’s a quiet and peaceful place with campgrounds, walking trails and even a lake for fishing. There is a modest $2 charge to enter the grounds, but it’s worth it.

It’s interesting to compare the palatial Presidential “Libraries” of today; which began in the late half of the 20th Century; to these old homesteads, where so little remains to note the humble beginnings of some of our most illustrious Presidents. There is often much more to be said by the quiet and contemplative surroundings of these parks than by all of the documents, films and holograms which can be viewed at those more “modern” facilities. Sometimes, when viewing the past through the lens of modern technology, more becomes less; and the story of the individual becomes obscured.  In the quiet surroundings of this State Park, I found the soul of Andrew Jackson.