Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Starry Nights

O What a Night
"Jelly" Leftwich and his Blue Devils at Duke University
Looks like a Pizzini Poster & Printing Co. product
Psychedelic show at old Tantilla
Starlight Ballroom, Hershey
During their heyday from the Jazz Era after World War I to the late 1960s, magic was made in the great ballrooms across the country.  "The South's Greatest Ballroom" -- not an exaggeration -- was the Tantilla Gardens at 3817 West Broad Street, Richmond, where up to 750 couples could dance from 1933 to 1969.  All the greats played there: Duke Ellington, the Dorseys, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson; Cliff's parents did too, as elegant and professional as any of those nationally known.  Their perfect poster above (no date, unfortunately) is actually available for sale by the state library's The Virginia Shop, 808 E. Broad St. today.  Bandleader George E. "Jelly" Leftwich Jr. had written the Duke University fight song, still used today; his singer and future wife went by the name Kay Keever (actual name:  MacIver) and he had used a stage name himself earlier (Lee Dixon).
The big bands' days were numbered due to the gas rationing and conscription of World War II.  Local bands did, however, get booked more frequently because of this.
Boy met girl at the ballrooms, each one dressed to impress, with lots of red lipstick and new haircuts.  Smooching on the Tantilla's unlit balcony probably led to more than a few marriages.  One source states that the ceiling opened up for relief on hot nights; if so, music, stars above and a brown bag nearby provided all the inspiration that frisky young folks might need.
In its last decade the Tantilla featured beach music, soul acts (The Tams tore it up), battle of the band contests and Beatles-inspired quartets.  The local Bill Graham, Chuck Wrenn, produced and provided the light show for the first psychedelic concert dance in August of 1967; the Actual Mushroom played its one and only gig that night.  (Some creative spelling on the poster:  "preformed" and "electricly.")  A Richmond musician said, "it could have been our Fillmore," but with $400,000 worth of renovations needed, the Tantilla had to close in 1969.  Virginia had approved liquor by the drink a year before, which might have helped if the new mixed-drink license had not required that food sales exceed alcohol sales.
Two hundred fifty miles north, the Starlight Ballroom in Hershey had a very similar history.  The dance pavilion was opened in 1923 and considerably remodeled in 1957, bouncing back after closing during a few of the WWII years.  All the same national acts appeared there for dances on Wednesday and Saturday nights; Duke Ellington for one evening in July 1965 just before it closed forever.  It was demolished in 1977, but many local couples keep it in their memories of when they were young.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Key

If you like a living author, it's a treat to find his/her latest work by accident or because of a recent review.  They can only produce so many (excepting the word factories like Patterson or Roberts -- yeech), so it's also serendipity when someone recommends one of their favorites and widens your scope, as Claire was so kind to do a few years ago when she said I'd like T.C. Boyle's Tortilla Curtain.  I sure did, and found something else I like:  authors who use real people, places and events in thin disguise (known as roman a clef, that is, a novel with a key).   If you do not know a place well, the story and a map will expand your knowledge, and if you do, it's innocent fun to picture the exact place where the action occurs.
In Talk Talk, Mr. Boyle called the Santa Barbara, California setting San Marcos (actually a neighborhood east of downtown) and I enjoyed trying to develop my "key" to figure out the other names.
The author lives in a 1910 Frank Lloyd Wright house in Montecito, adjacent to Santa Barbara, and couldn't resist the pull to leave the local scene for once to novelize Wright's notorious (not-so-) private life in The Women.  All person and place names were actual, and I learned a great deal about the first Taliesin in Wisconsin.  If it had been done in roman a clef mode, I'd have been busy for a week tracking down who and what was actually what.
In his latest, When the Killing's Done, Boyle also goes full factual, and there was no research needed; I added my own motion picture to the script as I read along, proud to say I knew every location due to extensive perambulations in the area.  And the unavoidable seasickness during the choppy trip across the channel to Santa Cruz Island -- first hand experience there also.  (A hidden gem -- he has Tim the biologist wear his own favorite red Converse sneakers.)
Earl Hamner called Schulyer, Virginia, Walton's Mountain, and the University of Richmond, Boatwright University -- locals know Boatwright is the name of the treed, winding lane leading into the U. of R.  No one took any offense to his use of real people and places, because of affectionate and nostalgic treatment.  Other authors who are more frank don't exactly thrill the locals when they appear in print as they are, rather than how they would like to be remembered.  It took a number of years before John Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas forgave him for portraying the misbehavior of the paisanos in Tortilla Flat and the ranch owners in particular did not approve of any positive view of the strikers in In Dubious Battle.  He did a good deed, though, by turning the real Ed Ricketts, who died far too young, into Doc in Cannery Row.  Ed would have been forgotten otherwise, and that would have been a sad thing.
Respectable society right here in Harrisburg got a skewering in John O' Hara's 1949 A Rage To Live.  Avoiding libel (a main reason for the clef treatment), he renamed everything and everyone (the city became Fort Penn), but the locals knew exactly who he meant.  They say Harrisburg is just Altoona with the Capitol in the middle of it, but there was and is a sufficiently large cast of political, professional and business socialites and heirs to populate a big story of misdeeds; why O'Hara set another, Ourselves to Know, in the hamlet of Lykens (he called it Lyons), is a head-scratcher.  I've been through there a few times, and it makes Mineral, Virginia, look like an exciting metropolis.
Who employed living people and geography more extensively than Jack Kerouac?  City Lights Bookstore has fortunately published three editions of the Beat Atlas, one each for New York and San Francisco and one state by state, biographical dictionaries which provide information about those in or related to the Beat movement.  With these resources and the Internet available, people and places who appeared under different names in various of Kerouac's books can be identified.  LuAnne Henderson, Neal Cassady's teenage first wife (called Mary Lou in On the Road), if still alive at 81 will probably be sought out when the movie version is released soon, with popular (miscast, for sure) Kristen Stewart portraying her.
I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but I did not realize so many characters in Aldous Huxley's novels were based on luminaries in his circle such as D.H. Lawrence.  So, down to the basement to find those old dusty volumes, and then get to working on the "key."

Monday, December 19, 2011

Send In The Clowns

For our 201st posting, we're a little embarrassed to squander electronic ink on the the clowns running around in the Republican circus tent, but it's a perfect storm this Monday -- I can't resist.
Salon just named everyone's favorite old weasel, George Will, to this year's list of the 30 biggest pundit hacks.  That would have been enough amusement in itself, but today Will was aghast in his column  (as always, gratuitously wordy self-pleasure) at Newt Gingrich  for bashing capitalism!  Now, other fellow conservatives pretty much consider Newt to be the current Joe Isuzu, but when he criticized Mitt Romney for making his $300 million by bankrupting corporations and laying people off, Will went on the warpath. 
Romney had previously faulted anti-government Newt for charging $30,000 an hour to "advise" the unloved semi-government agency Freddie Mac (collecting $1.6 million total), prompting Newtie's return jibe at Mitt's equally ill-gotten gains.  Will maintains, in high dudgeon, that "firms like Bain Capital are indispensible for wealth creation...and we should welcome such animal spirits (as shown in the photo above of Mitt's early days at Bain) and hope for political leadership that will hasten the day when American conditions are again receptive to them."
Now, when did the day pass when the richest just manipulate money, debt and Wall Street jitters instead of actually do work and produce something of value?  And why is the end stage of capitalism, absurd globalized financialization, touted as the desirable sort -- instead of a civilized system which isn't just a mindless race to the bottom?
If he's lost George's affections, at least Newt has the endorsement of former Congressman Grandy (Gopher of Love Boat fame), who is also an idea man:  he claims the OWS movement is an Islamic plot against the United States.  It just keeps getting funnier.
Seriously, though, PLEASE nominate Newt for president this August in Tampa, GOPers!  The world loves a clown.


Thursday, December 15, 2011


Love what you do
Participating farms in the lower 48
The blogosphere is humming with questions stirred up by the OWS movement and the Arab Spring -- the Millenials are looking for a way out of a confusing mess, just like we were when our mess was the Vietnam War and the civil rights struggle.
They must feel like they're lost in the woods, full of animal and insect chatter that tells them nothing, and facing a multitude of choices in trails with no idea which ones go anywhere good, or just nowhere.
If one of us were standing there, we'd have to tell the young person that we really had it better, with our productive years ahead supported by great supplies of energy in the industrial world and entire new technical fields opening up, and without the horrifying prospect of 7 billion hungry competitors.  Whether we chose to fly up the ladder of conventional success and collect the prizes of money and possessions beyond any previous generations' hopes, or skim along doing our own thing and still enjoy a pretty good quality of life, we had viable alternatives.
In so many ways, I don't think they do.
They probably have a deep feeling that they're gripped in a vise:  the contracting economy will never provide opportunities for a good living as the population expands, and there's the reality of those huge student loans coming due.  We could scrape by, starting out, because rent was $100 a month and few of us, except those entering lucrative professional careers, owed anything.
Kids, that may be your answer.  What was old is new again.
In the coming decade, less and more expensive energy supplies will put constraints on exporting and importing foodstuffs all over the world.  Local production of food and fuel is creating livelihoods already that corporate monoculture based on revolving bank credit, migrant non-citizen labor and long-distance shipping had seemingly eliminated.
If it's felonious to suggest ignoring that student debt as a deal gone bad, then I guess I can't...
But say you're starting out at zero, with no obligations and few possessions (and that's a good thing) and have a little cash scraped up from overtime at Starbucks or from family -- there is an opportunity to go off the radar, learn valuable new skills and be ready to grow in a new simpler economy instead of suffering from the train wreck of the old one.
A nonprofit called Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) pairs up volunteers (you) and one of 1300 participating agricultural enterprises all over, including Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands (see map above).  There are even several near here, at Duncannon, Gettysburg, Columbia and Pine Grove, and one can learn about animal husbandry, crops, wine or honey production.  The deal is simple:  you work for 1/2 day for six days a week, and the host provides food and accomodation (although some of that is just your tent), but most importantly, skills you don't have to buy your own property to learn.  There's even one in Claremont, CA, that's just a half acre!  I've followed the popular blog from a well-known family which has supported all its members well for years on just such a plot (also in the mild CA climate), so right there is an opportunity to learn how they do it (except they bought the home long ago at a tiny fraction of today's cost).  A woman runs a CSA farm on the Oregon coast and had 50 WWOOF volunteers this summer -- it seems a real financial and social benefit for all (be sure to find her website at revolutiongardens.com with an extensive photo record of this past summer).  But it's just a change, a beginning; people will have to figure out how to use the connections made and skills acquired to develop the specifics of where and how they will make a living.
They might have to forget the formula education=good job=large home and cars.  But education is, I think, about learning how to learn, and that will prove useful from day one.  Tomorrow's engineer may be making biofuel systems with two partners, instead of working for Shell Oil in an office complex, but he or she may be pleased with their place in the world.

Monday, December 12, 2011

If It Looks Like a Hornet Nest, Don't Poke It

Commodore Matthew Perry in Japan

With computers, it may be that WYSIWYG, but geopolitics is better characterized as being smacked on the back of the head by one unintended consequence after another.
Westerners from exploring nations had found little welcome in Japan before the historic pivot point in 1854, when American Commodore Matthew C. Perry strong-armed the Tokugawa Shogunate into signing an agreement to open their country to trade.  For centuries, feudal Japan had been inward-looking, agrarian and self-sufficient.  Previous approaches by the United States in 1837, 1846 and 1849 were rebuffed, but Congress decided on a show of force; the Japanese realized upon the fleet's arrival that the fortress in Tokyo Bay (and some wooden cannon) were inadequate to put up effective resistance.
The changes that followed were unpredictably, unbelievably, swift and thorough.  The domains of 300 daimyo (local lords) were first consolidated into a unified nation under a restored figurehead emperor, then industrialized and militarized by an energetically efficient oligarchy.  In a half-century, Japan leapt up from its dreamy isolation to become the powerhouse which bloodied the nose of both the Chinese and the Russian empires.  Full of hubris like Perry, they, in turn, poked back at the ones who started all this, in 1941.
Do we learn not to throw rocks at the junkyard dog, knock the bee nest down, or put our tongue on the frozen flagpole? 
No, we do it again, like Nixon did "opening" China in 1972.  There were reasons of the moment, as commerce had been with Japan:  putting the USSR off balance, helping to extricate the United States from Vietnam, and potential "markets."  China got full diplomatic recognition in 1979 and Most Favored Nation trade status later.  That and NAFTA will cost us more than the awakening of Japan ever did.
China wants, and will have, the natural gas in the East China Sea and the oil in the South China Sea.  We just recently set up a Marine station in northern Australia.  You add it up.
As David Frum said, "maybe Nixon should have stayed home."


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Tony's Odd Neighbors

Moammar's summer house may be on the Multilist soon
Royalty in Bordentown
The characters who have washed up in tony northern New Jersey...
Jon Corzine, recently of the multimillions, has moved to Hoboken from Saddle River, not Manhattan as you'd expect.  Maybe he can call on Tony Soprano for tips on how to hold on to a fortune (Tony would tell him that gambling is for fools).
The Libyan government owns a mansion in Englewood, and Moammar himself was going to camp out on its front lawn in his Bedouin tent a few years ago, but the neighbors (one of whom is Eddie Murphy, but whether he cared isn't on record) wouldn't have it.  Never used by his ambassador for summer retreats as planned, it sits empty. 
The estate that once stood in Bordentown, Point Breeze, was built by none other than Napoleon's older brother Joseph after he abdicated as the appointed King of Spain following a revolt in 1813 (the one Goya pictured so devastatingly well).  He had not wanted to be a king, or a lawyer as his father had insisted, but rather a man of letters.  After moving to New York City and then Philadelphia, he enjoyed the largest library in the United States at the time in his New Jersey mansion.  It burned in 1820, probably due to arson perpetrated by a vengeful Russian immigrant.  He rebuilt, but left to return to Europe in 1839, dying a few years later.
Joseph left behind two daughters with his Virginia-born mistress, and younger brother Jerome left behind a baby Bonaparte after a brief American marriage in 1803 when he also returned home.  The last member of this family line met his end after tripping over a dog leash in Central Park in 1943.
Alpine, NJ, is home to many of the new royalty like Stevie Wonder, P. Diddy, Wesley Snipes and Lil Kim.
A motley crew!

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Smallest apartment in New York
Advanced materials and design in Tokyo
A really narrow lot
Despite ol' Newt's (not geologically or mathematically possible) claim that if the Sierra Club would just get out of the way the U.S. could produce 4 million more barrels of oil daily, some rational people seem be on to the constraints our energy needs and wants face:  only 12% of future homebuyers now want driving-required houses in the suburban fringe, preferring nearness to town centers and walkability.  But buildings use half our energy, and people in areas already provided with public transit, most stressed by population density and cost of living, are developing some surprising ways to survive in changing conditions.
A married couple and their two cats live in New York's smallest apartment, calling it a "microstudio."  Located in Morningside Heights, it cost them $150,000 and they have adapted by not cooking there and storing their work clothes in office closets.  No car, of course, but speaking of cars, their home is the size of a parking space (175 square feet).
In Japan, microhouses (kyosho jutaku) are being designed and built utilizing narrow spaces, by going long and up to three stories high and experimenting with advanced materials such as superthin steel membrane and fiber-reinforced plastic.  Inner walls, doors and closets are eliminated, among other things we would be more hard pressed to think about living without.  Toyko's building codes must be quite receptive to innovation and the inspectors uncharacteristically open-minded.
For non-urban areas, some like Californian Jay Shafer of Tumbleweed Tiny Houses, who lives in a 70 square foot cabin himself, design and build single homes well under 300 square feet.  He got some publicity on HGTV's Design Star; I hope that helps him with his dream of a community of such "cottage houses" connected by paths with a green commons in the middle.  In upstate New York (Utica, I think), a similar co-housing community has existed for quite a while -- space is conserved by communalizing what can be (i.e., laundry, tools and maintenance equipment).  In both cases, Jay's dream and the existing community, cars are banished to parking on the edge.  Shared and public transit may reduce their numbers.
There are technologies, some used in the marine and RV industries, which would help make such radical living space reduction possible and economical, such as 12 volt lighting and fan systems.
Hot air from our lobbyist-purchased leaders and fear peddled by the apocalyptic religious evangelist-entrepreneurs will not solve any part of the energy problem facing us.  Hope for all of us lies in the creativity and rationality of a few of us.