Monday, April 26, 2010

Humor, Truth and the American Way

Mr. Locke, or Nasby, who looks remarkably like Rus! Reincarnation?

A rambling, incomprehensible and wildly ungrammatical (but folksy!) recent Sarah Palin speech was featured as the "Dumbass Quote of the Day" on the Culture Wars blog recently. It was the best laugh of the day, I assume unintentionally. An ironic satirist like Mark Twain or a zeroed-in mimic like Tina Fey could hardly have made it more hilarious. While tastes in humor and the relevant cultural contexts change over time, there have been wise commentators skewering the current insanity from the ancient Greeks through today.
Amos and Andy was the beginning of the end of a vigorous period of dialect humor in America in newspapers, radio, vaudeville and finally television. We grew a little embarrassed at having fun at the expense of different others while, concurrently, those regional and ethnic curiosities were homogenized away by the reach of media and the Interstate highway system. I wouldn't want to give up The Onion or Jon Stewart, but the gentle humor of Will Rogers shouldn't be forgotten. His folksiness was both positive and genuine, so unlike Reagan, Palin and Dubya, just shallow oportunistic humbugs like the Wizard of Oz.
Twain, who has been rated one of the top three American authors overall, may be the only dialect humorist who will not fade into obscurity. They're hard to read and dated, and their medium was newspapers and newsweeklies. (Poor newspapers: Dave Barry is retired, and who would be H. L. Mencken today -- George Will?? Hardly.)
David Ross Locke (one of several nationally known "crackerbarrel comics"), lived in the mid 19th century and worked at various newspapers from the age of 12, eventually owning a major Ohio publication. Like Ben Franklin's invented persona "Poor Richard" before him, Locke posed as "Petroleum V. Nasby" writing horribly misspelled and barely literate letters to the paper. His character was ignorant, violent, lazy, prejudiced and pro-slavery, used as a tool to satirize those same bubbas we hear shouting the same negative, contradictory irrationality today.
Ol' Petroleum didn't notice the irony in his success securing and profiting from the sinecure (back then) position of postmaster while being vocally antigovernment and pro-Confederacy. Like tea baggers wanting the Feds out of their Social Security and Medicare! A part-time reverend, he espoused the position of Southern ministers who used Biblical texts to prove that slavery was divinely ordained and thus unquestionable. We might as well laugh and have some fun with them, because the Father Coughlins, Joe McCarthys and the current crop of true believers will always be there.
While once popular styles of topical humor fade away, the satirist's job won't.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Not much changes along the route I walk in the morning down the hill, across the creek bridge, and up hill again to the Tom's Convenience/McDonalds up against Interstate 83, for coffee and reading what passes for a newspaper (90% ads and crime reports, ending on the editorial page with professional and local reactionaries roiling their stewpot of anger/misinformation). At one end of the bridge this morning, a township truck was parked and someone was busily cutting up a tree which had fallen across the Jersey barrier during the short but fierce windstorm a few days ago. At the other end of the bridge, a midsize tree that has been dead for years is still standing despite those winds. Its bark is peeling off in places; in others lichen has made its home on blackened branches. Nature is very slowly doing the same task here as the chainsaw nearby, profligate with time but relentlessly efficient nonetheless. Sooner or much later, fate will deliver all us lifeforms to the fungi, insects and all the other never-tiring agents of decay and transformation.
While animals in nature communicate with a compact vocabulary of sounds and much more extensive use of scent and body language, we have gone far in the direction of abstract reasoning. Too far? Science fiction has long conveyed the dread of a future in which machines have been made human, but we're close to making ourselves unnatural and machine-like. The technologies of communication have us compulsively fingering i-everything devices, but the medium has become, and replaced, the message: we're mostly not saying anything more profound than, "I'm here." (Heh, heh -- like bloggers).
Yesterday afternoon our cat Gilligan was relaxed and sprawled across my legs, as usual, half-looking in the opposite direction of the front window. Yet his ears perked up and his eyes widened in full alert just before he jumped up, executed a turn in midair, and landed in one hop on the bench below the window. His arch nemesis, the thieving squirrel who eats most of the birds' seed block hanging from the holly, was there. Gilligan couldn't have seen him on the ground outside before landing on the bench, but he knew that grey rascal was there, threatening his bird-watching on his own territory. That is communication that we in all our intellectual glory do not understand.
(True story:) A young chimp spotted a piece of fruit and was about to get excited when he spied an adult alpha male approaching. The youngster seemed to consider things for a moment, and realizing the big bruiser would slap him away and seize the fruit, he repressed his natural reaction and casually pretended nothing was going on. The alpha male passed by, and went out of sight behind a tree. Feeling that he carried the ruse off, our little friend reached for the fruit, but the older chimp had sensed something was up and was peering around the tree to see what it was. Of course he charged back, chased the other off and got the food anyway. You don't get to be, and stay, alpha ape unless you have sharp observation and data-processing skills to correctly read the signs around you.
Compare the reasoning abilities and situational awareness of these primates with people who are victims of frauds, scams, cults and uncritical faith in abstract value systems. They wouldn't last a day in the zoo or the jungle -- no use of, or integration into, nature's superb communications web.
Technology is wondrous magic, but magic can be benign or malignant. It comes at us like a tornado, and without enough experience or understandable information, how can we tell what is a golden future and what is a gilded cage?
The old Zen master had one message: Pay attention! And we should all be careful with our endless words: nature will have the last one.
"Having the gift of thinking, we manage to misuse our native gifts and to do mischief that has nothing to do with the welfare of life and go astray. We think not in terms of work that needs to be done for life, but in terms of how we can serve our separate self..."
--Charlotte Beck, Everyday Zen

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Rhumba Man?

I'm still doing the rhumba baby
I can't seem to quit
If my mama catches us doing the rhumba
Mama would just pitch a fit!
But I can't help myself
It's much bigger than me
If I were you
I'd hang on to
A rhumba man like me.
-- Jesse Winchester
I've just been waiting for a chance to use Jesse's fun song in some context (we saw him perform it live at the long-gone Much More club on Broad Street), and this seems like my chance. Jimmy Buffett does it too, and Bob Dylan considers Mr. Winchester about the best songwriter alive. That is one killer chorus.
I'm leading you on, to be honest, because if the picture were of the real topic here, the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, you might have decamped to something more engaging right away. In a different sense, though, the Roomba and its possibilities are fun too. Nancy found a book at the usual bargain price at Ollie's the other day, Hacking Roomba, which is one of those highly detailed and quality books from Wiley publishing on computers and technology. If you wanted a hobby less expensive than golf and had (1) basic electronics tools and (2) knowledge of Java programming, you could have a big time turning a third-generation Roomba into a roving spy camera, a little round singing and dancing Fred Astaire, an artist, a really big computer mouse, or a robot maid the Jetsons would be proud to call one of the family. The key is microcontroller programming using its ROI (Roomba Open Interface, originally the Serial Command Interface). iRobot Corporation released the ROI specifications when it noticed the hacking community was really into its product, leading to an explosion of creativity from some very talented (and maybe a little odd) people worldwide.
With an algorithm directing it and felt tip markers held in clamps, the little devil can scribe artwork consisting of geometric designs; with a piezo beeper (I used one in a light-and-sound creating interactive exhibit years ago) and use of MIDI note numbers, it will sing its little circuit board heart out for you.
Source code, schematics and projects can be found at If you're a little strange and like spending hours in the basement.
Think what a blast this would be to use by teachers and unusually energetic science museum staffers!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

One Hundred

Welcome to the 100th episode of Just Sayin’ – enough for syndication! It’s rainy and grey outside, so we’ll just stay home in old New Cumberland today.

From The Evening News for August 26, 1918:

“A very serious accident was narrowly averted at Fourth and Reno Streets Saturday when an automobile came up Fourth Street with a woman at the steering wheel. She lost control of the car when she went to make the turn onto Reno Street. The auto ran into the porch at the residence of George Zimmerman, who resides at that corner. The railing of the porch was broken and several boards torn off. Mrs. Zimmerman with her little children were sitting on the porch, but all fortunately escaped injury. The fender of the car was broken. The names of the occupants could not be learned.

(The porch today)

“William King, 40 years old, of Pittsburgh, is the name of the man struck and killed by a Valley Railways trolley car at New Cumberland, late Saturday afternoon. The body was identified by friends here and is now being held by Undertaker Mauk awaiting more information from Pittsburgh. King had asked several residents of New Cumberland the direction to the Government plant at Marsh Run. After being directed, it is said, that he became bewildered and in crossing the street, he stopped in front of the eastbound car and the motorman didn’t have time to stop. It was necessary to raise the car from the tracks to remove the body.”

(Valley Railways trolleys)

That was one rough Saturday.

The people are gone (Mr. King a bit prematurely), but some of the places that were here in 1918 still are. Several pretty much the same, the rest transformed. The sturdy brick building on Second Street in which the Wright automobile was manufactured (for less than two years) stands with few changes; the train station which (I think) was a few blocks east on that street, at the river, is long gone. That depot was the life of a much more vital community 100 years ago, with substantial manufacturing and retail establishments, facing Harrisburg much like New Jersey faces New York, with busy rail lines hugging the river bank. There were four sets of tracks then; only one remains.

The fire station has seen continuous use, converted into a short-lived (and much missed) brewpub and then morphing into Neato Burrito, a local chain of which we are very fond. If you hiked the Appalachian Trail with only one of their huge creations in your pack, you’d be good all day.

(The Wright factory, the vanished train station, and the old

firehouse/new Neato)

The vanished Railroad Hotel adjacent to the train station was busy hosting and feeding the many arriving and departing passengers back in the early 1900s, as was the Iroquois Hotel two blocks over at Third Street. The county redevelopment authority is rebuilding it after years of neglect into 10 senior apartments – and it had looked like its only likely fate was pretty grim. There is a 1909 photo of the Iroquois fully decked out in bunting for Old Home Week (not online, unfortunately). The old gal was full of life back then, and may be again.

(Location of the RR Hotel? / The Iroquois under renovation)

The West Shore Theater opened in 1940 and was recently refurbished outside. It still sports the art deco doors, ceiling mural, and 1960s prices. The Shore Drive-In a few blocks south across the creek bridge has been replaced by a strip mall, but one light tower remains, largely obscured by many years’ growth of vines. A new town clock graces the neatly re-landscaped front of the post office. Who knew someone still made town clocks?

One place not to re-visit is the basement of Pete’s CafĂ©: the site of a mortuary at one time, it’s said to be actively haunted.

Was that where poor Mr. King was taken?


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Songs are Like Asparagus

"The Song Remains the Same" is a great title by the Zep, but the fascinating truth is that songs change, they wane and hide away, then return with trumpets blaring...they are perennial. And they endure to nourish the next generation, generously, like our green vegetable friend in the garden.
"Rocket 88," the agreed-upon beginning (1951) of rock 'n roll music, was cooked up in the car ride to a recording session set up by B.B. King for Ike Turner's Rhythm Kings. (Producer Sam Phillips credited "88" to Jackie and His Delta Cats). Both Ike and his lead singer Jackie Brenston claimed sole authorship, but Ike said all he got was $40 while Jackie received a new Olds 88 from General Motors for the great publicity. The tune was a #1 R&B hit (there was no rock chart yet, of course), and like many iconic pop hits, it had both a backstory and a long future. It seems Jackie sort of stole the song idea from Jimmy Liggins' 1947 "Cadillac Boogie." Jimmy's wild stage antics had a direct influence on Little Richard (and thus Jimi Hendrix), Chuck Berry and Elvis. Little Richard even lifted the intro for one of his own songs! Poor Jimmy is a forgotten footnote today, but his song and his style stretches from 1947 to today.
I really liked "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" on a 1976 Robert Palmer album, not only for the fun lyrics but because it reminded me of the pleasure of listening to my dad's big stack of Harry Belafonte folk and calypso records. I was aware that Mr. Belafonte had recorded it (1952) and thought that was the source -- how naive. It was composed and recorded by one of Trinidad's hundreds of "Calypsonians," one King Radio (real name: Norman Span), way back in 1936. Another song of his, "Mathilda," was later a big hit for Belafonte also. It got around: performers as diverse as the Grateful Dead and The Carpenters also did covers of "Man Smart".
Calypso has similarities to original old school hip-hop, in a way. Calypso wars were held at Carnival time where the singers would set up tents and compete in composing songs on the spur of the moment, mostly consisting of insults directed at the others. Their tradition goes back over a hundred years; they started out as "chantwells," lead vocalists for Carnival masquerade bands. The songs have always featured biting wit and humor, but when it was directed at the British colonial government, they had to be more circumspect. That may be the reason why all adopted fun street names instead of using their own: The Growler, Lord Kitchener, Mighty Sparrow (considered to be the hands-down champ), The Caresser (!), The Roaring Lion, and the Lord Executor. Social commentary and the scandal of the day were prime components, also. A 1939 murder in the Grass Market involving a frying pan was the grist for "Stone Cold Dead," written by Wilmoth Houdini and made popular in the U.S. by Ella Fitzgerald.
This Spring's asparagus tips are new, but the roots are old.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Fanciest Bum in Town

When Rus yells at the kids to stop that racket and get off his lawn, he means it as uncontrolled noise (sorry Rus -- you're not an old curmudgeon yet but I haven't needled you in a while). In a completely different context, it means an organized conspiracy to commit extortion, or similarly a sketchy, low-input way to make a less than deserved income. A hundred years ago it was used to denote an alcohol-soaked big-city get together with an ethnic dance band; probably so named because much noise ensued for quite a while. Also known as beer rackets and growlers (after the large containers brought in to score the largest quantity of draft possible at one time), these faded away with the arrival of Prohibition and new forms of entertainment.
However, in New York, one Dickensian character known as Commodore Dutch kept them going on an annual basis for forty years; in fact it was his entire living. This Lord of the Dance fell into the racket of holding rackets after a 1900 champagne spree left him owning two saloons a total of $285. Like the scene in The Godfather wherein a supplicant asks Don Corleone for a favor, Dutch asked Boss Big Tim Sullivan for a loan to pay off this enormous debt. Big Tim didn't think that would be a good precendent, but he did give his high-living friend a franchise to run a racket (hire a band and a hall, and print tickets), which was pure gold because to sell the $1 tickets (ladies free) he could tell people that Tim was behind him. The First Gala Naval Ball was held April 30, 1901 in Everett Hall on East Fourth Street, with two dozen kegs of beer and Professor Pretzel Wolf's East Side Society Orchestra entertaining. Dutch wore an admiral's theater costume which he used (in increasing disrepair) for decades to come. Unfortunately, Big Tim lost his mind and went to a sanitarium in 1912, and the days of making enough to live on for a year with ticket sales were over.
Dutch wasn't done, however; he liked this business and so established the Original Commodore Dutch Association, spending the year making the rounds and collecting membership "dues" from people all over New York. These contributions allowed them to attend the now smaller events (eventually they would only be held in saloon back rooms, with no free beer). He said, "I haven't got a whole lot of sense but I got too much to work."
Born in 1879 in the Lower East Side in an area known as Little Germany, Dutch would never reveal his surname, saying it was too hard to pronounce, and "if you was known by your real name you didn't have no standing." The "Commodore" part of his street name was acquired from an early job steering sailors to McGurk's pub in the Bowery, wearing a pea coat for credibility. He was small, wizened, had big ears and only one tooth, but being the sole officer of a one-man charity organization, he was always neat and dapper. He was quite proud of being mentioned in Damon Runyon's and Dan Parker's newspaper columns (not flatteringly, but that was alright with him -- the publicity was useful).
Ex-prizefighters were valued friends and good impromptu bouncers; among them was Joe Madden, who said Dutch was "not an ordinary bum -- he's the fanciest bum in town!" Attending the funerals of prominent politicians, he would put the bite on Association members Al Smith and Governor Lehman; hanging around gambling tables and wistfully eyeing the cash was another good source of income.
If he had lived a century earlier in London, surely Mr. Dickens would have immortalized him; you can hardly make up a more colorful character. Wherever he is now, he's got some racket going on.
(From a 1941 New Yorker profile by Joseph Mitchell)