Friday, May 29, 2015

Fred Rogers

I was introduced to him by Bob Dog.  I was shown the ropes backstage by Batman.

Technically, it was the fellow who played Bob Dog on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood who introduced us. As he was the father of one of my college acquaintances, it was the result of an early type of networking.  The television station for which Mr. Rogers worked would offer one month internships, usually in the winter, for students interested in television production.  Since I was interested in everything in those days, and since Mr. Rogers was on my college's board of trustees and was present on campus from time to time, Mr. Dog saw to it that I had a place at the same dinner table with him. When I had the occasion artfully to bring it up in conversation, I told Mr. Rogers of my interest in the internship.  He smiled in that unaffected manner familiar to anyone who ever watched his show, and gave me a name to call.  I did and, during that January, found myself touring the PBS studio and having my duties described to me by a production assistant who would, shortly thereafter, leave for Hollywood to become an actor.  He did rather well for himself, as it turns out, even being nominated for an Academy Award.

But the star in those days was Mr. Rogers, albeit the most self-effacing and unassuming star ever to grace the cathode rays.  During my four weeks on the show, doing everything from moving furniture and puppets to operating the "picture picture", I dabbled in every aspect of television production that the union would permit.  I also learned a number of things about Mr. Rogers, namely:

- he was an ordained Presbyterian minister [he had even been a classmate of my cousin's!]
- his cardigan sweaters had been knitted by his mother
- he was a licensed pilot
- he wore sneakers because they were less noisy on set than hard shoes
- the sneakers, at least in my day, were actually Sperry Topsiders, not Keds as is often reported
- he didn't smoke or drink and was a vegetarian
- he was without pretense and was the same in "real life" as he was on screen

I also learned, one day when I clumsily dropped the model of his neighborhood in a rather loud, disrupting, and damaging crash, that he had a favorite swear word.

Born in 1928, Fred Rogers displayed something that's rather lost these days; a determination that is marked by patience, not petulance.  During seminary, when he was immersed in the call to make holy scripture relevant in an era when it was becoming rendered distant by overwrought piety, he chanced to watch television for the first time at his parents' house.  He was appalled.  [Imagine what he would make of just one, casual evening in this century watching "reality" shows on basic cable.]  He thought, surely, there was a way to make television watchable and educational.

Starting as production assistant at NBC in New York and then as a puppeteer on WQED in Pittsburgh, Rogers learned what was to be his trade from those who had served in television since its nascent period.  Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, the powers-that-be in the Presbyterian Church suggested that he forgo pulpit work and continue to pursue possibilities in the cool medium.

Beginning with the Canadian Broadcasting Company as an on-air personality, Rogers would eventually be called back to Pittsburgh to further develop the show he started on the CBC.  It would eventually morph into what a couple of generations recognize as Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.  By 1968, the show was syndicated and began public broadcasting's long and successful experiment with children's entertainment and education.

By the time Rogers retired in 2000, he had filmed 895 episodes.  They are still being shown today. Rogers died in 2003.

While some clergy have sought to use television in its broadest manner, attempting to represent prayer and devotion as a sort of metaphysical lottery laced with appeals for donations, Rogers kept true to his simple message and method of practical, worldly education.  I suppose this is why it's his sweater and not some evangelist's hairpiece that's on display in the Smithsonian.

There may, too, be a lesson in his singular ministry for those of us charting Christianity's new and rather different course for this century.  A singular and simple mission, rendered in quiet charm, and addressing the world as one's neighborhood, may just be the foundation for continued proclamation.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Best Two Things I Ever Learned: 1. To Type and 2. To Swim [Not at the Same Time]

Swimmer's Death in Florida Brings New Attention to Rip Current Dangers

As I noted a few years back:
When I read of "good swimmers" drowning in the ocean, I’m not all that surprised. Even people who know how to swim have usually learned in a swimming pool. Pools have no tides, no rips. Pools have no undertow, no current, and no swells. Pools don’t have waves.
The ocean makes everyone who doesn't respect it into a novice. The ocean pulls, tugs, throws, rolls, and beats. Swimming in the ocean is as complete a physical activity as one may encounter. The ocean is alive with uncontrollable force, it is nature at its most raw; and it can make anyone who doesn’t respect it into another victim.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Memorial Day

(Photo courtesy of Timothy Field Beard)

Memorial Day in Roxbury means at least a couple of things, from the fun of our very particular town parade to the quiet witness of small American flags sprinkled throughout the three cemeteries.  Below is the collect for today:

Lord God Almighty, who have made all peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and peace: Grant to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sometimes the old poetry teacher in me comes out, too.  Below, A.E. Housman's "Here Dead We Lie":
Here dead we lie
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.

Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.

[For Jeff and Scott, who were young; and for those of the 1/4th Marines who fought the good fight and kept the faith.  You were the best of us. "Whatever It Takes."]

Archaeological News

New Evidence May Solve Mystery of America's Huge Ancient City

Maybe Because It's the Last Vestige of Our Agrarian Society

Why Children Are Abandoning Baseball

European football is decadent and dull [I know, I played the silly game in Europe] and lacrosse is a questionable cultural appropriation; neither game is poetic.

More than any other game, baseball, with its absence of a clock timing down the minutes of play, resembles life.  With its moments of quietness, apparent inactivity, and sudden action requiring both a physical and mental response, baseball mimics the rhythm of our days.  I once knew a Marine colonel who was convinced it was the best game for preparing the brain for the realities of battle.

Then again, how about those Cavs, huh?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Another Proud Day for Buckeyes

Ohio man goes on drunken rampage at Disney resort, steals golf cart, crashes into pier and nearly drowns: cops

If True, My Uncle Would Have Lived to 440

A beer a day is 110-year-old Nebraska man's secret to a long life

Is “Religion” Most to Blame for the World’s Violence?

Not even close.

Well, This is Interesting

Liberation theology, of which not much has been heard for two decades, is back in the news. But what is not being mentioned is its origins. It was not invented by Latin American Catholics. It was developed by the KGB. The man who is now the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, secretly worked for the KGB under the code name “Mikhailov” and spent four decades promoting liberation theology, which we at the top of the Eastern European intelligence community nicknamed Christianized Marxism.

This doesn't surprise me.  The only "true" liberation theologian I ever knew was from a wealthy family who, when we were in seminary, would refuse to do any work that would "soil" his hands.  That included cleaning up after himself in the dining hall.

He worked in one parish as an assistant and, when his father died, inherited the money, left the church, and has done nothing with spiritual liberation since.  I doubt that he re-distributed his own wealth, either.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Right, She's the Problem on a Motor Vehicle with No Seat Belts

An eight-year-old girl in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. was told she's no longer allowed to read books on the school bus because it poses a risk to the safety of other students.
As some of those who read this weblog know, both of my parents died a mere sixteen weeks apart.  I won't bore you with details, but I am finding it difficult to manage my jobs and related duties without having to give up things that draw me away from the time and energy necessary to fulfill my paid, or court-assigned [as in the role of executor], responsibilities.

So, save for some stray links to articles I stumble across, there will not be any original updates to The Coracle until such time as the Burial Office is read for my parents, their committal is complete, and their estate closer to being organized for settlement.

While I cannot predict how long this may take, I hope that the bulk of these duties will be complete over the next fortnight and that I can return to my less practical hobbies such as this weblog, my continuing quest to surf the North Shore, and the five or six Hawaiian surfboards I have to make for family members.

The NYT Discovers My Favorite Cafe and Music Venue

Thus, I can never go there again as it will become filled with...well, you know; the people who rely on the NYT to determine what's trendy.

Deep in the Berkshires, Housewares and High Fashion

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Friday, May 15, 2015

5/15/15 is the same backwards.

B. B. King - The Thrill Is Gone (Live at Montreux 1993)

Francis Chichester

"To the question, "When were your spirits at the lowest ebb?" the obvious answer seemed to be, "When the gin gave out."

When I was seven years old, I was diagnosed with leukemia.  While the prognosis was not shared with me, I could tell from my parents' faces that something serious had just been imparted to them.  I was then placed in the hospital for seven days.  As the facility was new and still under construction, there were no separate areas for children or adults, so I found myself in the cancer ward with a collection of adult men, all of whom seemed to smoke.  During that week, which ended when it was discovered that the diagnosis was in error [I was suffering from anemia, which was easily treated], I was taught how to play poker by my ward mates, witnessed death for the first time [the fellow in the bed next to mine], and decided that personal complacency was the enemy of life.  As an educational philosopher once said, when asked for a suggestion for a curriculum for elementary school children, "Teach them that they're going to die.  Then they'll cherish the life they have."  This is a lesson that others have learned, as well, and throughout history.  One such individual was Sir Francis Chichester.

I am assured by the children who have grown up in my various houses that being the offspring or ward of a clergyman is not the most exciting thing in the world.  While I was always tempted to respond, "Yeah, you ought to see how boring it is being a member of the clergy", I would point out to them how lucky they were to have the association of so many interesting people and been to some rather interesting places.  While that didn't mollify them at the time, they now, upon mature reflection, admit that was the case.

Francis Chichester's father was a priest in the Church of England and he, too, felt that creeping boredom.  Born in 1901, his parents sought to address it by sending him to boarding school [at the age of six!] and then to college during the First World War in order to study for the ministry.  That didn't quite satisfy him and, upon the war's completion, he emigrated to New Zealand and created a mildly successful property development company which, as with so many, dissolved into bankruptcy during the Great Depression.

Not to be daunted by this minor reversal, Chichester returned to England in 1929 and, on a lark, purchased a de Havilland DH.60 Gipsy Moth biplane and took flying lessons.  Hoping to turn that into a business back in New Zealand, Chichester decided to do what had never been done and fly from the United Kingdom to Australia, a feat he accomplished in 180 hours after a slight delay caused by crashing in Libya.  By the time he landed in Sydney harbor, Chichester had become a sensation with the local press and, after some careful negotiation, published a memoir of the adventure in his book Solo to Sydney.

Encouraged by his new-found fame, Chichester decided to equip the plane with floats and attempt a solo flight around the world.  He made it as far as Japan when he collided with telegraph wires, crashed, and spent the next five years recovering from the breaking several greater and lesser bones.

Once cleared to fly again, in 1936, Chichester became the first to fly across Asia from Sydney to London after which he began carefully to plan a solo, round-the-world flight.  Before those plans, and their funding, were complete, Germany invaded Poland and the next six years were consumed by world-wide conflagration.  While Chichester, record-setting and highly experienced pilot, was rejected for service in the Royal Air Force [he was nearsighted] as a pilot and officer, he was made the chief navigation instructor at the RAF's training school, mainly due to his ability to use a nautical sextant while in flight.  By the end of the war, at the age of 44, married with children and beginning to feel the effects of his injuries, Chichester decided to retire from aviation records and settle down to run a map and chart business.  Besides, the age of jets had begun and that meant the days of seat-of-the-pants, open cockpit flying were over.

Ordinarily, this is where his story would begin its gradual conclusion.  However, in 1958 he was diagnosed with lung cancer, refused the common surgery, became a vegetarian, and began to look for something new to occupy, before he died, his un-slaked sense of adventure.  As flying no longer interested him, and as he had purchased a mid-sized sailboat for weekend fun, Chichester began to research the standing records of solo sailing and planned his next adventure.  Things had to be organized quickly however, as he had been given only six months to live.  [That turned out to be a gross miscalculation, by the way.]

Warming up by competing in two transatlantic races in 1960 and 1964 in his boat, the Gipsy Moth III, winning the first and placing in the second, Chichester commissioned the 54-foot Gipsy Moth IV in 1965 to be built to his exacting design.  As his intention was to sail solo around the world faster than anyone ever had before, the boat needed to have special qualities such as a sail-based self-steering guidance system, the ability for the sailor to steer from his bunk, and a weighted keel that enabled the boat to right itself if capsized in rough weather.

In August of 1966, Chichester began his voyage from Plymouth, England with the intention to stop only once on his circumnavigation.  As often happens with sailing adventures, nature usually has her own ideas.  107 days later, after nearly 14,000 nautical miles, somewhat bruised and with a boat that had been battered by 30 foot waves, the Gipsy Moth entered the harbor in Sydney.  For the second time in 30 years, Chichester once again found himself a reluctant celebrity.  So much so, that Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in absentia while he and his boat were being patched up in Australia.

In order to encourage readership, the tabloid papers began a controversy about Chichester's age and general health and the wisdom of a 65-year-old being "permitted" to continue his voyage.  In a move that still heartens aging watermen, Chichester ignored that nonsense and continued his voyage, arriving back in England 119 days later, setting a record for the fastest circumnavigation ever by a small craft and also for the longest non-stop passage made by a solo sailor in a small boat.  He would mark this accomplishment in his best-selling book, Gipsy Moth Circles the World, and be knighted, now in person, by the Queen while she wielded the same sword with which Elizabeth I had knighted Sir Francis Drake.

The lung ailment returned, however, before Chichester could begin his next adventure, and he would succumb to it in August of 1972.  I was living in the U.K. at the time and his life and achievements were discussed for at least three full days on every channel of the BBC.

Francis Chichester's books are still in print, and it is easy to locate used copies of his story of the circumnavigation.  For sailing fans, the restored Gipsy Moth IV is currently the most popular visitation site at the nautical museum in Greenwich, berthed as it is next to the Cutty Sark.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Divorce Surge Is Over, but the Myth Lives On

But here is the thing: It is no longer true that the divorce rate is rising, or that half of all marriages end in divorce. It has not been for some time. Even though social scientists have tried to debunk those myths, somehow the conventional wisdom has held.

Despite hand-wringing about the institution of marriage, marriages in this country are stronger today than they have been in a long time. The divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s and has been declining for the three decades since.

5/13/15 is the same backwards.

Mega Florida Man

Hearse stops at Florida Dunkin' Donuts while carrying veteran

Another Florida Man

Knife-wielding man tries to get imaginary girlfriend from garbage truck, deputies say

More Florida Man

Haynes told police he knew the officer was telling him to stop and that he would be tased. After he was detained, he said, "I kinda always wanted to be tased."

Florida Man

Florida Man Fights Off Shark by Punching It in the Face

Students at Catholic University Upset That the Commencement Speaker is a Catholic

Senior Kate Bakhuizen...said she and other “people may not be actively listening” to what Dolan says.

"Stay Quiet and You'll Be Okay" - the 9/11 Hijackers to Their Captives

But Islam is telling you that subject's closed off. Not long after 9/11, some theatre group in Cincinnati announced a play contrasting a Palestinian suicide bomber and the American Jewish girl she killed. Local Muslims complained, and so the production was immediately canceled - because all the arty types who say we need "artists" with the "courage" to "explore" "transgressive" "ideas" fold like a cheap Bedouin tent when it comes to Islam. The Muslim community complained not because the play was anti-Muslim: au contraire, it was almost laughably pro-Palestinian, and the playwright considered the suicide bomber a far more sensitive sympathetic character than her dead Jewish victim.

But that wasn't the point: the Muslim leaders didn't care whether the play was pro- or anti-Islam: for them, Islam is beyond discussion. End of subject. And so it was.

Between crucifixes placed in a beaker of the artist's urine and Blessed Virgin Mary's fashioned from elephant dung to Broadway plays that mock a portion of Christianity, I'd say our society has always been free to regard religion in a less-than-respectful manner.  That is, until one religion decided to take homicidal umbrage at the notion.  Suddenly a "courageous" artist's "bravery" could mock all for the one that might hurt him or her.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

5/12/15 is the same backwards.

Is Christianity Dying?

This is worth reading; don't let the title scare you away.

Christianity isn’t normal anymore, and that’s good news. The Book of Acts, like the Gospels before it, shows us that the Christianity thrives when it is, as Kierkegaard put it, a sign of contradiction. Only a strange gospel can differentiate itself from the worlds we construct. But the strange, freakish, foolish old gospel is what God uses to save people and to resurrect churches (1 Cor. 1:20-22).

When the Episcopal Church began to sue in secular courts some of its member parishes for not having the exact same world view regarding social issues as did the church leadership, or not manifesting "group-think" to their satisfaction; and when psycho-therapy was used as a weapon of constraint against clergy in disagreement with a bishop, it was obvious to some of us that the church as we had known it had come to its end.

That doesn't mean Christianity is coming to an end, though.  In fact, we may be on the cusp of a refreshing marginalization that will dramatically return us to that original mission presented in the Gospels and Acts.

A related observation from six or so months ago may be found here:  Some Commentary About General Seminary

Remarkable how often I think of old Code 99 these days.

Naturally, the Complaint is Not from a Muslim Student, but from a Professor at a Rival Insitution

Complaint says crosses at Catholic school offensive, prevent Muslim prayers

Early in my pedagogical career I taught at a yeshiva, which is a school used primarily for rabbinical training in the orthodox tradition.  As such, I was required to wear a yarmulke in the classroom.  It never occurred to me to expect them to conform to my expectations and to attempt to muscle it through the already over-loaded courts system.

The Right to Blaspheme

The Atlantic: Dissenting from the tenets of a particular religion is very different than discriminating against a category of persons.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Yep, I Surfed The Wedge. It Was My 50th Birthday Present to Myself. It Turned Out About as Well as It Did for These Guys

And, given how much death with which I've had to deal over the last six months, I may do it again as a pure act of defiance against mortality.

Quote of the Week

"You can't have a university without having free speech, even though at times it makes us terribly uncomfortable. If students are not going to hear controversial ideas on college campuses, they're not going to hear them in America."

That's from Donna Shalala, the former Secretary of Health and Human Services, who is nowadays the president of the University of Miami.  Well, she's from Cleveland, and that's a place where everyone will deliver their opinion about anything at just about any time.  Well, except when the Indians/Cavs/Browns are on the TV.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Today is the 70th Anniversary of V-E Day. This is Richard Overton, at 108 He's the Oldest Living WWII Vet

He is also a man of style, don't you think?

Actual Phone Conversation from Earlier Today

"Dude, I'm in OC."


"Not feeling too great, though."

"Is the water still cold?"

"Yeah, but it's my stomach.  It's ached since this morning's surf session."

"Maybe there was bacteria in the water."

"Maybe.  Seemed okay.  I even had a good breakfast."

"Oh?  What'd you have?"

"A couple of quesadillas from the Wawa.  Why?"


My Old School- Steely Dan- 1973

Perry Hedison

"Everything you know is wrong."

Most people I know had, somewhere between Kindergarten and the defense of their dissertation, at least one teacher who, in common parlance, "made a difference".  The fortunate ones, such as myself, had more than one, although the total is still not more than a handful.  For me, it was Mrs. Haven in the 5th Grade, Mr. Smith in the 11th, Mrs. Dixon at Sunday School, and two of my college professors, one of whom was Perry Hedison.  The effectiveness of these educators had less to do with their subject matter than it did with their ability to make one want to excel in whatever was the field of endeavor.  

Hedison would have satisfied a cliche in popular fiction: The gruff educator whom students are terrified to have as a teacher/professor who turns out to greatly enable their fledgling progress.  The novel, and later movie, The Paper Chase often comes to mind, especially as I read/saw it the year I became a college student and discovered, much to my surprise and horror, that the model for the cruel, demanding, and precise Professor Kingsfield was standing before me on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings.

Actually, when I first saw him, I thought it was Ernest Hemingway.

It was the first class on the first day of my first year of college at 9 a.m.  I had almost not found the classroom in time and, because of near tardiness, had to sit dead center in the front row.  The class was Introduction to Literature: Philosophy and Writing and, unlike intro courses at large state universities that take place in auditoriums and are usually taught by assistants, this room, in the oldest building on campus, held only twenty-five students and was taught by the professor and only the professor.

Perry Hedison was in his early sixties, stocky and bearded, and had been a fixture of both the English and the Philosophy departments of the college since before I was born.  He wore the same tweed jacket to class every day, whether it was 10 degrees or 90.  He looked that morning as if he either had a raging hangover, was modeling for a rather severe version of Mount Rushmore, or simply could not believe that he was, once again, teaching a collection of fresh-out-of-high-school kids things that they could not or would not accept as they were in direct conflict with everything programmed into them by their parents and bad teachers.

All I remember is that, because of my prominent perch right in front of him, Hedison fixed me with a stare, leaned forward from his desk, and said those immortal words captured in the quotation above that became, through my own career as an educator, priest, and theologian, the first words I speak to myself when beginning with a new subject, class, or parish.  As I learned that day, almost everything I thought I did know was, in fact, either wrong or, if not quite wrong, dangerously incomplete.

I took five classes from him during my three-and-one-half years of college.  With him I studied the complete works of Shakespeare, a survey of the philosophic schools of the 19th and 20th centuries, and use of English in the fiction and non-fiction of Winston Churchill.  He required us to read the assignments in a timely manner and be familiar with the material.  As we were subjected to increasingly intense questioning during the fifty minutes of class, those who did not keep pace were subjected to an embarrassment that could occasionally be aided by Hedison's considerable talent for sarcasm.

Although one day, when I had been particularly brilliant [if I do say so myself], I waited for him to once again poke massive holes in my pet theory about one of Shakespeare's sonnets.  Instead, Hedison simply grunted, nodded, and said, "Read the next speech, Clements.  It's from 'Much Ado'. You seem ready finally."  That may be the finest compliment that I've ever received.

He never socialized with students and rarely made reference to his personal life.  There was a photo of two women on the desk in his office that I took to be his wife and adult daughter; about a dozen copies of one of his books on Churchill's use of theater, and nothing else.  I never saw him arrive on campus and never saw him leave.  As one of the sociology professors had taken to surreptitiously living in a classroom and washing himself in the pottery room [he was fired at the end of term], we would joke that Hedison, too, had his own secret chamber somewhere in the liberal arts building, although something on a grander scale than the odd sociologist.

Later I began to wonder if we weren't prescient, as he showed up in the cafeteria very early one Saturday morning; a place in which he had never been seen.  As I had reserve officer's training on weekends, I was one of the very few students who would be there early, too, and rather conspicuous in my green utility uniform.  Seeing that I was the only person whom he recognized he sat with me, mentioned that the only sunrise he cared for was one that came with tequila, finished some bacon and eggs, and left.  No one saw him come in; no one saw him leave.

The last time I saw him was graduation day, when he led us to the ceremony in his role as faculty warden, carrying with him the mace of office.  I didn't return to campus for over 25 years, and then just by chance as I was driving across the country and knew of a nearby hotel.  He was long gone by then, of course, and forgotten, as were the days when the great writers and philosophers, who are now dismissed as "dead, white males", would be taught by other white males.  What replaced that rigorous training was a melange of politically correct porridge that has resulted in the current crop of the higher educated; those who know little outside of a protected bubble and have never had to stand and deliver in a way that respected ability, industry, and a passion for knowing the subject.

I often find myself these days listening to people who have received degrees in the "practical" fields, those of engineering, business, accounting or the like; even clergy, who should know better, who will crow about their former academic work and despair of those of us who "wasted" our time in subjects like philosophy, literature, or art history.  Judging from their output, and the sorry state of the contemporary church, I'm unclear as to the source of their boasting.  I recall mentioning in the company of ordained colleagues how much I appreciated studying literature as so much of our professional life involves writing everything from fund-raising letters to sermons and homilies to, well, obtuse blog posts.

"Well, I majored in Accounting and I can write, too", replied a mildly hostile fellow cleric, somewhat defensively.

"Yes", I replied, "You write like an accountant."  Hmm, perhaps I learned sarcasm from Hedison, too.

As for me, I owe much to Hedison, not just for the compliment once received but because, more than anyone else, he taught me how to think in a way that was unclouded by sentiment or indolence. Whether I have served as a reporter, a infantryman, a teacher, a business owner, or a parish priest, those lessons have fed my existence.  I know I would never have been as effective a preacher if I did not try to look at each scripture passage anew, in the same way he had us look at Shakespeare or Kierkegaard, and see things that I have never seen before; to surrender worn perspective and find new images and new life to inform my faith.

One day, during my service as the assistant headmaster of a boarding school, I overheard the following exchange from some students in the hallway outside of my office.

"Who'd you get for philosophy?"
"Clements.  I hear he's hard."
"He is."
"And scary."
"Yeah, but you'll learn something from him."

Thanks, Perry.  Somewhere along the line, every good teacher wishes to be recognized as effective, even if effectiveness means that you're regarded as difficult and scary.  As those who have taught understand, those tools serve as a greater stimulus for learning than any other.  The result is students who are able to take even a remote niche of study and apply it broadly across their life's experience for their improvement and, one hopes, for the general improvement of their world.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

A Quotation That Fell Out of an Old Notebook

Yes, English can be weird. It can be understood through tough thorough thought, though.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Tweet of the Night

And, With This Nonsense, I Just Quit an Organization to Which I've Belonged Since 1979

Sunday brought the story of six members of PEN America, citing impressively asinine and ill-informed arguments, protesting that a free-speech organization was giving a courage-in-free-speech award to Charlie Hebdo, the French cartoon newspaper that was massacred for its courageous free speech. Now comes the chaser: A full 145 members of PEN, including some of the original refuseniks (and some other names you might recognize, such as Joyce Carol Oates), have attached their name to a remarkable document that encapsulates as well as anything I have seen the sick cloud that hangs over the Enlightenment idea of free speech.

Elvis Presley - Viva las vegas HD

The Coasters "Charlie Brown"

The Very First Underwater Photo [1893] and John Glenn with Converse Sneakers [1962]

Why?  No reason.

Doc Pomus

"I didn't want to be "The Crippled Songwriter" or "The Crippled Singer".  I wanted to be the singer or the songwriter who was crippled.  I wanted to be larger than life...."

He was the only white guy in the place.  He was a short, chubby Jew who walked with crutches due to a childhood bout with polio.  In a music genre that was filled with people with the colorful sobriquets of T-Bone and Tampa Red, he was simply known as Jerry.  When he hauled himself to the microphone to sing, a number of people were prepared to wince at a delusional eighteen-year-old who was about to butcher the blues.

Then he started singing.

And so, requiring a performance name that fit his new world, Jerry became "Doc Pomus" [even he wasn't sure where that name came from] and set about creating not only some memorable performances in those small, hot, smoky clubs, but composed some of the most infectious tunes in the early days of rock and roll.

Born in Brooklyn in 1925, Jerry Felder was afflicted with polio in boyhood and wiled away the dull hours of restricted movement by listening to records, in particular those of Big Joe Turner.  With little else to do, he who would be Pomus imitated the intonations and styles of the performers to the extent that he could mimic almost all of the big singers of the day.  As time went by, with the burgeoning confidence of adolescence, he began to develop his own style.  Being, by his own admission, a complete and total ham, it was only natural that he would begin to compete in the many amateur performance venues that were common in the 1940's.

There was something else about him, other than his ability to sing the blues.  The fact that a diminutive Jew, by his own admission a "cripple", wearing a garish outfit could move with confidence to a stage in an all-black venue and completely own the room granted him a remarkable respect from the audience.  As is often the case with marginalized people, they recognized one another's struggle.  Eventually, established artists were hiring him to be their opening act.

Pomus wanted to be so much more, though, within and for the music that had granted him such an unexpected purpose and role.  In addition to performing in more and more mainstream venues, Pomus also began to write for the nascent music magazines of the era and, importantly, compose small pieces for some of the more famous performers.  While on his honeymoon, a vacation he could ill-afford, he chanced to hear a stray song of his, one that he had turned over to Leiber and Stoller [the two premier composers of the 1950's], playing on a jukebox.  Upon his return, his agent called to let him know that he had a royalty check for $1500 [$14,500 if adjusted for current inflation] waiting for him.  Suddenly, not only were money problems laid to rest for awhile, but Pomus found a much more lucrative line of work.

Using some of his profits, Pomus rented a rehearsal room at the famous Brill Building [if you've never heard of if, 1.) get out of the house more and 2.) follow the supplied link], found a pianist with whom to collaborate, and set about composing some of the most memorable 45 rpm records of the mid-century.

Here's just a partial list:

"Suspicion" [made famous by Elvis Presley]
"A Teenager in Love"
"This Magic Moment"
"Save the Last Dance for Me"
"Marie's the Name, Of his Latest Flame" [again, Elvis]
"Viva Las Vegas" [ditto]
"Lonely Avenue" [a big 1950's hit for Ray Charles]
"Hushabye" [a particular favorite of mine that I sing to my granddaughter] and many, many others, including twenty-five for Elvis, alone.  [Interestingly, Pomus and Presley never met].

With the British Invasion in the mid-sixties, heralded by the arrival of The Beatles in the United States, the doo-wop-descended music, typified in the Pomus compositions, was replaced in popularity.  However, as a true artist, Pomus was not to be daunted, and shifted his compositions to a more mature regard and found a rich host of performers willing to record them.  Folk guitarist Marianne Faithfull, country music legend Charlie Rich, blues god B.B. King, and Cajun madman Dr. John were just a few of those who brought the later Pomus songs to life.

As if often the case with those in the performing world, Doc Pomus had his addictions and his demons. These caused him to run through friends and wives and, eventually, placed him in the NYU Medical Center where he died of lung cancer in 1991.

As is also often the case, his death occasioned a whole host of delayed recognition for him.  He was posthumously elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, received the Rhythm and Blues Foundation's Pioneer Award [the first non-black performer/composer so recognized], and was always credited in concert by Lou Reed for introducing the downtown indie rocker to the business.

It's in those stray, backstage moments that his real influence is made known, in those quiet conversations between gigs or performances, when even current rockers, rappers, and bluesmen mention Pomus' name and style.  One fellow from New Jersey with whom I stood behind a curtain in a now-closed music club in the East Village once said to me, "I can always tell if a blues singer is going to be good, even before they sing a lick, if they have a fat mouth.  You know, like Doc Pomus?  It takes a fat mouth to sing the blues."