Thursday, September 30, 2021

Throwback Thursday: Bob Dylan's Visit to the James Dean Museum

This day in history, 1955: James Dean, a symbol of the confused, restless, and disillusioned youth of the 1950s, died in an automobile crash as he drove to a car rally in Salinas, California. Interestingly, the Salinas Valley was the backdrop for many stories by Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck and James Dean a central character in Steinbeck's East of Eden.

* * * 

It's well-known that Bob Dylan grew up as a fan of motion pictures. His writings make numerous references to films. While on tour in July 1988, Dylan directed the bus to make a detour after a show in Indianapolis. He'd evidently been aware that the James Dean Museum was in the vicinity of where they were traveling. What follows is an excerpt from a 2015 blog post in which I included an account of that event.

* * * 
This week I re-read portions of an unpublished 1999 manuscript by Larry Kegan which at one time was online but was has since been withdrawn. Larry Kegan and Bobby Zimmerman (Dylan) became close friends after meeting at Herzl Camp in their early teens. As a result of a neck injury Kegan was wheelchair bound for the rest of his life. The title of his unpublished book shows his wit and humor about this situation: Some Get The Chair.

Over the course of many years Bob invited Larry to go on tours with him. (See: Remembering Larry Kegan.) In the book he writes about events that show the importance of place. This story is about events that took place after a Friday evening concert at the Indianapolis State Fairgrounds on a hot summer night in mid-July 1988. The next stop was to be Detroit, but Dylan gave instructions for the tour bus to take a detour through the small rural town of Fairmount, Indiana. Kegan writes:

Larry Kegan in Belize
Bob had already gotten out of his bus and was heading down the main drag. Dave, the bus driver, came over to the van and I asked him what we were doing here. "This is James Dean's town, where he grew up and where he's buried." "Where's Bob going," I asked? "He's going to check out the High School where he attended," he said. We hung out for a while around my van and Bob's bus.

Next thing you know a couple girls come over -- it's 1:30 in the morning -- and the entourage learns that there's a James Dean Museum in town. (Actual name: The James Dean Gallery.) One thing led to another so that two Fairmount police escorted Bob to the museum which was opened for him and his friends. The place was handicapped accessible so Larry also had the privilege of getting the tour.

The place was a real trip into the Fifties. James Dean stuff everywhere. Posters from all three of his movies, EAST OF EDEN, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, and GIANT. Clothes he wore in the movies and around town, They even had the basketball trunks he actually used in high school.

There's something to be said about the importance of place.

* * * *
About fifteen years ago or so I (not Larry talking here) went to a family reunion at Salt Fork, a resort in Southeast Ohio that my parents used to bring us when we were growing up. Our families stayed at lakeside cabins for a week, sharing and making many fond memories. One day I drove into town to pick up some groceries from nearby Cambridge. To my surprise there was a Hopalong Cassidy Museum there. Hopalong Cassidy was a cowboy film and TV star back in the early days of television. William Boyd, the actor who played this fictional good guy cowboy with the black hat, was from Cambridge.

Dylan went out of his way to visit the places where his heroes were from. It's on record that he's been to Liverpool. He has mentioned visiting the childhood home of Neil Young. I don't doubt he's paid a visit to Lubbock, Texas where the Buddy Holly Museum resides.

If a minor character like William Boyd or men with relatively short careers like Buddy Holly and James Dean have places dedicated to their honor in their home towns, it just seems like there should be something more in Duluth than three manhole covers and a section of street designated "Bob Dylan Way." As for getting your photo taken, you can stand in front of a small wall of memorabilia down the hall from the Brewhouse at Fitgers, or in front of the Buddy Holly & the Crickets poster in the entryway of the Armory Annex down on London Road.

It doesn't have to be much, but fortunately there is a circle of friends and fans making an effort to offer more than what we've got. Zimmy's was such a place for Hibbing, and though we mourn the loss, a group called The Hibbing Project will be unveiling a monument there this month. More on that will be coming soon.

* * * *
Photo of Larry Kegan in Belize was sent to me by a friend; photo by David Elwood.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Politics, Homelessness and the Lack of Affordable Housing

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
I came to Duluth in 1986 when the city had not yet recovered from what was called "The Reagan Recession" even though its roots were in the 70's which ended with double digit inflation, high unemployment and an energy crisis. What I remember most vividly was reading a front page story about a new paper mill that had 100 job openings and 13,000 job applicants.

Another article at the time highlighted the problem of affordable housing here. In the subsequent decades homelessness and the lack of affordable housing have been recurring themes here. 

In 2007 the St. Louis County and our city kicked off a major program to eliminate homelessness titled End Homelessness In Ten (EHIT). Despite the fanfare surrounding this ambitious effort, a May story in the Duluth News Tribune stated that we have more homeless than ever in this county. The article, titled "Our Community Is In Need": St. Louis County Hears Grim Report On Homelessness, stated "In 2020, 2,188 households, totaling 3,170 people, were served by programs for people experiencing homelessness, including 751 people homeless for the first time."

* * *

Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal produce an early morning eNewsletter highlighting the day's top stories. The WSJ version ends The 10-Point with a question that readers can respond to. Yesterday's question had to do with affordable housing. Or rather, the question was about soaring housing prices. Here are a few notes from this morning's replies.

Ben K stated that soaring prices were a reflection of unmet demand. The solution to reduce housing costs? "We must increase supply."

Someone told me recently that to build the paper mill in West Duluth they had to eliminate 400 family homes. Have these ever been replaced? The population of Duluth has not increased sine we got here 35 years ago, although the Mayor had a press conference last week in which she announced we increased by a little under 500 since 2010. (It is still in the 86,000 range.)

Ben K went on to say, "Allow accessory dwelling units in single-family zoning. Allow apartments to be built above shops, even above big-box retailers. Reduce minimum lot and square footage requirements. Reduce paperwork for demolish-and-rebuild projects. Reduce mandatory parking requirements. Reduce paperwork for changing a property’s zoning to match its neighbors, and aggressively upzone along transit lines. In other words, get the government out of the way!"

By way of contrast, Myles Z of New Jersey believes, "It is time for the government to get back into building public housing. There is no profit to be made [by developers] in providing housing to the poorest members of our society." Incentives matter.

* * * 

In September, Reason magazine published an article titled "California Is Clueless About Homelessness." It's a story about how Los Angeles has been using 1.2 billion dollars to build houses for homeless people in L.A. The money was approved in 2016 to build 10,000 new units for homeless people. Over the past five years only 700 homes have been completed. At that rate, they city will end up with 1400 homes at an average cost of $857,143 each.

* * * 

Politicians are good at ribbon cutting and making pronouncements, there seems to be no end of programs initiated with good intentions that get bogged down and tangled in red tape. End Homelessness In Ten (EHIT) was a good slogan. What we need are real solutions. 

This is the first of several articles I'm hoping to assemble. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

This Day In History: Ted Williams Tales

Ted Williams hits his final homer #521 (off Jack Fisher)

Early Ted Williams baseball card
(oldest in my possession)
No question about it, Ted Williams was one of the great hitters of all time in Major League Baseball. On this day in 1941 the Boston Red Sox star ended the season with a .406 batting average, the last player to bat over .400 for a complete season. His On Base Percentage (a measure of a player's ability to get on base) was the highest of all time in pro baseball.

To illustrate OBP, consider my first year of baseball after Little League. Little League was for kids 8-12. Babe Ruth League is what you played when you were 13-18. Even though I was a Little League All Star, when I turned 13 and played in Babe Ruth League I was a runt. I never got a hit the whole season. Yet, even though I struck out 13 times, I also walked 13 times, so my On Base Percentage was .500.  That is, half the time I went to the plate I got on base.

Ted Williams got on base by base hits, but also by discipline. He made pitchers throw the ball over the plate. He did not swing wildly at pitches outside the strike zone. He wasn't ashamed to take a walk. He knew that every runner who gets on base, by any means, is a potential run.

For more read:
I consider it an honor that this blog post was re-posted on the John Updike Society website.
Other Events of Significance on This Day
In 1066 William the Conqueror invaded England
The Jesse James Gang's surprise attack of a train in 1864 results in 150 killed. 
In 1908 Henry Ford's first Model T rolls out of the Piquette Plant in Detroit.
In 1954, the Tonight Show premiered with host Steve Allen.
In 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald visited the Cuban Consulate in Mexico City.
In 2021, Ed Newman published his 5,195th post on his Ennyman's Territory blog.

Have a great, and grateful, day.


My apologies to those who count on me for accurate reporting. This is a reminder to verify before you share. 

Monday, September 27, 2021

Grid Fragility and a Book by Meredith Angwin

If you are like most people, you rely on electricity but have little understanding of all that's involved in generating and managing these energy networks. In light of the direction our nation is going with regard to EVs and energy creation, this is a subject of exceeding importance.

Last fall, Meredith Angwin published a book about how the grid is managed, Shorting the Grid: The Hidden Fragility of Our Electric Grid. The first portion of the book included a gripping narrative, watching the New England grid operator (ISO-NE) implement plan after plan to try to keep the grid operating during cold snaps. The New England grid operator succeeded (at least temporarily) at this task. About four months after Angwin’s book was published, the Texas grid operator failed during a cold snap, for reasons that were quite parallel with the situation in New England.  

She agreed to answer a few of my questions. I asked her about her background, how she came to write a book that pretty much predicted the problems of Texas, and what she sees as the future of electric power in this country. 

EN: Let's start with your background.

Meredith Angwin: I always wanted to be a chemist.  Well, I wanted to be a scientist, and I thought chemistry was the best science for me.  First, there was Madame Curie to be my heroine.  Next, chemistry had an infinite number of problems to solve, and small advances in chemistry could lead to improvements in human health and well-being.  I thought I could make some small advances.  In contrast, the physics majors all seemed to be about The Theory of Everything.  I had no hope of helping in that quest. 

I am a chemist and a materials person. I first became interested in renewable energy, and since I had worked toward a Ph.D. in mineral and ceramic chemistry, I began to educate myself about geothermal energy. To make a long story short, I ended up working in geothermal energy, pollution abatement for fossil fuels, underground transmission issues, and nuclear energy. It’s great to be a materials person! I learned so much about the challenges that different technologies face as they generate and deliver electricity. I became one of the first women project managers at the Electric Power Research Institute

Much later, when semi-retired, I became an advocate for nuclear energy. I started a pro-nuclear blog, which sometimes covered grid issues as they applied to nuclear power plants.  A man who read my blog emailed me and suggested that I join the Consumer Liaison Group of our grid operator, ISO-NE.  (ISO New England). I had never heard of that group. Frankly, the fact that I had never heard of that group is part of the problem with how the grid is managed! The grid managers are a closed group, and they aren’t all that eager to have consumer input, even when the federal rules require them to have some type of consumer liaison group. 

Being in that group is where my grid education really began. Bad management can override good engineering. 

EN: What is the net result when this happens?

MA: I began to see how a strong grid becomes fragile as I watched ISO-NE, with limited powers, try to keep the lights on in cold weather. It was clear to me that the problems they were facing would not be limited to New England. Grid operators have three problems, especially in winter.  I call this the Fatal Trifecta.

The first problem is relying too much on renewables such as wind and solar, which go on and off when they want to do so. They are intermittent and cannot be counted on to supply steady power.  

The second problem is that the renewables are backed up by natural gas and gas is delivered just-in-time.  Power plants do not store natural gas on site. But gas delivery can be interrupted, which is the second problem. Many things can (and do) interfere with natural gas delivery, especially in winter. For example, homes have priority on the gas in the pipelines, and the power plants may be unable to get the gas they need.  

The third problem is that a grid operator may say: if things get tough, we are always connected to our neighbors, and so we will get electricity from them.  Sorry to say, this doesn’t work well.  Usually, when things are tough, it’s because of very cold or very hot weather. Your neighbors will be having the same problems. The neighboring grid operators are going to take care of their own people before rescuing your grid. I call this triplet (dependence on renewables, natural gas and imports) the fatal trifecta for a grid.  The fatal trifecta leads to rolling blackouts, or worse.

I need to say something else about renewables. They simply can’t handle the demands of a modern society.  They always have to be backed up by more reliable plants, mostly natural gas. And if we try to “electrify everything” (EVs for transportation, heat pumps for home heating, and so forth) then the demand for electricity will grow even faster. Renewables will fail to meet the demand.  I started my career in renewables, and I wanted them to be able to do everything: an entire grid of renewables!  But I painfully learned that this is not possible.  There’s always that fossil-fired backup plant.  

Unfortunately, many people are the way I was before I went through that painful process.  They want to believe that renewables can do everything, and there’s always some “expert” willing to tell these people that renewables CAN do everything, we just have to have the political will to install the renewables!  Saying that is a good way to be popular, but it doesn’t change the facts.   

EN: In other words, it seems like the idealists committed to renewables do not want to listen to the science. Can you share an example of this problem?

MA: As an example of the failures of renewables, I recommend that people look at the website This website shows the carbon footprint, per kWh, for various parts of the world. France, which decarbonized with nuclear, has a very low carbon footprint. Germany, which invested heavily in renewables and closed most of its nuclear plants, has a much bigger carbon footprint. That is because the German grid must necessarily be backed up with fossil fuels. 

Click to enlarge

For a dramatic illustration of required backup, we can look at the California “Duck Curve.” This shows the amount of electricity (in  thousands of MW) required during one March day.  The back of the duck, the dip in demand, is due to solar online. If a home has solar, it requires less power from the grid.  But look at what happens at sunset! Solar goes away, people turn on their lights, and traditional power plants must ramp up very quickly.  All those power plants are still needed: the solar didn’t replace a power plant, though solar electricity substituted for the fossil plant’s electricity for several hours.  That fossil plant, probably burning natural gas, is going to stay on the grid. It will be active, backing up any solar and wind. It will be ready to spring into action when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing. And it will be in action for many hours each day.

I just took a look at electricityMap as I was writing this. When I looked, Germany was emitting 430 grams carbon dioxide per kWh of electricity produced, and France was emitting 67 grams.  These are typical numbers, though they vary. With the exception of big hydro power, renewables simply cannot decarbonize a grid. Germany sure tried to decarbonize with wind and solar. Didn’t work.

I need to point out that there are different types of grid operators. Parts of North American are in Regional Transmission Organization (RTO) areas. These areas are managed with a series of auctions, and the auctions have very odd, arcane rules.  Other parts of the country have more traditional governance structures, with private or public utilities which are overseen mostly by state Public Utilities Commissions. The RTO areas are moving toward rolling blackouts faster than areas with more traditional management.  

The RTOs worried me, partially because nobody writes about them. Their auctions are complex, and no entity is responsible for having a reliable grid. For example, the RTO runs the auctions for electricity, but it is not responsible for actually having enough power plants available to meet the demand. In an RTO system, in terms of reliability, the buck stops nowhere. 

Meanwhile, RTOs keep a low profile. I have very smart, very educated friends, all over the country. Many of them don’t know whether or not they live in an RTO area. At this point, everybody has heard of the ERCOT RTO, but many people have never heard of their own RTOs (if they have one). RTOs like to keep a low profile. And the RTOs have the more fragile grids.

EN: What about nuclear? 

MA: Nuclear energy is very low carbon and it can supply abundant energy to the grid. When nuclear was first introduced, most environmental organizations (such as the Sierra Club) were in favor of it.  It provided electricity without hydro plants disrupting rivers, or coal plants with their pollution. 

However, I think the fear of nuclear war leaked over to become fear of nuclear power. The two are not closely related at all. Fuel for a nuclear power plant simply can’t be used to make a nuclear bomb, for example.  But a rapid buildout of nuclear power would have certainly disrupted the coal and oil industries. Those industries didn’t mind that people confused nuclear weapons with nuclear power! The negative perception of nuclear power is a huge issue, and I can’t do justice to it in so short a time.

I wrote two books about energy. The first one is Campaigning for Clean Air: Strategies for Pro-Nuclear Advocacy. It describes how and why to support nuclear power.  The second, my most recent book, is Shorting the Grid: The Hidden Fragility of Our Electric Grid.  It describes how our grids are becoming more vulnerable to blackouts and loss of power, due to insufficient generation. People don’t know about the grid we actually have. I wish more people knew more about the real grid, not the “could grid” of “if we invested trillions of dollars in five years we could…” I wrote both my books, but particularly Shorting, to fill this knowledge gap. 

EN: Experts that I have personally been in touch with say that wind is about 8% and solar 2% of our energy. As the push is on for EVs, so future energy needs will continue to grow. Can renewables really fill the need? 

MA: You mean, what do I think of the “could” grid?  What could or should happen in America?  In terms of the future of electricity in this country, the current overemphasis on high percentages of renewables does not look good. It heads us right into the Fatal Trifecta.  I do not consider Germany to be a good model for us. Germany has high renewables, high carbon emissions, and high electricity prices. I would prefer that our emphasis would switch to having a reliable grid, such as France has built, rather than a “could” grid that can never actually happen. 

* * * 

Meredith Angwin was one of the first women to be a project manager at the Electric Power Research Institute, leading projects in renewable and nuclear energy. For more information, you can reach Meredith at or follow her on twitter @meredithangwin 

Her website is

Her blog is at

See also:

Books by Meredith Angwin

Shorting the Grid: The Hidden Fragility of our Electric Grid

Campaigning for Clean Air: Strategies for Pro-Nuclear Advocacy

Friday, September 24, 2021

Flashback Friday: Off the Record, An Oral History of Popular Music

The late Tom Petty
Imagine that you have been invited to a huge party, and when you get there everyone is a somebody... a Somebody in the history of pop music. Who do you talk to first? Do you walk around looking for your favorites first? Or do you just saunter around talking with whoever you run into next?
That's what it's like to pick up the book Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music.

Obviously a party like that can only be assembled by someone with connections. In this case the author is Joe Smith, who happened to be president and CEO of Capitol Industries-EMI (the same ones who signed the Beatles, Dylan and so many more.) Before this he had been president of Warner Bros./Reprise and Elektra. A Yale grad who became a popular and successful disc jockey, Smith seems like just the right guy to gather all these other pop celebs under one roof.

The book is handled just right. There are no long interviews. Like the party, you can bounce around for a brief spell with Tom Petty, then George Harrison, Little Richard, Ray Charles. Over here is Dylan and is that Yoko Ono? Oh yes, talking with Joni Mitchell, Phil Collins and Ella Fitzgerald. Joan Baez, Robert Plant and James Taylor seem to be enjoying themselves over there with Tina Turner and David Bowie. Then you see the jazz guys, Lionel Hampton, Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck staring out the window onto the lawn where Quincy Jones is listening to Robbie Krieger, Mary Travers, Frankie Valli, Al Kooper and Herbie Hancock. Donovan pensively listens to John Fogerty and David Lee Roth. Judy Collins seems to be reminiscing with Graham Nash and Stephen Stills. Lou Rawls and Tom Petty can't seem to get enough of Henry Mancini.

O.K., you get the picture. And the stories they tell are fascinating because pop culture has played a role in all of our lives.

My bedtime reading ended with Mike Nesmith talking about the Monkees. They were not a music group, they were characters on a television show. The purpose of the show was not to end up with hit records, he says. But one day they're driving along in the car and hear that their song Last Train to Clarksville is #2 on the national charts. Nesmith says the very notion of it was bizarre. Suddenly everything changed.

The Monkees were shipped to London to prepare for a road tour as a music group, but they weren't really sure about how they really felt, nevertheless they followed through. One strange quirk about the tour was having Jimi Hendrix open for them. Mickey Dolenz had heard Hendrix in a London club and made the recommendation, which Nesmith off-handedly thought was O.K., sight and sound unseen. When they arrive in Raleigh, North Carolina, to do their first gig, the Hendrix trio is mind blowing, even in appearance, but the teeny bopper screamers are there only for one purpose, and it's not the Experience of Jimi Hendrix.

says he disguised himself and went into the crowd to snatch a listen. He'd never heard anything like it. "It was the most exhilarating, the most majestic, the most entertaining, the most fulfilling music I'd ever heard," said Nesmith.

But the mismatch was self-evident and after eight gigs Jimi had had it. The girls were chanting, "We want the Monkees," and in the middle of a song the most incredible guitar player of a generation left the stage in the middle of a song, disgusted.

For the record, this book offers a lot. It's real, it's intimate, up close and personal. Recommended.

You can find the book here on Amazon

Illustrations by the author

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Throwback Thursday: Introduction to Unremembered History of the World

What follows is the introduction to my story Unremembered History of the World, which appeared in my short volume of stories titled Unremembered Histories.
Introduction to Unremembered History of the World 
There are some who have proposed that it is sheer vanity for us to imagine our earth as the only heavenly body populated by creatures with intelligence and personality. I propose that it is equally vain to imagine that our history, the one recorded by our historians, the one we know as "recorded history," is the only valid history for mankind here on this earth. 

To imagine life on other galaxies and to search for it are not unrelated. As is well known, steps have already been undertaken to find evidence in support of this hypothesis. 
In regards to the notion that there exists the possibility of an infinite series of parallel times, verification of this theory is a task whose path is less self-evident, obscured as it is by mists. And yet, we see glimpses of it, reflected here and there, from the great minds that were not bound to earth by the pettiness that so smothers us.

Goethe noted that his heart contained the capacity for all acts, from the most heinous to the sublime. Could he have been standing on the threshold of those infinite courses that sweep into other avenues of time, unseen, unknown and unremembered?
Bernard Yachtmann records instances where people have had glimpses of other histories, reiterating the conviction that time contains an infinite number of parallel streams, and in each there are alternative histories, of an infinite variety.

While not every act leads to significant consequence, many acts do, and what if in an alternate history the consequences of those acts were indeed being played out. Likewise one can find similar references by Marconi, Hasjammer, and Brandt, and an exhaustive treatise along these lines by Don Luis de Nativo.

While at the University of Salamanca at the turn of the century, Don Luis de Nativo wrote extensively on this theme. Though his manuscripts remained mostly unpublished and were eventually lost, the man de Nativo is best remembered as an archetype of de Unamuno's "man of passion" as fleshed out in The Tragic Sense of Life, de Unamuno's master work. (I have been told that it was a chance meeting with Joseph Conrad which prompted de Nativo to pseudonymously publish his epic work El Mundo Gordo.)
In other words, to get right to my point
: my proposition is not original. It has been well documented by others as a reasonable conjecture. No doubt it is my own insecurity that forces me to cite other, more significant voices, as if the testimony of my own experience will be insufficient.
Those of you who know me know that I often have unusual dreams. Oftentimes the dreams unfold as detailed stories. I recently dreamt a short skit which became a television commercial. I've had prophetic dreams, including a dream which showed me that my firstborn would be a son. I've also had other dreams which I believe were gifts from God.

In September of 1984 I had a strange dream. As is my custom, I recorded the images of my dream, in as much detail possible, and its effect.

Two months later, while looking for a book by one author or another at one of our local used bookstores, I happened upon a small, Irish green, clothbound book called Flight of Gypsies. It was one of those moments when a decision carries weight, when you feel compelled to act irrationally. The price, eight-fifty, was higher than I would have expected, especially considering the broken binding and what appeared to be several loose and missing pages. Yet when I opened the book and randomly read about five sentences, I knew that I must have the book.

I'd no sooner gotten the book home than I regretted the decision. The volume was more or less a compendium of prophecies by various gypsy seers in England, from 1632 to 1785. The purpose, I could only surmise, was to assemble a record of prophetic utterances for verification purposes. For the most part, the sketchy accounts were repetitive and tedious and I soon found myself bored. There were prophecies about early deaths, unhappy marriages, deformed children, and blights on households to the third and fourth generations, utterances about flea infestations, curses of blindness and baldness, worms, contagion, and dementia. I put the book on a shelf in our garage.
The next day I found one of the pages lying on the floor next to my desk. With no intention of reading, I picked it up to toss it in the trash when the name Thomas Olney caught my eye. Olney was the name of the man in my dream. To this man and his family I will return, in order to strengthen my arguments and make plain my case.
Not all dreams are stories, nor do all dreams reveal secrets about the nature of the universe -- though many reveal secrets about ourselves, and I am often quite impressed with the power of this magic mirror of our souls. Nevertheless, that night I began a quest, the result being my story about one of our unrecorded and unremembered histories.... one of many, I might add... and one which we may all, with longing, seek to re-attain... if not for ourselves, then for our heirs. Of this I am most serious.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Was Ben Franklin the First American Humorist?

This past weekend I began reading Paul Johnson's The Humorists. The book is not really humorous per se. Rather, it is a collection of profiles and bios of humorists through the ages, from Hogarth to Noel Coward. Groucho Marx, Stan Laurel, W.C. Fields, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker and others each get their day in the Johnson sun. 

I'd read his Intellectuals and was enriched by his Modern Times (another book of mini-biographies) but had not seen this volume and having recently written about the National Comedy Hall of Fame it seemed like a good follow up. That is, I thought it might put 20th century comedy into a historical context as part of a larger tradition.

The chapter I'm currently reading is about Ben Franklin, whom Johnson calls America's first humorist. He also designates Franklin as the inventor of the one-liner, which I found intriguing. One-liner quips have become a staple of many standup comics. 

Ben Franklin's wit was but one of his gifts, and he made the most of it. As publisher of Poor Richard's Almanac he fulfilled a duel need in people's lives. The Almanac provided useful information regarding weather, planting dates for farmers, tide table and other useful information for each calendar year. Franklin took it a step further by embellishing it with entertaining quips, witty phrases and wordplay.

According to Paul Johnson Franklin wasn't into the idea of just being a thinker. He wanted to be a doer. He also recognized early that in order to be free to do what you want it takes money. Money wasn't an end in itself, but a means to an end, hence his efforts to make his Almanack more popular than its peers.

Here are some witticisms to carry you through your day today.

--He that lies down with Dogs, shall rise up with fleas.

--No man e'er was glorious, who was not laborious.

--Necessity never made a good bargain.

--It is better to take many Injuries than to give one.

--There are no gains without pains.

--Lost time is never found again.

--Haste makes waste.

--Love your Enemies, for they tell you your faults.

--Three may keep a Secret, if two of them are dead.

--If you would not be forgotten 
as soon as you are dead and rotten, 
Either write things worth reading
or do things worth the writing.

* * * 

Related Links
Poor Richard's Almanack
Ben Franklin's 13 Virtues

Sunday, September 19, 2021

The Story Behind the Armory Mural We Did Last Year

Mark Nicklawski, Michael Shannon, Zane Bale, Mark Poirier
Members of the Duluth Dylan Fest Committee
Photo credit: Michael Anderson -- Click to enlarge

Last summer -- and it feels like a decade ago -- Mark Poirier asked me if I'd be interested in doing a mural on a section of Duluth's Historic Armory. Mark is the Armory director who runs the office and manages the building at this point in time. His motive, in part, was to show the public that there were things happening here. For two decades all the renovations have been taking place inside, so it still looked like an abandoned building to many.

Every mural starts with a blank slate.
This one is 17 ft wide & 13 ft tall.
I expressed interest but wasn't sure I'd have time. When August began to slip past I realized that we'd better get on the ball or it would be winter soon. With the blessing of the Armory Board I proceeded to reach out to a group of local painters to see if they might be interested in contributing to the concept I'd conceived.

For those unaware, the Duluth Armory is where young Bobby Zimmerman saw Buddy Holly a few days before Holly died in an Iowa cornfield in Clear Lake, Iowa -- along with the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and their pilot.

Although many of us were drawn together through the Duluth Dylan Fest and Bob Dylan Way, it was agreed that the theme should be something broader than a tribute to Bob Dylan. 

Because the Armory's history is full of stories, one concept that emerged was to capture and share some of those stories. While I was painting images on the larger wall, a dozen artists worked out different themes to accompany and embellish it. For this reason we see Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong, Buddy Holly, Sonny & Cher and John Philip Sousa in some of the pictures here. Some of the artists created more abstract impressions.

The wider theme included the manner in which the Armory and its surroundings has been a source of inspiration. One painting, for example, is a tribute to the Anishinaabe peoples who lived on these shores before it became a U.S. territory and later Minnesota.

Each of the artists who contributed was given an 18" x 18" panel which had been precut and primed for painting. One panel (right) lists the artists names in the order that their pieces appear from top to bottom. (Missing from this image are the names of Lulu and Tubbs, who were added when their pieces were delivered later. You can see their paintings to the right of Buddy Holly in the upper left.)

Some of the symbols in the larger mural itself are worth noting. Most of them are related to Bob Dylan, even if he is not a central feature of the painting. Sing Your Song was the title of a documentary on Harry Belafonte that many Duluthians saw at a Duluth Superior Film Festival several years ago. I chose this because when young Bob Dylan arrived in New York City, Wood Guthrie was his idol but his ambition was to be "as big as Harry Belafonte."

As it turns out, young Dylan's first paid recording gig was to play harmonica on a Harry Belafonte album. Though he was lined up to play on three songs, he only recorded one. You can see a photo of the harmonica he played and read the details of that story in Peter McKenzie's Bob Dylan: On a Couch & Fifty Cents a Day.

In the center of the mural is Robert Johnson, who famously made a pact with the devil "down at the crossroads" in Clarksdale, Mississippi at the intersection of Highway 49 and Highway 61, the Blues Highway... which runs North all the way up past the Historic Duluth Armory. To Johnson's right you can see the Highway 61 road sign. (The Clarksdale location is disputed by some who say it took place in Rosedale.) 

In the lower right is a funkified Bob Dylan profile that I created. 

Funkified young Bob Dylan in profile.

Here are a few of the other images displayed.

Johnny Cash by Kris Nelson

Contribution by Twin Cities graphic designer Lulu

Virginia Alexander's Duluth Symphony

Mark Poirier, masked but not anonymous, affixes Tubbs' piece next to Lulu's

Along the left side you can see (top to bottom) Buddy Holly by Ed Newman, Sue Rauschenfels' Anishinaabe-themed piece, Linda Glisson's expression depicting the energy of a concert atmosphere, and Edna Stromquist's John Philip Sousa. Molly Overden's Lighthouse and Seed is just below that .

On the right side of the mural one can see Christie Eliason's Louis Armstrong at the top followed by Virginia Alexander's Duluth Symphony,  Kris Nelson's Johnny Cash, Margie Helstrom's Blues Inspiration and Rosemary Guttormsson's Sonny & Cher.

Here's the current status of the mural. 
If you look close, on the right side it says:

Trivia: When I was in college I did an 8' x 12' painting which I 
continuously worked on and reconfigured or 3 to 5 hours a day. 
It had a life of its own, or so I theorized. I enjoy working large,
as many painters do. This is the objective I have in mind here,
to keep it alive until the time that it must depart. Which means
I need to continue working on it sometime and breathe more 
life into it. In the meantime...

And to the Armory folks who gave us this space to decorate.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

An Approach to Teaching Your Children How to Write. Why Every Homeschooling Parent Should Buy This Book.

I believe writing well is one of the most important skills any homeschooling parent can teach their children.

The written word has changed the world more than almost any other human activity. Truth is passed on from one generation to the next through the written word. Political movements may begin with a fire in the breast, but it is the written word that distributes this fire far and wide. The American Revolution was successful in large part because of the printing press and the printed word.

Learning how to communicate by means of the written word is an essential component of any successful career. Children who write well will obtain more career opportunities and find more open doors than those who neglect this vital skill. But good writing is more than simply writing technically correct sentences with proper verb tense and punctuation. Good writing is writing that engages readers. 

Writing Exercises was originally written with homeschoolers in mind, but its essential principles have universal application. The subtitle is 
How to Teach Writing and Prepare Your Favorite Students for College, Life and Everything Else.

The book's aim is to arm parents and teachers with a philosophical approach to teaching writing skills along with exercises to help implement it. The three goals of this method and the accompanying exercises are:

  • To build students' confidence as writers.
  • To improve students' creative thinking through creative writing prompts. 
  • To provide useful strategies for teaching invaluable writing skills.
  • To make sure that whatever career your child pursues, he or she is not left behind.

The book also addresses practical matters such as research skills, attribution and handwriting matters. Equally important is the matter of grading the work. Motivation is a key feature of both the exercises themselves and the grading approach.

Writing Exercises is currently available at the largest store in the world,, where 38% of all internet commerce takes place.  


Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash
Q: What age or grade level is this book written for?

A: I think students from 7th to 9th grade will benefit most, though the principles apply to any student learning to write. The goal is to instill a love of writing, not to make children hate it. 

Q: Is the book in bookstores?

A: No, but you can find it here on Amazon:

I have deliberately given it a low price to make it easy to purchase. If you apply the principles here to your homeschooling efforts, you will be rewarded 100-fold.

Q: How did you come to write this book?
A: My wife Susie and I homeschooled our children when it became apparent that public schools were coming up short with regards to meeting their educational needs. Because I'm a professional writer I took on the task of teaching writing. (I also wrote all their tests, which enabled me to stay in touch with what they were learning as well as the progress they were making.) After the children had grown, Susie encouraged me to create a book so that others would benefit from the exercises and grading approach I'd created.

If you have additional questions, feel free to leave them in the comments or email me at

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