Photo by Jim Dirden

Photo by Jim Dirden

I just finished reading a new biography of Pete Seeger by Alec Wilkinson of The New Yorker. It’s a short, well-written work that gives a good look at Pete’s personality. It is based on a series of interviews Wilkinson conducted at Pete’s home in Beacon, N.Y.

This isn’t a fawning portrait. Pete’s doubts and insecurities come through, in his own words.

It is also interesting to learn in this work about Pete’s parents, and particularly his father, Charles, who was also an idealist.

There is a lack of balance in the way many people react to Pete. There are many who think of him only as a folksy singer of campfire songs – sort of a Tennessee Ernie Ford. There are those who cast him in a messianic role that he himself would reject. And there are those who think he is the antichrist because, like many thoughtful people of his and his father’s generation, he associated for a time with people who felt Communism held the answers to chronic economic, social, and political problems. Pete acknowledges – including in this book – that that was a mistake, but more than a half century later, some folks still pillory him for it.


Pete is well known not only for singing but for encouraging his audiences to sing with him. Wilkinson’s book examines this practice, which for Pete isn’t just a cutsey stage trick. Calling on people to sing goes to the heart of Pete’s notion of what music is for, and gets to discuss that in his own words in this book.

Pete Seeger has been an important figure in the history of the past seven decades – not always clearly understood, even by himself. Wilkinson’s book at least helps formulate the questions.


Good, good grief

May 30, 2009

peanuts1960scollectionI just read — for the purpose of reviewing it — a book called “Security Blankets: How Peanuts ® Touched Our Lives.” This is a collection of about 50 stories from people who feel their time on earth has been enriched somehow by the comic strip, the books, the TV specials, the tchatchke, or by some encounter with Charles Schulz himself.

It appears to me that the book is an attempt to reinvigorate the trade in stuffed Snoopy dolls (referred to repeatedly in the book as “plush”) or other “collectibles.” Maybe the Peanuts market is suffering from the combined effects of Schulz’s absence, the aging of the Peanuts Generation, and the paucity of disposable income.




That’s not to say that there aren’t some good stories here. One of my favorites was submitted by a man whose father was not only a World War I flying ace, but who piloted a Sopwith Camel and, in August 1918, actually outran the Red Baron himself. 

Several of the people whose little essays appear in this book said, in one way or another, that their own cares or frustrations became a little easier to bear when they realized that others shared their feelings. Of course, the “others” were fictional cartoon characters, although many a Tuesday night meeting in the basement of a Unitarian church might have provided the same kind of support, except in flesh and blood rather than pen and ink. The writers in “Security Blankets” may have been unwittingly identifying with the often solitary and unfulfilled artist behind those characters rather than with the characters themselves.




Still, these stories reminded me of a book I read that contained a collection of letters that had been written to Mickey Mantle whose family published them after his death in order to raise money for an organ-transplant program. The letters told Mantle how much he had meant either to the writer or to someone in the writer’s life — a father, perhaps. Mantle, I have read elsewhere, was always mystified by sentiments of this kind. He felt, I suppose, like Louie DePalma — the “Taxi” character — who said of his girlfriend: “She sees something in me … something that’s not there.” 

But both cases may be related to an idea I passed along to my students last semester — that once a writer has published a story, a poem, or an essay, he no longer owns it. Once he has published it, it belongs to the reader — and to each individual reader in a unique way. Neither the writer nor the writer’s critics can tell the reader what the reader can infer from the work. Maybe that’s true of cartoonists and swtich hitters, too: that once they have led their lives, they cannot control, nor contradict, what people infer from them.

Hornet.jpgI should know better. Members of my high school class — Passaic Valley Regional, the Class of 1960 — are making noises about holding a reunion next year. So I’m blowing the figurative dust off the class records, and that meant adding the name of one of Our Own who died recently. I should have just put Gene’s name on the list and closed the file, but no — I had to count the names. There were about 35. There were 299 of us on graduation day. 

We started losing members almost immediately after we got our diplomas. One of the first we lost was Terry McBride, whom I had known since kindergarten. My mother used to say that Terry had been my first girlfriend. That was because of the snow storm. Most of us walked to school in those days and it took really bad weather to spare us the trip. One day while we were in school — we were about 7 years old –there was a heavy snowfall, and when we came out, Terry was upset about the prospect of walking all the way home. Her walk was more than twice as long as mine, so I volunteered to go all the way to her house with her and then walk back home.

My mother started to worry when I didn’t arrive in time. When I finally came home with a running nose, beet-red ears and numb hands and feet, she was a little annoyed, but she gently kidded me about it for years. It was a trivial thing, but I’m glad it happened. It’s the keepsake that makes me smile whenever I think of Terry, and I think of her all the time.




We watched “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” a 2008 film based on John Boyne’s novel for young adults.

This movie is most effective at portraying people who can rationalize almost any behavior on the grounds that it is their duty to some entity that they perceive as being larger and more important than any individual. One doesn’t have to look too far to find places to apply this model.

The story has to do with an eight-year-old boy, Bruno, played by Asa Butterfield, whose father is a highly placed officer in the German army during World War II. The boy and his teenaged sister admire their father’s stature without thinking about the nature of the regime that gave it to him. As the movie opens, the father, played by David Thewlis, informs his family that he has a new assignment that will force them to leave their opulent house in Berlin and move to “the country.” The “country” home turns out to be a stark mansion located within eyeshot of a concentration camp – a fact the father tries to hide from his children, and particularly Bruno.




But Bruno, being an eight-year-old boy with fantasies about exploring, is curious about what he thinks is a farm beyond the barbed-wire fence he first sees from the window of his room. Disregarding his mother’s instructions, he wanders through the woods until he reaches the fence, and there he makes friends with one of the inmates, Shmuel. Shmuel, also eight years old, disabuses Bruno of the idea that the camp is a farm, but Shmuel does not understand why he and his family are in the camp or why some of his relatives go off with “work crews” and never return. What Bruno does gradually learn is that he is supposed to hate Jews, but that Shmuel, a Jew, does not seem to him an enemy. One can’t discuss the outcome of their friendship without spoiling the experience of seeing this film for the first time.




Appreciating this film requires some suspension of credibility. We are to believe, for example, that Bruno’s mother does not know until she has moved to “the country” and lived there for some time exactly what takes place in the camp her husband oversees – that Jews and presumably others who were distasteful to the Nazis are gassed and their bodies incinerated. We are also to believe that Bruno and Shmuel can carry on a friendship through the camp fence, meeting there daily in broad daylight, even playing checkers, without being discovered.



Despite those issues, this movie delivers its message with a wallop. Thewlis, and Vera Farmiga as the mother, give chilling portrayals of the impact Naziism had on the inner selves of individual men and women. Both boys are also very effective in their roles; Jack Scanlon is a heartbreaker.

120px-No_Left_Turn.svgOne of my favorite encounters with the unique Italian mentality involved a police officer who was trying to give me driving directions to the Piazza di Venezia in Rome. He repeated the directions several times, but each time I was stumped when he said, “You’ll see a sign that says ‘don’t turn left.’ Turn left.’ ” Finally, he became frustrated with me and told me to follow him with my car while he walked me through the first part of the trip. At the end of a narrow street – an alley, really – he turned toward the car and held up both hands. He walked over to the driver’s widow, pointed at the universal symbol displayed on the street corner, and asked, “Si vede il segno che significa non girare a sinistra?” Yes, I said, I could see the sign that meant “don’t turn left.” “Beh!” he said. “Svoltare a sinistra!!” 


The Christian Science Monitor has interesting reviews of several books and a web site that explore various aspects of the signs that tell us where we should or can or should not or cannot go. It’s at this link:

lambsIt turns out that the crisis in the global environment may relieve me of a cultural disgrace – the fact that I don’t like lamb. I’m half Lebanese by heritage, for heaven’s sake, and I can’t stand the smell, never mind the taste of lamb. It wasn’t always so; I ate lamb when I was a kid, but somewhere along the line I lost my taste for it. That’s putting mildly.

But now the Britain’s Committee on Climate Change is recommending that folks stop eating so-called “high-carbon food,” and lamb is on the list. The reason lamb is in the crosshairs – this is serious, now, folks – is that sheep burp too much. From The Times of London:

A government-sponsored study into greenhouse gases found that producing 2.2lb of lamb released the equivalent of 37lb of carbon dioxide.

The problem is because sheep burp so much methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Cows are only slightly better behaved. The production of 2.2lb of beef releases methane equivalent to 35lb of CO2 Tomatoes, most of which are grown in heated glasshouses, are the most “carbon-intensive” vegetable, each 2.2lb generating more than 20lb of CO2 Potatoes, in contrast, release only about 1lb of CO2 for each 2.2lb of food. The figures are similar for most other native fruit and vegetables. 

And don’t look now, quaffers, but that brew is on the government’s chopping block, too. The Times:

Alcoholic drinks are another significant contributory factor, with the growing and processing of crops such as hops and malt into beer and whisky helping to generate 1.5% of the nation’s greenhouse gases. 

Well, at least now, when I go to a Middle Eastern restaurant, I can decline the lamb – and the heritage of countless generations of my ancestors – on the grounds that I’m “green.”

MemorialDayCondominium living has its ups and downs. Among the downs are some of the provisions in the covenant one agrees to when buying onto a condo community. Most of the provisions make sense; they are designed to preserve the value of everyone’s property. But part of the overkill in our community is the prohibition against attaching anything to the outside of the structure. For the most part, that makes sense, but there should be an exception for a flag holder. You have to use some ingenuity to display a full-size flag here. Pat came up with the idea of using the gizmo that we screw into the beach to hold the umbrella. It works well in the mulch in the garden in front of our unit, so our flag is out there, but it looks kind of lonely.

flag01 I’ve been reading a lot lately about World War II, and I am really learning about it for the first time. I had only the most broad-brush knowledge of the war – the military challenges and the political issues. And I really never appreciated, except in the abstract, the suffering endured by those who served in the military forces. 

The Washington Post had a good Memorial Day editorial today. It’s at this link:




Thank heaven for Cspann. That’s where I stumbled across Ellen DeGeneres giving the commencement address at Tulane. It’s a pleasure to see her any time, but her address to the Tulane grads was a refreshing departure from the usual approach on such occasions. And it reinforced the depth of character that makes her such an admirable figure.

Her account of the impact on her life of, first, keeping her sexual identity a secret for fear of reprisals and, second, suffering reprisals when she finally decided to get throw off the burden of secrecy, is food for thought about how we treat each other in the supposedly post-modern world.

The speech is at this link:”ellen+degeneres”&hl=en&emb=0&aq=f#



Pretty soon, Americans visiting London will be able to stop by to see how Ronald Reagan is making out on his pedestal. An ten-foot bronze statue of the fortieth president of these United States will be erected on a six-foot stone plinth outside the United States Embassy in London. To make this possible, local authorities had to set aside a policy under which a person must be dead for ten years before being memorialized with a statue. Apparently there is a strain of skepticism in the British, but for this purpose they’re willing to concede that Reagan is not only merely dead, but—in the words of the Coroner of Oz—really most sincerely dead. At the very least, Reagan will provide some company for Dwight Eisenhower, whose effigy stands nearby.



This is the work of disciples of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who simplified modern world history for generations of students by declaring that Reagan had single-handedly toppled the Soviet Union. U.S. Ambassador Robert Tuttle, who was George W. Bush’s appointee, was said to have enthusiastically supported the idea before he left office in January, turning the embassy over to a diplomatic staff of the Obama stripe. When the current personnel were asked what would happen to Dutch when the embassy is removed to new quarters south of the Thames, they replied that they didn’t know, because “it isn’t our statue.”

There is no unanimity among the British about this development. David  Boothroyd, a Labour member of the local committee that waived the “sincerely dead” rule, voted in the affirmative, remarking that “you have to set aside your personal politics when you have a person of global importance like Ronald Reagan.” A little further to the left, the Green party chair of the local committee said, “What a ridiculous person to put on top of a monument. … It would be the same as putting up a statue of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Will they do that next?”


May 22, 2009




I don’t understand the anti-American Idol sentiment that seems to be based on a premise of cultural superiority – or maybe it’s snobbery, a kind of knee-jerk reaction against anything that generates a lot of public excitement, a need to feel “above it all.”

I’ve never watched even a minute of “American Idol,” but I watch very little television at all. I do watch most of “Dancing with the Stars,” so the general concept of such shows is not foreign to me. To me, “American Idol” is just the over-produced and over-promoted 21st century version of “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” which was a huge success on radio and television – in fact, for a while it was on radio and television simultaneously. 

What annoys me about “American Idol” is the endless hype – the way, for instance, the local Fox stations treat every snort and whimper that comes from an Idol contestant or judge as though it were not only news but the top story of the day. And it really irritates me when I turn to the channel with the TV Guide rolling program log, the top half of the screen is occupied by a cast of pinheads babbling on about the Idol contestants – OMG!

But the show itself seems to me to be an entertaining vehicle through which people who otherwise would get no public attention for their talents get a shot at starting a career. Godfrey’s show – a primitive thing by comparison – gave the public its first glimpses of many folks who later were successful and, in some cases, stars. The winner each week was determined by a gain meter that measured the applause of a live studio audience.




Many of the contestants on Godfrey’s show were not really amateurs but small-time professionals trying to move up. Among the contestants were Pat Boone, Patsy Cline, the McGuire Sisters, Tony Bennett, Lenny Bruce, Roy Clark, Rosemary Clooney, violinist Florian ZaBach, Wally Cox, Vic Damone, The Diamonds of “Little Darlin’ ” fame, Eddie Fisher, Connie Francis, Don Knotts, Steve Lawrence, Barbara McNair, Leslie Uggams, and Johnny Nash. 

Nobody’s perfect, by the way. Among those who didn’t survive the auditions for “Talent Scouts” were Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly.

Incidentally, Johnny Nash – it has always seemed to me – should have been a bigger star than he ever became. I think he’s still out there singing somewhere. He performs one of his biggest hits, “Hold Me Tight,” at this link: