Saturday, May 14, 2016

It's Spring Astronomy Day, and here's the Ring Nebula

Today (Saturday, May 14) is Spring Astronomy Day. I almost missed it. There's also a Fall Astronomy Day--this year it's Saturday, October 8--which makes sense because we see different nighttime skyscapes in spring and fall. I'm celebrating it by posting a photo of one of my favorite astronomical objects, the Ring Nebula, found in the constellation Lyra, which constellation can be seen in the night sky from here in spring.

The photo is by The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA),

Sunday, April 24, 2016

April 24, 1916: a day to remember.

April 24, 1916 was Easter Monday that year. On that day members of the Irish Citizen Army, a volunteer force led by James Connolly and Patrick Pearse, took control of Dublin's General Post Office (photo) and other nearby buildings, and proclaimed a Provisional Government. British response was initially slow; Britain was embroiled in World War I, and only about 400 troops were garrisoned in or near Dublin. After reinforcements were brought in, the response was overwhelming. The GPO was recaptured, the leaders arrested, and sixteen of them were executed shortly after.

The Rising did not immediately stir the Irish people to resist British rule, which had been in place for many centuries. The executions, however, did have an effect. Michael Collins led a successful guerrilla campaign, which gained popular support, and which led to the treaty, negotiated by Collins with Winston Churchill, that led to the foundation of the Irish Republic. These events are well described in Dermot McEvoy's The 13th Apostle.

Perhaps the best known remembrance of the Easter Rising is William Butler Yeats' poem "Easter 1916", read in the video below by Tom O'Bedlam:

Thursday, April 07, 2016

TBT: Merle Haggard (April 6, 1937--April 6, 2016), "Sing Me Back Home"

This, I'm sad to write, is another TBT/RIP. Merle Haggard died on his 79th birthday, Wednesday, April 6, 2016.

As the Times obit  tells it, he was a California native who spent his first few years living in an abandoned boxcar his father had fixed up during the depression years as a family home. His teens and early adulthood were marked by scrapes with the law, culminating in 1957 in his his being sent to San Quentin Prison for burglary.

He was paroled in 1960, and went on to become one of country music's most influential stars. Early on, he worked with Wynn Stewart, a Missouri native who moved to California and was the first exponent of what came to be called the "Bakersfield Sound", named for a city near the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, north of Los Angeles. Country music from Bakersfield was more hard-edged than that coming from Nashville at the time, when Nashville was trying to broaden its appeal with what guitar wizard and producer Chet Atkins called "countrypolitan". Bakersfield music provided the roots for what in the late 1970s was called "outlaw" country, exemplified by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, along with Merle.

According to the Times obit, Merle included among his influences Lefty Frizzell, who gave Merle's career a boost by inviting him onstage after hearing him sing along from the audience; Elvis Presley; Jimmie "The Yodeling Brakeman" Rodgers, considered one of the founders of modern country music; Chuck Berry; and the King of Texas Swing, Bob Wills.

He influenced many, including Waylon and Willie, and my great favorite, Gram Parsons. The song in the clip above, "Sing Me Back Home", one that Merle wrote based on a prison experience, I first heard sung by Gram with the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Goodbye, Merle. I like thinking that you, Waylon, and Ol' Possum George Jones are singing great harmony now.

Photo at the top of this post is public domain: Merle Haggard dressed for Kennedy Center Honors at the White House, December 2010.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

An inauspicious opener for the Mets.

Trying to forecast a team's season from early results is chancy at best. It's widely agreed that spring training game records are meaningless. That's a good thing for this year's Mets, as theirs was miserable, although they ended with an 8-1 victory over the Cubs, who are the favorites of some pundits to win this year's World Series. If the Cubs do go all the way, it will be for the first time since the administration of William Howard Taft.

This year I didn't follow spring training very closely; I had a day job that was keeping me busy, along with the Brooklyn Heights Blog. It's just as well; I missed some embarrassing moments. This seemed to bear out what the New York Times' Tyler Kepner wrote back at the beginning of spring training, in his analysis of what could go wrong for each team. I quoted in an earlier post what he wrote about the Mets, but will repeat it here:
The starters try hard to keep the ball out of play -- to minimize the impact of the team's shaky defense -- but their 2015 workload wears them down. David Wright's spinal stenosis limits him again, and while Yoenis Cespedes struggles in center field, he hits well enough to exercise his opt-out clause and repeat his protracted free-agent dance.
 In yesterday's opening game, the Mets were fated to face the Kansas City Royals, the team that had beaten them in last year's World Series, at Royals Stadium. Hopes for revenge were high. Matt Harvey, the ace of what is regarded as the most fearsome starting rotation in the Majors, was to take the mound despite an earlier medical scare. All else seemed well.

Kepner's prediction seemed to be mostly accurate as to what happened in the opener. Perhaps it was Harvey's efforts to keep the ball out of play that contributed to his miserable start; he gave up eight hits and was tagged for three runs--a fourth was unearned because of a fielding error by, you guessed it, Cespedes--over five and two thirds innings.  Wright's throws--especially one on a grounder to third with a runner headed for home and another on a bunt--seemed less than perfect. Cespedes managed one hit and drew one walk; he scored once but did not have an RBI. Most importantly, he ended the game by swinging at an outside fastball after having dueled the Royals closer, Davis, through seven pitches. He stranded runners at third and first, with the Mets down by one.

On the bright side, the Mets bullpen was perfect, allowing no runs, one hit, and no walks over three and a third innings. Conversely, Mets batters were able to mount a rally against the Royals' pen, scoring three runs on three hits and two walks.

While this game may not have been an omen for the whole season, a loss in April counts as much as one in September.  As usual in season opening series, the teams had today off and will meet again tomorrow evening. The Mets will have Syndegaard on the mound. We can hope.

Update: the Mets are now a .500 team, thanks to a fine outing by Syndegaard, who had to work out of a couple of jams but allowed no runs, to a two run blast in the fourth by Neil Walker, and to another perfect showing by the bullpen. Oh, yes, and no errors. Downside: no scoring, apart from Walker's homer. In the seventh and eighth the Mets managed to mount scoring threats, only to leave runners stranded.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

At Lent's end.

It's late on Easter Sunday. This morning The Reverend Stephen Muncie proclaimed, "Alleluia, Christ is risen!" I, along with the rest of the Grace Church congregation, responded, "He is risen indeed; alleluia!" For now, though, I'm looking back at what has just ended.

Nine years ago and again eight years ago I posted at the beginning of Lent about my state of mind entering that most profound of Christian liturgical seasons. Mostly these were about the doubts I held, both about Christian doctrine and about myself. This past December I posted at the end of Advent, noting that it had seemed more like Lent to me, reflecting as I was on the loss of friends and my own advancing age, and on the disastrous turn I saw our civic discourse taking.

As in Lents before, this year I didn't undertake any traditional "discipline" in the form of giving up something. I thought that by reading the Lenten devotions supplied by Grace Church along with the scripture readings by which they were inspired, and meditating on them I would get somewhere. After two weeks, I gave up on the devotions and scripture. I put this down to the demands of my paying work and of the Brooklyn Heights Blog. The world was too much with me.

I also attended a class, given after church service by our resident seminarian, She guided us in writing a "spiritual memoir". I didn't get far. After our first session, I managed to write this, which gives a clue as to why, besides the distractions of everyday life, I stopped reading the Lenten devotions:
In the Lenten readings, there are several passages the belittle the role or efficacy of human wisdom, e.g. 1 Corinthians 3:19 ("For the wisdom of the world is as foolishness to God" and "The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,that they are futile.") Is wisdom or intellect futile, or even an impediment, in trying to understand God? 
As an extension of the thought above, a thread that runs through much of Christian teaching is paradox. One must lose one's life to gain it, the first shall be last, and, perhaps most fundamentally, the nature of Christ as fully human and fully divine.
The "paradox" part didn't bother me; indeed, I rather liked it. As I acknowledged in an earlier post, I have an attraction to paradox, to the tension between the known and the unknown; between, as Steve Muncie put it, "mastery and mystery." While I prize intellect and knowledge, I also cherish the quotation Steve gave me from the "born-again paradox" Anne Lamott: "“The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.”

Image: Locus Theologicus.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Floradora: Floral and flora-inspired paintings at Art/Place Gallery, Fairfield, Connecticut.

My wife and I went to the Art/Place Gallery in Fairfield, Connecticut for the opening of the exhibition Floradora, featuring works by the painters Mollie Keller and Susanne Andover Keany. All images of artwork in this post are © Mollie Keller or © Susanne Andover Keany, and are posted here with permission.

Paintings by Mollie Keller:

Mollie is a long time friend of my wife's and, more recently, of mine. The photo above shows her standing among an array of her more recent paintings, which are in a more abstract, floral-inspired style than her earlier ones. As she wrote in her artist's statement accompanying the exhibition:
In these pictures I have traced my personal relationship with flowers. I began as a careful observer, eager to catch every line and lilt of a petal so that the viewer would really see the bloom. I moved on to more painterly portraits in which I used watercolor to convey the interplay of form and light in a blossom. And now I am using oil to capture the sensations I feel when I contemplate the particular essence of each bud.
The paintings in the photo above are, from left to right: Blossom, Kaddish for Ruth, Vine, and Kaddish for Deni.
Here's a closer view of the small painting Blossom, showing the quality of Mollie's brushwork in oil.
Here are some of Mollie's earlier works: from left, Iris, top right Nosegay, and bottom right Bluebells, all watercolor on paper.
This shows the same three paintings, along with three other of Mollie's earlier works, top to bottom: Dandelion, Chinese Lanterns, and Calla Lily; all watercolor and pencil on paper. These are examples of her more "painterly portraits".
Here are three of Mollie's more recent works: Spring (oil on canvas), top left; Overgrown (oil on paper), bottom left; and Hibiscus (oil on canvas).
These: Red Rose I, II, and III, all oil on canvas, exemplify Mollie's contemporary, highly impressionistic style.
Here is Mollie's one non-(or post) floral entry in the show: the elegant miniature Golden Fruit (ink, gouache, and gold leaf, on parchment).

Paintings by Suzanne Andover Keany:
Suzaanne Andover Keany, whom I met for the first time at the exhibit, works in what, on the surface, seems a very naturalistic style. The paintings above are, from left to right: Amaryllis, Wish I Was There, and Before the Rain (all oil on canvas). Her artist's statement includes the following:
Painting is a surprising journey...All the literary meanings come into play. Flowers greet us and send us off. They mark our journey. They celebrate love and commemorate grief. They are everywhere for everyone.
Painting for me is a luxury, a dialogue with what is.
Here are four of her tempera on paper studies, Clockwise from bottom left: Blooming, Busy Lizzie, Close Up, and Spring.
Here are two of Ms. Keany's oil on canvas paintings that include other than floral elements: Valentine (left), that has shells along with a long-stemmed rose, and For Georgia, an homage to Georgia O'Keefe, who incorporated cattle skulls and feathers as well as flowers in her works.

Floradora will remain open through Sunday, March 27, 2016. If you're in or near Fairfield, or can get there, I recommend it highly.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Pontius Pilate: arch-villain, fall guy, or saint?

This year I volunteered, as I have done for some years, to participate in the Passion reading at the Palm Sunday service at Grace Church. Last year I was Narrator (effectively St. Mark, from whose gospel the reading was taken), which meant I had more lines than anyone else. This year the reading was taken from Luke, and I was given the role of Pontius Pilate.

"Not the most appealing of characters," I thought. At least I had more than one or two lines. This got me to thinking about the enigmatic character of Pilate. The image above, by Giotto de Bondone (1266-1337), shows him looking devious--note the averted eyes--but also weak, as indicated by his soft, fleshy features. No one who didn't see Pilate in the flesh knows what he looked like; there are no surviving portraits, drawings, or sculptures from life, if indeed any ever were made. Giotto's fresco comports with the accounts in the gospels, which describe Pilate as vacillating, initially appearing to sympathize with Jesus, although willing to have him flogged before releasing him, but later yielding to the demands of the crowd and ordering him crucified.

To most contemporary Christians that yielding and that order cements Pilate's characterization as a Very Bad Guy. I remembered, though, having read that Coptic Christians in Africa consider him a saint. The Biblical Archaeology Society gives an account of how this came to be. St. Augustine of Hippo, an African, believed Pilate to have been a convert to Christianity. Pilate's washing of his hands and declaring himself "innocent of this man's blood" (Matthew 27:24) is seen as a parallel to Jesus' sacrifice washing away the sins of humanity. Pilate's wife was also canonized in the African and Greek Orthodox churches on the basis of her message to Pilate, reported in Matthew 27:19, that he should not harm Jesus because "I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him."

Some biblical scholars have argued that the quasi-sympathetic portrayal of Pilate in the gospels is a result of the gospel authors' seeking to shift the blame for Jesus' crucifixion from Roman authority to the Jews. This was because, at the time the gospels were written, Christianity, which initially had been a sect within Judaism, was beginning to separate itself from its Jewish origin and was seeking Roman approval, or at least a measure of tolerance. The starkest indication of this is in Matthew 27:24-25, where Pilate washes his hands, declares his innocence, and gets the response, "His blood is on us and on our children." For many centuries, it was Christian doctrine that the "us" in that statement meant all of the Jewish people, at least apart from the few who were Jesus' disciples or followers. This was the basis for many centuries' persecution of Jews in pogroms and ultimately in the Holocaust, although the latter also had non-religious origins. On October 28, 1965 Pope Paul VI promulgated Nostra aetate ("In Our Times"), a declaration of the Second Vatican Council that the Jewish people as a whole, including all Jews living since the time of Jesus, were innocent of Jesus' death.

The vilification of Pilate appears to have begun with the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, and a concomitant desire to break with Rome's earlier paganism, to which Pilate bore allegiance. It has been years since I read (in translation) Dante's Inferno, and I was curious to recall where in the circles of hell the poet placed Pilate. As it turns out, Dante nowhere mentions Pilate by name in the Inferno, or anywhere else in the Divine Comedy except in Canto XX of Purgatorio, where Dante calls Phillip IV of France "the new Pilate" for his having delivered Pope Boniface VIII to his enemies. There is an ambiguous reference in Inferno Canto III, where Dante sees the vestibule of hell to which the uncommitted--those who did not choose between good and evil--are condemned. Here he sees "the shadow of that man who out of cowardice made the great refusal." Some readers have interpreted this to refer to Pilate, whose "great refusal" was not to defy the crowd's demands to crucify Jesus. Others think it refers to Pope Celestine V, whose abdication of the Papacy led to the accession of Boniface VIII (the same mentioned in Purgatorio XX), whose policies led to Dante's being exiled from his native Florence.

Consideration of Pilate's nature brought me to an uncomfortable realization. In an earlier post, I noted that the then Episcopal Bishop of Alabama had joined other prominent local Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergy in calling on Dr. Martin Luther King, then jailed in Birmingham, to call off the peaceful demonstrations against segregation and for civil rights that he led. Reading that letter, with its calls for moderation and patience, I realized that, had I been in the position of that bishop at that time, I would have been strongly tempted to sign the letter. While my heart was on the side of those demonstrating for justice, my inclination has always been to avoid confrontation where possible, and not to alienate those in power, in the hope that in time they can be persuaded to do the right thing. What would I have done had I been in Pilate's position? Could I have mustered the courage to defy the crowd? Can I find that courage now?

Addendum: see John Wirenius on Pilate.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

TBT: Black 47, "Livin' in America"; happy St. Patrick's Day!

I got to know Larry Kirwan (photo) in 1978 when he and Pierce Turner, as Turner and Kirwan of Wexford, were the house band at the Bells of Hell. The clip below is of their recording of Larry's song "Livin' in America", accompanied by still photos. The song is by Black 47, a band Larry put together in 1980 and which I once described, with some poetic license, as "traditional Irish thrash metal hip hop punk", which is to say, I loved it. They disbanded on amicable terms last year. The song is about two Irish (legal) immigrants living in New York in the 1980s, before Ireland's economy took off, luring many back, only to be disappointed after 2008. He (Larry) works in construction; she (Mary Courtney) as a nanny. One of the things I love about this song is that the tune is that of the great Irish rebel song "The Foggy Dew":

Tomorrow (St. Patrick's Day), I'll be at B.B. King's to hear Larry and a partial reunion of Black 47, along with David Amram and others. I'm looking forward to a great evening.

 Photo: by Wes Washington (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sir George Martin (1926-2016), Brian Wilson, and "God Only Knows".

I wanted to do a TBT about Sir George Martin, who died last week, but responsibilities to work, family, and the Brooklyn Heights Blog got in the way. My natural first impulse was to use something he'd done with the Beatles, since his career was so intertwined with theirs. In the Rolling Stone piece linked above, Sir George is quoted as saying he had initial doubts about the four Liverpudlian lads, but that one of the things that impressed him was that "there was more than one person singing." There were harmony vocals in doo-wop and girl group pop at the time, but straight ahead rock, with the exception of the Everly Brothers, was dominated by solo singers.

I was delighted to discover the clip below, which documents a meeting of Sir George and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Sir George credits the Beach Boys as an influence on the Beatles; surely there was a complementary one in the opposite direction. The Beach Boys' early work was built on Chuck Berry riffs and vocal harmonies from quartets like The Four Freshmen, whose music today would be classified as "easy listening". The Beatles were influenced by Berry (they covered "Roll Over Beethoven") and other American rock and rockabilly stars, but also by skiffle--the Beatles grew out of a skiffle group led by John Lennon called the Quarrymen--and by something that didn't come to the fore until Sgt. Pepper, the British music hall tradition.
In the video, Brian begins the conversation by talking about songwriting; about how songs seem to burst from his chest. Then they repair from the piano to the mixing board, where Sir George plays with the knobs, first reducing the song "God Only Knows" to its bare essential: Brian's vocal. Sir George then plays with the knobs some more, adding bits back in and changing the balance, until he creates a mix that Brian credits as better than the one that was used on the Beach Boys' most critically acclaimed album, Pet Sounds.

Oh, and I do love Sir George's early 1960s red Caddy convertible.

Photo: By Adamsharp (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

The Arc of American Advertising

As a leading edge member of the baby boom generation, I've been witness to how the dominant themes of advertising have changed over the course of my long (I'll be 70 in a week and a half) life. It has followed an arc largely defined by my "pig in the python" generation, though with some deviations aimed at younger cohorts. Here are my observations:

1950s to mid 1960s: ads were aimed at my parents' ("The Greatest") generation. The basic theme was, "If you use our product, your family will adore you, and your neighbors will turn green with envy."

Late 1960s through early 1970s: my generation reached puberty and beyond. Ad message: "If you use our product, you will be attractive to the opposite sex, and maybe even get laid" (or vice versa).  There was an undertow of "If you use our competitors' products, you will be perceived as queer." (I'm thinking of Camel Filters ads circa 1970-71.)

Late 1970s through 1980s: my generation graduated, got jobs, got married, got kids, got mortgages. Ad message: "If you don't use our product, you will fail in your career." (Think of the Hertz "Not Exactly" ads.)

1990s: "If you use our product, you will prosper and enjoy a comfortable retirement, and your ride will make neighbors and old friends turn green with envy."

Today: "If you use our product, your digestive system will function properly, and you can still get laid (but watch out for those side effects)."

Thursday, March 03, 2016

TBT: Fats Domino, "My Girl Josephine".

Antoine "Fats" Domino turned 88 on February 28. He was an early (1986) inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and had more hit records than any other of the first generation of rockers except Elvis. He was feared dead after he and his wife refused to evacuate their New Orleans house before Hurricane Katrina struck, but they were rescued by helicopter and taken to shelter. He no longer leaves his native city, but has performed there on occasion in recent years.

When I looked for a clip of the song below, a 1960 hit that I remember fondly, my search term was "Hello Josephine", the song's opening words. I immediately found the clip of a live performance, which has the same words in its caption. Some research showed that the song's actual title was "My Girl Josephine". This seems odd, as the words "my girl" don't appear anywhere in the lyrics. Indeed, the song implies that Josephine is anything but the singer's "girl" at the time of their encounter, evidently many years after what seems to have been a lopsided childhood friendship in which the singer's devotion was not reciprocated.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

TBT: John Fogerty, "Centerfield".

It's that time of year--pitchers and catchers reported today. So, what could I choose for my TBT but this John Fogerty classic. The clip below, produced by John himself, has audio of the song as recorded for the album that bears its name, accompanied by a montage of still photos and short videos from what those of my generation remember as the baseball of our childhood and youth. Alas, no Mets, though we see their predecessors, the Brooklyn Dodgers, featuring Jackie Robinson, and the New York Giants. We also see my wife's beloved Red Sox, with a shot of the "Splendid Splinter", Ted Williams. To top things off, we see President Dwight D. Eisenhower grinning broadly after throwing the first pitch of some season in the 1950s.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Tyler Kepner rains on the Mets' parade (and just about everyone else's).

Pitchers and catchers report this week! The Mets, contrary to all expectations, not only made it to the post-season, but also won the National League championship last year. Their starting rotation is regarded as the most fearsome in the Majors. Again against expectations, they were able to re-sign heavy hitter Yoenis Cespedes. Even though closer Jennry Mejia somehow managed to fail a third PED test and drew a lifetime suspension, the Mets have Jeurys Familia, who in Mejia's absence last season proved to be one of the most effective closers in the game.

So, what's there for a Mets fan to worry about? As The Baseball Project (see clip below) remind us, the beginning of spring training is when fans of all teams, even those with the most discouraging recent records, can be optimistic; when it's "All Future and No Past":

Having been a Mets fan since 1985, I early enjoyed the thrill of 1986. Since then, over a 29 season course, I've seen them advance to the postseason only five times, although they made it to the World Series twice, losing both times in five games. In 2000 they lost to the Yankees in a Series that featured the Mike Piazza/Roger Clemens thrown broken bat incident. Other years I've seen them come tantalizingly close but succumb to end-of-season swoons. Some ballyhooed free agent acquisitions have failed to live up to their billing. Injuries seem to be a persistent problem. To be a Mets fan is to come to believe in Murphy's Law.

Consequently, each year at this time I try to follow Larry David's advice and curb my enthusiasm. For my take pre-spring training last year, see here. But this year the New York Times baseball writer Tyler Kepner has done that work for me. In his "Extra Bases" column, "Ah, Spring! What Could Go Wrong?", Kepner answers the question in the title for all thirty Major League teams. His prognosis for the Mets:
The starters try hard to keep the ball out of play -- to minimize the impact of the team's shaky defense -- but their 2015 workload wears them down. David Wright's spinal stenosis limits him again [Note: G.M. Sandy Alderson has just announced that Wright will be limited to 130 games], and while Yoenis Cespedes struggles in center field, he hits well enough to exercise his opt-out clause and repeat his protracted free-agent dance.
For what it's worth, I think Kepner is right about Cespedes, though I hold some hope that his fielding will improve. In any event, I think we're likely to see him testing free agency again this year.

If you're not a Mets fan and want to see what Kepner thinks may be in store for your team, go here. If you're a Cubs fan, you may take heart. After mentioning several downside possibilities, e.g. "the left side of the infield collapses under the weight of strikeouts" and "Joe Maddon switches to contact lenses and bans zoo animals from the clubhouse", Kepner concludes, "Nah, who are we kidding? These are the Cubs. A championship is inevitable." In the immortal words of the late Sidney Morgenbesser, responding to the assertion that an interesting aspect of the English language is that, while a double negative is always properly construed as a positive, there is no instance in which a double positive is a negative, "Yeah, yeah."

Thursday, February 11, 2016

TBT (under the wire): Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks

My TBTs of late have, sadly, been mostly about the recently late. Dan Hicks, who died last Saturday, was a musician of great talent and imagination. His roots were in folk, but he became a member of the Charlatans, regarded by many as the first of the San Francisco Bay Area's "psychedelic" bands. He left them to form Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks, a group that had a syncretic style Hicks called "folk swing". The clip below shows them performing two songs, "By Hook or By Crook" and "Shorty Falls in Love" (a.k.a. "Another Night"). Hicks does vocals and guitar, accompanied by the "Lickettes" Maryann Price and Naomi Eisenberg, with Sid Page on violin, John Girton on guitar, and Jaime Leopold on bass.

S.S. United States revived as a cruise ship?

The news that S.S. United States, former flagship of the U.S. Merchant Marine fleet and last holder of the Blue Riband, may be purchased and converted for use as a cruise ship was encouraging to me, as it removes the immediate threat of the great ship's being sold for scrap,

The prospective buyer, Crystal Cruises, has published a rendition (see above) of the ship as modified for cruising duty, The visible changes are minimal: a small extension of the superstructure aftward, and replacement of the long rows of old fashioned open lifeboats with short rows of modern high capacity enclosed inflatable life rafts. I'm delighted to see that Crystal intends to keep the original red, white, and blue funnel paint scheme. Greater change is in store below decks, where steam turbine engines would be replaced by diesels.

The thought of seeing the "Big U" once again heading into or out of New York Harbor -- Crystal's CEO says they intend to make New York her home port -- some day is thrilling. Still, there are a couple of troubling possibilities. The ship is contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), carcinogenic substances that will have to be removed before the ship can be put into service. Crystal's CEO has said the cost of remediation, the extent of which will be determined after inspection by the EPA, could be a "dealbreaker". My guess is there's a good likelihood that Crystal will back out because of this. If so, the trip to the breakers seems inevitable, as any restoration of the ship as a public attraction would also require PCB remediation. Fortunately, an earlier owner who had contemplated using her as a hotel and casino had her cleaned of asbestos.

Crystal is under the same ownership as the Norwegian Cruise Line. In fact, NCL bought the United States in 2003 from the last of a series of owners who had failed plans to use her for cruising or as a stationary hotel, casino, or the like. NCL eventually abandoned the plan to make her a cruiser, and, in 2011, sold her to the SS United States Conservancy, which has managed to raise funds sufficient to pay dockage fees and keep the ship stabilized since then. It's interesting to note that NCL previously bought another great transatlantic liner, S.S. France, and, with extensive modifications, converted her for cruising as S.S. Norway. As such, she served successfully from 1980 until 1984, when she was withdrawn from service to have her steam engines removed and replaced with diesels, along with further superstructure modifications, after which she returned to cruising until 2003, when a boiler explosion at the Port of Miami killed several crew members. She was then towed to Europe, laid up, and then sold for scrap in 2006. The whole story, ending with photos of her being dismantled off the beach at Alang, India, is here.

Should the Big U become a cruiser, she would likely face a similar fate after twenty or so years of service, or possibly less. Interest in her preservation is likely to have faded considerably by then; there will be few left alive who can recall having sailed on her during her service as a liner, or have fond memories of the heyday of transatlantic sea travel. Her value as scrap is likely to exceed by a good margin whatever might be offered to preserve her.

My hope was that she could be brought to New York, docked somewhere along what was once called "Ocean Liner Row" on Manhattan's West Side, and used as a floating hotel, much like her erstwhile companion Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. Ideally she would include a museum devoted to her history and that of transatlantic sea travel. Unfortunately, no one saw this as an economic proposition. Still, if some day I can look out across the harbor and see her, with her magnificent funnels, making her stately way to or from the sea, I will say a heartfelt "Thank you, Crystal."

Thursday, February 04, 2016

TBT: Bob & Ray, "The Slow Talker"; R.I.P. Bob Elliott

Bob Elliott, best known as half of the radio comedy duo Bob and Ray (at left in photo from FamousFix) died on Tuesday. His partner, Ray Goulding, died in 1990. They were both Massachusetts natives, and their comedy had a deadpan New England quality. Their radio skits often took the form of an interview that would go spectacularly wrong, as in "The Slow Talker", one of their most popular routines, heard in the clip below:

Friday, January 29, 2016

Alice Denham: Playboy Playmate, feminist, writer, and friend, 1933-2016.

I met Alice Denham some years ago at--where else?--the Lion's Head. I don't recall what animated our first conversation. Perhaps it was our common Florida background: she was a Jacksonville native; I was a military brat and spent much of my childhood and youth in different parts of the state. Maybe I had noticed the jacket cover of her novel Amo on the wall on which were displayed the many covers of the many books written by Head regulars; like many lawyers, I had a nagging aspiration to write something other than memos, pleadings, and briefs. For whatever reason, we each found the other pleasant enough to continue our conversation when we found ourselves at the Head's bar together. I learned that she had been one of the first Playboy playmates, and later a founding member of the National Organization for Women (NOW).

 I last saw her in 2013, at a party at the Cornelia Street Cafe, to celebrate the publication of her memoir of her days in Mexico, Secrets of San Miguel. Afterward some of us repaired to the apartment of her and her husband, John Mueller. who survives her, for more conversation and drinks. 

Word came today from Jeanine Flaherty, another Head veteran and widow of journalist and novelist Joe Flaherty, forwarded by Dermot McEvoy, that Alice died yesterday, January 27, at the age of 83. Adiós, Alice! It was a joy to know you, and you will be sorely missed.

Correction: When I wrote this post, I misspelled the name of Alice's husband. It's Mueller, not Muller. My apologies, John.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

TBT: Richie Havens, "Freedom (Motherless Child)"; Woodstock, 1969.

Richie Havens (1941-2013), a Brooklyn native who "brought an earthy soulfulness to the folk scene of the Sixties" (David Browne, Rolling Stone), opened the Woodstock festival in the summer of 1969. He wasn't meant to, but the band Sweetwater, scheduled to be the opening act, was stuck in traffic. He sang until he ran out of songs, but then began strumming his guitar vigorously and chanting "Freedom!" over and over, before segueing into the traditional spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child".

While I was at the Cosmic American Music Festival last September, I met (and heard some terrific music by) Walter Parks, who played lead guitar in Havens's group until the singer's death. Walter showed me a guitar, showing marks of hard use, that had belonged to Havens, and which he planned to take to the Brooklyn Lutherie for restoration. I wish I'd had the presence of mind to get a photo. 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

It's Mozart's birthday.

Today (though it's fast passing) is the 260th birthday of Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, better known as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ("Amadeus" is a Latinization of the Greek-derived "Theophilus"). He died at the age of 35, leaving a musical legacy with few rivals. Below is a clip of the first movement of his Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, KV. 550, audio with a still image of a posthumous (1818) portrait of the composer by Barbara Krafft. The profile portrait at left is a recently discovered one, believed to be painted from life, probably by the Austrian court painter Joseph Hickel. The performance in the clip is by the Georgian SIMI Festival Orchestra, 1998.

There's a delightful explication of this movement in this PBS Newshour piece, a conversation between PBS's Jeffrey Brown and composer Rob Kapilow, in which Kapilow explains how Mozart started with a simple ten note melody, developed and transformed it, then brought it to a conclusion in what Kapilow calls "the universe in three notes."

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

TBT: The Eagles, "Doolin-Dalton" and "Doolin-Dalton and Desperado Reprise" live; R.I.P. Glenn Frey

I'll confess: in my twenties and early thirties I was an Eagles fan. "Take it Easy", the first song I heard by them, was aspirational; yes, I wanted to be that guy in Winslow getting the eye from a girl in a flatbed Ford. "Peaceful Easy Feeling" had a similar allure. "Already Gone" vied with Neil Young's "Cowgirl in the Sand" as what I fantasized about singing to any woman who spurned me. By the mid 1970s, though, I'd forsaken the Eagles' easygoing country-flavored rock for hardcore punk and for the edgier country rock of Gram Parsons. A few Eagles songs--"Your Lyin' Eyes"; "New Kid in Town"--stayed with me, along with one album, Desperado, I'd acquired while in the Army in Louisiana.

This past Sunday evening, looking for something I hadn't played in a while, I found Desperado and put it on my CD player. I tried to remember what had affected me so much about this concept album that tells the story, with the inevitable bad end, of the Doolin-Dalton Gang in the old West. Two lines stuck in my mind. One was "The towns lay out across the dusty plains/ Like graveyards full of tombstones waiting for the names", and, most poignantly for me, "It seems to me some fine things have been laid upon your table/ But you only want the ones that you can't get."
On Monday, I learned of Glenn Frey's death. Here's a live performance video of "Doolin-Dalton" and the reprise of "Desperado". He plays harmonica and guitar, and sings.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Martin Luther King Jr. on extremism.

From Dr. King's "A Letter from Birmingham Jail":
You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist... But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel; "I bear in my body the marks of Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the ends of my days before I make butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.,," So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?
In a post three years ago I noted that Dr. King's letter, written in his jail cell on scraps of writing paper that visitors secretly gave him, was a response to a letter signed by several prominent Alabama clergymen urging an end to the non-violent demonstrations going on at the time in Birmingham, counseling "patience" on the part of those seeking justice, and praising local news media and law enforcement officials for their "calm" response (which, in the instance of law enforcement, included the use of fire hoses and dogs on peaceful demonstrators, including children).

One of the signatories of that letter was C.C.J. Carpenter, the Episcopal Bishop of Alabama who was then the senior (but not presiding) bishop in the Episcopal Church U.S.A. He was what at the time was called a "Southern moderate"; he probably believed that the system of legally sanctioned racial segregation was both wrong and doomed, but wanted it to end gradually so as not to cause more social stress than he thought necessary. As I noted ruefully in that post, had I been in Bishop Carpenter's position, I would likely have signed the letter. Although I've spent my career in a profession, law, thought to be combative in nature, I was drawn to the side of the work that involved negotiation and compromise. This is fine and well; negotiation and compromise are essential, and we could certainly use more of it in Congress today. Still, there are times when it is necessary to take an uncompromising stand, when "Justice delayed is justice denied" must be the guiding principle.

Photo: Library of Congress.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

TBT: David Bowie (1947-2016), "Heroes".

David Bowie, who died Sunday, was one of rock's protean figures. As he says in the interview shown in the video embedded in the linked BBC piece, "I'm a collector. and I've always just seemed to collect personalities; ideas...."

The clip below shows him in live performance, doing "Heroes", my favorite of his songs:

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

TBT: Sonny Boy Williamson, "Nine Below Zero".

It hasn't quite made it to nine below zero here in New York yet--well, maybe on the Centigrade scale--but it's sure felt like a shock after our mostly balmy December. Still, it's an appropriate time for this blues, led and sung by the greatest of blues harmonicists, Sonny Boy Williamson. Born a sharecropper's son in Mississippi, like many great blues artists he found his way to Chicago and to Leonard Chess, for whose Chess label he recorded.
  The clip above shows him playing and singing "Nine Below Zero", with Otis Spann on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, and Matt "Guitar" Murphy. If one of my blues maven friends can ID the drummer, I'll be grateful.

The photo, by Thomas R Machnitzki, is of Sonny Boy's gravestone, in the Prairie View Cemetery at Tutwiler, Mississippi.

Monday, January 04, 2016

New Year's Shout-Outs and Remembrances

I'll start with remembrances. 2015 took a heavy toll of those I knew and loved, and those I admired. At the beginning of April, my phone rang and Heather Quinlan gave me the shocking news that John Loscalzo, a.k.a. "Homer Fink", founder and publisher of the Brooklyn Heights Blog, had died suddenly and unexpectedly of, as it was later determined, an aneurysm. John left a wife, Tracy Zamot, and a then four year old daughter, Gracie. He also left the BHB crew: Beth, Heather, Teresa, Theo, and me, deeply saddened but determined to keep the Blog going which, with Tracy's support, we've managed to do. I had known John for almost nine years, since he discovered this blog because I posted a photo of a Brooklyn Heights sunset, and invited me to become a contributor to BHB. Over those years, I found John to be a most accommodating publisher, a companion on some amusing adventures, an instructor on the ways of the on-line world and contemporary pop culture and their odd (to me) jargon, and, most of all, a treasured friend.

One of those I most looked forward to seeing at my law school reunion in October was my classmate, and later roommate when we first moved to New York, Mario Diaz-Cruz. When we arrived in Cambridge, I saw from the reunion program that he had died just three weeks before. From friends, I learned the details. It had been a brief but fatal illness that struck while he and Sissy, his wife of 45 years, were on vacation in the Hamptons. He was a superb lawyer and friend.

Another loss in 2015 was Tania Grossinger, an erstwhile Lion's Head companion whom I wish I had gotten to know better after I read her autobiography Memoir of an Independent Woman. My ecclesiastical home, Grace Church, saw the loss of its Rector Emeritus Goldy Sherrill and of Don Yule, veteran of the New York City Opera and stalwart in the bass section of the Grace Church choir.

Others whose passing I've noted here are Ernie Banks, Philip Levine, Lesley Gore, the Left Banke's Michael Brown, Ornette Coleman, Wendell Holmes (whom I had the pleasure of getting to know when the Holmes Brothers were playing at Dan Lynch back in the early 1980s), Yogi Berra (a Yankee hero who became a Met), Frankie Ford, Allen Toussaint, and, most recently, Natalie Cole. No doubt you can think of others I should have similarly honored. Update: somehow I missed B.B. King.

Turning to the more pleasant side, I always credit those who have aided my blogging, either through providing me with material or by giving me encouragement, or both. Some of the usual suspects return:  Michael Simmons; The Rev. Stephen Muncie; architectural historian Francis Morrone; historical novelist and master of good craic Dermot McEvoy. There are also some new ones: John Wirenius, whom I met in the flesh for the first time at a Sunday evening service at St. Bart's in Manhattan, and who was ordained a Deacon of the Episcopal Church earlier this year; old college friends Larry Brennan and Steve Griffith, as well as Gene Owen, to whom Steve introduced me during the Cosmic American Music Festival in Winter Haven, Florida; Tricia Collins, a for a time long lost Lion's Head companion now back in her hometown, Tallahassee, whom I re-discovered through our common friendship with Kevin Clarke, father of one my daughter's elementary school classmates (in which connection I'll also mention Tom Jenkins); and Permian Extinction--that's her nom de Facebook--whom I met on line because of her friendship with Marian Saska, and whom, because of our common interests in painting and birds, I suspect has in common with Marian connections to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum. My former LeBoeuf colleague Richard Cole last year gave me a story about his friendship with Robin Williams, and this year allowed me to show him around Brooklyn Heights during a visit to New York; and my law school classmate Richard B. Hoffman has been an invaluable source on movies, theater, law, and much else. I can't end this without mentioning my wife, Martha Foley, and my fellow Robinson Knights, so many of whom I've re-established communication with after many years. If I tried to list you all, along with your contributions to my venture, I'd be up past midnight, and it's a work night. Please accept my heartfelt thanks.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Natalie Cole, 1950-2015

My New Year's celebratory mood is dampened by the news of the death on New Year's Eve, at 65, of an extraordinarily talented singer, daughter of another extraordinarily talented singer, Nat King Cole, who also died relatively young.

The clip below shows her doing a duet with one of her dad's old buddies, Frank Sinatra, whose centenary we recently celebrated. The song is "I Get a Kick Out of You" by Cole Porter, from the 1934 (and since revived several times) Broadway musical Anything Goes.

I wondered if this made-for-TV version of the song would include Porter's original line, "Some get a kick from cocaine...", evidently not a problem for the Great White Way in 1934. No; it gets replaced by "Some like the perfume from Spain...."

Photo: Angela George via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

TBT: Ella Fitzgerald, "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

It had to be this song, and it had to be Ella. The song ends abruptly, as 2015 will when the ball drops tomorrow night. Happy New Year to all!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

I'm breaking from my football silence to say, "Go, Jets!"

Before you declare me a front-running weasel, understand that I have been a fan of Gang Green for some years. How many years? I can't quite say. The seed was planted in January of 1969, when I was in my second year of law school and along with several floormates went to the room of my sadly now deceased classmate Michael Francis Vincent Peter Vaccaro, the only guy on my dorm floor who had a TV, to watch Super Bowl III, which pitted the New York Jets of the then American Football League against the Baltimore Colts, champions of the NFL.

I had decided to back the Jets, as they were the underdogs, despite, or perhaps because, their brash young quarterback, Joe Namath, had violated lex non scripta by guaranteeing victory the Thursday before the game. I expected it to be a tight game, but it wasn't. The Jets dominated from the get-go, intercepting three times and generally playing ferocious defense that kept the Colts off the scoreboard. The Jets' offense was less potent. Namath completed 17 of 28 passes, none for TDs. The ground game fared better, and the only TD came on a rush by Matt Snell. The Colts' "D" kept the Jets' remaining scoring to three field goals, and Baltimore's only score came in the fourth quarter when legendary veteran Johnny Unitas (when I first started watching NFL games on TV, I thought for a while that the horseshoe on the Colts helmet was a "U" for Unitas) was brought in and tossed for a TD. Final: 16-7 Jets. The moment the final buzzer sounded, Mike, our host, jumped up and turned the TV off. "Why?", someone asked. "Because I couldn't stand to hear Howard Cosell say, 'Broadway Joe Namath, the New York Jets, and the American Football League, all came of age today.'" Someone later told me that's exactly what Cosell said.

After that, the Jets sank into mediocrity and I didn't pay much attention to them, or to pro football generally. After I moved to New York, for a time I declared myself a Giants fan on the strength of having read Fred Exley's A Fan's Notes. Later, I decided that I preferred the Jets because of their second team status, just like that of the Mets, with whom they shared Shea Stadium for some years. And, hey!, the names rhyme. When the Nets moved to my home, Brooklyn, a rhyming triad was complete. And the Jets gave me the opportunity to make a joke in Italian.

The other thing about the Jets that's caught my attention this year is their quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick (photo). I first noticed him five years ago when he was with the Bills. I'm loathe to say that his being a Harvard grad affects my opinion of him. I only went to law school there. During my first year in Cambridge I went to a couple of Harvard home games; in the first of these I got to see them demolished by a Princeton team using a single wing offense, considered practically a museum piece in 1967. I later learned that it was considered very uncool for a law student who hadn't gone to Harvard as an undergrad to root for their team, and the fact that my alma mater, South Florida, didn't have a football team at the time didn't count in extenuation. Anyway, I would admire Fitzpatrick even if he'd stayed home and played for Arizona State.

My flutter of enthusiasm my be stilled next Sunday if the Jets lose at Buffalo to a team coached by their former skipper Rex Ryan, and if the Steelers beat the Browns in Cleveland. Anyway, I'll resist the temptation to call an upset (Bills over Jets) that I don't want to happen in order to avoid it.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

TBT: Chuck Berry, "Run Rudolph Run".

"Chuck Berry's got to be the the greatest thing to come along." So sang the Beach Boys, as well they should have, since many of their early hits rode on Berry riffs.

Chuck brightened the 1958 Christmas season with "Run Rudolph Run". The song, which has parallels to other Berry hits "Johnny B. Goode" and "Little Queenie", was written by Johnny Marks and Marvin Brodie. Marks had, in 1949, written the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", based on a children's coloring book created for the Montgomery Ward company in 1939 by Marks's brother-in-law, Robert L. May. May's book originated the character Rudolph, whom May earlier considered naming Rollo or Reginald. I think he made the right choice.

Rudolph image:

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

At Advent's end.

As the Advent season comes to its end, I'm thinking how different it has been for me this year. I've done the usual things: gone to parties, bought and wrapped presents, wrote and mailed cards. Yet, while the festive mood has gripped me on occasion, I've become more pensive. It may just be that I'm getting older; intimations of mortality and all that. I've thought of friends I've lost; most recently Mario, my law school classmate and roommate for our first year in New York. I've been eating and drinking less. In some ways, it seems more like Lent.

Advent and Lent are both seasons of preparation; Advent for a birth, Lent for a death, but followed by a resurrection. Alfred Delp, a German Jesuit priest imprisoned, tortured, and hanged by the Nazis, had this to say about Advent:
Advent is the time of promise, but not yet the time of fulfillment. The world is still filled with the noise of destruction, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, the weeping of despair. But round about the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. And there shines already the first light of the radiant fulfillment to come.
Like Europe in the early 1940s, and like Palestine under Roman rule 2,100 years ago, today we have "the noise of destruction, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, and the weeping of despair." We have calls to hang out the sign, "No room at the inn." We have massacres of the innocent. We have refugees, as Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus became escaping Herod's massacre.

I cherish the hope that this Advent will bring a rebirth of compassion in enough hearts to start to reverse our present course; that the "eternal realities" cease to be silent in those hearts, among those realities being the need to "love those we find it hardest to love."

Image: Crossing the Streams.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

TBT: Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim, "The Girl from Ipanema".

Frank Sinatra's 100th birthday was last Saturday; he died in 1998. Heloísa "Helô" Pinheiro, the original "Girl from Ipanema" (photo), turned 70 last July 7. She was in her late teens when she walked by the cafe where Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes were sitting, and inspired them to write "Garota de Ipanema" ("The Girl from Ipanema"), originally titled "Menina que Passa" ("The Girl Who Passes By") and intended for a musical comedy being written by de Moraes. The song in its final version, in Portuguese, was introduced by Jobim to João Gilberto and Stan Getz, and during a recording session in New York they decided to do an English language version. Gilberto's wife, Astrud, could sing in English, so she was chosen as the vocalist. Her deadpan vocal style added to the song's appeal, and it became a top ten hit on the U.S. pop charts in 1965.

I was looking for something to mark the Sinatra centenary, and hit on this video of his performance with Jobim in 1967. I decided to use it because it's off the beaten track, both in terms of musical style and in his interaction with another singer. Despite my being a reformed nicotine addict, I love it that he drags on a cigarette when he's not singing.