Sunday, November 23, 2008

Past and Present

It wasn't really a headline anywhere, but many newspapers and even an online news service or two took note of the 45th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination this weekend. It was trendy for awhile to declare where you were when you heard the bad news from Dallas in 1963. I now think that part is the least interesting part.
But Kennedy himself WAS interesting. He really wasn't exactly an activist president, but it didn't seem to matter. He was following Eisenhower, and so it was easy to LOOK like an activist. He was cool. He was smooth. He was thin. He was, let's admit, a good-looking guy. He was like the cool guy in school that everyone liked. Lyndon Johnson, vice president, was more like the cool guy's goon who got in your face to make things happen.
That's how we remember Kennedy because the tough decision about whether or not to escalate the war in Vietnam got left to Johnson to make, and he decided badly. To this day, no one knows if Kennedy would have been smart enough to make a different decision. Some people pretend they know, but they don't. Looking back, it's easy to say Johnson was a fool, but the decision he made was with all of Kennedy's smart-guy advisers (Halberstam called them "The Best and the Brightest") backing him up. It may be more likely that ALL of them were in over their heads regarding things they didn't understand, as they drowned in American hubris, the quality of having TOO MUCH faith in your knowledge and abilities for your own good. I go back and forth on the Kennedy question. I'm not wise, but at least I know it. The hubris pool is finally drying up, at least until the neocons get replaced by a group pumping for the next war, who will go by another made-up name.

Does anyone remember Shelby Foote, the southern historian who was featured as one of the main storytellers on Ken Burns' megadocumentary, "The Civil War"? I recall a scene in which Foote described a quality ascribed to Lincoln - being able to "go outside oneself" to see the consequences of a certain decision path. This quality, Foote thought, was proof of high intelligence and wisdom.
I only bring it up now, confessing that I don't know WHAT having that quality means, but I noted two journalists on TV discussing the same exact trait being possessed by - Barak Obama. I wish him well, as all Americans should, and hope that he can squeeze wise decisions from himself and his administration every single day. We need them.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Let's Put on a Show!

Our church works the same all over the world. There are no paid local ministers, so everything is done on a volunteer basis, with everyone who's willing holding down an assignment of some kind. The meetings aren't exactly a variety show, but the speakers change from week to week, with some, of course, more successful at it than others.
Once a year, an unusual thing happens. The children, ages three to twelve, and their leaders take over. The wife, as it happens, is the pianist for these little darlings. It's an assignment she enjoys, but this annual event does put a little pressure on her, not just to get the notes right, but to be in sync with everyone else as they try to cram the whole business - singing, reading and speaking - into about forty minutes.
The congregation only has about 25 such kids, but that's still enough to have some unusual things happen. This year it went great. No one lost their nerve when it was time to speak into the microphone. Everyone knew when their turn was coming. No one decided to randomly punch the person next to them. But little Nathan, a tiny boy who may not yet be four, a kid who might have to reach up to hit your kneecap, somehow got an idea of his own. During a certain song, he decided to show everyone that he had learned it well by shouting instead of singing the words. The adults started to smile, then the other kids could ignore it no longer and started smiling, too. His big brother, who really isn't much bigger at five years old, was standing next to Nathan and dealt with the situation the best he could - by covering his ears. The music continued - what choice did they have? - until the song concluded and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
The parents of the congregation get their little charges slightly more dressed up for this program. The girls seem to act pretty naturally in dresses, taking their cues from their mothers. The boys, all in white shirts and ties, have a harder time. They fidget in a way that makes the shirts look as though they'd been slept in. Ties are a bit foreign to all males, and one wonders when we'll have someone remove his midway through an Inaugural address, burying the haberdashery industry forever the way Kennedy wrecked men's hats by leaving his off back in 1961. Anyway, the boys get a preview of adult life by starting with clip-on ties, then moving on as teenagers to the kind worn by fewer and fewer professionals. The boys tolerate the ties with surprising patience, though I'm sure they wonder what the ties are "for".
I've got about 40 of them, and wear precisely one each week, so the current collection should last for decades. I'm already concerned about what will become of them when I'm gone. Included in a quilt? Divided among disappointed grandsons? Employed in an artist's collage? Cut into bookmarks (assuming books still exist)? Or simply thrown out with the garbage, which I think would be sad, though that's where MY dad's ties met their end. Funny, I have no thoughts about any other clothing: tennis shoes, belts, socks or even suits. No, just the ties that prove I was once an adult and, like the children, knew how to "put on a show".

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

American Notes

If I tried, one week after the election, to explain all the long-term changes that now seem possible, I would be guilty of serious bloviating and would certainly lose my worldwide readership in the mid single figures.
So let's just throw around some happenings in the world. There's a network out there that wants to jump into the game show mode. They think they've got a winner in what might be called "Are You Smarter than Sarah Palin?" A camera crew would catch up to the guv, whatever she's doing at the time - cooking, dining, shooting, watching hockey, whatever. She'd just answer the quiz questions on the fly in competition, of course, with contestants. Her only obligation would be to answer the questions and flamboyantly gloat if she wins. Naturally, she'd be well paid, win or lose. OK, that was a joke. Whaddya think? OK, never mind.
What about this? I've been meaning for months to look up something about Cub catcher Geovani Soto. This week he was named the National League's Rookie of the Year, so I finally looked. The question? Isn't it obvious? What kind of name is that, and where does the guy come from, especially since ballplayers now are from all over the world. Here's what I found. He's not Italian. He's not Japanese or Venezuelen. He's as American as salsa, a native of Puerto Rico. Viva!
Remember a while back when an entire blog was dedicated to the work of author David Halberstam? Some young journalists have managed to dig up evidence that the FBI monitored Halberstam's life, sometimes on a day-to-day basis, from the 1960's into the late 1980's and perhaps longer! Imagine how tightly they must have been in on the lives of those New York mobster types. Maybe not.
Did you catch the passing of Studs Turkel late last month? He was famous for doing something that sounds simple - put a tape recorder in front of ordinary people, often older ones, and just let them speak. It sounds easy, but if it was so easy to become an award-winning author, why don't OTHER people do it? I don't know, but I do know that his books are very entertaining, not stuffy or preachy, and very popular. Chicago will miss BOTH him and Obama. He was 96 or so.
NPR doesn't have "sponsors" in the usual sense, but various entities give them "grants" and get mentioned on the air. I was surprised to hear that one current "granter" is - the Department of Homeland Security (a name that liberals, by the way, hate because of the connotation of the word "Homeland", which they associate with NAZI Germany). Can you imagine an NPR program pausing for a nice-sounding female voice saying "Today's terror alert staus, brought to you by the Departmentof Homeland Security, is....yellow. Listeners in Florida are urged to vacate due to the threat of Hurricane Hecter. Be afraid. Be very afraid." The use of the word "afraid" would be heard more in the month before elections, if the GOP controlled the Executive Branch.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Most, Best and Worst

Yes, we do deserve a break from the election, held yesterday, but still not quite concluded, since there are always a handful of ultra-tight races yet to be determined. Here's one little note that helps us put some things in perspective. When Barak Obama, the president-elect's father, and his mother were married in 1961, the law in Virginia, carried by Obama by about 3% in 2008, would not have allowed a marriage between people of different races. That's how far we've come in just one lifetime.
But this week we deserve a little fun. A magazine I used to take, American Heritage, publishes one issue every year now which allows experts on different subjucts to weigh in on over and underrated things in obscure categories like Broadway musicals or luxury liners. No one has any special reason to care about my opinions, but, hey, it's my blog, though people are free to disagree.
Most influential movie character of the past 20 years - the Terminator, although no one has ever explained to me why if, in the future, they can make these perfect cyborg-assassins, why they all speak with a thick German accent.
Worst new sport - I actually think that all those extreme sports guys with the bikes and skateboards are pretty cool. Therefore, I nominate the gory spectacle that goes by the name of mixed martial arts - especially when it's women pounding each other to hamburger. Yuch!
Best singer (white guy) - uh, Frank Sinatra. I think my favorite is "Summer Wind".
Best commercial sign - Not far from here, there was a sign near the top of an enormous lumber mill that said "The Pacific Lumber Company" about a hundred yards long and 20 feet high. Now it's gone, along with the company. Too bad.
The athlete as changer of the world - Take your pick of two Americans, Babe Ruth or Muhammed Ali, both to be admired, but for very different reasons.
Athlete's NAME (just the name, not the person) - There are several nominees - Joe Montana, Golden Richards, Mickey Mantle and the guy whose name describes what a quarterback does, Chuck Long.
Presidential campaign - OK, we're not talking politics today. But am I talking about the greatest RACE? There have been many close ones, OR am I speaking of the greatest campaign run by a single candidate? If it's the latter, then it's Truman in '48, who came from way, WAY down to defeat the hapless Dewey, whose advisors convinced him to stay home and take it easy.
The 21-month marathon just concluded would, I think, put Obama's '08 run in the top three.
Soul singer - Maybe it's not fair to Otis Redding, whose life was cut tragically short, but my vote goes to Marvin Gay. And where does that leave non-rock guy Nat King Cole? In a class by himself.
coolest national flag - Brazil's, which not only uses colors in an unusual way, but shapes as well. Brazil is probably also the coolest country, since we seem to always be or about to be at war.
worst country to live in - probably North Korea, since it's islolated, cold and without some of life's basics. Zimbabwe wouldn't be a picnic either, but at least you wouldn't freeze.
Best place to give an important speech - A building at BYU has been remodeled over the years to now include a kind of miniature lecture hall, fitting in no more than 50 seats. Now, if they'd just let you say something!