Remembering Tony Horwitz


I just learned that journalist and author Tony Horwitz, one of my favorite writers, died today at the young age of 60.

Horwitz’s writing was part history, part participatory journalism,  and part travelogue – three things I love to read, so naturally I enjoyed reading the combination of all three.  He had a way of bridging past and present, and shaking the assumptions we have about history.  He will be missed.

Here are the Horwitz books I’ve read with links to reviews:

I also learned that he just released a new book earlier this month called Spying on the South, which is about Frederick Law Olmsted of all people, a strange confluence of my interests.  Rest assured I’ll be reading that soon!

Movie Review: Obit.(2016) #AtoZChallenge


This is my entry for “O” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “O” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Oklahoma City, Once in a Lifetime,  and The Opposition.

Title: Obit.
Release Date: April 15, 2016
Director: Vanessa Gould
Production Company: Green Fuse Films
Summary/Review:

The documentary visits with the obituary desk at The New York Times, one of the last newspapers with a full-time obituary staff.  Obituary writers and editors are interviewed over the course of one day as the work on finishing the obituary columns before the end of day deadline for the next day’s newspaper.  Many decisions have to be made regarding obituaries that one may not consider.  First, they have to determine whether a person is significant enough to receive an obituary.  Then they must determine how many words will be written about the recently deceased individual.  These things are debated in editorial meetings.

They also have to confirm details such as time and cause of death, which can be difficult when talking to grieving family members, some of whom are embarrassed to admit the cause of death. Deaths of noted persons late in the day can be a struggle since there’s less time to research and write about them, but the expectations are high that an obituary will be published if the person is particularly famous.  Michael Jackson’s death at an early age is used as an example.  The Times keeps a collection of several hundred “advances” where obituaries are written for people still alive, but are aging or in poor health, so that much of the obituary will be ready to go when needed. Humorously, an advance obituary was written for the aviator Elinor Smith in 1931 due to the danger of her job as a test pilot, but wouldn’t be needed until 2010 when she died at the age of 90.

My absolute favorite part of this movie is the morgue, where clippings and photographs are kept on various individuals and topics to be used as reference files.  The quirky man who keeps the morgue talks about how it had a large staff in decades past but now he’s the only one who knows his way around.  Despite the seemingly chaotic nature of the morgue, he is very insistent that it is well-organized and he can find anything needed in there.  Watching this, I suddenly feel that working in a newspaper morgue is my calling.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

The second line of an obituary always has the information of who confirmed the death, something that’s been done since an obituary ran for someone who had not actually died.  The first obituary on the page is for the most significant individual and will be the only one that contains the word “dies” in the headline.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Last year for the A to Z, I watched Life Itself, which was about Roger Ebert and focused on the film critic’s job at a newspaper.  I think I may gradually work my way through documentaries about every section of a newspaper.

Source: Amazon Prime

Rating: ***


019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films, Part II

A: Amy
B: Being Elmo
C: Central Park Five
D: Dear Mr. Watterson
E: The Endless Summer
F: F for Fake
G: Grey Gardens
H: High School
I: Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice
J: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
K: Kon-Tiki
L: The Last Waltz
M: Man With a Movie Camera
N: Nanook of the North

If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.

Concert Review: Leonard Cohen


Learning of the passing of the great singer/songwriter/poet/humanitarian Leonard Cohen, who died on Monday, made me want to reshare this review of one of the most entertaining concerts I’ve ever attended. I recently wrote a review of his new album You Want It Darker, released in October, but didn’t get around to posting it. I was going to note my awe at how vital he remained at the age of 82 and that possibly there was more to come. Nevertheless, it was clear he was ready to go and left on his own terms.

Panorama of the Mountains

When I’m 74 years old, I hope I am as spry as Leonard Cohen.  Susan & I saw Cohen and his band perform at the Wang Theatre in Boston on May 30th.  He sang many songs while gracefully sinking to his knees and skipped off the stage at the end of the sets.  Oh, and he performed for over three hours.

There was no opening act but instead of a back-up band of no name musicians Cohen pulled together a diverse group of artists, many of whom would be worth going to see in concert on their own.  Despite their varied styles and talents, they came together as a tight band with an old-fashioned type of showmanship evident in coordinated dance moves by the back-up singers and stylish haberdashery worn by all.  Cohen frequently stood back to let his band members shine on their solos and a few of…

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Remembering W.P.Kinsella


The Canadian author W.P. Kinsella died on Friday, September 16.  H’es most famous for the novel Shoeless Joe which was adapted into the film Field of Dreams.  From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, if you’d asked me my favorite author, I would’ve said Kinsella.  It’s been a long while since I read a Kinsella book and the last time I read him as an adult I found it wasn’t as good as I remembered, but still a key figure in my reading life.

I was introduced to W.P. Kinsella in an odd way when I received his short story collection The Thrill of the Grass as a Christmas gift from my grandmother.  It seemed an example of my grandmother being clueless since I actually didn’t like baseball at this point in my life.  Also, it was clear she hadn’t read the book since there were many depictions of sexual activity that I’m sure she didn’t want a 10-year-old reading.  But maybe Grandma was a conduit for something because within a year I had become an avid baseball fan.  And Kinsella’s sex scenes were not bawdy fantasy but depictions of the complications and conflicted feelings of people in committed relationships, something a boy should learn about.

And so I became a devoted Kinsella reader, getting every book of his I could find at the library or the bookstore.  His baseball stories were easier to find than his stories about Native Americans, although I read some of the latter too.  My favorite W.P. Kinsella story is The Iowa Baseball Confederacy which involves the 1908 Chicago Cubs, time travel, an endless baseball game and a torrential downpour, and a statue of an angel (which was creepy long before Doctor Who made angel statues creepy).  Here are some other memories of Kinsella’s work:

  • Long before I read anything by Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, this was my first exposure to magical realism.
  • A story of how the Catholic Church hierarchy is so removed from the people of the church, and the harm it causes.
  • Stories of First Nation people in Canada, including one where a couple disguise themselves as Indians from the subcontinent because they’d be treated better in Canada.
  • A swindler using the distance between the pitcher’s mound and home plate to win a bet.
  • Baseball fans use the 1981 strike to replace the artificial turf at the local baseball stadium with real grass, one square foot at a time, and the community that forms to tend the grass.
  • Tributes to J.D. Salinger, Richard Brautigan, and Janis Joplin, among others, in his works.
  • A manager has to deal with the knowledge that the Cubs will win the last pennant before Armageddon and there’s nothing he can do to stop it.
  • A story in which a bunch of male friends share punchlines of jokes and the protagonist reveals to himself that he is gay, through a punchline.
  • And my favorite story of all, “How I Got My Nickname,” which is the ultimate bookish nerd fantasy in which a bookish nerd gets a spot on the 1951 New York Giants (as a pinch hitter because he can’t field, throw, or run) and discovers that all the other Giants are readers who have literary discussions in the clubhouse.

I remember being a bit irritated that Field of Dreams deviated from the book – especially regarding J.D. Salinger and the oldest living Cub – as well as being cheezy and melodramatic, but yeah, I liked it too.

Here’s to W.P. Kinsella, and the stories we tell and the memories we share.

Remembering Maya Angelou


Maya Angelou died this week on May 28th.  You’ve certainly heard the news and read many tributes, but I wanted to add one more.  I think Angelou was one of the most significant Americans of the 20th century in all her influence as a poet, author, activist, spiritual leader, teacher and all the other things she accomplished over her long life.

On the day she died, I remembered on social media that I’d heard her speak once at the College of William & Mary Convocation ceremonies in August 1993.  I thought it was the most inspirational speech I’d ever heard.  Other friends shared their own memories, some who were also at the Convocation event and some who were in other rooms with Maya Angelou and some who even met her.  All the memories were positive with a mix of awe and inspiration from her wisdom.

Anyhow, one friend found an article about the Convocation address and another posted a recording of the speech, so I thought I’d share them here.

angelou

So long, sister Maya.  Your wisdom will continue to inspire down the generations.

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Remembering Pete Seeger


Pete Seeger died on Monday night.  He is perhaps my greatest hero as I’ve long been inspired by his music and activism.  His long life was a tireless effort to right wrongs and to bring people together in peace.  He leaves the world a better place than he found it.  And if you’re pessimistic about the world today, just imagine what it would be like without there ever being a Pete Seeger.  Among the many things he accomplished in his 94 years, Pete:

  • agitated for the rights of the poor and working people by organizing labor
  • stood up for American civil liberties before the House Un-American Activities Committee
  • participated in the Civil Rights movement
  • lead a generation in the Vietnam anti-war movement
  • in the vanguard the environmental efforts to clean up the Hudson River aboard the sloop Clearwater
  • inspired millions that they could change the world by joining together in song
  • continued as an activist through his final years, supporting the Occupy movement

I don’t recall when I first heard of Pete Seeger.  His music was part of my childhood.  He even appeared on Sesame Street.  I remember watching the movie Alice’s Restaurant some time in my teens and not recognizing him until my mom told me who he was.  Probably what really got it started for me was his performance leading a singalong of “This Land Is Your Land” on the Folkways: A Vision Shared tribute album.  Through high school and college and beyond, I picked up some albums, read some books by and about him, and tried to teach myself banjo using his book.  On two occasions, I was fortunate enough to see him perform in person.  Once in 1995 with Arlo Guthrie at Wolf Trap in Virginia, and then again at Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival in 2002.

It’s kind of the whole point of Pete Seeger that there are no “Pete Seeger songs.”  Sure, he got writing credit on some songs but he was the first to admit that he stole bits and pieces from other songs and cobbled them together to make something new.  And he wanted you to to take pieces of his song and make something else.  And share it with everyone. At his famous Carnegie Hall show, one entire set is Pete promoting the songs of new, young musicians (and Malvina Reynolds who was young at heart).  The other set was the music of the Civil Rights movement.  The whole point of the entire show was other people’s music and the community of music as he got the audience at Carnegie Hall singing along as well as many who’ve listened to that album over the years.

Nevertheless, one can’t help but think of the best Pete Seeger songs on this occasion.  His music is a gift he leaves behind, both through the many recordings he made as well as being a living link between the roots of American music and the many artists he inspired and supported over the years.  I looked in my iTunes and discovered that I have 215 Pete Seeger recordings!  Of those, his most essential albums are We Shall Overcome (a live recording of his historic Carnegie Hall concert in 1963) and Singalong: Sanders Theatre, 1980 (perhaps the quintessential concert recording as summed up in the article “Pete Seeger And The Public Choir “).  I perhaps felt closest to Pete when I performed with the Revels at Sanders Theatre and tried my best to do my part to engage the entire house.

Below are a handful of the most meaningful Pete Seeger songs, followed by rembrances collected all over the net.

“If I Had a Hammer”

“We Shall Overcome”

“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”

“Old Devil Time”

“Abiyoyo” from Reading Room

“Sailing Down this Golden River” performed by Sarah Lee Guthrie

“This Land is Your Land”

WBUR: Pete Seeger And The Public Choir 

“Pete Seeger understood something fundamental about humans and music, which is that many people can’t sing on key, but all crowds can. Even without rehearsal, public choirs can be stunning to listen to and thrilling to be part of. And he believed that everyone should do it, that people should retain the ability to get in a room and sing, because it was good for you, and because it taught people to pitch in and be brave.”

WGBH: Pete Seeger Had A ‘Soft Spot For Boston And Cambridge’ by Bob Seay

American Songwriter: American Icons: Pete Seeger

The Nation: Pete Seeger: This Man Surrounded Hate and Forced it to Surrender

“Pete Seeger outlasted the bastards.

But he did so much more than that. He showed us how to do our time with grace, with a sense of history and honor, with a progressive vision for the ages and a determination to embrace the next great cause because the good fight is never finished. It’s just waiting for a singer to remind usthat “the world would never amount to a hill of beans if people didn’t use their imaginations to think of the impossible.”

Smithsonian Folkways: A Tribute to Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

Bill Moyers: Remembering Activist and Folk Singer Pete Seeger

As recently as 2011, Seeger, a veteran of the labor, peace and civil rights movements, led an Occupy Wall Street protest through Manhattan. “Be wary of great leaders,” he said two days after the march. “Hope that there are many, many small leaders.”

Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub: Farewell, Pete Seeger

 He told a story about showing up at a PTA meeting in Beacon to talk on some issue, and some local guy told Pete that Beacon didn’t need outsiders telling them what to do.  This hurt Pete, since he’d been living in Beacon at that time for more than 30 years, in the house he built by hand.   Pete told me that he realized a world reputation doesn’t count for much if you can’t use it to make things better in your home town.The “local project?” He said he wanted to get an old sloop, and sail the Hudson River signing to get people to clean it up.

WBUR: Pete Seeger, Folk Music Icon and Activist, Dies at 94

“For all of his social activism, Seeger said more than once that if he had done nothing more than write his slim book How to Play the Five String Banjo, his life’s work would have been complete. …

“If Pete Seeger didn’t save the world, he certainly did change the lives of millions of people by leading them to sing, to take action and to at least consider his dream of what society could be.”

The Atlantic: Pete Seeger and the American Soul

His critics often called Pete Seeger anti-American. I think the opposite was true. I think he loved America so much that he was particularly offended and disappointed when it strayed, as it so often has, from the noble ideals upon which it was founded. I don’t think that feeling, or the protests it engendered, were anti-American. I think they were wholly, unabashedly American.

Feministing: RIP Pete Seeger

Q with Jian Ghomeshi: Remembering Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

On Point with Tom Ashbrook: The World According to Pete Seeger: A Remembrance

The Atlantic‘This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender’

How did Seeger take an instrument—one with no inherent properties of justice, as evidenced by its history—and assign it a new cultural value?

There is no way to answer this but to observe the rarity of a force like Pete Seeger upon the Earth.

Sure, the banjo has a jaunty, inviting sound. Sure, it can be played in a variety of ways, making it suitable for a range of musical genres. But these qualities did not prevent it from being a prop of racist entertainment. They did not make it a symbol of community. They did not transform it into a “machine [that] surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

That was the work of man. One man, really.

Arlo Guthrie’s Facebook status

“Well, of course he passed away!” I’m telling everyone this morning. “But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.”

Phil Sandifer: Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

Later in the set, it started to rain just a bit. Only a few drops – nothing major. But a couple people had umbrellas and popped them open, at which point Seeger stopped playing and calmly explained that he would not be continuing until the people who were under the tree and thus still dry passed their umbrellas to the people not under the tree so that everybody could be dry.
It remains the only time I am aware of in which an artist has actually created, however momentarily, a socialist utopia.

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