Sunday, May 31, 2009

Ten Minutes with an Ardent Lincoln Buff from Illinois

It's amazing how the great voices of history continue to inspire. Earlier this month while listening to an audio reproduction of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, I was moved to write about the experience here at Ennyman's Territory. I soon received a comment from Ann Tracy Mueller, a.k.a. LincolnBuff2 on Twitter. Our brief correspondence revealed her to be more than just a passing fan of the great Springfield lawyer who made such an impact on our nation.

Ms. Mueller agreed to let me interview her and what follows makes a pretty darn good read. Thank you Ann for taking the time to share these insights you've gained from studying this man's life.

Ann Tracy Mueller (Lincoln Buff 2) replies to Ed Newman’s interview questions

Ennyman: How did you become a Lincoln Buff?
LB2: I’ve often asked myself that same question, and until just recently the answer eluded me. I can’t ever remember not being a Lincoln Buff.

I grew up in Illinois, where the Lincoln story resonates. My parents and grandparents always had a strong sense of place and a great appreciation for stories of the past. School projects and field trips helped to heighten my interest in Lincoln.

But on a recent day, as I looked at a print of Knox College’s Old Main which I keep above my desk to inspire me, I think I figured it out. I was born in a hospital just a little more than a block from that site of an 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debate. Back when I was born, hospitals often opened the windows to let in some cool air on a hot summer day. I think a breeze came along and blew some “Lincoln dust” my way. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Ennyman: What do you feel makes Lincoln such a remarkable person and president?
LB2: You can ask this question and get a hundred different answers. I think they’re all right, as his story touches each person in a unique way. For me, though, it’s two primary things – the story of the self-made man and his dedication to lifelong learning. He came from nothing and rose to greatness. But, he worked very hard to do it.

He wasn’t afraid to try new things. My goodness, look at how many different occupations he had – farmer, railsplitter, storekeeper, surveyor, lawyer, legislator, president and more. To do these things and to do them well, he never stopped reading and studying and seeking answers.

The Lincoln legacy is great. He changed our country in ways no other ever will, but one thing we can all take away from the Lincoln story is this: Never, ever stop learning!

Ennyman: What is the most surprising thing you've learned about Lincoln in your research?
LB2: There are several, but I think one which amazes me is the number of cases Lincoln dealt with in his years as an attorney and the respect he earned for being very accomplished at his trade. He was involved in more than 5,500 cases, some rather trivial, but some quite significant. And, in addition to this, he seemed to have a gift as a mediator, often showing opposing sides that it was really in their best interests to reach an amicable solution to their disagreement instead of having it resolved in the courtroom.

His law career was very important. It not only helped Lincoln to build relationships and gain respect, but as he went from town to town serving in courts throughout the Eighth Judicial Circuit, he made a name for himself. When he was propelled into the political spotlight, people would remember this plain-spoken, honest man with a gift for storytelling and a propensity for making sure right won out over wrong. They could get behind him because he was product of the prairie and a voice for its people.

Ennyman: How long have you been a Lincoln buff?
LB2: As I mentioned in the first question, I can’t ever remember not being one. I’ve had a lifelong interest. I did school projects on Lincoln as early as junior high, and did more work on him as an undergraduate.

I became more serious about pursuing Lincoln research in 2000 as I learned of the plans for a bicentennial celebration. I spent several days in Springfield when the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, a very fine institution, opened in 2005.

I really dug in deeply, however, in the fall of 2008. My community college offered a class on “The Life and Times of Abraham Lincoln.” I’d wanted to contribute in some way to the bicentennial and I was learning so much in the class. It seemed a shame to keep it all to myself, so my blog, Lincoln Buff 2, was born. The alter ego I’ve lived with for most of my life now has a world wide presence.

Ennyman: Do you have a favorite Lincoln speech? What is it and why?
LB2: Lincoln has so many great speeches, but I have to say that his farewell speech to Springfield is my most favorite. It shows such a strong sense of place, an appreciation for the people who nurtured, inspired and supported him, and a depth of emotion that touches hearts still today.

I also really like one which gets much less recognition than it should – his “Discoveries and Inventions” speech, which he first delivered in Bloomington in April1858. In it, he calls writing “the great invention of the world.” And, since he was such a wonderful writer himself, I think this speech shows his appreciation for and grasp of the power of the written word.

Ennyman: Do you have a favorite Lincoln foto? Which and why?
LB2: Actually, I think my favorite Lincoln photo, is the one on the cover of Daniel Mark Epstein’s book, The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage. It’s actually not one image, but a composite made from one of each of them. When young Eddie, the second son, was just a few months old, the Lincolns had their portraits made by Nicholas H. Shepherd in Springfield.

In this image, I see a young father, in the early years of his career, with some of the weight of fatherhood upon him, but still a hope for the future. This is by far the most beautiful image of Mary I’ve run across. She still has that glow of a new mother, the pride in her husband, whom she firmly believes is destined for greatness, and a happiness about her, which later left and eluded here for much of her life. Epstein writes eloquently of this image on pages 99-100 of his book.

Ennyman: Do you have an opinion as to how U.S. history might have been different if Mr. Lincoln had not been assassinated?
LB2: This is the great Lincoln “what if” question. It’s asked at every Lincoln symposium or lecture. The answers vary depending on who is answering and what their background is. Some wonder if he would have lived much longer anyway. The presidency had taken a toll on him, and some believe he may have had a form of cancer. Since I’m not an historian by trade, I can’t answer this question with any certainty. So, would reconstruction have worked out differently? Probably, but that’s the question Lincoln scholars are better equipped than I to answer.

Ennyman: What is your own "greatest achievement" personally?
LB2: As a mother I should say my greatest achievement is raising two wonderful daughters, who make me very proud every day. Both are remarkable women, very bright, with strong faith and servants’ hearts, and I am, of course, very, very proud of them. Yet, I didn’t raise them alone. My husband and others close to us played just as important a role in this great achievement.

The one thing which gives me the greatest pride as my own achievement is returning to college while working full-time and subsequently completing my bachelor’s degree at age 41, just five weeks after becoming a grandmother for the first time. When I reached that goal, it was one of the proudest moments of my life.

I can think of only one other achievement which could surpass that – having my own book on Abraham Lincoln published someday. I’m now beginning work toward that end.


If you're a Lincoln buff yourself, or just want to plug in to some good historical writing that is both satisfying and illuminating, check out the Lincoln Buff 2 blogspot. This interview here is only designed to whet your appetite.

ednote: Image at the top left is a very early stage in a new Lincoln portrait I began this week.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

WW2 Vet Celebrates 90th This Week

"Death was always hovering over you like mud and executed orders. But once you got used to it, you never did get to know the fellows you worked with. When they left you it was for keeps and all they got was a body bag and a place in the cemetery." ~Wilmer A. "Bud" Wagner

We take our freedoms for granted, something no one took for granted sixty years ago.

My father-in-law is celebrating his ninetieth birthday this week. (His actual birthday is Flag Day, the 14th.) He's no slacker. Today he's been out mowing my yard, getting it prettied for his daughter arriving from Texas and a grand-daughter coming home from college this evening. He's planting a few more flowers, working in the garden and occasionally stopping to take a rest. Very occasionally.

On Memorial Day I made reference to his memoirs which were amplified into a book called And There Shall Be Wars. It just so happens that earlier this month Mario Monasterolo, a historian in the region of Turin, Italy, discovered Bud's book through Google and we have been in correspondence. The episode churned up fresh memories for Bud which had not been included in the original story. Here are a few of these.

By the summer of 1940 everybody knew there would be a war soon, except maybe the strong pro-Germans. My grandfather had died that winter leaving four sons, a son-in-law, two daughters and another son-in-law who had a mind of his own.

The oldest son soothed most of the Germans in the family by listening to Hitler speak one night on the radio and said he was real sure Hitler had no thoughts of a global war. However, he was the first one to change his mind as he bought a new Ford car and later a brother moved him to Wisconsin and he had his upstairs loaded with sugar and things that later became rationed. To the rest of the people it was pretty obvious that war was headed our way. You would have had to be pretty stupid to think otherwise. Then the draft lottery started and all the young men had to register. My dad was against that. Not so much of the war, but losing one or more of his two boys to the army.

Well I got a low draft number and got called up in April of 41. The book tells about all I could say about it. Then December 7th came along and we were in it. The hardest things were mock battles, load everything and imagine you are ready to advance or retreat. Cooking was going good and I was satisfied... then the night after Christmas one Battalion moved out. Some of these fellows were on furlough and had to be replaced in a hurry and I was one that had to go with the First Battalion, but still as a cook. Then in a few days we left too and I found out what feeding five hundred men in a moving train was like. Lots of help, but hectic.

Then the following morning it hit me suddenly that we were heading East and it really sobered me up. The thought now was one year for me, it’s for the duration, but I was glad we found out we were going to Ireland. I learned a lot of cooking from Hurlog Soderlung, Don Sternke and others. Then I had the chance to cook for the officers. I made a hit with them as they bought food themselves and had us cook it for them. In the Tynan Abbey camp, the one gardener took me to his home and I met his daughter Peggy. I would walk across the estate almost every night to visit with them and we all had a good time. I had bought the first bicycle I ever owned and rode along the beach with Eva Auald, Don Sternke and his girlfriend. Then we moved and Hurley got me acquainted with his girl friend’s sister who was also a pharmacist. The book covers the time pretty well as we finally got into action and I got out of the kitchen. We made an 800 mile trip three times and then it was Italy for two years.

One of the most impressive feats of bravery for any soldier, green or experienced, is a beachhead. The first half hour of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan did more to illuminate this experience than nearly any film or book I have ever encountered. What is often forgotten is that the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division put themselves on the line in not one, but two such beachhead assaults, at Anzio and Salerno.

Over the years, I've frequently been impressed by the details in Bud's re-telling of these landings. This is in reference to Salerno, Bud in his jeep on the Landing Transport.

Let’s go back to just before the invasion. We had our vehicles pretty well waterproofed. Remember, we had to stay on the job until the vehicles were completely waterproofed and checked by an officer. Then there was constant thought as to how we really would do. Strange was all of it to us. As the big doors on the LST, or commonly called the Large Slow Target, would react to the orders to open we had to have the transmission in first gear, the transfer case in low position, and the throttle one third all the way on its permanent setting. Both hands on the steering wheel, and under no circumstances do you move any of your body members any other way. Oh yes, and the front wheel drive lever engaged.

The uncertainty of the whole thing would have me to say read it again. Put yourself in the place of a soldier. The running around to where you weren't quite sure to where you were told to go and not quite sure as to who they were as we were assigned to the 36th Division. It was “do your best and keep moving.”

One of the first things that happened was of course the Krauts left a few parting shots as they usually always tried to do, and our boys were doing the almost impossible thing of firing the 105's without having the trail split or using the gadgets for range and elevation. Easy to pass by on this one with a shrug, but read it again. 105's are made to be fired with the trail spilt and dug into the ground to hold them somewhat in the same position for the next shot. Then remember, too, they had absolutely no information as to what the range or altitude should be so they were shooting at the Krauts point blank and if you don't know much about artillery pieces, the Krauts couldn't shoot back. When you retreat the gun is hooked up to a two and a half ton truck and can't be fired until the truck unhooks the gun and the crew shifts it into firing position. Not an easy task either as they are real heavy expensive things and very heavy to maneuver back into firing position. The unusual thing about one gun is that as the crew was trying to get it back in the firing position, a two star from the 36th Division came and helped the crew get the trails back close enough so that they could get that artillery piece to give the Krauts one more parting shot. But read it again.

You never will get the full benefit of it until you can see the inside of what a tank looks like when they scored a few direct hits. The gun crew sergeant said of the General, he was the highest ranking man I ever had on my own crew. It was a hectic night. We had to do a lot of things on our own initiative. A skeleton crew was there from every detail and as I was going past the service truck the mechanic Louie Day hollered at me to stop and remove some of the waterproofing. I just waved and kept on my way.


The Jeep suffered a lot that day, got hot and really banged up. That’s why they picked me to be the one to be the first messengers there. My plan was to drive it or park it. There was no rest that night but by the next day there was some resemblance, though that changed in a hurry, too. The Krauts weren't giving up just yet. They had a crack division there in a hurry and we had to back up a bit, first time in all our combat. Eisenhower soon heard and had the 82nd Airborne Division from Sicily and some war ships shooting over us.

More stories yet to be told, but if you get a hankering for the book, you can find it here. It's a good read, and most can't put it down.

PHOTO CAPTIONS
Top Right: "This is what the peep and I looked like after a night of trips on the muddy Voltuno River banks, and sometimes between the banks as well. Hand-operated windshield wipers gave a small view. Shifting gears, steering, and windshield wiping all at the same time was sometimes tricky. I'm glad the clutch and gas were foot-operated instead of by hand." November 8, 1943.
Left: Bud today, as in this afternoon, still looking forward to good things as yet unseen.
Lower Right: "These 3 English graves and 1 American were close to Hill 609. No doubt they were booby-trapped. These graves were removed when the rear troops got there." July 25, 1943.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Wooden Teeth & Romantic Scandals

I’ve been listening to an unabridged audio presentation of P. J. O’Rourke on The Wealth of Nations. It appears to be a relatively brief overview of the rather hefty tome by Adam Smith. O’Rourke is a satirist, libertarian and economic conservative who hails originally from Ohio. His early writings appeared in the National Lampoon, where he helped launch the careers of John Belushi and Chevy Chase.

To be quite frank, the book has not been a compelling read, but I’ve hung in there and there are some good sentences. And it is a much more entertaining book than the tedious nine hundred-plus page original, though the original has had far more influence than this book will have.

The reference to wooden teeth and romantic scandals is more or less a comparison of Smith to our founding father, George W. Neither wore big happy grins, nor did their personal lives offer much grist for the rumor mills. O’Rourke addresses this matter only because it seems proper to assess the private lives of public philosophers, though he suggests public figures in government ought not be subjected to the same scrutiny.

Adam Smith kept no personal diary so that unlike our modern public figures whose every life detail is summarized in Wikipedia we know very little about the man except a notation by Sir Walter Raleigh, which may or may not be reliable.

There was another interesting sentence about fluctuations in the price of silver over the previous four centuries, but all in all, as I approach the end of the book I am pretty much ready for the next read.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Musings on Ambiguity

“The creative person is willing to live with ambiguity. He doesn't need problems solved immediately and can afford to wait for the right ideas.” ~ Abe Tannenbaum

The other night Susie shared with me the following passage from a book she was reading called The Power of Premonitions by Dr. Larry Dosser.

“When nineteenth-century Victorians journeyed through the hinterlands of Switzerland as part of their Continental tour, they were often advised to avert their eyes. The disorderly jumble of mountains, they said, was evidence of the Devil’s handiwork and were blasphemous. They were certain that God would never create such chaotic landscapes, a belief they expressed back home in their preference for manicured lawns and geometrically designed gardens. But any backpacker into wilderness knows that healthy forests and mountains are always a lovely mess, with tall, strong trees growing amid fallen, rotting ones, and rock-strewn slopes, valleys, and canyons of immense complexity.

“Respecting chaos and disorder involves a tolerance for ambiguity (ambiguous is derived from Latin words meaning “to drive both ways”). Rejecting ambiguity can narrow people’s lives and lead to intolerance. It can also extinguish premonitions.”


The passage leads me in two directions. First, Dr. Dosser is affirming something I have repeatedly ascribed to, that there is something about life that is always contiguous with the ambiguous, full of uncertain edges, and that wisdom involves learning how to accept the non-explicit and vague. We’re reticent about this, of course, because we simultaneously want everything clearly marked, black and white.

You can see it in my poem Without Fences Or Fears. Or you see it affirmed in quotes like this one from Paul Tillich, who said, “The awareness of the ambiguity of one's highest achievements (as well as one's deepest failures) is a definite symptom of maturity.”

And yet, there is a second reaction that rises up within me. I want to be careful not to praise ambiguity too highly because such a stance is has the consequence of promoting a moral relativity that undermines any possibility of moral absolutes. Right and wrong do exist. To argue otherwise is to say that Hitler’s treatment of the Jews was wholly acceptable because “anything goes” in a world where there is no right or wrong.

The same goes for 9/11. There are some who would argue that from the point of view of the terrorists this was the only way to get their voices heard. Heard about what?

Years ago I wrote a series of articles about ethical issues in terminal health care. In my research I learned that in 1980 there was a presidential commission to define what death was, because with all the machines we had developed, the technology was able to keep air flowing, blood pumping, etc. almost indefinitely. The conclusion was, I believe, inconclusive. Yet, they did take a stab at some kind of guidelines that would satisfy lawyers.

The reality is, if we look at a dead body in a field, four days dead, it will certainly be different in most respects from a child flying a kite. Everyone knows what dead is, and what life is. The boundary area, between life and death, is where the confusion lies.

So it is with moral absolutes. We may not have an absolute certainty in all circumstance, because that is the nature of the boundaries. Yet, we don’t throw morality to the wind just because we can’t say with certainty yes or no regarding a situation, an act, or whatever.

My reflection on blackbirds a few years ago was an attempt to apply these thought processes to the notion of God.

Some ambiguity we tolerate, some we embrace and celebrate. And some is due to the fact that we are standing in the shadows and simply need to move a little closer to the light.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Is the Auto Industry Worthy of a Bailout?

One of the best selling issues of Consumer Reports each year is the annual auto edition, which just came out in April. Last fall I wrote that the primary reason the auto industry has been in a world of hurt is that people who wanted cars in 2008 were unable to get credit and therefore could not have their thirst quenched. This was, it turns out, only a partial reason.

GM has been losing money by the boatload since 2004. And Chrysler's reputation among auto mechanics, those in the know, has been shameful.

So it comes as no surprise when Consumer Reports gives both these companies failing grades in their “Automakers report cards.”

According to Harvard economics professor Greg Mankiw's blog commentary:

Page 15 was particularly enlightening. There, in their "Automakers report cards," Consumers Union summarized their findings for each of fifteen major car companies.

Dead last was Chrysler. CU recommended zero percent of the Chrysler vehicles they tested. That's right--zero. Second to last was General Motors. CU recommended 17 percent of GM models. By contrast, most other companies had half or more of their models get the thumbs up. Honda was the top ranked brand; CU recommended 95 percent of its models.

Is it any surprise that Chrysler and GM are now in the process of going out of business? From the perspective of the Consumer Reports advice, it looks like their business model was to count on the ignorance of the buying public about the quality of their products. Their bankruptcy should perhaps be viewed as a success of the market system.

Some people still insist that we need to encourage our citizens, or even pass laws, to “Buy American.” Why don’t we just tattoo the word STUPID on our foreheads?


O.K., that's a bit harsh. It will be interesting to see how this story unfolds. GM and Chrysler did not dig themselves into this hole overnight. The reputation of their products has been assembled piece by piece.

Note: Picture at top left is titled, "Man with a Puzzled Expression On His Face."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

People's Jug Band Takes The Prize


"...regardless of what you play, the big thing is keeping the feeling going." ~ Wes Montgomery

Last Thursday I gave a preview of the weekend, which included The 13th Annual Battle of the Jug Bands, produced by Icehouse Studios, Coho Handcream for Men and De Elliot Bros. The competition drew in a half dozen competitors, a packed-to-overflowing crowd and a members of the local media.

It has been my privilege to do a few gigs with de Elliot Bros. which this past weekend included a Saturday night show as a warm up for Sunday. And Sunday, we helped warm up the crowd for the rest of the bands, who really didn't need any assistance from us. Each and every one was awesome.

The six bands competing for the Coveted Yid-wegian Krumkake Iron played in this order:
Fat Chance
The Spit Band (below left)
The Geezers
People's Jug Band
Procrastinators
Jook Savage Jug Band

There was an impressive array of talent on display with musicians like National Soap Box Derby champ Bo Conrad of Minneapolis and Duluth's Colorblind Johnson. I am somewhat amazed the even let the likes of me onto the stage at all.

The People's Jug Band, a young group from the Twin Cities, took the prize. They played with passion. (last photo below) Wish I could tell you more about them. They're up-and-comers with fire in their bosoms, and quite a bit of talent to boot.

The pictures on this page are from Sunday's Battle, some taken of bands on the stage and a few outside shots. There were many familiar faces, but some new blood, too. All in all, you really need to mark you calendars for next year's Memorial Day gathering, the 14th Annual Battle of the Jugbands. A big tip o' the hat to Elliot "Blind Willie" Silberman for putting it all together.

Someone once said, "Most of us go to our graves with our music still in us." Don't be that way. Don't do that. Sing your songs and change the world.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Memorial Day Reflection

Do you remember when we used to celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 and Washington’s on the 22nd? Memorial Day was May 30th in those days. All those midweek holidays were a bit disruptive and the two presidents are remembered on President’s Day, the 3rd Monday in February, and Memorial Day, today, is the last Monday in May.

The origin of Memorial Day goes back to the brutally bloody Civil War. Many communities set aside a day to mark the end of the war as a memorial to those who had died. Originally called Decoration Day (to decorate the graves of the fallen) the name was changed to Memorial Day in 1882. The holiday took on greater significance after World War II, another all-encompassing war that left few untouched or unmoved.

Setting aside a day for remembering has value because some things are too important to be forgotten.

My father-in-law, who served in World War II, eventually wrote a book about his experiences. Bud Wagner was on the first ship to Europe and served for the duration of the war, capturing details, images and keen personal observations that I doubt one can find anywhere.

Here's an excerpt from the introduction.

I began keeping a diary when I was quite young. I have many small books with short entries, and at the time I registered for the Draft in October 1940, when I was 22, I was closing the 5th year in a leather-bound 5-year diary.

I didn't even consider stopping with my diary because of my draft status, and I decided that in addition, I would keep a small camera with me at all times I possibly could during my Army service. My intention was to keep all my Army time on record to the best of my ability. On the front page of the 5-year diary I had written the Chinese proverb: "The faintest ink is better than the strongest memory."

There were many times during my Army career when I couldn't make my diary entries on the day they occurred. Days and nights would often run together when we were on the move, and dates were unimportant to me at the time.

Another reason I sometimes couldn't make daily entries is that for security reasons, I tried to keep my diary to myself. There were probably only three close friends who knew I was keeping it. I always carried it in my shirt pocket, and towards the end of the War it was getting to be quite a bulky burden. If I hadn't sent a part of it home before leaving Ireland, I wouldn't have been able to carry it all on my person.

Some of the problems I faced in writing it were (1) no light at night, (2) difficulty in getting ink, and (3) the fact that I didn't even have a real diary at times, but only small notebooks to write in.

There were times when I couldn't get away by myself that I would make believe I was writing a letter -- when actually I was trying to recollect and put in writing what had happened to me during the previous days or sometimes the previous week.

After I returned home in July 1945, the diaries were put into a drawer, moved with me several times, and were all but forgotten until about 1975 when our family was all together one Sunday afternoon. The talk turned to my Army life, and when I mentioned the diaries, everyone wanted to see them.

One of our sons-in-law, Ed Newman, a writer, thought there was potential in it for short stories, a journal, or a book. Our other son-in-law Harrold Andresen, a mechanic, was interested in all the mechanical work that had to be done to the vehicles. Our son, Lloyd, had heard some things about what I had written, and had been studying American and European history, including that of the World Wars, so he was very interested as well.


When Bud turned 79, he called me on the phone and said, “Eddie, I want you to take me to the store tonight to buy a computer. I’m ready to write my book.”

Whoever said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks was definitely mistaken. Bud had been assembling his research for a lifetime and was eager to prepare a manuscript. It was a major undertaking, but one could see the determination there. He also had help with preparing the polished version. His son Lloyd, my brother-in-law, did the “heavy lifting” as regards editing and organizing photos, etc. I did a measure of copy editing. And ultimately, an incredible book was produced called And There Shall Be Wars, a reference to Mark 13:7 in which Jesus said, “And when ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars, be ye not troubled; for such things must needs be, but the end shall not be yet.”

You can get a feel for the action from this excerpt during the Salerno invasion. To purchase your own copy of the book, Bud Wagner's diaries and memoirs of World War Two are available here.

This year Wilmer A. "Bud" Wagner turns ninety and he has been looking forward to that 90th birthday party coming up soon. We may have a few surprises for him. For sure I will be returning to this topic again over the next couple weeks.

In the meantime, let us remember all who sacrificed so much to preserve the freedoms we enjoy.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Amazing Operation Jaques

"Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't." ~ Mark Twain

The film Proof of Life reveals some of the challenging realities in our world today. Hostages, intense life-and-death situations, bad people armed and dangerous... and guys like Terry Thome (Russell Crowe) who live on the edge of this world, trying to save the lives of those who have been captured and taken across the abyss. Whereas Terry Thome is a fictional character in a fictional story, these kinds of people do exist, negotiating for the release of hostages, or on occasion devising risky alternative plans.

Last winter while returning from L.A. I had a brief encounter with someone whose livelihood was in just these kinds of "special operations." The story he told was quite amazing. Operation Jaque (which means "Check" in Spanish) took place last summer. Do you recall reading it in the papers? I missed it.

There were fifteen hostages involved, taken by the FARC, Colombia's revolutionary army. One of these was a woman who had been a presidential candidate. Three were Americans. And in this operation, all were important.

It took a long time to locate the hostages, and an even longer time to plan their rescue. The big fear in these things, according to the commander I spoke with, is a shootout. For this reason at the last minute they had a change of plans. They went in totally unarmed, pretending to be revolutionaries themselves, wearing Che Guevara T-shirts, etc.

He said they had a mole within the guerrillas, and in some way persuaded the guys guarding the hostages that they were in danger and the hostages had to be moved to a new location. Two helicopters landed, and everyone was loaded up, including a couple of the guys watching the prisoners, who once airborne became prisoners themselves.

It was a variation of the Trojan Horse, only in real life.

One thing I like about travelling is meeting people. Everybody has stories. This one was quite impressive. You can read the details about Operation Jaque here.

There's much more I'd like to say, but for now, I have to run off and make more jug band music with De Elliot Brothers in the Battle of the Jug Bands. Y'all come!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Clapton Autobiography Proves To Be A Worthy Read

"I am, and always will be, a blues guitarist." ~Eric Clapton

It’s Dylan Days in the Northland, but since I just finished reading Eric Clapton’s autobiography I can’t help but address it one more time.

First, a few details. I listened to the audio version, which was abridged. It was very good and covered his life with ample detail to be satisfying. According to some reviews the unabridged version has dry spots. Perhaps he felt an obligation to produce a lengthier tome, as opposed to a slimmer volume, because he was paid $7 million dollars to write it and did not wish to shortchange his sponsors.

The book comes across as a remarkably candid personal account of his life. He doesn’t flinch from things that put Eric Clapton in a poor light. It's real, tragic at times, actually quite powerful. It's not something you pick up for the juicy gossipy bits. It's a real account of one man's struggle to achieve manhood. This is, in fact, the single theme throughout: Clapton’s struggle to become a mensch. Despite great personal pain, escapist behavior and setbacks, he came through the dark valley and up the other side to make a contributions beyond his own self-promotion.

Being one of the luminaries of the rock scene this past four decades, it’s not surprising that Clapton’s career bisected many other greats of the era and he gives much praise to these with whom he had the privilege of performing. As someone quite talented, his assessments carry a measure of weight.

If you do a Google search you’ll quite a few reviews of this book, and I would encourage you to check them out. I like Greg Kot's review of October 14, 2007 which opens like this:

“Clapton is God,” the graffiti in London once said. But Eric Clapton knew better. He wasn’t God. He was struggling mightily to be a man, and by his own admission didn’t quite become one until he was well into his sixth decade.

“Clapton: The Autobiography” (Broadway Books) does what many rock historians couldn’t: It debunks the legend, de-mythologizes one of the most mythologized electric guitarists ever, puts a lie to the glamor of what it means to be a rock star.

“Backstage, John [Lennon] and I did so much blow that he threw up.” Those few words capture the book’s tenor: intimate, scandalous, titillating, but ultimately sad, at times pathetic. Legends reduced to drug-addled buffoons.

As a first-time author, Clapton has a matter-of-fact, self-deprecating touch. In this autobiography, for which he was reportedly paid nearly $7 million, the guitarist who launched the Yardbirds, Cream and Blind Faith psychoanalyzes himself and recounts a life riddled with drugs, booze, womanizing, shame, self-doubt and self-destructive choices. He sleepwalks through the prime of his life in a haze of self-medication, and rightly trashes most of the albums he released in the ’70s and ’80s. “There was no reason for me to be making records at all,” he acknowledges, yet he went right on making them, tarnishing a great legacy almost beyond repair.

What struck me most about the book is the feeling of transparency it conveys. At the end I felt I understood his views, convictions as it were, regarding music and art and the values he possessed. He lays his heart bare in this story, and perhaps that has always been the power behind his work.

Consider these lines from the song Tears In Heaven, written with Will Jennings after the horrorific loss of his four year old son Conor. I still remember the shock I felt when I heard that nightmarish news in 1991, having a son of my own at a similar age. I can't even imagine going through something like that.

Time can bring you down,
Time can bend your knees.
Time can break your heart,
Have you begging please, begging please.

When I finished the book last night I put on his Greatest Hits album Time Pieces, followed by Derek & the Dominoes and his breakout Journeyman album while making art in my studio. It was a nice evening after a thought provoking read.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Clapton Autobiography Has Me Plugged In

Someone once said that when you write autobiographically about your pain, don’t just show the scab, but peel back that scab and probe the sore. The uncommon candor in the opening lines of Eric Clapton’s autobiography Clapton clued me in that he had been coached at the same school of writing: an autobiography ought to reveal, not conceal, those hidden recesses of the heart.

The book begins when Clapton was seven years old, telling how he came to recognize that he was an illegitimate child in a family with secrets. This is very different from finding out that there is no Santa Claus. For Clapton, art became a way to escape his pain, and later music (and substance abuse) serviced this same need.

The story of his experiences with John Mayall, Cream, Derek & the Dominoes, Blind Faith is written with what comes across as real humility. And with the vantage point of a man in his sixties, he relates how his own attitudes and excesses interfered with and even marred some of the high points of his fame.

For Clapton, it was all about the music. For this reason he was put off by anything that appeared to be a setup for “pop fame.” He just loved playing his guitar.

A friend of George Harrison’s, sometimes they would literally just get stoned and play for days and days. When he speaks with awe about being able to play with Delaney and Bonnie, you can tell it is genuine. It’s talent, not fame, that impressed Clapton in every stage of his life journey, hence his attraction to Steve Winwood, George Harrison, Greg Allman and others who were part of his life at different times.

When Clapton writes about the influence of Buddy Holly, the light finally went on for me and I finally “got it.” That is, I had never been that impressed with the way people seem to have gone ga-ga over Buddy Holly. I mean, he made a few songs, but they were not the greatest songs ever. He played rock ‘n roll music, but so did a lot of people.

Clapton saw Holly with different eyes than I because coming of age in the sixties I had already been exposed to the Kinks, the Animals, the Who, the Beatles. Clapton, in the fifties, was blown away when he saw that first Stratocaster electric guitar… and the black horn-rimmed glasses which put me off turned young Eric on. By that I mean, Clapton said to himself, “That’s me. He’s just another guy like me.” It was not pretty faces, but a guy with a guitar. The experience propelled Clapton into a life direction.

Personally I have enjoyed the book, including the insights into where some of the songs came from and the manner in which the various groups were formed with which he played. I totally related to the music of Cream and Blind Faith during my youth and still listen to those albums from time to time. Disraeli Gears was an incredible abum as was Wheels of Fire.

Not having been a groupie type who read all the fan zines, I found this book to be insightful and informative. Some of the reviews at Amazon.com are a little more cutting with one reviewer calling it “a terrible disappointment.” But for me, it is an autobiography up to the caliber of Steve Martin's Born Standing Up and Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One.

It’s been a great read thus far and because I am listening to the audio book, I can’t wait for my morning commute to the office here in a few minutes.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Today's Top Stories, Breaking News

"Take care of your memories. You cannot relive them." ~Dylan

I just read that Twitter passed Google as the first source for late breaking, up-to-the-minute news. That is, when people want to find out what is happening RIGHT NOW, more people went to Twitter the other day than to Google.

Now frankly, I am not sure how they distinguish the motive when people are searching for up-to-the-minute news. I mean, Google has to have more searches happening every minute, but only a percentage of them are for the latest breaking news.

For what it's worth, here are some stories that are unfolding here in my little corner of the world.

13th Annual Battle of the Jugbands
Produced by Icehouse Studio, Coho Handcream for Men and De Elliot Bros., the Battle is this Sunday May 24th. The Battle of the Jugbands is held in Duluth each Memorial Weekend Sunday. In years past, eight to ten regional bands have shown up, celebrating seven hours of old time down-home, string band roots music. It is also a competition as they vy for the Coveted Yid-wegian Krumkake Iron. Unique homemade instruments are shown and played, audience participation encouraged. Check it out at the Amazing Grace Cafe, downstairs in the DeWitt-Seitz Building, Canal Park.

Dylan Days
Dylan Days officially begins today in Hibbing, MN, Bob Dylan's hometown. This year is the 50th anniversary of Robert Zimmerman's graduation from high school. Saturday night, Scarlet Rivera, who did the fiddle work on Dylan's wonderful Hurricane, will perform at Hibbing High School Auditorium with an all star band. I believe the second set is scheduled to be a re-creation of the Desire album from whence it came. For more information visit the website http://www.dylandays.com/


As they say, "Be there, or be square."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Future of Art

On Sunday, I wrote some harsh things about the direction the modern art scene had gone in my article The Painted Absurd, in which I pointed readers to Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word. Wolfe's real adversary is not the artists, however. He was attacking the art critics who decided for others which works should have value and which were tripe for garage sales.

In truth, I still like to frequent the galleries, and I certainly understand where some of the modern movements came from. I like to see what is going on in the art scene as well as its manifold expressions along the periphery. It's a great source for ideas if you make art yourself. And if you imagine yourself making enough money to be a patron of the arts, it is a good way to see what's out there.

For the same reasons I peruse the art mags.

The March 2009 edition of ARTnews caught my attention because it had a cover story titled, "Where Is Art Going?" The feature collected an range of perspectives from museum curators and the like, thus it deals more with high art than just art in general. "A New Creativity" by Ann Landi postulates that because the economy has been trashed, the art market has been altered as well.

“Difficult times bring out the best in the best artists,” says David Ross, who was director of the Whitney Museum during that biennial and is now director of Albion New York, a SoHo affiliate of the London gallery. “When the economy falters, there can be a remarkable growth of seriousness in art.” But others see the notion of an art-market meltdown leading to new forms of creativity as specious hogwash. “I’d say the bohemian fantasy is sweet and sentimental, but rather insulting to artists,” says Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times. “In my experience, artists do what they do, market or no market. During the ‘80s boom, terrific work was being made by artists who barely got the time of day, and some of them were artists we simply started to look at in the ‘90s as the dust settled from the crash. That will happen again.”

Further along Landi writes:

The very nature of the way artists are perceived changes when the price tags cease to be that important. “In a downturn, artists are no longer validated according to their market value,” says Mary Sabbatino, vice president of Galerie Lelong in New York. “You’ll have an end to the quote-unquote critical description of Marlene Dumas, for example, as the most expensive living female artist.”

The one statement I liked in the article was that artists are going to make art no matter what the economy is doing. And it doesn't need to be validated by being in a gallery. Yes, even Dr. Seuss's drawing are now gallery pieces, but he began by making children's books. Much of what I'm doing right now, for example, is for illustrative purposes. Occasionally I like framing my work and plan on some larger, more serious endeavors again this summer now that my garage is converted into the three season studio. I don't need Federal funding to paint, draw, make music.

The thing is, when some people talk about art, they're talking about the art industry. The art industry may be hurting, but from where I sit the creative urge is alive and well in this country. It may be hard for poets to get published because no one reads poetry magazines much, but this does not stop poetry or music or other forms of creation from happening.

My time is up for now, so this is a theme I will have to return to yet another day. What's your take?

NOTE: The picture of a bear that you see here is a painting that we saw at a gallery in Sedona. The seated boy was produced this past week here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Anyways

Did you know that the word "anyways" is considered an error in English usage? The book Common Errors in English Usage, revised edition, states that both "anyways" and "anyway" are not a good idea.

“Anyways” at the beginning of a sentence usually indicates that the speaker has resumed a narrative thread: “Anyways, I told Matilda that guy was a lazy bum before she ever married him.” It also occurs at the end of phrases and sentences, meaning “in any case“: “He wasn’t all that good-looking anyways.” A slightly less rustic quality can be imparted to these sentences by substituting the more formal anyway. Neither expression is a good idea in formal written English. The two-word phrase “any way” has many legitimate uses, however: “Is there any way to prevent the impending disaster?”

This struck me because when I talk with my Mom on Saturday mornings it is a word that she uses frequently to fill a lot of the gaps between thoughts and sentences. I mean, very frequently.

There are some other phrases we use too often or incorrectly. The phrase "you know" is not, for example, intended to be a conjunction, you know, because people, you know, don't like hearing it used over and over again, you know.

You know, this is the kind of thing that probably doomed Carolyn Kennedy's run for the U.S. senate last winter. I'd read in Harper's magazine that she used the phrase "you know" 130 times in a relatively brief interview with the New York Times and according to this Daily News story from December 29 she said "you know" more than 200 times in a 30-minute session with The Sun.

I'll never forget an incident at my house while growing up when my brother Ron had gotten into the "you know" habit. The incident is vivid in my mind. While we were seated at the dinner table Ron was telling about something that had happened that day, perhaps at school. The number of times he'd said "you know" was adding up and it put my dad right over the top. "We know! We know already!" he shouted with a red face, "Get on with your story!"

The "you know" habit was shamed right out of him on the spot, I believe, because I can't recall Ron ever saying it again to this day.

Anyways, the thought I was having was that maybe if Carolyn's dad had been around when she was growing up, he might have helped her deal with it. Hopefully in a somewhat less painful way than my brother's lesson.

To Carolyn: keep doing your best to make the world a better place. There are some things more important than sound bites.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Yuzmin's Folly

SHORT STORY MONDAY

"The most decisive actions of our lives are most often unconsidered actions." ~Andre Gide

In the fifteenth century A.D., during the reign of Yuzmin, King of Mullah-Banin (a now forgotten territory situated near the mountains of Attain in the Middle East) a famous decree was made. The young king who made it had a well-established reputation for his lavish parties and bacchanalian orgies. Incredibly wealthy, King Yuzmin took such pride in exceeding the renowned festivities of his forebears that at the height of one of his most outrageous annual spectacles, the week long Homage to Attis, the Phrygian god of fertility, Yuzmin declared that the rest of his reign would be a perpetual revelry.

Fabulous mirrored rooms, dazzling cathedral arches, glimmering silver and gold brocaded draperies, billowing silks, bejeweled statuary, walls of ornate mosaic -- on every hand the palace of Yuzmin was devoted to excess. For entertainment, Yuzmin had imported musicians of the most excellent caliber. He had also assembled an astonishing collection of exotic dancers, voluptuous and able-bodied, whose sole function was to bring unending delight to the members of his court. But of his many treasures, Yuzmin took the greatest pleasure from his harem of concubines, who were among the most beautiful women in the world.

At times the mood in Yuzmin's court was feverish, electrifying, sensational, swelling to a near riotous frenzy. At other times the mood was subdued, seductive, and subtle. Like an ocean's unremitting surging and subsiding, the perpetual celebrations in the palace of King Yuzmin continued without interruption.

While many believed this everlasting feast of sensual extravagance had been arranged simply for the entertainment of his court and to impress emissaries of foreign lands, King Yuzmin's true intent had been, in fact, to re-create and experience on earth what he believed to be the glory of Heaven.


Thus it was that one hot and humid day, while Yuzmin was feasting, enjoying the luxuries of his wealth, basking in a rapturous delirium, he murmured, half aloud, half to himself, "Truly, I must be in Heaven."

To his surprise, a voice answered him, "Indeed not. You are in Hell."

Yuzmin twisted on his cushion and, seeing no one, said, "How can this be Hell?" Without wondering from whence the voice had come he continued. "It is not at all unpleasant to me. I have always associated Hell with squalor and debauchery, ugliness, cruelty and terrorism. But here I have assembled the most exquisitely beautiful women in the world. Are we not witnessing the sumptuous and awe-inspiring splendor of God's handiwork? Nor have I kept these pageantries to myself. I have shared them generously with all who come! I say once more, how can this be Hell?"

"It is evident that you do not understand the nature of Heaven and Hell," the voice replied.

"Heaven is not merely the accumulation of pleasures and delights. Heaven is the Presence of God. What is it you truly seek? You have embraced Beauty, but have you captured God? You will find Heaven when you find His Presence."

"Are we not now in His Presence? If God is everywhere, then I am in His midst, am I not?"

The voice answered, "Do you really wish to find Heaven?"

"Oh yes, I truly do," said the king casually.

"You will receive your next instruction when you declare an end to your perpetual celebration," said the voice.

Whether Yuzmin heard these last words or not, no one can say, for they had no sooner been spoken than he found himself captured, captivated and caressed by two of his most beautiful (and favorite) mistresses, the music of flute players transporting him to new levels of ecstasy. It seemed to him the high point of his life, and this time, when he said again, "Truly, I must be in Heaven," there was no voice in reply.

For forty years the spectacle in Yuzmin's courts continued without ceasing. On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, the bells chimed announcing the anniversary of what later came to be known as his Decree of Perpetual Revelry.

In many respects nothing had really changed. A new generation of musicians continued to play. A new generation of lithe, young dancers unveiled themselves with carnal abandon. A new harem of beautiful courtesans had been bred and purchased, yielding themselves in perfect submission to his every nod and gesture.

However, Yuzmin was no longer the enthusiastic, impulsive Adonis who performed legendary self-indulgent feats of endurance with boundless energy and imagination. For he had now become an old man, his pale grey skin splotched and wrinkled, his colorless eyes staring unfocused and unseeing. His once easy smile had been replaced by the thin, tight line of bloodless lips, ever drawn to conceal the ill-fitting dentures which no amount of money had been able to adequately engineer. And while the music poured forth in an endless stream, the rhythms and tones had long ago settled into a drone to which his ears had become deaf.

So it was that shortly after dusk on the night the bells chimed, Bernice the Younger drew near to him and said, "How long must we worship you, Oh Master? When will you let us rest from seeking to bring you delight? It has been so very long since you showed any signs of the awakening of desire. How is it possible that we must continue this pointlessness?"

Seeing Bernice's boldness, another of his concubines likewise drew near and lay beside him, saying, "Your heart is far from us, Oh Master. What is it you truly seek?"

Yuzmin tilted his head back and tried to remember.

copyright 1994 ed newman

PERMISSION TO REPRINT GRANTED if attribution is cited.


an original story by ed newman

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Painted Absurd

I originally saw excerpts from Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word in Harper’s magazine where the book had been excerpted. (I may still have a copy of that issue in my garage.) His cannon blasts against the absurdities which have presented themselves as “art” in the past half century were deafening. My guess is that some people celebrated and many were appalled, but for sure it became a stimulating read for at least one former art student, myself.

Wolfe essentially relates and dissects the process by which the art world evolved from visual artists creating paintings and sculptures to conceptual artists who had no product whatsoever except the theories surrounding what they were “saying.”

The argument culminates thus: "…there, at last, it was! No more realism, no more representational objects, no more lines, colors, forms, and contours, no more pigments, no more brushstrokes.… Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until…it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture…and came out the other side as Art Theory!…Art Theory pure and simple, words on a page, literature undefiled by vision, flat, flatter, Flattest, a vision invisible, even ineffable, as ineffable as the Angels and the Universal Souls.”

Many young art students loved it because it did not require any skills to make “art” any more. You just had to have a cool idea that was communicated in a manner in which other people “got it.” Or twist your head around the zeitgeist of wonderfully new ideas like “ugly is beautiful” and “talentlessness is talent.”

The opening lines of my 1980’s short story Terrorists Preying, which in 2008 was translated into French, summarize some of my feeling about my personal struggle with these issues:

Although I'd been an art major in college -- mostly painting and drawing -- I became discouraged with it shortly after graduation and gave it up. I was living with my family on Long Island at the time and for some while afterwards still visited the New York art galleries, making regular tours of the Whitney, the Guggenheim and the Modern.

What finally got me out of art was the whole directionlessness of it all. No one seemed to know what art was about any more. DuChamp started it, of course, with his Readymades. It took the rest of the world a half century to catch on. Everything was art, the critics were saying. For myself, their steel-firm logic stubbornly taunted everything I'd built my life around, leaving me creatively disabled, impotent, and broken down. In the end, I became the essence of minimalism, and ceased to exist.

Eventually every creative artist wrestles with how much to play the game. Each alone must decide for him/herself who they are and what they are about. For me, my fine arts background has blended into the foundations that support my advertising career, but on the side I still make “art” for various purposes, both illustrative and therapeutic. And I also continue to follow the arts scene by visiting galleries and reading magazines like Art News, ArtForum and Art in America among others.

Which leads me to this article that I stumbled on about conceptual artist James Lee Byars. (Nov. 2008 Art in America) Frankly, I never heard of him, but he was someone influential who did some big work which evidently seemed important to someone (most assuredly the critics whom Wolfe lambasted.) The article asks an interesting question: when your art career produces no product, what have you left for posterity?

Thomas McEvilley, author of the piece "James Lee Byars, A Study of Posterity", wrote, "Though James Lee Byars has been increasingly identified since his death, with elegant, reductive objects, his most radical-and characteristic-works were ephemeral and even immaterial." In short, Byars perfectly exemplifies what Wolfe in 1979 was talking about.

To be honest, my college art career began with philosophy classes. After three or four, I felt that since philosophy leaves no product, I should make art, which was also philosophical but left you with something to look at afterwards. Besides I'd been drawing all my life since my classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art when I was five. The irony is that artists likewise went the way of the philosophers… at least, those who bought into the notions of Happenings and Conceptual Art as the next evolution.

If you’re interested in a good short read that answers the important question, How did we get from Rembrandt to a guy painting seal skins white and nailing them to his apartment wall in Boston? Pick up a copy of Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Graduation Day

A graduation ceremony is an event where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that "individuality" is the key to success. ~Robert Orben

Well, this is it. The day a lot of young people have been waiting for. And their parents. And their grandparents.

Our daughter Christina is graduating today from college here at the University of MN, Morris. The sky is blue, the sun out and maybe a little warmth will filter into Minnesota from this astrophysical phenomenon. We're all sort of hankering for it.

Memories of my own graduations seem to hover in my thoughts. I remember practicing the Pomp & Circumstance at Hillside School when I graduated 8th grade. I remember zilch from the graduation. I also remember being jealous of Elizabeth Braughm (Brigham?) who wrote the official school song. My song came in second, and has been forever forgotten. Hers is probably long forgotten as well, though I do not cherish any secret pleasure in this thought. Our school colors were green and white, thus the robes were green.

I have a more complete memory of our high school graduation. It was an outdoor ceremony at the John Basilone Memorial Field and many of the guys had come drunk. It may be that I was too serious and felt the event a solemn rite of passage, or it may have been that my parents and grandparents were in the stands, but it shamed me when Bobby Politano knelt up close to the person in front of him and took a leak under her seat. When we got to the stage to receive our diplomas, Tom Newton asked that I point him in the right direction.

Alas, when the ceremony ended and everyone threw their caps and tassels I never saw mine again. I walked depressed from the football field and went off with the family wearing the gold gown and white sash of which our schools colors were comprised.

I do have another memorable gold and white grad memory, though. A few years later, our next door neighbor Kenny Koons was graduating. Wearing the gold and white cap and gown he'd come over to chill for an hour before he had to head to the ceremony. My family was on a vacation somewhere, so it was just he and I in the house. My brother Don had a set of handcuffs which for some reason Kenny had noticed, picked up and begun to examine. Suddenly, I heard an, "Uh-oh" from the living room. He'd locked himself up. We searched for a key with increasing desperation, but without success. The minutes ticked away, no luck. Suddenly, I had a thought. The Bridgewater police station is on Garretson Road where our high school was situated. Away we did drive.

I'll not forget the bemused expressions on the policemen's faces when I ushered an embarrassed Kenny wearing gold cap and gown into the police station and showed his handcuffed wrists. The officers used the tools of their trade, a big snapper like device that chomped through the steel in just a minute. Relieved, Kenny reached the graduation lineup just in time.

What I recall from my graduation from Ohio University is pretty sketchy. There were thousands graduating, and we were gathered in a large area wearing green robes and white sashes. I remember coming across my first college girl friend and having a nice talk. She was cheerful and it was good to see her. She'd been a little more mature than I when college started.

Of the ceremony itself, I still remember the opening lines of the keynote speaker's address. Not the precise words, but the gist of it. He mentioned a French word that is used to refer to the buttock or rear end of a Greek statue. He essentially said that when he used that word we would be five minutes from the end of his message. He then noted that he had just used the word. Evidently he was letting us know it would be a short speech and we were not going to get an earful of life advice that we'd never recall. As it turns out, he was right. I only remember my parents and grandparents afterwards taking pictures of me with my long dark shoulder length hair flowing out from the cap, and them being proud of my achievement.

Alas, coming full circle, it's my daughter's big day today. We shared a quiet evening with a few of her friends last night, and now we wait for the 1:30 ceremony signifying that her studies here have been completed. She's learned much these three years, both inside and outside the classrooms. As with many moments in time, every ending is but a beginning. Mom and dad are proud, wistful, and eager to see what adventures lie ahead.
To all you grads out there, Congradulations!

Friday, May 15, 2009

How Much Does Google Know About YOU?

An amazing thing about the information age is... well, the amount of information there is. Internet content is growing faster than weeds, than rabbits, than even bandwidth. There are more than 200,000 new domains a day, more domains than words in the largest dictionaries.

But the part that is especially amazing is how much information there is behind the scenes. I mean, the info we don't see.

As a marketing guy, I can call up web stats that tell me not only how many visitors we've had, but where they came from, how long they stayed, which pages they visited. It's useful because it enables us to benchmark improvements to our site. Being in eCommerce, we like seeing these numbers go up, and the only way to tell whether you're gaining or losing is by measuring.

Now when you extrapolate these capabilities of technology, and realize there are lots of people gathering lots of information about lots of other people, one can easily begin to develop a bit of paranoia. Who knows what about me and how much do they know?

There's a good article in this week's Computerworld that begins like this: "Google may know more about you than your mother does. Got a problem with that?"

According to the article by Robert L. Mitchell, Google stores everything. Thus it knows what you search for, it knows what videos you watch, it knows your browser activity if you use the Chrome browser, knows where you have been watching and maybe travelling using Google Maps. If you use Picasa web albums it has all your pictures (all mine from this blog get assembled on Picasa automatically) and it may even have transcripts of telephone calls, though I fail to understand how since my own attempts with voice recognition software were dicey at best.

Mitchell does soften the fear factor a bit. "Technically, of course, Google doesn't know anything about you. But it stores tremendous amounts of data about you and your activities on its servers, from the content you create to the searches you perform, the Web sites you visit and the ads you click.

What Google Knows About You is a good read. The article may be unsettling, but it's helpful to know you what you're getting into when you don't read all those privacy policies you agree to when you sign up for various services. Mitchell also offers a half dozen suggestions to help you protect your privacy a bit.

But then, if you can't help yourself, you might start beginning to wonder... how much does Yahoo know about me? Or, and this is where things start to get scary, the Department of Homeland Security. Hmmm. I don't think I even want to go there.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Palindromes

Words are endlessly fascinating. Word puzzles abound in all languages, and ours is no exception. Word play assumes many forms from crossword puzzles and word jumbles to anagrams. As kids we loved search word puzzles where you have to find all the words in a grid of letters, and who among us has not played the word game Hang Man?

I once wrote a story composed of as many homonyms as possible called How Eye One The Wore, which was published in Games magazine years ago. That was fun, incorrectly placing more than 150 homonyms into a 500 word short story.

But my theme this morning is palindromes. According to Wikipedia, "A palindrome is a word, phrase, number or other sequence of units that can be read the same way in either direction." Here are some examples to illustrate.

LEVEL
KAYAK
RACECAR
SOLOS
SAGAS

The fun part is seeing the elaborate lengths to which sentences can be constructed. As a general rule it is O.K. to adjust punctuation to make sentences work like actual sentences.

Here are some examples of phrases, though I assure you the lists seem endless.

A man, a plan, a canal - Panama!
"Am I mad, eh?" Giselle sighed, "Am I, Ma?"
A nut for a jar of tuna.
Dad: "Alas, a salad ad!"
Delia failed.
Del saw a sled.
Dennis sinned.
Dennis and Edna sinned.
Detach cat, Ed.

Well, you get the picture. Palindromes can be fun. There are quite a few websites with palindromes online, but here's one you might especially like.

Here are a couple examples which the Palindrome Police have indicated are not really acceptable, though you'll have to admit they are clever. (source: Rinkworks)

Retteb, si flahd noces eht tub, but the second half is better.

Doctor Reubenstein was shocked and dismayed when he answered the ringing telephone, only to hear a strange, metallic, alien voice say, "Yasec iovn eilacilla temeg! Nartsa raehoty lnoenoh pelet gnig, nirehtde rewsnaehn ehw. Deya! Msid! Dnadek cohssaw nietsne buerro, tcod?"

But my real objective here was simply to share a Weird Al video from YouTube. When my kids were growing up, this is the one show I loved to watch that they watched on Saturday mornings. Weird Al Yankovich seems to be endlessly creative, and his spoofs on MTV style videos are not to be missed. We had a couple Weird Al CDs in the house and, well, he's just plain witty.

So without further ado, here's a video of Weird Al performing Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues, which appeared in the 1967 D. A. Pennebaker film Don't Look Back. Except he does the whole thing in palindromes. He even sets up the background the same, with Allen Ginsburg or a Ginsburg-like character. Turn down the volume if you are in an office.




And, for comparison purposes, here's the original.



Have a fun day making word play.
Net forever. Often!