Friday, December 28, 2012

You Could Probably Use a Good Year-end Laugh

There are 98 more pretty good ideas

I check writer/producer Mark Evanier's blog regularly to keep up on (1) amusing L.A. and entertainment stuff, old and new, (2) referrals to social and political commentaries he likes, which are almost always ones I like, and (3) stories and pictures of people and places in SoCal long gone, fondly remembered, or still around and full of it.  I didn't find this little treasure chest myself; writer/critic/bad boy Rus Wornom of Richmond had it on his blog list (at

Anyway, can't resist sharing this little visual book Mark found:
Unlike Heloise's fussy column in your newspaper, it actually has relevant, mostly free, recycling-intensive little projects to solve small problems in creative ways.  The one that recommends using a staple remover tool to open up those clam-tight ring key holders is worth a look, for your fingernails' sake.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Holiday Roaming

Nancy's favorite scene from her favorite movie
Our very own Holiday Inn -- the Warm Springs Lodge --  in Perry County, PA

We've had a tradition of watching the 1942 classic musical "Holiday Inn" for many years.  It (especially when Bing taps the bells on the Christmas tree with his pipe!) never fails to leave us smiling and feeling that way you want to during the holidays.  I think if my funny valentine of a spouse could take only three nonessential things to a desert isle, those would be this movie and our two wacky cats.  Well ... I hope that number could be extended to four, so that list would include me!

We possibly started a new tradition on Friday night by going to the annual Christmas dinner show at the Hershey Lodge.  We're on an e-mail list with the (marketing) powers that be in Chocolate Town and have been getting some irresistible offers over the past year.  Never having heard of this one, we tried it out, joining a packed house in (Hitchcockian face of horror here!) the Red Room.  Ever since the Red Room (redrum: murder spelled backwards) scenes in "Twin Peaks" we've been very wary of red rooms, white lodges, and slowly dancing little people.  And it was the evening of 12/21/2012, the supposed day of apocalypse.

But all was cheer and colored light inside as we took our seats at table #21.  The cast of nine powerful singers tore through original and standard numbers, dancing athletically and making impossibly quick costume changes.  They took a break for dinner to be served, and it was so well timed and stage managed I got the impression they'd been doing this for many years; the painted set pieces really looked vintage. I remarked that it was like "Glee" live, since we watch that while enjoying dinner, too.

A couple about our age next to us mentioned that they've been coming to this event since they moved to Hershey, and had also just enjoyed their annual Thanksgiving visit to the musical dinner show at Warm Springs Lodge in Landisburg, Perry County.  When they described where it is, we were surprised that we'd gone by it many times coming back from Spiral Path Farm and had never noticed it.  Hearing that it's open for special events and holidays only, our jaws must have visibly dropped -- just like Bing Crosby's Holiday Inn, and it's quite near by.  The next day I looked it up, and indeed it is only open for holiday dinner shows, weddings and artist retreats (there is a poet's cabin in the woods).  A long history going back to 1830 includes legendary parties, devastating fire, romantic dances, an outdoor bowling alley at one time and a deadly sword duel in the 1850s over a lady, which prompted the shocked state legislature to ban any more of that sort of thing.  The origin of all this was the nearby cluster of six warm springs which inspired a health resort lodging to be built; the bottled mineral water was sold world-wide.

The circle widens:  the movie was obviously filmed inside a studio (Paramount), but the area around the Village Inn in northern California's Sonoma County stood in for rural Connecticut outdoor scenes.  The hotel was renamed Holiday Inn for a while after the Oscar-winning film was released.  And in 1952, a new type of motor hotel on Summer Avenue in Memphis was named -- guess what.

I'm sure we're going to get an early reservation next Fall for the Thanksgiving show at Warm Springs Lodge, and if an amiable crooner performs "White Christmas" with pipe in hand, well, I know someone who will love it.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sky, Art and Spirit

Everett Ruess and Curly the burro
Noah Purifoy's outdoor art
Art car "Bluewheels" at Burning Man
Fantasy city sculpture at Burning Man

Cadillac Ranch, best known Western outdoor art installation
One of my favorites, in faraway Australia
Really big art -- a churning baby star named Sharpless 2-106
Nomad artists seem to find an inspiring home in the arid West.  Poet and printmaker Everett Ruess was drawn to the quadrangle of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado in the early Thirties after exploring nature down the California coast and through the High Sierra.  From 1931 to 1934 he participated in archeology, learned Navajo, wandered and met with famous photographers such as Ansel Adams, trading his artwork as a living along the way.  Much older, wiser and experienced than his 20 years would indicate, his ideas and intense life can be appreciated today through two books assembled from his surviving letters and diaries (and illustrated by his own linoleum- and wood-cuts).  But his motto, "where I go, I leave no trace," turned out to be a prophetic self-penned epitaph after he disappeared in the Utah wilderness in November 1934, never to be seen again.
Everett's two burros were found near his last camp in Davis Canyon. 

Many others, including unlikely ones like D.H. Lawrence and Theodore Roosevelt, would be forever changed by their travels in the deserts and praries; some of them compelled to become folk artists and some who just didn't fit in anywhere else.  Fine art along with crazy self-expression and impromptu theater has found a home west of the 100th meridian.

Changes caused by harsh weather become part of outdoor artwork's life.  The rust color that develops in the dry climate gives Ricardo Breceda's large metal animal sculptures spread around the Galleta Meadows Estate at Borrega Springs, California, an aged leather look that is disconcertingly life-like.  There are bighorn sheep, wild horses, an extinct elephantine creature and a saber-tooth tiger attacking a wild horse that freezes a moment in time from long ago.

More whimsical, the images of "Cadillac Ranch" near Amarillo, Texas are well-known worldwide; there is also a "Carhenge," painted ghostly white, in western Nebraska.  As a European tourist remarked, "only in America!"

Going far beyond such ironic, static sculpture, there's Burning Man, a short-lived Land of Oz appearing each year in the Black Rock Desert of Arizona where art, costume, performance and astonishing temporary constructions swirl through the minds and around the bodies of tens of thousands of people; all is burned at the end or drives away.  The art vehicles roll around merrily in a Sergeant Pepper and Yellow Submarine world brought to life by unrestrained, uninhibited imagination.  When it's all gone and the dust settles, the chaotic energy rises and returns to the Sky, which has been home to a chaotic art show of its own for ages beyond knowing.

            "I have left no strange or delightful thing undone I wanted to do."
                                                     -- the conclusion of Everett Ruess' last letter

Friday, December 14, 2012

Party Like It's 1699

Who knew?  Newgate Prison, party central

The local venues are booked up with holiday parties and the caterers are busy.  Remember the office party scene a while back on the television series "Mad Men?"  I guess we can forgo the shearing off of limbs for excitement, but many around the world will have a middling good time, especially if there's an open bar and a conga line.

It seems that with the so-called Mayan Apocalypse looming on the 21st, one might be justified in partying with abandon.  Not necessarily with the abandonment of all hope, but maybe with anticipation that the ending of an age (the 5000-year plus baktun) and the beginning of another may be a positive reason to celebrate, if you tend to be an optimist.  What has this era been and where has it brought us?  The period that saw the development of  fixed human settlements and developing political entities is generally agreed upon as beginning centuries before 3000 B.C.; now, 5000 years later, we are at the peak of the Industrial Age.  We can take some pride in generally good progress despite cycles of collapse followed by dark ages. 

Cycles indeed:  the first well-known civilized state, that of the Sumerians, seems to have collapsed around 3200 B.C. due to long droughts, resulting in the depopulation of about 3/4 of cities, towns and villages.  The Mayans later built an impressive urbanized group of states, sometimes even united under the bully du jour, but after two hundred years of good rainfall and the resulting population explosion, they succumbed to drought also (400 years' worth!).  As to what the next era holds for us, we can consider facing similar climate disasters coupled, as always, with overpopulation and environmental damage, with something new in the mix: civilization's dependence on oil for the transportation of everything.  Other materials can supply electricity, heat, and even plastics, but there is no good all-around substitute for powering transport, and we are halfway through our supply.    The rest, in greater demand than ever, is increasingly harder and more expensive to retrieve and refine.  That in itself may be more of a change in history's direction that we can wrap our minds around.

So, what to do -- the year's running out and we just may be running on empty too.

Scene:  Newgate prison in the old City of London, five stories of unforgiving stone, steamy and rank in summer, cold and damp in winter, around the year 1700.  On the facade, rebuilt after the 1688 fire, stand four statues portraying Justice, Liberty, Truth and Mercy.  Ironically, none of these virtues were to be found anywhere inside by the hapless inmates.  The sheriffs officially in charge sublet their responsibility to "Keepers" who in turn extracted money from the prisoners, their families and friends.  Upon arrival, the accused criminals (career felons, petty miscreants, the falsely accused, or just debtors) immediately had to pay a bribe or were stripped of their clothes and shoes.  Iron shackles were removed only if that service was paid for. Any clothing, sheets or blankets they may desire could be bought.  A better accommodation or bed was also  available with payment; otherwise it was a group cell and a space on the floor.  Three to six pence a day per regular prisoner was provided by the government for food (stale beer and old bread); those who could bring money in could actually feast well and get what passed for medical treatment at the time.

But, despite a deplorable present and not much of a future -- there was somewhere, not unlike the aliens' cantina  in Star Wars, they could go to if they had "liberty" privileges and were not important political prisoners:   the in-house Newgate Tavern, where at all hours men and women prisoners could carouse and down as much rum, brandy, wine or beer as they could afford or cadge from friends.  The ladies of Newgate might sell their favors for coin or drinks and the possibility of pregnancy, since that could cancel an appointment with the hangman (the children stayed in the prison).

The licentiousness of the place is abominable; there are no Jests so filthy, or Expressions so vile and profane, but what are uttered here with Applause and repeated with Impunity...they are debarred from nothing but going out.  Their conversation is profane and wicked as Hell itself.  (Dr. Mandeville, An Enquiry Into the Causes of the Frequent Executions at Tyburn, 1725).

It was the Party Hall of the Damned.  (Richard Zacks, The Pirate Hunter, 2002)

On their very last day, the condemned prisoners were taken in a cart from the prison to the places of execution at Wapping or Tyburn, but the party continued on the way after "a substantial breakfast with seas of beer."  The night before in the Condemned Hold anything was available as long as it could be paid for (you're not going to be taking it with you, after all).  The three-mile trip toward the gibbets took two hours because of frequent stops to liquor up again, with tavern keepers and enterprising individuals offering bottles from baskets.  The rowdy crowd along the way was described as "one continued Fair for Whores and Rogues," with many pickpockets among them  -- some of those were trained monkeys!

I do hope your holiday parties are fun without the desperation, and that you arrive home safely avoiding any monkey pickpockets.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Let Us Not Talk Falsely Now

You recognize that phrase, of course.  You can probably recite the spare three verses of "All Along the Watchtower;" it's part of our shared Boomer memory.  (I always get them mixed up, but I do have a few songs memorized correctly).  A compelling story, really the outline of an epic like HBO's "Game of Thrones," is sketched out in it -- leaving much room for imagination.  And that's one reason why story songs are so wonderful.

After 242 posts, I've told a few tales here.  There are two original stories slipped in, only one of which is clearly a fiction.

Unlike tunes based on a beat, a hook or a clever turn of phrase, I never tire of finely crafted story songs.  Here's a few that come to mind right away:

"It Was A Very Good Year"  -- recorded by many from 1961 to the present, but the definitive version is Frank Sinatra's from his 1965 album "September of My Years."  My dad had that one and I played it over and over when I was listening to Dylan and PP&M and surf music.  Great is great, whatever the source or genre.  Off the subject, the instrumental arrangement deservedly won an award.  (William Shatner recorded a spoken-word version, intercut with lines from Hamlet.  Can't  you just hear him doing it?)

"Me and My Uncle" and "Pancho and Lefty" -- those dusty western ballads are riveting.  John Phillips allegedly wrote the first during one deranged evening with Joni Mitchell among the group present, and if it weren't for her it would have been lost since John had no memory of it at all.  The single most-performed song by the Dead, they say.  And "Lefty" is a laconic gem by the terribly underrecognized Townes Van Zandt.

"Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" -- I missed the Newsweek story from 1975 because we received Time magazine at home, and had never given a thought to the hazards of Great Lakes navigation in any case.  The haunting line, "the lake, it is said, never gives up her dead," sets the tone at the beginning of this fateful story, told in seven long verses.

"Molly O, The Lily of the West"  -- Mark Knopfler contributed and performed this old ballad-style treat on a Chieftans album.  When the record is forgotten, people will think this is a genuine 18th century folk song, it sounds so authentic.  Faithless love...

"Long Black Veil" -- I thought this, too, was a traditional song when I heard it on a 1963 Joan Baez album, but it's a modern product recorded by Lefty Frizzell in 1959.  Sounding so much like countless Appalachian murder ballads, it is chilling to the bone, like a Poe story.

"The Boxer" and others by Paul Simon -- this rings so true you have to think it was based on some real person, but even if not so specifically, it has probably played out that way for many poor souls over the centuries.  A classic is timeless, and true even if not factual.

So many by Scots-Irish chantreuse Loreena McKennitt:  "The Highwayman" (the Alfred Noyes dramatic poem set to her music), "Marco Polo," "The Mummers' Dance" (which explains the faraway, prehistory, roots of the Philadalphia Mummers Parade), and "Skellig," which tells, wistfully and with elegance, of an old monk on the isolated west coast of Ireland passing on his work and legacy to a novice:

O light the candle, John
The daylight has almost gone
The birds have sung their last
The bells call all to Mass

Sit here by my side
For the night is very long
There's something I must tell
Before I pass along...

It was said, and so truly, that a song is more like a play than a poem.

A great one is.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Where'd That Come From?

Old masonry lime kiln
Portuguese merchant flag used in India
Red striped version of the above
East India Company flag from 1600 to 1707
Both the East India Company flag (1707 - 1801) and the American "Grand Union" flag

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.
             --  First century philosopher Seneca, quoted in the Semisonics' 1999 song "Closing Time"

Two blocks away from us is a heavily traveled but twisty old road called Limekiln.  I wonder how many people ever think about the meaning of that name?  History and architecture fans will know that lime mortar was used for centuries before the modern portland cement mixture was developed for the building boom of the Industrial Age.  Limestone was burned under hardwood fires, first in a pit and later in brick kilns, fractured and reduced to powder, and mixed with sand and water to bind stone and brick together, and to make plaster and whitewash or used alone as a needed soil amendment.

Like the other local industries in the 18th and 19th centuries such gunsmithing and distilling (there were over 50 whiskey makers in the nearby area!), lime manufacture was established early to meet people's needs by using the resources at hand.  But where were the limekilns -- shouldn't the structure after which the road was named still be somewhere nearby?  There was no historical or informal marker, so I assumed it had been taken apart long ago.

One day, a good while after we moved here, I noticed a beehive-shaped stone structure with an arched opening tucked away in front of a rise, revealed now only by the winter-bare tree and brush branches.  That had to be it, still there after all.  It is not mentioned in the only book of local history (I checked it again) and not pictured in any of the places where historic photos are displayed (the library, or Bob Evans, a half mile up the road, which has many good ones).

I wonder about the forgotten origins of a lot of things.  The name of cheddar cheese intrigued me, just because it's a strange looking word.  It turns out that history is known; the original Celtic word dwr ("sheer" or "brilliant" water) referred to an ancient and surprisingly well-documented spring in the Mendip Hills of Somerset, England.  Okay, one closer to home:  why does the U.S. national flag feature alternating red and white stripes?  I always thought that was an unusual design, but only had the explanation everyone else has, that they represent the thirteen original colonies.  It seemed more likely that it had come from something before -- and what a long, strange journey those stripes made.

The green and white striped banner above was used by the Portuguese merchants and their local associates along the coasts of India in the 17th century (can't find an origin story on it, though), and was later flown in a red and white version, which was adopted by the British East India Company (which existed from 1600 to 1874) with addition of a red St. George's cross in the canton (upper left corner).  After the union of England and Scotland in 1707, the new Union Jack became the canton.  In 1801 a red "St. Patrick's" cross was added to the Jack when Ireland was merged to form the United Kingdom (St. Patrick died of natural causes as a very old man, so he was not martyred on any cross).  But look at the 1707-1801 version, and you will see, exactly, the first United States national flag, called the Continental Colors (it was renamed the Grand Union Flag in an 1872 book, and the new name stuck).  The first flag for all the thirteen colonies, it was made in 1775 by milliner Margaret Manny of Philadelphia and flown by the flagship Alfred as a Navy ensign, before the declaration of independence.  After that declaration the British Jack looked pretty inappropriate and a circle of white stars on a blue canton was decided on.  But why was the flag of the East India Company adopted without change by the restless American colonies as their own?

This is the core of the question -- for the curious -- and no one has an answer.  There is no documentation or explanation extant.  The Company was not allowed to trade directly with the colonies, and if some of their ships ended up in colonial ports, with ensign flying, they weren't there often or long.  American sailors, merchants, and privateers would have seen it many times in the Caribbean, off Africa, or on the Indian Ocean, but of that group of travelers and adventure seekers, only an influential merchant would have consorted with those who made the decision to adopt the flag. 

So, for reasons lost in time, our first flag and most of the current one are based on that of the first global corporation.  Irony alert!  Well, as President Coolidge said, the business of America is business.