Archive for the ‘Films’ Category

Adrenaline and Then Some   Leave a comment

May 1, 2018

     There’s something to be said for adrenaline. With good reason, it absolutely gets our attention although I can’t honestly say I remember the first time I felt that rush. It might have been when I was two years old, being wheeled into surgery to have my tonsils removed; I can still smell the ether but I have no memory of a rush. Our “adrenaline memory” is very often associated with “the first time” of any number of things. Falling out of a tree. Riding a roller coaster, or water skiing, or a first commercial airline flight. The second, or third time you’ve been on Space Mountain, a thrill may still exist but it’s unlikely adrenaline will be coursing through your system. Whatever your first, latest, or worst memory of the trigger that sent adrenaline charging through your body, we can all relate.

The adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, get us ready almost instantaneously for what’s about to happen. Under stress, we experience increasing rates of blood circulation, breathing, and carbohydrate metabolism. It’s the body’s way of preparing our muscles for exertion or, from a medical and scientific view, the rush helps us cope with the likelihood that we’re about to have the ever-living shit scared out of us. That’s my analysis, anyway. Aside from a recent driving experience—coming around a curve on Iverson Road in Mendocino County and finding a deer in my lane—my adrenaline rushes these days are more likely to be associated with films and, on occasion, television.

I was sitting here thinking about horror and science fiction films that have done more than simply provide me with solid entertainment. That thought-process took me back to Psycho Knifemy childhood, and memories of films that provided me with what I assume today was an adrenaline rush. Take Psycho, for example. If there was an age restriction it must have been 11, since I walked into a theater and saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho on the ‘big screen’ at age 12. The surprises were many, and almost all of them quite “memorable”—the knife, the shower scene, Norman Bates’ mother—all designed to take your breath away; and there was plenty of blood to cover more than the shower floor, even in glorious black and white.

Before Psycho, and in the many years since, there have been other films that pushed the adrenaline through my system. Numerous science fiction films I saw as a child convinced me that Martians and other invaders were Invaders-from-Marscoming to take over planet Earth. Invaders from Mars (1953) had Martians controlling us by implanting a crystal in the necks of we puny little humans. For months the film made me wonder about that field behind our house. Shot in color (and with decent special effects for the day), the aliens’ costumes looked suspiciously like there was a very earthly common zipper up the back. Nevertheless, in the days after seeing the film I found myself (on more than one occasion) checking my father’s neck to see if he’d been implanted with one of the aliens’ controlling crystals. Truth be told, my father had plenty of issues, but a Martian implant was not one of them.

This Island Earth (1955) offered more interplanetary adventure, with human-like aliens sporting large foreheads, and the prospect that the inhabitants of their dying home planet—Metaluna—would be relocating to Milwaukee in the near future. The film TIE 9544962772_73f9343569_b CRoffered a balanced plot line with both creepy and sympathetic characters providing needed tension and relief.

Whereas Invaders from Mars gave us a clue to the intentions of  the Martians, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) made us worry about those living among us who were becoming increasingly nice, passive, and worrisome, offering no obvious clues to our fate. The more pleasant people were, the more likely their bodies had already been snatched.

The last film I’ll mention from the 1950s Sci-fi era was The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). Michael Rennie had it all over Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, but the character that brought chills to this child was Gort, Gort Day-the-Earth-Stood-Still-2-1the 8-10 foot tall robot. You knew when his visor went up some thing or someone was about to be toast. Robert Wise crafted a film that was so good that when I first saw the movie, it was on our small (10-12″) screen television, and still, Gort scared the hell out of me.

There have been plenty of other films that have given me a bit of an adrenaline rush, like The Exorcist (1973). From the early scene of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) at the Middle-Eastern dig site, to the exorcism itself, this Protestant was happy there was a Catholic priest between me and Satan. With Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien we grasped the cold reality that “in space no one can hear you scream”. Whether it was the face-huggers, the emergence of a creature exploding out of Kane’s (Jon Hurt’s) stomach, or the fully developed alien, this film had moments to trip anyone’s anxiety trigger. There was Jaws (1975) letting us know that we were all “going to need a bigger boat”; and more scares, surprises, and terror from Silence of the Lambs (1991), Frankenstein (1931), The Birds (1963), The Thing From Another World (1951), The Omen (1976) and Poltergeist (1982).  Remakes almost never achieve what the original (and usually much lower budget) films achieved since adrenaline, to whatever degree, needs one or more elements of surprise.

In 2004 I was teaching at a college in the Twin Cities and I clearly remember our first Halloween in that house in St. Paul. We not only decorated the house, but the small Spongebob SB61-SQY006-B105 CRgarden near the entrance where trick or treaters would line up to get their goodies. It was a sufficiently pleasant October evening that I decided to spend time sitting on a chair in the middle of the garden, wearing a trench coat and hat with my face covered, appearing to be some phony stuffed “corpse”. My chair was about 15 feet from the walkway. Some time during the evening a dad brought his 5 or 6 year old son trick or treating; even from a distance I could easily see the young boy was sporting a SpongeBob Squarepants t-shirt as they walked up to the house for a treat. When I saw the boy looking toward me I lifted my head slightly, and from across the garden said (in my best creepy voice) “Oh SpongeBob . . . Oh SpongeBob”. The little boy looked around, saw my ghostly-like presence, immediately turned around and ran crying down the path. For a split second I felt bad. Then I saw his father apparently getting a good laugh over the moment. Eventually little SpongeBob came back with his dad to get his candy, but I’d like to believe that, to this day, he remembers that very special Halloween. If only for the adrenaline rush.

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Hail, Farewell   Leave a comment

January 1, 2018

    I’ve been writing for the Lighthouse Peddler for years now, yet each month I wonder what idea, event, or emotion will surface as the stimulus for an essay. Without fail my mind’s journey almost always touches on the arts in general, or some specific musician or filmmaker or event. Most months I’m as surprised as anyone by the topic that becomes central to my column. And then, like a gift from the mysterious muse, the keys of my MacBook begin to make noise and a few hours later I read what I’ve written.

     In January we may be pleased that the old year is over (this year’s old year in particular) and we’re ready to focus on the year ahead. However, whatever we thought of the year just ended, we invariably find ourselves looking in the rear view mirror. Satchel Paige became almost as famous for one of his quotes as for his baseball career. He cautioned, “Don’t look back: Something may be gaining on you.”

     Ignoring Paige’s advice, we’re once again publishing a list of 60 notable people who died in 2017 and are worth remembering. Our list could easily have been 200, and paring the names was no easy task. (The ’60′ are on page 4 of this issue.) What follows are thoughts on some of those who made our short list.

     Writer Frank Deford is gone. I loved Deford. He hit my radar when he created the short-lived National Sports Daily. After the Daily folded a year and a half later, Deford continued as a commentator for NPR, and became a prolific writer, including 18 books. About 15 years ago, a dear friend in Connecticut (where we all then lived) arranged for a meeting where she graciously introduced me to her friend Frank; I was like a teenager meeting his favorite rock star backstage. Composure regained, we talked a bit about his writing style, his books, and the state of sports in America. It’s a wonderful memory. Others from the literary world we lost in 2017 include William Peter Blatty, who introduced us to the fictional MacNeil family in The Exorcist. Daughter Regan became possessed by Satan and Blatty later, along with director William Friedkin, scared the living daylights out of us with the film.

   And then there was Jimmy Breslin, the poster-child for writers in New York’s newspaper world. In his obit, the New York Times said “With prose that was savagely funny, deceptively simple and poorly imitated, Mr. Breslin created his own distinct rhythm in the hurly-burly music of newspapers.”

     Actor John Hurt left us, and I thought about his career and the wide range of characters he portrayed. He was supremely impactful in his central role as John Merrick, the Elephant Man; and he was also credible in the film Contact, in a semi-cameo role as the billionaire S. R. Hadden, the character who articulated the obvious (and painfully true) first rule in government spending: “Why build one when you can have two at twice the price?”.    Mary Tyler Moore got her TV start as wife Laura Petrie Mary 7659660192_56085e863f_zon the Dick Van Dyke Show. However, she became everyone’s best friend, or the friend everyone wished they had, as Mary Richards, her character on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Set in the Twin Cities, the show was so successful that today there’s a statue of Moore in downtown Minneapolis.    And we lost Sam Shepard, whose rugged good looks and believability on screen made him credible whether he was in front of the camera, behind the camera, or delivering a newly-authored play. Shepard’s brief on-screen appearance early in the film The Pelican Brief is a testimonial to his ability to imbue his character into the moment, and then stay with us through the balance of the film.

     Comedians we lost in 2017 include Bill Dana, whose alter-ego was the highly politically incorrect ‘astronaut’ Jose Jimenez. Pointing to his space helmet, Milton Berle once asked Dana (in character as Jimenez) “What is this called, a crash helmet?” Jimenez replied in his unusual accent, “Oh, I hope not”.

     We also lost the  World’s Foremost Authority, Professor Irwin Corey. To understand his authority, one really should look for a YouTube video clip. Shelley Berman died this year. He was often referred to as a bit of a tortured soul. He probably was but he was brilliant. We’ll not see his equal anytime soon. Don Rickles was the delightfully savage comedian whose mission was to regularly insult almost anyone and everyone. And yet unlike some who casually brandish insults today, almost no one was offended by Rickles.

      John Anderson was my congressman when we lived outside Chicago. Although a member of the GOP, Anderson was refreshing, interesting, and intelligent. He ran for president in 1980 first as a republican, and then as an independent. It was the latter candidacy that led me to support him. When we had a chance conversation at a campaign event in Los Angeles that year, it reaffirmed my belief that Anderson was a good choice. He received 6.6% of the popular vote, including mine.    And let’s say goodbye to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee who became an accidental mayor by virtue of the seat left open by the departing Gavin Newsome. No one really disliked Lee. And surprisingly (to me, anyway), in the City of San Francisco, he was the first Asian-American to hold that office.

     Musicians who’ve left us include the great singer Al Jarreau, jazz guitarist Larry Coryell, southern icon Gregg Allman, jazz drummer Grady Tate, diva Roberta Peters, Jon Hendricks of the famed Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, and Americana legend Rosalie Sorrels. Tate, for the record, was one of those unusual drummers who put his instrument aside, to become a vocalist. His baritone was a genuine gift to the genre. He even delivered on the theme song from M*A*S*H, “Suicide Is Painless”.  In addition Glen Campbell died after a long career that found him starting as a studio side-musician (guitarist for hire), before rising to stardom (including television) with the songs of John Hartford (“Gentle On My Mind”) and Jimmy Webb (“By The Time I Get To Phoenix”). chuck-berry-duck-walking-7 CR (1)And the icon of Rock ’n’ Roll, Chuck Berry finally proved he was mortal in 2017, although his music will continue for decades and generations to come. My older brother bought a copy of “School Day” in 1957 and I’m sure it’s somewhere in my collection to this day. I saw Berry twice. First in 1972, when he was in Chicago for a concert date built on the success of a quirky #1 hit titled “My Ding-A-Ling”. The second time was a Connecticut casino show in the late 1990s. He was already showing his age but he could still take a moment to play his guitar while doing his patented ‘duckwalk. Don’t know what that is? YouTube it.

     I trust I’m not alone in suggesting that we’ll miss these people. We may not hold them all in the same regard, but I’ll guarantee that someone on this list was a favorite of yours too. To all of them I can only quote from Chuck Berry: “Hail, Hail, Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

Credible News. Seems Simple, But. . . .   Leave a comment

Challenging The False Narrative From #45

June 1, 2017

I’ve always been an early-riser. As a child my mother found that my body clock was set for 5:00am. She dealt with this reality as would any mother wishing to keep her sanity. Since she worked 3rd shift as a registered nurse (and didn’t return home until 7:30am,) I accepted her guidance. My mother taught me how to make my own breakfast, and provided me with an understanding of why I would live longer if I didn’t wake everyone else in the house at 5:00am. It was no surprise that years later when I delivered papers in Milwaukee, I worked for the morning paper, The Milwaukee Sentinel.

To my own surprise (based on my early years in school) I find that I read a lot these days. It’s a habit I developed in the 1970s while living in Chicago, where I became a regular reader of the Chicago Sun-Times. That choice—Sun-Times vs. Chicago Tribune—was based on two simple ideas: first, the story selection and the writing style of the Sun-Times connected with me; second, I preferred the physical size and shape of the the Sun-Times tabloid format vs. the Chicago Tribune’s broadsheet. It didn’t matter that the Tribune was larger (in number of pages and readers) and far more powerful than the Sun-Times. We all have our preferences.

The Chicago Sun-Times always seemed grittier to me, more blue-collar than white collar; more Main Street than Wall Street. Looking back to those days in Chicago my memory paints a picture of a Sun-Times that was something of a real-life version of The Sun in Ron Howard’s 1994 film The Paper, or The Day in Richard Brooks’ 1952 film Deadline U.S.A. In fact, as I recall the Sun-Times was the backdrop for the 1981 film Continental Divide Belushicd02starring John Belushi as a gritty reporter. Moving to Los Angeles in 1977 didn’t change my habits; just the names of the papers. As a resident I looked to the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and The Los Angeles Times. Both were pale versions of the Chicago papers but for more than a decade I followed the world through the lens of the Los Angeles papers. And as I began working nationally and internationally, I also expanded my reading list to include the New York Times, which I continue to read today, along with the Washington Post and occasionally the Press Democrat here on the coast.

There’s a scene in the 1977 film Futureworld, where the film’s two lead characters—a TV reporter played by Blythe Danner and a print reporter played by Peter Fonda—talk about which is more important and more popular for getting news and information. After a brief exchange (and the question remaining unresolved) they turn to a stranger. The Fonda character asks the man if he gets his news from television or newspapers? His response went something like this: “Me? I’m a tube freak, man”.  The film may be 40 years old but looking at the media landscape today, it seems that the ‘tube freak’ was on to something. According to a recent Pew Research analysis, “. . . TV continues to be the most widely used news platform; 57% of U.S. adults often get TV-based news, either from local TV (46%), cable (31%), network (30%) or some combination of the three. This same pattern emerges when people are asked which platform they prefer – TV sits at the top, followed by the web, with radio and print trailing behind.” The analysis goes on to confirm that “the greatest portion of U.S. adults, 46%, prefer to watch news rather than read it (35%) or listen to (17%).”

How we get news is less important, in my opinion, than the credibility of the news we get. There’s no question that our current president, number 45, likes to talk about ‘fake news’ as a way to explain his “stolen popular vote”, or the smaller crowds at his inaugural, or the popular resistance to his gutting of the social safety net and his denial of climate change. I don’t care if #45 believes Martians or Mexicans voted illegally to keep him from winning the popular vote. I just wish he’d either start governing or pack up his marbles and go home. Either is preferable to the continuing mistrust he sows in our society.

A couple of weeks ago I started watching 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, in part perhaps, to help me believe that our government might start governing. Alas, I didn’t watch the entire movie because I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that there is even one strong and honorable “Jefferson Smith” residing in today’s U.S. Senate. I’d even settle for the film’s Senator “Joseph Paine” to come to mr_smith_goes_to_washington_61073-1920x1200our rescue, and tell him to keep some of the graft for his effort. Governing isn’t a lost cause, but fake news is pushing us in that direction.

Jacob Soll wrote in Politico last December that “fake news’ dates back almost 600 years, essentially since Gutenberg in 1439. As an example Soll offers this nugget: “To whip up revolutionary fervor, Ben Franklin himself concocted propaganda stories about murderous “scalping” Indians working in league with the British King George III.” With the consolidation of news outlets, local beat reporters are an endangered species, and regional and national reporters are at the very least a group under threat. Soll concludes that “Real news is not coming back in any tangible way on a competitive local level, or as a driver of opinion in a world where the majority of the population does not rely on professionally reported news sources and so much news is filtered via social media, and by governments. And as real news recedes, fake news will grow. We’ve seen the terrifying results this has had in the past—and our biggest challenge will be to find a new way to combat the rising tide.”

I’ll keep looking for real news and pass along what I find. I hope you’ll do the same.

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The Best Holiday Movies Are About Memories   Leave a comment

Turn Your Television On This Month. Please.

December 1, 2016

I’m still a kid. I love the holidays, and one of the things I enjoy this time of year is reliving Thanksgiving and Christmas memories through films. Turkey dinner was the sit-down altar where we communed together as a family. Film is where we see ourselves again or for the first time. Viewing can be particularly enjoyable when watching the film with friends or family, as we have favorite scenes—some in common and some unique to us. After all, memories are about life, real or imagined or some combination of the two. This month I’ve decided to offer you my list of ten films that are worth watching every holiday season, from Thanksgiving Day to New Years Day.

#10: Prancer: This 1989 film features a midwest farmer/single dad, his 9-year old daughter, and a reindeer named Prancer. It has sentimentality but also a first rate realism and charm. Directed by John Hancock Prancer stars Sam Elliott, Rebecca Harrell, and Cloris Leachman. Roger Ebert wrote “[Jessica is] a 9-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus, and uses logic to defend her position: If there isn’t a Santa, then maybe there isn’t a God, and if there isn’t a God, then there isn’t a heaven, and, in that case, where did nine-year old Jessica’s mother go when she died?”. Heavy stuff or heady stuff? Either way, you can handle it and feel good about this unusually good holiday treat.

dec-mov-2#9: A Christmas Carol: There have been many film versions adapted from Charles Dickens’ story, but this 1951 version is my favorite. It features Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit, and Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley. The story is timeless and worth watching every Christmas. Whether you become tearful or not, it’s a century old story, in a half-century old film, shot in glorious black and white, and it still delivers

#8: Home Alone: Few movie stars have had the ability to be both charming and annoying on screen and in real life, and all before the age of 12. Forget the annoying part. Macaulay Culkin helps drive this 1990 film with sufficient believability as the young child left home by highly distracted parents. Culkin benefits from the direction of Chris Columbus, the writing of John Hughes, and the comedic performances of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. It’s been a quarter century since the film was made yet the basic premise holds up. If it seems like too much work, watch it for Pesci and Stern. The film wouldn’t work without them as the bumbling thieves.

#7: The Santa Clause: Tim Allen’s turn in this 1994 holiday-flavored feature film was a surprisingly good idea. In short, Santa dies on the job, Tim Allen’s character steps in to save the day and discovers that he is now (and forever?) the new Santa Claus. It’s funny with some tugging at the heart. It’s the Twinkie of Christmas movies. Enjoy it and don’t think about the calories. The Washington Post had it right: “The Santa Clause would be another formulaic Christmas special without Tim Allen.”

#6: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: Not all of the films from National Lampoon have been winners but this 1989 spinoff from the original Vacation is a lot of fun. Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo return as the Griswold parents, along with a new Audrey (Juliet Lewis) and a new Rusty (Johnny Galecki). It’s also worth watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest as the way-too-hipster next door neighbors “Margo and Todd Chester”. We can watch the film and look back on our fond memories or on the horror of sharing Christmas with the entire family. Good fun.

#5: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: No holiday season would be complete without this 1987 film. One of Steve Martin’s better outings, and John Candy is as perfect as he can be. The unlikely twosome becomes mutually dependent as they attempt to travel from New York to Chicago by way of Kansas and Missouri in an effort to get home for Thanksgiving. As with most films written and directed by John Hughes, the music is top notch (including Martin’s traumatized “you’re messin’ with the wrong guy”.) The film is wonderful and it always reminds me of how much the world misses John Candy.

#4: Miracle on 34th Street: On the surface this is a film about a nice old man who calls himself Kris Kringle and claims to be Santa Claus. Threatened with being declared insane, a young lawyer steps in to defend Kringle, arguing in court that he really is Santa Claus. While Kringle’s sanity is the central theme, the real centerpiece of the 1947 film is about a single mom’s journey (and ours) to have faith, and to believe in something that may be difficult or impossible to prove. While that sounds like religion, the faith here is far more about life itself. But it works on both levels. The cast is a who’s who of post WWII Hollywood faces: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood, Granville Sawyer, William Frawley, and Jerome Cowan.

#3: The Bishop’s Wife: This 1947 film is also about Christmas and faith. But relax, this is not a film that looks or feels anything like a tent-revival. It’s an intelligent story based on a visiting angel named Dudley (Cary Grant) entering the life of protestant minister Henry Brougham (David Niven), who’s marriage to wife Julia (Loretta Young) is tested along the way. There are numerous religious moments but the film is anything but preachy. There are lofty (sometimes heavenly) goals, a couple of sermons, a boys choir, some shopping, lunch at a French restaurant named Michel’s (of course), a few snobs, and some solid citizens. Sit back and simply let yourself get lost inside this film. Rounding out the cast are Elsa Lanchester, Regis Toomey, James Gleason, and Monty Woolley.

#2: It’s A Wonderful Life: Frank Capra presents the life and times of George Bailey and Mary Hatch (James Stewart and Donna Reed). In just over two hours, we are treated to their lives and ours. Like the old nursery rhyme, this 1947 film features tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, doctors, a rich man and more. As Bailey’s life moves forward, he’s forced to reflect on how he’s helped change things for the better, and with an angel’s help, he sees an alternate version of how his life—or lack thereof—could change everything and mov-no-1everyone. Like other Capra films, this one is rich in characters and character actors, including Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, and H.B. Warner. And for trivia buffs, there is the perfectly-cast voice of Moroni Olsen as Franklin, the never seen senior angel narrating the film.

#1: A Christmas Story: This 1983 film narrowly edged out the others for #1 simply because it speaks to me on so many levels. Instead of just seeing the enjoyable chaos surrounding the lives of the Parker family, I can clearly see my own family growing up in Milwaukee; our version was all Wisconsin, not Indiana. Yet like ‘old man Parker’, my father did swear at the furnace (and other things). I did want a BB gun for christmas. We lived in our version of that neighborhood, on that street, in that house and we had our own Bumpus family for neighbors. And there was plenty of innocent “drama” surrounding our lives as Christmas approached, but there was also the sense of family and time together. I love this film. Regardless of any memories I might like to forget, my reality is of a time when, as Jean Shepherd tells us, “all was right with the world”.

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen

Stories of Heroes, Despots, Killers, Musicians, and Things That Go Bump. . . .   Leave a comment

About Some Of My Favorite Books

October 1, 2016

For two decades I was a road warrior, traveling on company business around the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia. Many of those road trips were the long-haul variety, to New York or Toronto, London or Tokyo. A constant traveling companion for me on those journeys was a book, sometimes two. Books were excellent companions for frequent flyers, all of us happily oblivious in those pre-smartphone days, with no hint of the on-board tech-driven in-flight annoyances to come. With the Lighthouse Peddler’s  regular book contributor Joel Crockett taking a well-deserved leave from writing for a few months, I decided try and fill his shoes by reconsidering some of those literary traveling companions of mine.

Crafting a story based on fact can sometimes be more difficult than it seems. Subsequently adapting that non-fiction story for film can be even more daunting. I recall seeing a preview for the soon-to-be-released film All The President’s Men (1976) and couldn’t wait to see it. A friend of mine was surprised that I had such anticipation for the film adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about the fall of Richard Nixon. My friend said, “why would you want to see that film?  Everybody knows how it ends.” But that is what separates many/most of those aspiring to literary success from successful writers.

In the early 1980s I found myself on a Pan Am flight to London clutching The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. My copy of this classic, Wolfe’s 8th book, shows the wear and tear of all that travel. When I pulled it out of the bookshelf in our home this weekend, an Eastern Airlines “seat occupied” card fell out of the pages. Eastern was once one of the “Big Four” domestic airlines, and like Pan Am, it had a glorious history, only to be eclipsed by a dramatically changed travel industry. Coincidentally, the glory days of Eastern Airlines and Pan Am paralleled many of NASA’s as well.

The Right Stuff is an amazing book. Most people, these days, are at least familiar with NASA and know some history of the early space program, and the lives of those early pioneers. There was Chuck Yeager; not destined to be an astronaut but a legend nonetheless. Gus img_1782Grissom, Wally Schirra, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong and all of the other wannabe ‘spacemen’ are here. Wolfe’s recounting ranges from stool specimens to test flights, and then the final glory of being selected to sit on top of a rocket and be hurled into space and history. The Right Stuff was a ‘page-turner’ as they say. I recall a British Pan Am flight attendant, observing my reading material on that London flight. She simply looked at me and said, “powerful stuff, that!”. Understatement of the day. And Wolfe told this amazing story in just over 400 pages.

In 2001 I did some reading as part of my graduate research in New York for a class taught by Professor Robin Blackburn, a regular guest lecturer from London, on the subject of the slave trade. In addition to Blackburn’s own fine books—The Making of New World Slavery (1997) and The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (1988)—I selected img_1787Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. The subtitle pretty much says it all: “A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa”. In just 318 pages, one gains a thorough understanding of the contemptible nature, the arrogance, and the greed of many of our European Ancestors, and the baggage left behind on three continents. I loved King Leopold’s Ghost. There is imagery in and between the lines to give you pause, but then perhaps the slave trade and colonial exploitation should continue to give pause to us all.

I rarely read fiction, but another college assignment back in 2000 was The Killer Angels, the gripping and historically accurate look at the Battle of Gettysburg. My copy of Michael Shaara’s book is a pocket-sized, inexpensive hard cover edition. But once again, a writer proves that using more words is not always a necessity. How those words are put together is the test. Like All The President’s Men, we all know (or should know) how the Gettysburg story ends, yet Shaara take’s the horror and the drama and refines it into an amazing literary work. The imagery is outstanding. As the days of fighting took their toll, the Battle of Gettysburg was nearing its conclusion. “[General Robert E.] Lee came out of the mists. He was tall and gray on that marvelous horse, riding majestically forward in the gray light of morning outlined against the sky.” Shaara writes so well that you’d swear he was sitting on a bluff overlooking the bloody fields. In July of 1863 the American Civil War was at its turning point. Many more lives would be lost, with sacrifices on both sides. Books like The Killer Angels speak to George Santayana’s mind: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. The more casual we speak of war, the more likely we are to reaffirm Santayana’s words.

If Wolfe, Hochschild, and Shaara don’t interest you, there are plenty of other good books around, probably in stock at your local independent book seller. Here are a few more older titles that I recommend:

The Last Lion, William Manchester’s trilogy on the life of Winston Churchill. I found volume one fabulous, volume two a little slow at times but worth the read. I picked up a copy of the final volume at Four-Eyed Frog some months back and its nearing the top of my reading pile.

Lawrence In Arabia is Scott Anderson’s look at the great Thomas Edward “T.E.” Lawrence. Note the title emphasis: in, not of. This is about the complexities of the man and his img_1785adventures, and not simply the T.E. we saw in the grandeur of David Lean’s marvelous 1962 film. The pages are filled with the real dirt and grit that Lawrence lived. And Anderson knows how to tell the story.

Meet Me At Jim & Andy’s: Jazz Musician’s And Their World by Gene Lees. This book came out of a reading assignment some twenty years ago. Lees takes a look at some well known (and less well known) musicians from the world of Jazz. There’s Shorty Pederstein (. . . me either), Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Frank Rosolino, Bill Evans, Art Farmer, and others. You will absolutely learn something about Jazz, Jazz musicians, and the desire to express oneself through music. This book is a bit tougher to find, but it’s worth it.

My wife taught me years ago that there remains a tactile wonder when turning the pages of a book. Just browsing the aisles of the Four-Eyed Frog or other bookstores we’re aware that there isn’t really any such connection when reading with the glowing screen of a Kindle or an iPad. But however you choose to read, do it again. Even if it’s for the first time. And don’t wait for a long flight to London.

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen

Longing For The Cold War   Leave a comment

Who’d a thought?

March 1, 2016

For some of us, perhaps many of us, the Cold War years had clarity. Believe it or not while there weren’t rules, the Cold War gave us lines and boundaries. There was fear and yet our government sought to soothe our worried minds. Of course both sides—East and West—had people on the extremes but, to borrow a football metaphor, the ‘cold warriors’ generally played between the 20 yard lines. Not much scoring but no nuclear missile strikes either.

During the half century after WWII, America had a more unified and purposeful society, not to mention better friends, better enemies, better politicians, and better music. The 220px-Nagasakibombunification of spirit felt during that political “ice age” was likely the end result of our collective fear of being destroyed, in spite of assurances from those in authority that we could ‘survive a nuclear attack’. What senior citizen does not recall being lovingly informed by a kindergarten teacher that if we wanted to get home safely toniP.S._58_-_Carroll_&_Smith_Sts._Bklyn._hold_a_take_cover_drill_01489vght, we’d better know how to duck and cover, as in duck under your desk when you hear the warning or see the flash of the A-Bomb, and then cover your head. Right. Even the older children were fed the idea that they could ‘survive an atom bomb’. No discussion of those pesky radiation burns or ingesting some residual particle of U-235. Instead, “OK kids, the bright light is gone, the mushroom cloud is pretty, the city’s destroyed, but we’re just fine. Get home safe! And don’t forget to read Silas Marner for tomorrow.”

This is not an attempt to trivialize the Truman-to-Reagan era, (or for that matter Stalin-to-Gorbachev.) We felt the tension, witnessed occasional provocations, and were sometimes heartened by moments of detente. Khrushchev visited America, and then that silly U2 spy plane thing happened. There were years of atmospheric nuclear tests with regular forays into unilateral brinksmanship. The proxy war with China, also known as the Korean “Police Action”, morphed into an uneasy and often violated truce along the 38th Parallel. The militarization of western Europe through NATO was a reflection of the occupation of eastern Europe under the guise of the Warsaw Pact. We lived through the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Everywhere the raison detre was expressed as defeating the “Decadent Capitalism” of the West, or the “Godless Communism” of the East.

Providing additional boundaries for our lives were some lighter cultural influences. Like Mad Magazine (“What-Me Worry?”) and its offbeat humor. Its satire was sometimes dark, and like other cultural touchstones it had double-entendres Mad30for intergenerational readers, i.e. the oddball humor of Spy vs. Spy. On television there was Rocky & Bullwinkle providing viewers with A-Bomb comic-relief featuring Boris & Natasha; a bit like the Addams Family with nukes. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. gave us the organizations UNCLE and THRUSH squaring off as “good” and “evil”. There was even a credit at the end of each episode thanking the United Network Command For Law Enforcement for its assistance in the production. (No such organization existed but suggesting it was a real agency was a little like the childish joke ending with “. . . made you look”.) The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was mirrored with humor in Get Smart with its agents of “Control” and “Kaos”.

Two big screen offerings in 1964 were Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). In the drama of the former, Henry Fonda portrayed “The President”, attempting to be a rational voice with his Russian counterpart. In the end, the wayward American nukes destroyed Moscow, and Fonda’s president prevented a full out Soviet nuclear response by dropping an American nuke on New York City. (Ted Cruz probably liked that part of the film). Strangelove’s black comedy was center stage with Peter Sellers in three roles: as Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (suggesting Britain’s WWII Field Marshal Montgomery), American President Merkin Muffley, telling the members of his cabinet that even when discussing global thermonuclear war, decorum is required: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.” And finally there was Dr. Strangelove himself, an obvious preview of Dr. Henry Kissinger’s role in the Nixon White House. Ironically Kissinger helped open American relations with “Red” China by organizing a meeting between conservative Nixon, and Mao and Chou en Lai. (Twenty years later, the cultural relevance of that meeting was not lost on fans of Star Trek, when Spock tells Kirk the old Vulcan saying, “Only Nixon could go to China.”) You Only Live Twice, the 1967 Bond film was contrasted with The President’s Analyst. Deadly suave vs. deadly humor. Exposed to both fiction and fact, by the 1970s we continued to see the lines.

In the 1980s the acronym MAD emerged providing a shortcut to imagining the end result of unleashing weapons of war in the Atomic Age: Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD reinforced a simple premise: nuclear war was insane. We ALSO accepted another new phrase: Nuclear Winter. It took “MAD” and further defined the outcome of a nuclear war in two words. So instead of launching a global thermonuclear war, over the decades the East and West engaged in proxy states and proxy wars, as in Vietnam, Angola, Korea, Syria, Israel, Nicaragua, Palestine, and Cuba. But the world began to believe that there were actual lines, and launching a nuclear war was a line not to be crossed.

Through all those years, music was an important ingredient in American culture. There was always someone, somewhere, inspired and willing to write and record a song about the times in which we lived. Something to give us a tweak on the nose, a slap to the back of the head. Today we sometimes feel as if there is no relevant music, or we’re less inspired by music, or music is no longer enough. (Name me two widely recognized songs that we all came to know as the anthems of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. . . . time’s up.) In keeping with the current state of technology, protests have become less frequent, but more visual; like standing up at a Trump rally asking for tolerance and being thrown out of the room, often with disregard for personal safety. Highly visible buy hardly new. Trump has (as ha16moore_CA0-popups the GOP) become the new “Bull” Conner. Half a century ago Conner—the Commissioner for Public Safety—enforced racial segregation and denied civil rights to black citizens in Birmingham, Alabama by using attack dogs, firehoses, and worse. (See the Charles Moore photograph). The difference then, the abuse was a wakeup call to anyone on the sidelines. Today’s boorish and thug-like behavior seems to embolden the supporters, while those in opposition can complain for one news cycle; and like the introduction of another shiny object, the noise dies down as the media loses interest. Until it happens again.

It’s my belief that we are not sufficiently confronting today’s bigots, warmongers, and racists in our midst. Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and the others say anything and the greatest casualty is the truth. We can only hope that at some point they will each be called to account. Whether by a citizen in the streets, a famous newscaster, a war veteran, or a musician on stage. Presidential wannabes are calling for “carpet-bombing” the Middle East, deporting 12 million people, building a wall along our border, excluding members of one or more religions from entering the U.S. solely on the basis of their religion, and declaring that we need waterboarding and [actually] it should go further. A counter-message to these dismantlers of the Constitution must emerge, and soon.

As I prepared to write this column, I reviewed a list of recordings. I kept searching for a contemporary narrative to protest the warmongers, to counter the nativists, and to refute those with a flawed history of the founding of the Republic. The more I thought about it, the less important a long list of recordings became. Beyond David Rovics, who is constantly writing, recording, touring—his website declares “Music is no spectator sport, [we should] become a co-conspirator and organize a gig, translate my songs into other languages or join the Better Anarchist™ Club and help me get to the next protest”—we need music to transcend the moment. We need today’s Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Woody (or Arlo) Guthrie, Nanci Griffith, or Shona Laing to raise their voices. But we must recognize that the lines are no longer as clearly drawn as they were during the Cold War.

Racists are getting away with being racist. Warmongers are wrapping themselves in the flag to justify bombing indiscriminately. Bigots are openly expressing their abhorrent bigotry. Don’t ask where the “anti-ISIS” songs are. Instead, understand that hatred is obvious within America today. Everyone has a duty to protest the borderline insanity of these modern day John Birchers. As New Zealander Shona Laing asked thirty years ago in her song “Soviet Snow”, are we keeping “One eye on the winter? Are we wide awake? Is the world aware?” While I’d like to believe that we are awake and aware, it seems, maybe, not so much.

David Steffen

©2016 David Steffen

 

Note: An edited version of this was published in the March 2016 issue of the monthly Lighthouse Peddler.

 

Return of the Pharisees   Leave a comment

Many of the Wealthy Seem Bent on Giving for Name Only

December 31, 2015

The concept of giving is wonderful, confusing, rewarding, necessary. And that’s just for starters. From my earliest days in Lutheran elementary school, I learned about the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged. “Alms for the poor” (or a variation), a phrase we were assured was found throughout the Bible, was drilled into our heads. What Sunday School 8-year old could not feel some degree of empathy? There are the numerous lessons on giving offered by the world’s major religions including Judaism, Christianity (including Catholicism, Protestantism, Mormonism, etc), Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam and among them we learn what alms are, who they are for, why we should give, and so on.

We’d like to believe that charitable giving is only or primarily altruistic. But, of course, it is not. To be fair much of the giving to charity by Americans is personal, like money dropped in the collection plate during mass, or in the poor box inside the narthex of the church, or in the Salvation Army collection pot. Yes, someone may observe the act of giving but not necessarily the amount given. The idea is to be less than obvious. And to be clear, there exists no societal norm for how much is enough. Some elect to follow an historical or epistemological practice. Tithing, for example: giving 10%. Others may have a familial ‘norm’ based on nothing more than “I always give $5.00”. And still others follow the “spare change” model. I was in a conversation with a priest who told me of a parishioner who asked “if one wishes to practice tithing, is it gross or net?” Somewhat predictably the priest responded, “well, if you have to ask. . . .”

The number of people who choose to give anonymously is infinitely larger than the “look at me” crowd, those who make very public contributions. My analysis is based soley on the far greater number of people in the so-called 99%, versus the smaller group—the 1%, those who hold the greatest amount of accumulated wealth within this or any society. It is possible that some within the latter “one percenters” give for one or more sincere reasons, but I would wager that most of the wealthy believe that public giving works beyond helping others; it improves their standing in the community, society, or the world. They are also likely to be well versed in the tax code, as in a list of deductions to offset income and reduce taxes.

Charity, from ancient times to today, has been used by some as a billboard, a neon sign, offered publicly to impress others. Like the pharisees of old, the wealthy and particularly the über-wealthy seem to relish making public donations, affixing their family name to a fund, trust, or charitable organization so everyone knows it was they who made the donation. These days when I see the credits at the beginning of a documentary film or a public television program (or video) I find I’m spending more time scrutinizing the donors than the stars, producers, or writers. The latter have an agenda, to be sure, but the former—the donors to one of these projects—have an agenda as well. The size of the on-screen font suggests that some (or many) of these donors are 21st-century pharisees who, like their namesakes two thousand years ago, believe in their inherent lofty place in society, and wish to reinforce an equally pretentious “knowledge” of their superior sanctity. They want the world to accept their premise.

The wonderful and long-running PBS series Nova is just one example where the good vibe and hopeful anticipation of what is to come quickly crashes through the floor when you see one of the named contributors to the funding: The David H. Koch Fund For Science. You understand that IMG_1558this is no quiet, unobtrusive thank you credit to the billionaire. That on-screen credit, the fund’s logo, takes up about 25% of the screen. About as subtle as a freight-train. The Koch brothers, more than any single American family—at least during the past twenty years—have used their wealth to reshape the American political landscape. Their agenda is simple: spend hundreds of millions (billions really by some estimates) to place very conservative, anti-government, low-tax (for the wealthy) candidates in state legislatures, governorships, in the U.S. congress, the senate, and on the supreme court. And they receive tax deductions for their efforts.

As one of his contributions to the generations who followed, the great codifier of Jewish law, Maimonides left the world his take on giving, on charity, with a list of eight levels of giving, correlating to the degree to which the giver is sensitive to the needs and feelings of the recipient. Counting down, and in an abbreviated form, here are Maimonides’ levels, the “Great Eight”:

Eight: Giving grudgingly. If the option is to give grudgingly or not at all, Maimonides prefers that you give grudgingly. Better to help someone in need, albeit with a bad attitude, than to ignore them.

Seven: Giving less than you can afford, but doing so pleasantly. If you or your accountant suggest you can afford to give $1,000 and you decide to give $250 and you do so with a pleasant demeanor, the positive nature of your expression of caring helps offset—to some degree—the decision to do less than you can afford.

Six: If you give generously, but must first be asked, you land at level six. Take heart. You gave, even though the person in need had to calmly ask or grovel in your presence.

Five: You gave before anyone asked. This requires you to pay attention, to look where you may not wish to look. No crying, begging, or pleading required. In essence, you reached out before the needy reached out to you.

Four: The person on the receiving end knows that the gift came from you, but you don’t know who received the gift. Perhaps the donor feels like they’ve accomplished something of more value because of the anonymity. Of course, those on the receiving end still know they are indebted to the donor. The superiority of the giver is maintained.

Three: This is the reverse of level four: The donor knows the recipient, but the recipient does not know who donated the money. I disagree with Maimonides here, as this seems like it should change places with level four (above). After all, this type of giving enables the donor to maintain a feeling of superiority over the recipient. In any case, Maimonides placed this at level three.

Two: A completely anonymous gift. The donor does not know where the money went, or who received the money, and the recipient has no idea whom to thank. This is a near-perfect level, since the receiver can take the gift with the knowledge that there is no one to whom they need to feel indebted, and the giver can never know if the recipient was someone on the other side of the world or down the block.

One: Helping someone reach self-sufficency. If you recall the saying that “give someone a fish and they eat for a day, teach someone to fish and they can feed themselves”, then Level One is the idea that you can actually help someone become self-sufficient. Better to have a job than to be unemployed. Better to feel you are contributing to society than to take from society (although many on the far right speak only of the “takers”). Along with income, food, and shelter, there is the preservation of one’s dignity.

Many followers of western religions believe that doing good things on earth will be rewarded in heaven. Karma, from Hinduism and Buddhism, represents the sum of one’s actions in this and previous states of existence, and those actions are viewed as deciding their fate in future existences. This year let’s resolve to do more, and perhaps we should consider doing it silently. Our karma may depend on it.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2015

 

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