Saturday, November 29, 2008

Play that thing

I think it’s interesting the way the guitar became the musical instrument of my generation. For previous generations, if there was an instrument it was the piano, but for the most part singers just sang. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, et al. – they had orchestras or large bands backing them up, but they themselves just sang.

And indeed, many early rock and rollers “just sang.” Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Darin (and all the other Bobbys – Vee, Vinton, Rydell, Sherman), Barry Manilow (who actually played the piano), the various singing groups – the Drifters, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Four Seasons – all of these people were more or less carrying on the tradition of the singers from the 30s, 40s and early 50s. They were just singing a different kind of song.

But beginning with Bill Haley and the Comets, and continuing through people like Elvis, Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson, the folk singers of the 60s, British Invasion groups of the mid-60s, the psychedelic groups of the late 60s and early 70s, holding a guitar while you sang was de rigueur, and I’m wondering why. Perhaps, in the case of early rockers, because so many of them were influenced by black blues singers, who generally played a guitar while they sang. So did country and western singers, who were also, no doubt, an influence.

Whatever the reason, the music of my generation became defined by the guitar. Females could swoon over Eric Clapton as he sang; males could admire the way he played the guitar. Indeed, in some way I think playing the guitar made being a singer more manly! I suppose we could get all Freudian and point out how much like an extension of the infamous male “member,” as they say in discreet novels, a guitar can seem. Especially the way some men hold it, wrestle with it, lead with it. In her rather tepid autobiography, Wonderful Tonight, Patty Boyd mentions the time that her then-husband George Harrison in effect challenged her soon-to-be husband Eric Clapton to a guitar duel. The two men tried to play one another into the ground – “I’m better at this than you!” That, of course, is the age-old competitiveness that comes out in men no matter what they skate boarding! Can you remember when skate boarding was just a silly thing young boys did for fun? Now there are extreme skate board competitions. And dueling guitars.

The other night I watched the 30th anniversary concert of Tom Petty on the late night program Sound Stage. Petty has a sort of whiny, nasally voice and perpetually stoned manner that do not particularly appeal to me, but he’s a pretty good guitarist, when he’s not strutting around, and he had a really great lead guitarist playing with him, whom he introduced as Mike Campbell. Often these “other guys in the band” are fantastic musicians, who are a real pleasure to listen to when they get their minute and a half of solo time. Both when both men were playing solos, and when they were engaged in intense “duets”, I got the sense that this was when they felt most successful, most like Big Men.

To my mind, a better arena for proving oneself than the football field. And the music they produced really rocked.

Not long ago I caught a rerun of the Eric Clapton Crossroads concert that was held in Chicago in July, 2007. While the big emphasis was on blues, of which I am not a huge fan (another thing I’ve occasionally wondered is why both blues and jazz are so much more popular with men than with women), there were all these guitars, and terrific guitarists, and the audience was absolutely loving it. As the concert went on, it became more rock oriented. Wimpy rocker John Mayer, whose singing has never done anything for me, proved himself a really excellent guitarist. I was also really impressed by the playing of Derek Trucks (and how’s that for an unlikely name). This guy looks and acts like one of the “other guys in the band,” even though he has his own group. But I was just knocked out by his playing, as was the audience.

That’s what it all comes down to in the end, the music, the rhythmic, wailing sounds that lots of love and lots of practice produce. No different from a great violinist or classical pianist, but this was “our music.” Our instrument.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Oswald's Ghost

Last night I watched the program “Oswald’s Ghost” on PBS. Yes, yet another show about the Kennedy assassination. I found fascinating the statistic, given at the end, that 70% of Americans still believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone, that there was, indeed, some kind of conspiracy. I myself have always found it difficult to believe that this man who came across as somewhat stupid (he wasn’t, actually) would have done this all on his own, but the hard evidence really does seem to point to that being the case. Indeed, the historian Priscilla Johnson McMillan, who wrote a book about Oswald and his wife Marina, insists that not only was Oswald capable of carrying out such an act on his own, his personality and history were such that it was highly unlikely he would do it with anyone else. He was the proverbial loner, turned killer.

Of course, like everyone else who was above the age of 10 on Nov. 22, 1963, I know exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news. As I was coming out of study hall at Robert E. Lee High School, San Antonio, Texas, someone came rushing past and said the president had just been shot in Dallas. Naturally I didn’t believe it. My next class just happened to be Civics, and the classroom happened to have one of the school’s few televisions, mounted up on the wall, for accessing educational programs. When I walked into class the T.V. was on, and there it was, in unflinching black and white. We didn’t have class, we just watched the news unfolding. A couple of girls cried. One young man – obviously a died-in-the-wool Republican, and one of many Texans who did not like JFK – announced that “he for one was glad.” Our teacher, whom absolutely no one liked, went up a few points in my book when she said, “Tommy, that’s a terrible thing to say, no matter what your politics are.” I personally had been a big fan of Kennedy’s, and was mortified to be living in a state where a president could be murdered on the streets.

Even when the bell rang and students for the next class started coming in, many of us did not move. The event produced the same kind of dumbfounded disbelief that September 11, 2001 did 38 years later; and, as we all know, became indelibly etched on a nation’s consciousness as a Defining Moment.

The program was the source of one disappointment for me: learning that New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who was at the center of the 1991 Oliver Stone movie JFK, was apparently something of a self-aggrandizing, homophobic nut case. You certainly didn’t get that impression from Stone’s film! I came away from that movie more convinced that ever that there had been some kind of elaborate conspiracy; but apparently Stone pretty much swallowed whole whatever Garrison told him (or wrote in his book), even though (it would seem) so much of Garrison's “evidence” was conjured out of gossamer. Even other conspiracy theorists at the time of Garrison’s investigation (late 60s) felt that Garrison was a “flake” and his investigation was bogus. Too bad. Kevin Costner was so convincing...

One of the most affecting parts of last night’s program for me was the scene of Oswald’s murder at the hands of Jack Ruby two days after his arrest. It brought back the amazing memory of passing through our living room and glancing at the television – which, as in most households of the time, had been on all but nonstop for several days – and seeing that murder take place. I stopped, gawked at the T.V., and said out loud, “My God, they’re having live murder on the television now.” I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Another amazing statistic that the program supplied was that 2,000 books have been written about the Kennedy assassination. Perhaps it’s time to move on.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


Today at the program we had at the library – yes, another one – there were live specimens of a turtle, a corn snake, a bearded dragon (largish lizard), and an alligator. The program was called Scales & Tales, and was presented by the Chewonki Foundation, whose proclaimed mission is to “foster an appreciation of the natural world and of working in community with others.” Both noble goals. The place started as a boy’s summer camp is 1915, still has camp sessions for both boys and girls, but also offers a four-month Maine Coast Semester for high school students, wilderness trips, and outreach programs to schools and libraries, such as the one that came to us today.

Early on a little girl raised her hand and asked the question, “Can we pet the animals?” Doug, our presenter, said that was a very good question, but the answer was no. Why? Because these weren’t really pets; they were “wild” animals. Admittedly they lived in captivity – either as the result of injury, that made it impossible for them to fend for themselves in the wild, or as the result of having been kept as pets (sometimes illegally) and then either abandoned or delivered to the animal rescue arm of Chewonki. They, too, lacked the skills to survive in the wild.

“But they aren’t like your pet dog or cat,” Doug said.

The little girl’s question got me to thinking. We do all want to pet – to touch – animals. I experienced the same thing early this past summer, when I drove out to the farm of the library’s former technical support guy. Bill had sent out email invitations far and wide, inviting people to visit the farm he and his wife have lived on and built up over 20 years. His wife, who is a potter, has a “pottery barn” there. And the couple run a bed and breakfast there as well. In other words, like many Mainers, they do a number of things to survive (note that Bill also has a fulltime job at the Bath Ironworks).

There were two reasons I decided to make the drive out to Windsor. One, it was an excursion, something to do, that would be essentially free, not counting a little gas. And two, the invitation mentioned their sheep, with two new lambs, and their Belted Galloway cattle. The latter are black with a wide white stripe around their middle (the “belt”), which has led to their being referred to as “Oreo cattle.” I have found these animals visually fascinating ever since I first encountered a field of them several years ago. And the idea of seeing new little lambs delighted me.

The cattle proved to be something of a disappointment, as the herd was down to a mere two, who were sitting down in the mud surrounded by flies, but the little lambs were properly adorable. And I wanted to touch them. I asked Bill if I might, indeed, pet one, and he said sure, but at my very slight touch the little one skittered away. None the less, I’d had enough of a feel to know that that curly fleece was rough and wiry, not soft, the way it looks.

But our desire to touch is not limited to animals. There are all those signs at art and other kinds of museums telling us Do Not Touch, because of our penchant to do exactly that. Almost anything that interests us, intrigues us, we want to touch. And I wonder: why is that? Is it that something in us tells us if we touch a thing we will know more about it? Or is it that touching a thing brings us closer to it, makes us feel connected to it? I think of lovers touching, parents touching their children and vice versa. I suppose it could be argued that there are different kinds of touching – wanting to touch a turtle or an alligator might represent the former impulse, wanting to touch a loved one, the latter. But still, we want to feel a thing beneath our finger tips; it is not enough just to see it. What we feel commun-icates with our brain through our nervous system, and we then know more than we did before – what it feels like – and feel more than we did before – pleasure, excitement, horror, disgust, whatever.

So, hooray for the too-often-overlooked tactile sense.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

God on trial

I just watched a powerful program on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre (only, for some reason, they’re calling it Masterpiece Contemporary). I almost didn’t watch this program, because I saw that it took place in a Nazi concentration camp, and anything to do with the Holocaust tends to upset me very much. Did I want to go there? In the end I did, and I’m glad I did, though of course I cried at the end, when the prisoners who had been “selected” were trotted off to the gas chambers.

I would call the performance a play, for it seemed like one. Lots of talk, relatively little action, a limited number of sets, although the opening and closing scenes, when the busload of modern-day tourists was arriving at Auschwitz, and then leaving it after their tour, opened it out, and made it more like a film. But the main body of the piece, during which a group of prisoners holds a “trial” to determine if God was guilty of breaking his covenant with his “chosen people,” seemed very much like a play. And that in itself gave me pleasure, to be watching an intelligent, well-acted, thoughtful play. And that last descriptor, thoughtful, was what made it especially satisfying. Weighty matters were being argued, questions that must occur to most thoughtful people at some time in their lives, when they look around at all the suffering there is in the world and wonder, where is God.

Perhaps the strongest argument in defense of God was that terrible things had happened to the Jews in the past – being enslaved in Egypt, later in Babylon, the massacre at Masada, the expulsion from Spain – and these terrible times had usually resulted (ultimately) in things being better. “If we had not been exposed to Egypt, to Babylon, would we not still be an insular tribe of shepherds?” the man asked. “Have we not become so much more, because of our experiences over the years?” It was suggested that these terrible times were painful, but necessary, purifying episodes.

Some were arguing that the Jews must have done something wrong, and were being punished by God, but this idea didn’t seem to win many proponents, as they all knew that too many who could surely not be accused of committing sins against God – children for example – were suffering. Surely it was not a just and good God who would punish the innocent with whoever might, indeed, be guilty of sin. This discussion can be applied to all peoples in the history of the world. There are too many examples of the good and innocent suffering, while the cruel and the intolerant triumph -- at least in the short run -- for one to suppose that God is in the punishing and rewarding business, at least in this life. People all too often do not get their just rewards.

Perhaps the most interesting argument was made toward the end by a man who had until then been silent. He abruptly stood up and began reeling off the history of the Jews, going back to their departure from Egypt – which was preceded by all sorts of plagues and miseries being visited on the hapless Egyptians, including the death of all the firstborn in the land. “Did he kill the Pharaoh?” he asked. The Pharaoh was, after all, the one who was preventing the Israelites from leaving. But no, God killed the innocent children. And then, when the soldiers were pursuing the departing Israelites, did he close the Red Sea immediately behind the latter, cutting them off from their pursuers? No, he waited until the soldiers were in the middle of the sea, then released the held-back waters, drowning them all.

And the fellow had numerous other examples that showed that, as he put it, God was not good, God had just been on their side. And now, he seemed to have changed sides. This was the final argument before the guards burst in and hustled out those who had been selected. But we learn from one of the departing tourists, who has heard this possibly apocryphal story, that the remaining prisoners did find God guilty of breaking his “contract” with his people. He had promised to protect them, if they were true to him, and in this terrible time he had not done so.

I would say, a not unjust judgment.

Monday, November 3, 2008

As a substitute for the next war

What I can’t figure out is why we keep having wars. Usually after a war we end up helping the defeated country, e.g., Japan, Germany, after the Second World War, Iraq even as I type. It’s only a matter of time before American tourists are visiting the place, e.g., Vietnam. So why don’t we just skip the war, and go directly to help mode? Afghanistan would be a good place to start. Instead of pulling all those soldiers out of Iraq and sending them to Afghanistan – which is what Senator Obama is proposing to do at once, Senator McCain proposes to do as soon as the war in Iraq is “won” (definition still to be determined) – instead of this out of the frying pan into the fire strategy, why not pour economic advisors into the country? Preferably economic advisors who can speak the language (and why isn’t there a push in this country for students to learn Arabic, Farsi, Korean, the languages of those areas that are proving most problematic for the U.S.?), economic advisors who could help develop the local economy. In Afghanistan, for example, there’s the problem of so many farmers growing poppies for the drug trade which the bad guys use to finance their nefarious deeds. What could they grow instead? In Columbia, Ecuador and Peru it’s the coca growers, feeding the cocaine trade. What could we help them grow instead?

As the current world-wide financial crisis is serving to illustrate, everything comes down to economics (well, actually, everything really comes down to biochemistry, but let’s talk a notch or two above that). As much as I hate to admit it, being so uninterested in business as I am, healthy trade really does make the world go round. We need to be helping the poverty-stricken areas of the world develop the means to join the rest of us in (healthy, not damaging) trade. With an improved standard of living they would have more to lose, and when you have something to lose you are less inclined to kiss it all good-by by blowing yourself and various innocent bystanders up.

While I don’t question for a moment that there are, indeed, evil people out there, some of the fanatical Muslim persuasion, most people, whatever their religion, whatever their country, want to live in peace and safety with their families. They want to be able to support those families, take care of them, make sure that everyone has enough to eat, decent housing, access to good health care when they get sick. If we directed our attention to helping them achieve those goals, without trying to convert them (after all, how do you feel when a Jehovah’s Witness comes knocking at your door?), without our usual swaggering assumption that we’re the greatest nation in the world and of course everyone must want to be like us, or should want to be like us...if, in short, our foreign policy more closely resembled the work of private aid organizations that don’t have a hidden agenda, that just want to help those in this world who are struggling with extreme poverty, I suspect it would go a long way in that winning-the-hearts-and-minds campaign they’ve been waging lately in Iraq.

Political rant post script

And of course we should get rid of the stupid electoral college.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Political rant

O.K., here are my suggestions for campaign reform. First, limit campaigning to two months before the primaries, two months between the conventions and Election Day (actually, maybe we should get rid of the conventions, since they leave third party candidates out of the process). Everyone, I’m sure, is as sick as I am of political ads every five minutes on the radio and T.V., of the snide and often misleading substance of many of those ads, of all the phone calls that are either polls (this will take only a few minutes of your time) or recordings of people “asking for your vote,” of the people who come knocking at your door, clipboard in hand, asking for your vote. We should limit the amount of time we have to put up with this stuff.

And all campaigning should stop one week before Election Day. No more ads, or phone calls, or emails, or people knocking on your door. One week in which the ten or twelve people who are still undecided can decide, in peace, whom they are going to vote for, and the candidates and their volunteers can all have some much-needed rest.

We should outlaw people calling you on the phone to make their political pitches. I feel as invaded by them as I do by telemarketers, and we now have rules in place (the Do Not Call Register) that limit their access to us in the privacy of our homes.

I think candidates should be required to use public funding for their campaigns. I was very disappointed in Barak Obama for saying he would go that route, and then changing his mind. If, as he says, the system is “broken” it should be fixed, but there should not be this gross disparity between what two candidates are able to spend on their campaigns. Presumably what primarily needs “fixing” is regulation of 527 groups. For anyone who’s as ignorant of what such groups are as I was, they’re political action groups with a difference – they may not contribute directly to a specific politician’s campaign, but may contribute unlimited amounts in support of issues, ads for which can be oriented in support or opposition of a candidate. Supposedly concern about the kind of money these groups could raise (for McCain) contributed to Obama’s decision to opt out of public funding. It’s apparently harder to regulate these groups, because of First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. But it should be possible to determine who contributes how much to these groups, and to cap individual amounts, just as is the case with regular PACs.

And then there’s the matter of pie in the sky campaign promises. Both candidates stuck to their original script about what they would do once in office, even after the world changed with the financial crisis. Both were asked more than once in the debates (which by the way should be limited to two presidential and one vice-presidential – another needed reform – since three just gives them a third time to repeat all the same stuff yet again) what would have to “give,” given the new financial reality, but neither would say. But then, they both knew people did not want to hear, 'you're right, we won’t be able to do this, or that, at least not as soon as we’d hoped; because things are going to be very difficult for a while, for the whole country.' They both knew that what most people want to hear in times of crisis is 'don’t worry, things are going to be all right, just elect me and you’ll see.' So of course our candidates stuck to what was politically viable, rather than voicing unpleasant realities.

My goddaughter has applied for a Rhodes Scholarship. As part of the application process she had to come up with a research project that she would work on at Oxford University, should she get the scholarship. Her proposed project has to do with investigating to what extent campaign promises are met by candidates, once they are elected, and to what extent, if any, different countries hold candidates accountable for their campaign promises. What a good idea! Having a law that requires candidates to fulfill (at least some!) of their campaign promises. Would it result in a little more honesty during campaigns, an acknowledgment of political realities that would have to be dealt with by whoever was elected?

But then again, would the majority of us want to hear what was real, what was true?