Elegance in a Shuttered Room

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I saw her only once.

It was Thanksgiving Day, 1970. At my aunt’s house in New Jersey. After dinner, Bown showed one of his silent movies. She sat like a tiny sparrow on the sofa. But there was a large elephant in the room. Why was everyone acting so strange?

I didn’t see her the first 12 years of my life, and never again the last 10 years of hers.

When I was very young, I used to ask my parents about her. “Why don’t we ever visit Grandma?” And they always told me that she was “in the hospital.” It wasn’t until my teen years, when I was in my dad’s study and accidentally-on-purpose read an opened letter that she’d written to him, that I finally understood why she was always “in the hospital.”

Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile, eggshell mind.

My grandmother was born in 1895 in an upscale section of Harlem. Her mother was descended from one of the first families of New York, and her father from early Massachusetts Puritans. She must have begun piano studies at an early age, because she eventually became so talented, she was invited to tour with composer Victor Herbert. But it never happened.

In 1918 she married my grandpa. A more unlikely pairing you couldn’t imagine. He was from central Pennsylvania farm stock and 15 years older. He was a practical New York businessman, she a musical romantic. According to my aunt, he’d had a date with her older sister, Blanche, at Delmonico’s. Afterwards, Blanche invited him to her Harlem brownstone to meet the family. He took one look at the younger sister and was besotted. Poor Blanche.

She gave birth to my dad in 1922, and my aunt two years later. Maybe raising two children was too much for her. She probably had something that she’d inherited. Could it have been from her grandfather, the Civil War naval captain who was court-martialed? No one knows.

In 1930, she entered the hospital for six months, but was released. A year later she entered for good. Permanent vacation. Imposed communal living for the next 50 years. Jeezus. That’s a lot of piano-playing in the day room.

My dad never talked about her. She wasn’t at his wedding. Early in his marriage to Mom, he told her “I never had a mother.” But here’s a quirky upside: her absence brought him very close to his father. “Dad could have left her, and nobody would have faulted him. My dad adopted his dad’s strength of character.

I remember a few things from that Thanksgiving Day. I had a Craig reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I taped conversations in the kitchen while the turkey roasted. Goofing off with my cousin and brothers. Dallas playing Green Bay. George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” all over the radio.

And there are one or two photos of the meal. Bown, married to Aunt Blanche’s daughter, wearing a pin-striped suit, sitting erect with his hands folded on the table, a benign smile on his face. Grandma is at the head of the table, with her hands up to her face, her mouth open, as if surprised, tired, or confused. Her hair is gray and frizzy. She looks small and insignificant. And I remember the other adults, including my noble dad, treating her gently but awkwardly, as if she might break any moment.

Then came the movie. I remember the dark, claustrophobic living room with the thick, Persian rug, and the musty but pleasant smell of old things. A step into antiquity. The movie was “The Thief of Bagdad,” starring dashing Douglas Fairbanks. It was released in 1924, six years before Grandma went into exile.

I remember Bown acting as master of ceremonies and working his bulky black movie projector. He gave a florid introduction, then intermittent narration. Mainly, I remember his politeness to Grandma. “What do you think of the motion picture, Mrs. Kurtz?” he must have asked her three or four times. And Grandma – her eyes blinking in the glow from the movie screen, with God knows what fantastic thoughts and images ricocheting through her broken brain – gave the same response every time:

“Very elegant.”

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Skiing with the Aliens

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“You need to enter the 21st century and get some new equipment,” he tells me, gazing down at my obsolete straight-shaped skis. I’m enjoying a half day of skiing during a visit to my mom, and I receive this bit of unsolicited counsel from the stranger on the chairlift.

“Yeah, eventually I plan to,” I reply. “I’m sort of a working-class skier. But so far, these have worked well for me.”

“The difference between those and parabolics is like night and day. Too many black diamonds and death cookies with those, and you’re bombin’.”

“No kidding.”

“What are those, about 177? 180?”

Uh-oh, here we go again. Does he really care what centimeter length they are?? I doubt it. Instead, I think he’s pulling one of those alpha-male-skier things, advertising that he’s a veteran “powderhound” by dazzling me with ski jargon.

So I try to divert the path that “Ski Wolf” is blazing by using a little humor.

“Actually, they’re only 12s. As in 12 dollars. Thanks to Goodwill.”

“Oh.”

Ski Wolf is conspicuously silent for the rest of the lift ride.

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I’ve had similar unsolicited comments while hiking: “Man, you still shoulder an outer-frame backpack? I haven’t seen one of those in years! Do you rub sticks together for your fires?”

Also on the running trail (although there’s only so much you can say about running shoes): “Air Pegasus, huh? I don’t like the Cushlon midsole on them. I prefer Saucony’s ICS moulded pillar construction. Do you overpronate or heel strike?”

Although I’m not a bicyclist, I can imagine the esoterica involved with having two wheels and a derailleur under your body. And from my experiences with speeding bikes on the local trail, correct bicycle apparel is de rigueur. Evidently, the tighter and more colorful, the better.

You’ll probably guess where I’m going with this. These days, our disposable culture has an obsession with fashion and technology. And not just digital fashion and technology. Outdoor sports are overflowing with “techies” eager to rave about flashy new products and denigrate the old (old meaning a year ago).

I’m not a total Luddite (a person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology). I’m amazed and grateful for the medical advancements that technology has brought. I just think leisure technology – which includes sporting equipment and clothes – has gotten a little out of hand, and we may be at a point of diminishing returns. I think advertisers do a great job of convincing people they need a certain product only because it’s new, different, and features, for example, “double-suspension Kryptonium© wicking technology,” or something equally impressive-sounding.

And some people, although they may mean well, feel the urge to flaunt their knowledge and preference for the latest and greatest (and usually expensive).

Then there’s the fashion aspect. While some of the techno-talk might be ego-related, part of it, too, is the code language we’re trained to share as members in our little “clubs.” Simply put, we like to be around like-minded individuals. It gives us a feeling of security and belonging. It’s why we have churches, street gangs, genealogical societies, sports fanbases, civic, political, and military groups, fraternities and sororities. If you’re a member of one of these clubs, you quickly learn to conform by dressing/talking/behaving a certain way.robots

I’ve concluded that, although not as obvious, a similar thing holds true for the sub-cultures surrounding outdoor recreational activities.

Here’s a challenge: the next time you attend church (if you attend church), try dressing out of character. Wear faded jeans and a Black Sabbath t-shirt, for example. See how the herd reacts.

Or try this: the next time you attend a Republican function, mention how much you admire the political savvy of the Clintons. Or if a Democratic function, try dropping conservative catchphrases like “pork-barrel” and “nanny state.” Count how many sidelong glances you get.

Or if you’re on the hiking trail and see a 20-something guy with one of those fashionable bushy beards, stare at his beard awhile then ask if he’s Amish.

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Now that I think of it, maybe I should’ve tried a different tack with Ski Wolf. What I should have done was massage his ego a little:

“Say, you seem quite knowledgeable about skiing. What type of parabolic skis might you recommend? I mean, you know, for those black diamond slopes?”

Then – after he rhapsodized about cambers, rockers, and Atomic Bent Chetlers – maybe we could relax by the fire while ravishing a few St. Pauli Girls and discussing the Book of Mormon.

Oh well, hindsight’s 20-20. Since it’s too late, I guess I’ll hang on to my old-fashioned skis a while longer, and just hope I don’t “bomb” on any “death cookies.”

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Lighting Fires in 1967: The First Album by The Doors

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There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception – Aldous Huxley

A year ago today I wrote about the year 1966 in popular music. 1966 was a watershed. Greying, traditional singers and song interpreters were being pushed down the record charts by young rebels sporting Beatle haircuts, paisley shirts, and leather boots, many of whom wrote their own songs. Blues, soul, surf, and folk music were colliding head-on with ringing guitars, creamy vocal harmonies, and an infectious rock backbeat. This musical amalgam was both fresh and exciting. But… just under the surface of this “jangle pop,” unknown forces were bubbling.

The leading lights in rock music – the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones – had sampled hallucinogenic drugs by 1967. In addition to being curious about mind expansion via chemical transport, they also wanted to explore the architecture and limitless tapestry of sound, language, and ideas. Instead of merely an affirmative “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” a lot of probing questions were being raised. Minds were floating downstream, and mothers were now standing in the shadows.

1966 was also the year the Beatles stopped touring to concentrate on recording, and the year of John Lennon’s incendiary (at least, in America) comment “I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”

January 1967 was ripe for revolutionary music like that of the Doors.

I was 9 when I first heard the Doors’ single “Light My Fire” on AM radio. Although a truncated, radio-friendly version of the album cut, this song’s hypnotic rhythms, exotic instrumentation, and potent vocals temporarily pushed the Beatles and Monkees out of my head (and it’s still my favorite song). But not until college, when I scraped some dollars together for the first eponymous Doors album, was I really able to grasp this band’s awesome power.

The Doors were maybe the world’s first “existential” band. They somehow were able to marry rock and blues music with Nietzsche, Blake, Freud, and Eastern mysticism, yet still managed to have hits and make teenage girls swoon… as well as older women. My mother heard me playing that first album one day during summer break:

“Peter, who is that singer?” she yelled down to the basement.

“His name’s Jim Morrison.”

“I love his singing! I haven’t heard a voice like that since Frank Sinatra!”

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Engineer Bruce Botnick, producer Paul Rothchild, singer Jim Morrison.  Botnick and Rothchild had a large role in the making of the first Doors album.

Before long she was joining me in the basement to gaze at the rock god pictured on my album sleeve, as well as listen to the songs – which include the climactic finale “The End.” If you’re familiar with the lyrics to “The End,” you’ll understand how awkward an experience this was for me.

Anyway, I could rattle on and on about the Doors and that first explosive album, a true classic, unleashed to the world on January 4, 1967. But others have reviewed it much better, and I only have so much space here. So here’s merely a quick song-by-song summation:

Break on Through (To the Other Side): the first single, and maybe the definitive Doors song. Beastly, guttural, and relentless, I’ve always thought of it as an aural interpretation of sexual intercourse. But that’s just me.

Soul Kitchen: sneering and funky, and a perfect follow-up to the opener. Something strange is being cooked up in this kitchen. Not sure what it is, but it’s pulling me inside.

The Crystal Ship: a gorgeous song. Drummer John Densmore has said it’s about Morrison’s breakup with a girlfriend, but there are many other interpretations.

Twentieth Century Fox: this song ties in Morrison’s and organist Ray Manzarek’s film studies at UCLA. But I don’t think Morrison is singing about Shirley Temple.

Alabama Song (Whisky Bar): written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, from their satirical opera “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” it’s the song that convinced Elektra founder Jac Holzman to sign the Doors, after seeing them perform it at the Whisky a Go Go in L.A. One of the strangest covers ever chosen for a rock LP, it nonetheless shows how eclectic the band was.

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Elektra Records founder and CEO, Jac Holzman

Light My Fire: written by guitarist Robbie Krieger, the short version of the Doors’ second single climbed to No. 1 in July 1967, and the band never looked back. The album version, with both a keyboard and guitar solo, is far more riveting. José Feliciano later had a No. 3 hit with a Latin-tinged acoustic rendition.

Back Door Man: a lot of old blues songs were covered in the ‘60s, most not very well. One notable exception is Cream’s version of Robert Johnson‘s “Cross Road Blues.” Another is this Willie Dixon song, which the Doors made into their own. Morrison was still in the soul kitchen, only now he was sampling long-legged chicken.

I Looked at You/End of the Night/Take it As It Comes: I lumped these three songs together because they’re similar in tone and structure and seem to comprise three sections of one song, and they also provide a slow glide into the final song. Dark and sinister, the key song/line for me is “Some are born to sweet delight/Some are born to the endless night.” The universe can be a hostile and indifferent place.

Suddenly, we arrive at…

The End: I didn’t know what to make of this 12-minute epic when I first heard it. It’s less a song than a series of short poems set to psychedelic raga. Morrison sounds like he’s intoning a dark sermon, taking the voyeuristic listener on a weird journey into goldmines, riding on snakes and blue buses. The section about the killer walking down the hall is chilling (Truman Capote‘s seminal non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood” was published just before the song was recorded).

Unbelievably, “The End” was recorded in only two takes. According to Holzman, the second half of Take 2 was so intense that, as the closing notes faded, producer Paul Rothchild turned to him in the booth, and with a stunned look said “Jac, this is why we do what we do.”

(Thanks for letting me share one of my favorite albums… stay tuned, because in March I’ll be recognizing the 50-year anniversary of another classic debut: “The Velvet Underground and Nico”).

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Politics, Cruises, Sports, Halls of Fame, and Other Dumb Things

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Last month I published my 100th article on WordPress. Since then, I’ve struggled to come up with number 101. I even mulled over sending longitudes to a permanent dry dock. But like a pressure valve in a steam engine, there needs to be release.

Should I write about the recent U.S. presidential election? I don’t think so. If I do, I’ll either be preaching to the choir, or my words will fall on ears clogged with wax. Better to wait for the pending avalanche before hurling my snowballs from the chairlift.

I could write about the recent anniversary cruise my wife and I took. We had a wonderful time, but the trip was marred by the revelation that our ship, Caribbean Princess, had, only days before, been fined a record $40 million in damages for polluting our oceans with oily waste, then trying to cover up the crime. trumpYet during the muster drill the first day, the boatswain’s mate (or whomever) had, with the temerity of a Pinocchio or Donald Trump, announced that Princess Cruise Lines is serious about environment protection.

To paraphrase Tiny Tim: God help us, everyone.

However, there were highlights to the cruise. One was meeting music engineer/producer/bandleader Alan Parsons (The Alan Parsons Project). It was following a Q and A session in one of the lounges on the 7th deck (starboard, aft). It was a relief to hear a little good music being played after all the hip-hop, electronica, and lounge lizard sounds.

The down side was that the occasion was instigated by a deal between Princess and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RnRHoF). This, friends, is a capitalist wet dream as slick as Vaseline (or oil). If you’d like to know my not-so-obsequious views about RnRHoF, please see Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Part One.i-robot

I could write about how my Cleveland Indians blew a 3-1 lead in the World Series, losing their final two games at home. Against the hapless Chicago Cubs, of all teams.

Or how my Cleveland Browns have lowered the bar for patheticism (is that a word?). They’re currently 0-14 and are aiming, once again, for that top draft pick. And maybe the record books.

But getting back to the marriage between the Princess and the RnRHoF: I could write about the argument I had with one of the guests at our cruise dinner table. He had the gumption to suggest the band Styx was more deserving of RnRHoF recognition than Jethro Tull. Sacré bleu, monsieur!  He’s a doctor, so you’d think he’d be smarter than that.

But, I guess even smart people can have their dumb moments. At least, when it comes to music, voting, selecting vacations, or whatever.

Go Browns… (yes, bloggers can be dumb, too).

Note: header illustration is courtesy of and copyright Tim Shields, 2002

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100th Blog Post

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I started longitudes to try to sell copies of my book (“Bluejackets in the Blubber Room”). Well, the blubber book sales tanked, but the blabbering blog has taken a life of its own.

Someone said that blogs… (the word “blog” is short for “web-log”)… have an average lifespan of 2 1/2 years. Longitudes is now over 4 years young. So I’m actually beating the odds, which is rare for me.

To recognize the insignificant occasion of my 100th post, I’m attaching links to six of my older essays. These essays either got a lot of response, or are special to me… or both.

Since I’m honoring myself, I’d like to thank everyone who’s “liked” my stuff or offered comments: Tad, Mary K, Brian, Neil, Frank, Phil, Rich, Leah, Thom, Dennis, Cindy, Dean, and everyone else who drops in for coffee.

Nobody likes writing in a vacuum, so it’s a huge thrill to know someone has read and been affected by something I’ve written. Some of my thoughts may have struck a nerve on occasion. While I think it’s important to express opinion, and while I may not respect certain views, I nevertheless try to respect the reader (it’s an alien concept in these days of instant communication, but it is possible). Anyway, I hope I’ve never offended anyone. If I have, I apologize.

So here are six blasts from the past… just click the titles. Thanks again, everyone!

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It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Leaving (Touring Bob Dylan’s Hometown)

I wrote this travelogue after visiting Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. I used the present tense because I wanted the reader to feel like he or she was on the journey.

The underlying theme is how one person’s hero can have little or no impact on someone else. Also, that it’s difficult or impossible to identify genius or from where it arises.

A Best Friend’s Unconditional Love

I sent this essay to a National Public Radio (NPR) show hoping they’d publish it. Too much competition, I guess. So I submitted it to longitudes, and it was accepted! It’s about our family dog, Brownie, a rambunctious Australian Shepherd who didn’t exactly endear himself to outsiders, but was totally devoted to the family. His sudden death brought a lot of tears, but he gave us many good memories. The top photo was taken just before he died.

America and Guns

The Sandy Hook tragedy hit me hard, as it did most everyone else. How can something so horrifying happen? The answers are very complex. But to deny that one of the factors is firearms, and America’s refusal to address why it leads the world in per capita gun violence is, to me, ridiculous.

Remembering Biff

After I write something I usually forget about it. But I keep returning to this essay. It’s a tribute to a friend from childhood that I’d lost track of for many years. Then I suddenly learned about him. He’d taken Horace Greeley’s advice and gone West, doing things I’d always wanted to do (“living the dream,” as the cliché goes), but for which I never had the courage or ability. Then his life was tragically cut short.

Visiting the past has opened a few doors for me. Such is the case with learning about Biff. He reminds me that life is momentary, and we need to (try to) live it to the max while we have it… as Biff evidently did.

A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – Through the Looking Glass

This is about an Appalachian Trail hike I took, and it got more feedback than probably any other post (which isn’t saying much!). I guess it’s because people enjoy reading about adventure and unusual experiences. This hike wasn’t all that adventurous or unusual, but maybe folks found a certain vicarious thrill. A lot of the “likes” and “follows” came from people who have their own travel-related blogs. After writing this, I realized that there are many vibrant people around the globe who are in constant motion, immersing themselves in the outdoors and different cultures, places, and experiences.

The Rain, the Trees, and Other Things

I created a sub-category called “50 Years” to highlight people or events on their 50th anniversary (and also because the decade of the 1960s fascinates me). I’m also real big on conservation issues, and these things came together with this Earth Day essay recognizing 50 years since the signing of America’s Wilderness Act. The title is a pun on an old Cowsills song, “The Rain, the Park, and Other Things.”

At one time, there was a lot of wilderness but only a few people. Now, it’s just the opposite, and this paradigm is too often taken for granted. I believe it’s crucial to protect as many wild places as possible, for our spiritual well-being in addition to the well-being of other species.

This essay didn’t get a lot of views (I have an annoying tendency to sound like I’m preaching – see above). But that’s okay. Maybe Henry Thoreau and John Muir gave it a nod of approval, which is reward enough.

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Tribal and Environmental Justice at Standing Rock

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Once again, it’s happening. The United States military – in this case, the National Guard, in concert with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the oil industry – is waging war against the American Indians.

And once again, it’s a war involving land and minerals. The land is the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North and South Dakota, which partly pushes against the mighty Missouri River. Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, murdered by Indian agency police on this very reservation in 1890, is buried close by.

This time, however, the mineral isn’t gold or silver.

It’s oil.

Last week, 141 people were arrested after clashes with the Guard and police. The protesters had occupied private land to oppose construction of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, a pipe which will tunnel under the Missouri. There were reports of Molotov cocktails being thrown by protesters, pepper spraying and brutality by police, and gunshots by unknown individuals.

Big Oil and its supporters say the pipeline offers a more cost-effective and safer way of transporting shale oil from North Dakota to refineries on the Gulf Coast than it does by road or rail. They also claim it will create 8,000 to 12,000 local jobs.

They shifted the original route further away from Bismarck, and closer to the reservation, because they said its construction would be “easier.” (See map)

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Map of Standing Rock Reservation and DAPL (courtesy Paul Horn/Inside Climate News)

But many in the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who have been camping out near the proposed pipeline for months (and have been joined by other tribes and some non-natives sympathetic to their plight), argue that an oil spill in the Missouri will prove disastrous, since the people rely on the river for much of their water. Also, that the pipeline will desecrate ancestral land, basing their claim on a 19th-century treaty.

And environmentalists are dead-set against the pipeline for obvious reasons: the potential of a catastrophic oil spill, and the reality of a monstrous carbon footprint.

“The Native Americans are the only people who have inhabited this continent in harmony with nature for centuries,” conservationist, author, and 350.org founder Bill McKibben says. “Their traditional wisdom now chimes perfectly with the latest climate science.”

The Army Corps of Engineers fast-tracked construction of the pipeline last July, but it still needs to grant final permits. Due to the glaring spotlight on this most recent clash, the White House has granted a temporary postponement of the project.

Over 300 tribal nations have come out against the pipeline. The total number of protesters at the site has grown to over 800.

Some Questions

North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple (R) criticized the protesters for staging their protest on private land. A valid criticism for most of us. But… here are some questions:

When and how did the land become “private?” Who occupied the land before it became “private?”

Other entities, notably Big Oil and its backers, have charged that a number of protesters are “outsiders” who are unaffiliated with the tribe. Here are some more questions:

Why is this a negative? Aren’t we “our brothers’ keepers?” How noble are the motives of a corporate giant next to those of poor people struggling, not for monetary profits, but for clean water and tribal rights? If there’s an oil spill, will the Standing Rock Reservation be the only thing impacted? And when 800,000 gallons of oil per day are pounding through this pipeline to eventually be burned as fuel, ballooning the atmosphere’s carbon concentration even more, are there truly any “outsiders” in this scenario?

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After Sitting Bull’s murder, 350 Lakota Sioux under Chief Spotted Elk walked away from reservations at Standing Rock and Cheyenne River (land which they’d been exiled to). They were upset at being denied their Ghost Dance, prohibited by U.S. officials, who referred to it as a “Messiah craze.” As at Standing Rock recently, the U.S. military was sent in. The troops, armed with rapid-fire Hotchkiss mountain guns, surrounded the Lakota near Wounded Knee Creek. Nobody knows who fired the first shots. But when the bullets stopped flying, 150-300 Indian men, women, and children lay dead in snow that was dyed red.

Wounded Knee was the last major confrontation of the Plains Indian wars. After this, the Sioux and most other tribes were a defeated people, their leaders killed, their land fenced off and privatized, their traditional food sources depleted, their cultural and spiritual practices ridiculed, their children forced to attend distant schools, dress like whites, and abandon their language. Most reservation Indians today live in abject poverty.

Nobody has yet died at Standing Rock, fortunately. But here’s one final question:

When money, land rights, and race are intertwined… has all that much changed in America in 126 years?

Sources:

http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2016/10/28/us/28reuters-usa-pipeline-regulations.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/29/opinion/why-dakota-is-the-new-keystone.html

http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-standing-rock-numbers-20161101-story.html

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Witches, Wizards, Puritans and Periwigs

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One… of Windsor arraigned and executed at Hartford for a witch (Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1647)

What?! Executed? For being a witch?

It’s hard to believe, 369 years later. But it happened in New England in the 17th century, and more than once. The largest frenzy occurred in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, when 20 people were hanged for practicing witchcraft.

The “one” who was executed at Hartford was a woman named Alse Young. She was the first person executed in North America, in 1647, for (supposed) witchcraft. Her fate is forever recorded in Governor Winthrop’s above diary entry.

Not much is known about poor Alse. She had a daughter named Alice Young Beamon, who was also accused of witchcraft, 30 years later, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Alse may have been married to a “John Young” of Windsor. But he disappeared soon after Alse’s unfortunate demise.

Maybe he smelled something in the air.

Americans often like to think of themselves as more enlightened than their forebears. But the new American colonies were little different from England and Europe in many ways. The three principal New England colonies (Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Connecticut) all had rigid theocracies. Church attendance was mandatory. The Bible was the primary religious and legal document. Dark forces and the specter of Satan were everywhere. Just like merry olde England, superstition and belief in the supernatural were commonplace.witch-sculpture

For example, in 1660 a Plymouth colonist named Jeremiah Burroughs (no relation to the English Puritan of the same name) accidentally drowned. A later court inquest blamed the incident on his canoe. The court determined the canoe was possessed.

The Salem trials and executions were ignited when several young girls began having fits. Their symptoms included screaming uncontrollably, hurling objects, and crawling under furniture (this actually sounds like my daughter when she was in 7th grade).

The girls also complained of being pinched, and pricked with pins. Current theory is that these symptoms resulted from infected bread, or a type of encephalitis, or maybe an exaggerated need for attention, among other things.

But in superstitious 17th-century New England, when a skin mole could be a mark of the devil and mental illness was a virtual death sentence… these upright, dogmatic Puritan leaders with their periwigs (later called just “wigs”) became really  wigged out when these girls behaved so.

“Let’s see… whom can we blame for such behavior?”

Well, not surprisingly, the first colonists accused of witchcraft were women, and they lived outside mainstream Puritan culture. Sarah Good (Salem) was a beggar woman. Sarah Osborne (Salem) avoided church and had married an indentured servant. “Tituba” (Salem) was a West Indian slave.

Goodwife “Goody” Glover (Boston) was an Irish Catholic who was executed in 1688 for witchcraft. Puritan minister and author Cotton Mather wrote that Glover was “a scandalous old Irishwoman, very poor, a Roman Catholic and obstinate in idolatry.”

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Engraving of Cotton Mather

Unlucky enough that Glover was Irish, Catholic, and poor in a parochial society of English Puritans. But her fate was sealed when, due to the fact she could only speak Irish and Latin, she was unable to recite the Lord’s Prayer in English. This was considered a sure sign of witchcraft.

The old men with the white wigs slammed their gavels on their Bibles. But… considering they were Christians and held the Bible as sacred (and this isn’t intended to be a defense)… they merely felt they were carrying out orders.

Why?  Because in King James’ version of the Bible, Exodus 22:18 says Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. And Leviticus 20:27 says A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them.

I’m not a theologian.  And since I don’t agree with Bible verses such as above, I guess I’m not much of a Christian, either.  I won’t try to interpret the meaning of these agitating words, but it seems obvious that the Old Testament believes in the existence of witches and wizards, as well as capital punishment for “hathing” a “familiar spirit” (whatever that is).

We’ll never know whether Alse Young, Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, Tituba, or Goody Glover did hath or hathn’t such a spirit. I’m inclined to think they hathn’t.

Either way, I’m not going to let it ruin my Halloween.  Have a happy one, everyone… and watch out for possessed canoes.

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Talkin’ Texas and Cincinnati Chili Blues

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In a few weeks my company will be having a chili cookoff. I’m looking forward to it for two reasons: first, I love good chili; second, I’m curious to see the ratio of Texas versus Cincinnati-style chili.

I live on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio, and around here if you mention “chili,” people think of a plate of spaghetti draped with a sweet and tangy meat-based sauce, and crowned by a heaping mound of shredded cheddar cheese. This is Cincinnati chili. It’s an acquired taste; not bad once you get accustomed to it, although I don’t recommend anyone making it a regular part of their diet.

Cincinnati chili originated in the 1920s after an immigrant Greek family opened a restaurant here. The key ingredient in their signature recipe was a liquid meat sauce that had a mild cinnamon flavor.

This Greek-style chili became very popular. Success, of course, breeds imitators, and soon other chili parlors sprang up. Currently, there are two big chains of Cincinnati chili, Skyline and Gold Star, although there are many smaller chains and independent chili restaurants (many locals swear that Camp Washington Chili is the best, though to me they’re all very similar).

cincinnati-chili

Cincinnati Chili

Like I said, the sauce is spooned over a pile of pasta, then topped with cheese. You have the option of adding red beans or onions, but the base ingredients are just spaghetti, meat sauce, and cheese. The combination is referred to as a “three-way.”

(Considering that Cincinnati is about as socially conservative as the hometown of Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife, I’ve always gotten a kick out of the natives here casually referring to “three-ways”).

The chili is always served with a side order of oyster crackers. An alternative to the pasta concoction is the “coney,” which features the same sauce and cheese, but is accompanied by a pale, pathetic-looking hot dog, all stuffed inside a small bun. I’ve never understood the appeal of these coneys. Before moving to Cincinnati I lived in Chicago and had the opportunity to indulge in Maxwell Street Polishes. Going from a Maxwell Street Polish to a Cincinnati coney was like going from the Sphinx to a pink flamingo.

Regardless, I really do like the chili here in Cincinnati. It’s a guilty pleasure… like playing cornhole, or watching “Wheel of Fortune.”

But I much prefer the Texas variety of chili, known down in the Lone Star State as a “bowl o’ red.” As everyone knows, Texans love to brag ad nauseam about their peculiar state. But the one thing they have a right to brag about is their chili.

Instead of slimy pasta, the base ingredient in Texas chili is MEAT; either beef or pork, or possibly armadillo or rattlesnake. Instead of cinnamon, Texas-style chili uses cumin and hot chile peppers or powder, such as red cayenne, jalapeno, serrano, or habanero (see header photo).

texas-chili

Texas Chili

Tomato and beans are frowned on for Texas chili. Both are more Mexican than Texan. But I’m a Yankee, so I’ll risk getting hogtied and tossed in the Rio Grande and proclaim that I like pinto beans in my chili.

(Note that I said pinto beans. I wouldn’t think of polluting my chili with kidney beans, which so many cafeterias and cheap diners have been doing since before Lyndon Johnson began soiling his diapers).

Meat, chile peppers, and seasoning: those are the core ingredients of Texas chili. Like 12-bar blues music, there are endless variations that can evolve from this basic formula. I’ve improvised and come up with a couple of my own recipes. One is slightly Texan, the other is somewhere north (or south) of the border. Both are simple and easy to fix. Here are the ingredients for both:

Durango Dead Buzzard Chili: contains ground beef, pinto beans (uh-oh), chopped tomatoes or tomato sauce (here comes the rope), French’s chili seasoning (don’t laugh, it adheres to the meat and tastes great), chopped onions, red cayenne pepper, and beer (optional).

Yuma Snake Venom Chili (derived from a recipe received from my aunt in Tucson, who got it from some chef in Yuma, and which I’ve “doctored” over the years): contains ground pork or pork sausage, chopped tomatoes (uh-oh), chopped onion, diced jalapeno or habanero chiles, ground cumin, red cayenne pepper, garlic powder, black pepper, salt, and tequila (mandatory).

I’ll add that Texas chili tastes best after it’s been refrigerated then reheated. For a beverage, I prefer a cold beer, though not too dark or heavy. As a side dish, I like either cornbread or corn tortilla chips. To aid digestion, I recommend the music of ZZ Top, or any Chicago-style blues.

pepper

Some of you may be wondering if I’ll be entering my chili in the company cookoff. I don’t think so. Many years ago I submitted a sample of my Yuma Snake Venom Chili to one of the fishwraps in suburban Cincinnati, which was sponsoring a contest. I think my chili may have been the only one that didn’t include pasta, cheese, or cinnamon. I never learned the results of the cookoff, and I never heard from the newspaper.

I’m guessing my submission lacked one or more ingredients. Or, maybe the combination of tequila, cayenne, and habaneros proved too lethal for delicate Mason, Ohio. But I wish I’d have been at the tasting, if only to see the look on the judges’ faces.

fife

Thoughts of Mary Jane

mary-jane

Last Christmas I visited my 25-year-old son, who lives in the Mile High City. He picked me up in his car at the airport terminal. After we settled into our seats, he tossed an innocuous looking paper sack in my lap. “Welcome to Colorado,” he said, in his characteristic deadpan manner. I opened the bag and pulled out a long, white cigarette. I didn’t need to ask what it was.

“Memories are made of this!” I laughed, echoing an old Dean Martin song. If you’d have told me 25 years ago that my boy would one day present me with a welcoming gift that, in some parts of the U.S., is still a felony to possess… I’d have suggested you were smoking something.

Ohio is not Colorado, and not only because it lacks mountains. Recently, however, my home state waded a few centimeters beyond the shallow end of the gene pool when it passed a law permitting use of cannabis sativa (marijuana) for medical purposes. Pardon me for sounding derisive. But this is like America finally determining that, after 250 years of colonial and post-colonial slavery, emancipation of humans might be a good thing.

I’m perplexed why it’s taken so long for government officials (some of them, anyway) to concede that ingesting a plant may provide relief to people undergoing chemotherapy or suffering chronic pain. Maybe these politicos have been too preoccupied with weakening gun laws and deregulating industries that spew pollutants into our atmosphere. Again, pardon me for sounding derisive.

Marijuana plants contain a chemical called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that can reduce pain, induce relaxation, and heighten one’s senses. For you free-market conservatives, THC also promotes capitalism by expanding the tax base and helping to sell Big Macs and records like Pink Floyd’s DARK SIDE OF THE MOON.

Unlike many foods legally sold in grocery stores, marijuana contains no toxic preservatives like MSG, BHA, BHT, or sodium nitrite, not to mention trans fats. It’s been a popular “vegetable of choice” amongst musicians since the early days of jazz.

Marijuana has not yet been proven to be physically addictive. There is some evidence of psychological dependence. But I’m betting there will always be people who have a predisposition toward overdoing things. My wife is psychologically dependent on low-fat fudgsicles. I’m psychologically dependent on watching Lawrence Welk reruns.sticker

There’s also no evidence that marijuana leads to harder drugs, despite decades of critics trying to prove otherwise. I smoked pot in college. I had opportunities to drop LSD and snort cocaine, but I turned them down. Just my opinion, but if a person wants to do hard drugs, he or she will find ways to do them, whether or not marijuana is involved.

Here’s another thought: morphine, a highly addictive opiate derived from the poppy plant, is a prevalent painkiller used in hospitals. Codeine, another addictive poppy product, is used in cough syrup, and sold over the counter. Why has it taken so long for non-addictive marijuana to be considered a therapeutic drug? Was REEFER MADNESS that powerful a movie? Was Nancy Reagan that influential?

Pardon me for being derisive about Nancy Reagan’s simplistic and failed Just Say No campaign.

And with apologies to my fellow inebriates, but no argument in defense of pot can ignore discussion of our one legal recreational drug. Our favorite social lubricant and liver enhancer was at one time used as a medical anesthetic. That’s the good news. During this same period in U.S. history, it was also doled out like candy to mollify the natives of this country so we could more easily steal their land. This popular recreational and physically addictive drug is now instrumental in exacerbating statistics for vehicular fatalities, divorce, homelessness, depression, and suicide. Other than contributing to temporary stupidity, marijuana doesn’t come close to creating this kind of societal havoc.

From my own experience, the worst thing about using marijuana is that it may cause mild anxiety, lethargy, and caloric escalation from eating junk food. And poor grades. Take it from me, it’s hard to study organic chemistry when flowers are blooming, the sun is smiling, “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” is in stereo, and McDonald’s is serving. And since marijuana affects the nervous system, it’s probably good that people are tested for specific dangerous professions, or where employees are assigned to protect public welfare.

But I can’t shake the nightmare of being tested by a certain squalid employment agency and being mistakenly accused of having pot in my system. It was shameful enough submitting to their breathalyzer b.s. in the first place. But after being accused, and even after they apologized and suddenly altered their erroneous “findings,” I swore off drug tests forever. I may have compromised most of my youthful ideals by this point in life, but I do have a little dignity left.

One final thought: there are pockets of people who still believe, despite tangible evidence to the contrary, that our government knows what’s best for us. For example, I know a very sweet but naïve and hyper-religious woman whose daughter has struggled with polycystic kidney disease. Despite having a successful kidney transplant, the girl still experiences pain. Recently, I ran into both at the grocery store. After hearing about the poor girl’s suffering, I suggested the possibility of medical marijuana. I forget what the mother said. But her look told me “Well, we don’t care for hippie drugs and would never do anything dangerous.”

Ok. Fair enough. We ended the conversation with smiles and a hug. I wished them the best of luck, as I headed to the checkout line, and Mom rolled their grocery cart toward the wiener section.

Not to sound derisive, or anything.

weed

The Night Watchman

owl 3

To the islanders, he was a nobody. To me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble – that I ever encountered.

(Author Herman Melville, writing about meeting Essex whaleship captain George Pollard, who ended his days as a night watchman on the island of Nantucket)

______________

As a teenager, I attended a boys’ boarding school for three years. It was a unique experience, as if 19th-century England had been transplanted to western Pennsylvania, and I could probably fill a book with all the craziness that went down there. But since I only have a small space here, I’ll share just one memorable episode that occurred my junior year.

Like every school, there were a bunch of auxiliary personnel that made the place function: maintenance, administration, food service, etc. For example, during my sophomore year in Clark Hall, there was a maintenance man named “Putt.” He was Native-American, and all the students loved him. I think he got his name because he was always “puttering around.” I remember he had an ongoing feud with the dorm master of Clark, Mr. Stokes. Putt called him “Stoke.” We never found out what the feud was about, but you couldn’t talk with Putt without him eventually bringing up “That damn Stoke.”

There were also the fieldhouse towel guys, Lyle and Howard. I’m sure they had other duties, but it seemed like their only role was to hand out clean athletic towels. Howard must’ve been in his 60s. He had a real soft voice, and he was one of these folks who can’t let go of a conversation. He’d go on and on, and you had to literally start walking away saying “Well, Howard, it’s been nice talking to you.” And he’d still be droning on when you were ten feet away.

But there was one person at that school that I don’t think anybody knew about other than me: the night watchman.

During my junior year, I had a bout of insomnia (it may have had to do with chemistry class). I remember lying awake one night, staring at the wood-paneled wall at 3 a.m., and hearing the downstairs door close. Then listening to footsteps on the stairs, and along the creaky hallway outside my door. Then up the opposite stairs to the third floor, then down, then out the door.

As far as I knew, everybody else was asleep. And this mysterious, nocturnal interloper somehow riveted me. Who the heck was he?

On the following night, at 3 a.m. precisely, I again heard the sounds. This time, I got up, opened the door a crack, peeked into the dimly lit hallway, and waited. As the steps became louder, I saw a yellow glow bouncing around the hallway walls, and heard a jangling sound. Eventually, strolling slowly down the middle of the hall, a man came into view. He looked like an oversized troll. He was short, bowlegged, mustached, and he wore a gigantic ring of keys on his waist and carried a monstrous flashlight. He looked somewhat like that Super Mario cartoon character, except he also wore glasses with really thick lenses.

I pulled my head back so he wouldn’t see me. Then I listened to the fading steps, and the door shutting as he left the dorm. I eventually fell asleep. But the following day, I saw the headmaster’s son and asked him about this strange apparition:moon_flashlight

“Oh yeah, that’s ____. He’s the night watchman.”

I asked him where ____ lived.

“He lives on the edge of the golf course. But nobody ever sees him. The school cuts him a paycheck every few weeks, and he picks it up on his nightly rounds.”

This fascinated me. Particularly when I realized there were no houses on the edge of the golf course. It was nothing but woods.

Later that day – instead of studying chemistry – I headed over to the golf course. I walked all along the line where the fairway hugged the woods. No houses… nothing. Then I saw a pathway that I’d never noticed before. It headed into the shadowy woods. Curious, I followed it.

After about a quarter-mile or so, I came to a building. I can’t really call it a “house.” It looked like it was made of cinder blocks, with a flat roof, and it had dark green moss and vines growing all over it. All the windows had closed drapes. No sign of life, and no sounds, other than a few birds chirping. Feeling a little creeped out, alone in the woods near this spooky building, I left.

Wow. This guy was Boo Radley and Bilbo Baggins rolled into one! As is typical with me, my mind started doing cartwheels. “Maybe I should visit him some time, as he’s probably really lonely.” Then a couple seconds later, “Better not, he could be a serial killer. I don’t wanna end up buried under his vegetable garden.” Those kind of thoughts.

I decided to compromise. So, during my next night of insomnia, I left him an unsolicited token. After everyone else was asleep, I placed a Three Musketeers candy bar on the edge of the hallway (I figured a white wrapper would help my new friend notice it better). Then I waited.

At 3 a.m. sharp, I heard the door, the steps, then saw the flashlight beam. Then he came into view. As I peeked through the door crack, I watched in anticipation as he approached the candy bar. When his flashlight beam landed on the bar, he stopped. Probably for a full ten seconds. Although I’m no mind reader, I can guess what he was thinking:

“Should I pick it up? No, I’m a night watchman, not a trash collector. But it sure looks tasty! No, I’d better move on.” And he kept walking, as I pulled my head back from the door.

I was crestfallen. How could he not accept my gift?? It never occurred to me to step into the hallway and offer him the treat.

The foolishness of youth.

Well, it was the last time I did something like that, because later on during that sleepless night, I had a terrifying, and typically insomniac thought: what if he discovers I’m playing games like this and reports me to the headmaster? I couldn’t bear the idea of a confrontation:

“Peter, we’ve had some reports about you.”

“S-s-s-sorry, God.”

Not long after that night, my insomnia faded. And for the rest of my time in that school, I never heard nor saw my hermit friend again.

***

Like so many other things (such as chucking apples at cars… see previous post), I have regrets. Instead of playing games with candy bars, I should’ve just stepped into the hallway and introduced myself:

“Hi, my name’s Pete. I know you probably don’t get a lot of recognition, but we students really appreciate the work you’re doing, keeping us safe and all.”

And it’s quite possible he wasn’t the lonely hermit my imagination made him out to be. He may have led a very rich life, with family, friends, places he visited, and hobbies he enjoyed. Maybe it was just me who was lonely.

Wilson Hall