The Thinking Side of Climate Change Requires an Emotional Partner

When the formidable Greta Thunberg barked about climate change, she didn’t do it to become famous. She did it so that adults would take the time to learn about the science. I decided to take her up on the challenge. Fortunately, I happened upon a useful tool: a book written by an apolitical scientist who writes clearly. His name is Robert Henson, and his book is sensibly called The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change. (Second Edition.)

I learned a lot, and I wanted to share. Here’s rundown on some of the more important ideas:

Earth is definitely warming. We know this because independent scientists have analyzed more than a century’s data. Overall, the rise is about 1 degree Celsius, but the increases have been greater in some parts of the world, and less in others. We also know that the earth is warming because the ice in major glaciers, large areas of Greenland, and the interior of Antartica is melting rapidly. In addition, the growing season in the Northern Hemisphere is longer than before, and certain annual events are occurring earlier because of the warming: the Sakura (Cherry Blossom) Festival in Japan, the appearances of daffodils in England’s Royal Botanical Gardens, the high bush blueberries around Walden Pond. You’ve probably noticed this plant behavior in your area, too. One more indicator: mosquitoes, birds and other creatures are being driven to higher altitudes, and, in a parallel development, marine life seems to be migrating toward the poles. Taken as individual instances, none of these indicate much of anything. When they are considered as part of a larger pattern, scientists strongly believe that this activity to be a clear indicator of warming.

One degree may not seem like much, but remember that’s an average across a very wide range of regions. Better to consider the hot spells experienced by, for example, Chicago, where hundreds of people died from heat-related causes in 1995, followed by thousands in Paris in 2003 and more in Moscow in 2010. Cities become “heat islands” where nighttime temperatures do not cool as they did before, so the buildings and the streets trap the heat and cause temperatures to remain well above normal for extended periods. Air conditioning is a potential remedy, but many cities are not structured for large-scale use of air conditioning, a technology related to electricity and fossil fuels–not an ideal solution.

You’ll have to read the book to satisfy your curiosity about how much of this warming is due to human action–the answer is a lot–but it’s far safer to assume that we are too blame, so we can take as much corrective action as possible (the alternative only makes things worse).

Browsing the chart on page 57 (there are many charts and illustrations, all helpful in navigating the collected wisdom), it’s clear that the big game is change the behavior of two large countries–China and the U.S.–because they are responsible for 43% of the global carbon dioxide emissions in the world (counting only fossil fuels, cement, and gas flaring). Add India and Russia, and the four culprit total is 54%. Focusing on the big stuff seems sensible–there is reason for concern about Qatar’s very large per capita contribution, but Qatar has less than 3 million people, so its total contribution is small. It’s comforting to see real progress from, for example, the U.K., and Mexico, and Brazil–but deeply disturbing to compare their numbers with the U.S. and China (each seemingly more concerned with tariff brinksmanship than dealing with gigantic problem in which they are the most significant perpetrators). Moving on…

Climate change does not exist in a vacuum. “Many victims of heat waves die not because the air is so warm, but because it’s so dirty. The sunny, stagnant conditions prevalent during heat waves make an ideal platform for…” and here, the list of dangers becomes very nasty, causing serious lung conditions and heart attacks. The cause is fine particulate matter that enters the indoor environments, and tends to be very difficult to manage. With global warming, we consistently exacerbate the potential for human tragedy–especially among the elderly, the pregnant and the youngest children. This heartless approach to environmental management now seems to permeate many aspects of life on earth.

Climate change is also related to floods and droughts–which seem contradictory but they occur when the land can no longer do the job of absorbing water. Along with several other factors, these provide good reason for people to migrate to areas that were previously too hot, cold, wet, dry, or otherwise unappealing or nonproductive. With time, they are changing so that new agricultural lands are indeed opening up. Problem is, the additional warm, or wetness, or dryness, causes unpredictable responses from flora and fauna, and new weather patterns. The new kind of wheat may successfully grow in the new region, but it may also become home to previously dormant microbes that wreak havoc hundreds or thousands of miles away. (These patterns are utterly normal, but scientists are losing their ability to keep track of what’s happening because much of the science is still developing and because the climate is changing faster and in less predictable ways than anyone thought possible.)

While trying to manage the impact of what we do know–and deal with the sluggish government response to problems that seem so overwhelming and yet tend to be difficult to comprehend–scientists are discovering the impact of all sorts of scary phenomena. Some of this is related to melting ice. The Permafrost layer in eastern Siberia, and large Arctic regions are experiencing environmental and physical changes that are downright spooky. In Fairbanks, Alaska, for example, bicycle paths buckle and sinkholes emerge from construction sites. In time, they will probably emerge on their own. As they do, as the Permafrost continues to melt, everything could become a lot worse because massive amounts trapped methane and carbon dioxide may be released–causing lots more melting, and sea level rise with positive impacts all the way down the eastern seaboard of the United States (that is, flooded subways in New York City; destruction of Atlantic beach communities; submerging low-lying cities and fishing communities).

This is not alarmist writing. This is the science that Greta Thunberg wanted adults to learn. As you can see, I’m only touching a few points–we haven’t discussed oceans, rivers, hurricanes, trees, or anything related to the likely statistical impact of each of our possible individual and global actions.

The book is terrific, but most people don’t read books, and fewer still read 500 page science books. So: the information is available, but so far, adults are not doing a very good job capturing hearts and minds. Greta did, and she caused street protests and some media attention. That’s important because raising awareness is part of the game, and because big decisions and social change are often driven by emotion, not scientific fact. Still, we lack a clear picture of what is happening, in a form that most people can comprehend, remember, and share. Every adult must be able to explain climate change to their children, and to one another. Every teacher must be equipped to teach these lessons every day (a great deal of the current curriculum can be pointed toward global understanding of climate). The American Meteorological Association seems like the kind of organization that could step up as a kind of source authority, as it has attempted to do with the publication of this particular book. Somebody needs to step up and make the story clear so that we can all become partners. I want to help. I hope you do, too.

 

 

This Is All Wrong!

We should not wait for a 16 year old to travel across the ocean in a small boat in order to be heard.

We should allow our local, state, national, international and business leaders to make terrible decisions that cause global catastrophe.

We are not paying attention to a crisis. Our news mostly ignores the most important story on earth. Our schools teach it in a haphazard way, if at all. Our parents, our elders do not understand what is happening so they cannot and do not share the wisdom they do not possess.

So it falls to Greta Thunberg, and now, millions of children inspired by her, to sacrifice precious childhood and adolescence because adults have failed their generation.

Let’s not become distracted. Let’s focus on what Greta is telling us. Let’s support the next generation instead of destroying their future.

Please pay attention. We’re all busy, but that excuse is no longer an acceptable response. Doing nothing is unacceptable.

Spending five minutes with Greta is the most important thing you can do right now. And if you have already seen her brief statement to the U.N., make sure to share this with someone who may be distracted by less important issues. This one matters.

#gretathunberg

A World of Music in Salisbury

If you haven’t tried the Lemon Chess Pie at Ugly Pie on Main Street in Salisbury, Maryland, it’s probably time that you do so. For me, it was a tough decision: the Peanut Butter & Jelly Chess Pie was a serious contender, but the lemon won out. And I happened to miss the Apple Crumb pie because, well, the shop was busy. There were almost 200,000 people visiting Salisbury for the weekend.

Ugly Pie is just next door to The Mad Hatter, a chef-owned restaurant with an adventurous bearing and locally sourced food. Had I known how good the restaurant was going to be, I would have eaten all of my meals there. As schedules allowed, I ate only two: Alice in Toast, an egg cloud (fluffy egg white [a very old food idea enjoying an Instagram comeback] with fresh bacon, avocado and a giant biscuit, and a beef bulgoki preceded by a wonderful, light, fresh crab soup (“most people buy a quart to take home–yesterday, we sold about ten gallons in all”–Chef Dan).

And who better as a dining companion than Mayor Jake Day, the former city council president who is extremely proud of his city’s recent progress. Day points out the old brick building where he started his career as a young architect, then talks about how his dream of rebuilding the old city is is coming true. The rebirth is more than physical. The turning point was Third Fridays, a monthly celebration that brought the community back downtown after a half century of staying away (for a look at the city that used to be, browse these historical photos of Salisbury).

Screen Shot 2019-09-11 at 4.15.12 PM.pngThe success of Third Fridays encouraged the city leaders to pursue a larger dream. They applied to serve as the host city for the National Folk Festival–a three-year commitment with a longer-term contractual responsibility. The National Council for Traditional Arts partners with the host city for three years, and then, the local city must continue a smaller-scale version of the festival for many more years. Last year, it rained, but about 100,000 music and craft fans showed up anyway. This year, the weather was perfect, the music was spectacular, the Salisbury doubled its festival attendance. The joint success was due, in part, to the wonderful vibe, but also to the presentation of one extremely high quality performance followed by another and another and far too many for any reasonable person to absorb in three days. I tried. And I’m writing this article while playing a sampler CD in the background, remembering how much great music I saw on stage, and how much I missed (next year is Salisbury’s third year, so the opportunity window remains open).

For much of the festival, there were acts on five stages scattered through the (walkable) city center. (And, every time I walked from the Community Stage to the PRMC Stage, I passed the newly-opened ice cream parlor in the renovated old Chesapeake Hotel, and every time, there was a line out the door and beyond).

tsponoc1-768x768We started out with an acoustic band out of Pittsburgh called Tamburaški Sastav Ponoć–five guys carrying on a native Balkan string band tradition with easily accessible music that dates back over 500 years. The instruments look and sound familiar (they resemble guitars, mandolins, etc.), but they’re local to the Balkans: the soprano prim, the alto brać, the ćelo, the bugarija and the berda. The band members learned Balkan music in their communities, and from their parents (for example, Mark, who plays brać, learned from his father, who runs the well-known and well-regarded Duquesne University Tamburitzans music group). It’s the kind of music that sounds just enough like familiar bluegrass and folk to feel comfortable for an audience new to Balkan styles, but the feeling that this music is part of my life runs deep. I suspect many people feel that way.

One of the good things about a festival is that performers do their acts more than once. We had hoped to see Sheila Kay Adams tell stories of her Appalachian childhood on Saturday morning, but we managed to see half her act on Sunday instead. She talked about her life as a child being brought up by well-intentioned religious leaders in the community, and explained that their odd combination of accents, mumbling, and dental insufficiencies allowed her to grow up without understanding a single word uttered by any of them.

Eddie-Cotton_PC-Corey-Solotorovsky-Vicksburg-Blues-Society_240-dpi-350x350AURELIO_3_PC-Richard-Holder_240-dpi-350x350The variety of things to do at a folk festival is striking, and provocative. We wandered from Appalachian storytelling to the juke joint electric guitar of Eddie Cotton, Jr., then to the Aurelio, who also plays electric guitar, but in a profoundly different style coming out of Central America. Specifically, Aurelio performs music from the Garifuna culture, found along the coast of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. It’s not every day that I’m exposed to this music; the immersive experience of loud guitar, deep kick drum, and a rocking rhythm took me to a place I’ve never been before. A different sort of transcendency shook me out of Sunday morning sleepiness (after a long Saturday night) as Cora Harvey Armstrong belted gospel favorites (she took requests from a very knowledgable audience) with backup from family members in her small band.Cora-Harvey-Armstrong-e1555534893164-350x350

Family plays an important role in traditional music. It’s not unusual to find siblings performing together, sometimes as part of a multigenerational act.

Jones-Benally-Family-Dancers_courtesy-of-artist_240-dpi-350x350We missed them onstage, but we spent an hour chatting with the Jones Benally Family Dancers, a Native American group. They call themselves Dine’–others call them Navajo (a useful comparison: people in Germany call themselves Deutsche, but others call them German). The dad–Berta Benally–has been dancing onstage for three-quarters of a century. He doesn’t know how old he is, but family members guess his age at about 90 years, give or take. He still does an amazing hoop dance, and other dances that he learned from his grandfather. His story, which I only began to learn, weaves through the history of “not being kidnapped to attend an Indian school” because his parents hid him away, joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and traveling to almost every country in the world as a dancer and performer and stage craft expert, and later performing as John Wayne’s stunt double in Hollywood. These days, Berta performs with his son and daughter (who have their own rock band that incorporates Dine’ traditions), and his granddaughters (who really wanted to go back to the hotel room to change out of their stage clothes so they could do their homework).

Ostensibly, the National Folk Festival is about musical performance (and craft, as below). That’s one way to look at what happened in Salisbury last weekend. There’s more to it, which is why the National Council for Traditional Arts does the work it does. Berta Benally, Aurelio Martinez, Theodore “Lòlò” Beauburn, Jr. (who dances and sings as the lead of a Haitian band, Boukman Eksperyans), Cora Harvey Armstrong out of Richmond, Virginia, Eddie Cotton, Jr. from Clinton, Mississippi, Rahim AlHaj (the Iraqi oud player from Albuquerque who I missed this time around)–they define the United States and its culture. They remind the crowd that not one of us–nearly all of the people who currently live in the United States–come from any one place. We come from so many places, it’s nearly impossible for any of us to make any meaningful list of our various family tributaries.

The exception might be the Benally family, but here, too, there’s an enormous global influence. The U.S. is a nation of rich contradictions–the Buffalo Bill Wild West shows became a place where Native American cultures were collected and celebrated, but these shows became far more popular in Europe than in the U.S. And of everyone who appeared at this particular festival, Berta Benally is probably the only one whose resume includes not only performances for the Queen of England, but also throughout South America, Europe, Asia. He’s certainly the only one who helped to open Honolulu’s first shopping mall, and performed regularly at the Rose Bowl Parade. Welcome to the United States of America, not quite his native land.

And then, there’s the crafts. This was a big music weekend, so I found myself attracted to Pete Ross. His display–there were more than a dozen interesting craft displays–focused on the making of the gourd banjo. The writer/historian Krisina Gaddy (K.R. Gaddy) joined us for a deep dive into the several strands of banjo history, including answers to my questions about origin in Africa, new information (for me) about the Dutch and Surinam, and serious questions about the sanitized history of the banjo making its way along White paths from England to Appalachia. I was sufficiently taken with the history lesson to visit her website, and to listen for an hour to a podcast that included performance and historical storytelling.

I suspect this is the point of the festival. I go, I eat, I listen to music, I come home feeling as though I might have learned something, and then, I spend time learning even more by visiting websites and listening to music. All because I decided to spend a weekend in a place I’d never been, Salisbury, Maryland. I shall return (next year!).

(Photos courtesy of the artists)

Why Don’t We Know More about Africa?

Simple question. Simple answer, too. Most students in most parts of the world don’t spend much time learning about Africa. There are pyramids, lions, and drums, and for more advanced students, Apartheid, e-bola, the history of slave trade, tribes and villages.

Compare that with the list of things you know about Asia, Europe, even Australia. We know more, in part because we learn more at school, and also because Japan, England, France, Australia (the country), China, India, Italy, and other places on those continents play a part in popular culture, the history that’s taught in schools, the news that’s reported in the media, and, undeniably, the food we eat. Early on, kids learn about Italian and Chinese food, but most adults’ familiarity with any food from Africa is likely to result in a list with no items on it.

All of that is about to change.

440px-Africa_(orthographic_projection).svgIn 1950, 5 of the world’s largest countries were located in Europe, 2 were in the Americas, 5 were in Asia, and none were in Africa.

By 2050, not one European nation makes the top 20. In the Americas, 3 countries make the list. Ten are 10 Asian nations (including Turkey and Russia). The other 7 are in Africa.

Here’s the tally for 2100. Only 3 of the world’s largest countries are in the Americas. The count for Asia is 7.  The count for Africa: 10 of the top 20.

In this century, half of the world’s kids are being born in Africa. Most of the world’s new schools, hospitals and universities will be built in Africa and Asia. Most of the world’s students will learn and eventually go to work for new companies in Africa and also in Asia.

This data raises some very big questions about where in the world people will live and work. Population in Africa is growing rapidly, but economic growth is lagging. You may have read that the world’s population will soon be 8 billion people–that’s coming in 2024, not very far off. We’ll reach 10 billion by 2054 and 11 billion by 2088. Think about half of those new births happening in Africa. And now consider where those people will grow up, where they will work, and where they will live.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the work of NGOs are improving the social and economic situation in Africa, so the number of extremely poor people is being reduced. This creates a growing middle class with sufficient resources to consider possible migration to improve their educational and economic situation.

Many of those people will follow old patterns–they will migrate from one place in Africa to another. Some Africans will work to improve their local situations, fighting corruption, improving health care, teaching. Others will decide to leave–and many will move to Europe. Why? Because Africa’s youthful population will find available jobs in European countries where the percentage of older people is steadily increasing. The economic opportunity may greatly exceed the current incoming European population from Africa–that’s what I think will happen.

9781509534562And that’s the basis for a provocative and well-researched new book called The Scramble for Europe: Young Africa on its Way to the Old Continent by Stephen Smith. Professor Smith is a leading expert on contemporary Africa, a former well-credentialed journalist, and now a Professor of African Studies at Duke University. He’s smart, well-informed and among a small number of people who are writing about this remarkable situation for a general audience. The title is misleading–this is a book about both Africa and Europe, but  here, Africa loses out to Europe in the main title.

What might happen? Smith’s first scenario, called “Eurafrica,” “presupposes a reservoir of goodwill towards African immigrants, who are viewed as the best chance of investing the Old Continent with a younger, more diverse and possibly more dynamic population. The second scenario is called “Fortress Europe,” and it continues a tradition of “rigorously securing its borders,” with a heavy dose of altruistic behavior. The third, with the unpromising name, “Mafia Drift,” and involves a combination of trafficking and other nasty behaviors. The fourth and final is labelled “Bric-a-brac Politics” captures the erratic realties of government action.

For me, it seems very likely that a great many people born in Africa will remain in Africa, and build significant cities with significant universities, business structures and more. This will take shape only in the countries where political and social stability allow for external investment (when nations are unstable, investors tend to either exploit or flee). It’s difficult to migrate, so most people will stay, but there are so many people who are being born in Africa, the vastness of numbers will probably reshape many of the nations in Europe within the next 10, 20 and 50 years. The same will be true for the United States as it realizes that it must shift its focus from a relatively small flow of net immigration gain from Latin America to the far larger number of people who are likely to migrate from Africa. In time, the number of African-born people in the United States will far exceed the number brought here through the slave trade.

 

 

Gandhi on the Economics of Newspapers

From yesterday’s New York Times, a special report on the death of another American newspaper. As is typical for the NYTimes, the story is in-depth, thoughtful, and well worth reading time (especially in its original Special Section print edition.) Original NY Times caption: “CreditTim Gruber for The New York Times”

Every few days, somebody sends me an interesting article about a nonprofit approach to journalism. There is usually a well-intended foundation involved, and an emphasis on discovering the future of local newspaper reporting, or something similar. These investments are made in the public interest. Unfortunately, interest from members of the public is often so limited, these journalist ventures cannot and do not sustain on their own. In the past, revenues from classified and display advertising masked this limitation. The only other form of reliable newspaper revenue, circulation (people paying for their newspapers) has long been insufficient to fund local journalism. All of this becomes more complicated when we add layers of television, radio, and internet storytelling.

The NPR model works because it is funded, in part, by Federal funds generated by taxing every American, and because some of those same people donate addition money to support not only journalism but entertainment programs as well. Given the competitive landscape in radio, NPR has developed a popular brand, so it is also able to attract advertising (which it calls “corporate support” to mask the whiff of commercialism).

And that leads us to South Africa in 1903. Gandhi was an attorney fighting for the rights of people with Indian heritage. He was a member of the team that founded Indian Opinion, a newspaper published mostly in English with section in Gujarati. “Though…this paper, we could very well disseminate the news of the week among the community. The English section kept those Indians informed about the movement who did not know Gujarati, and for Englishmen in India, England and South Africa, Indian Opinion served the purpose of a weekly newspaper.”

Indian Opinion began with advertiser support. “[Some] of our best men had to be spared to do this….some of the good workers had be set apart for canvassing and [collecting bills] from advertisers, not to speak of the flattery which advertisers claimed as their due.”

And here’s the part that struck home for me: “…if the paper was conducted not because it yielded a profit but purely with a view to service, the service should not be imposed upon the community by force…only if the community wished. And the clearest proof of such a wish would be forthcoming if they became subscribers in sufficiently large numbers to make the paper self-supporting.  [We] stopped advertisements in the paper. The community realized at once their proprietorship of Indian Opinion and their consequent responsibility for maintaining it…”

He goes on, “[The workers’] only care now was to put their best work into the paper, so long as the community wanted it, and they were not ashamed of requesting any Indian to subscribe to Indian Opinion, but thought it even their duty to do so. A change came over the internal strength and character of the paper and it became a force to reckon with….the community had made the paper their own.”

For those who could not understand the language, or afford the subscription price, neighbors would read the paper aloud, translate and explain the meaning of the stories.

With so much information flowing toward us every day, discussions about the future of journalism are constantly obscured and made unimportant. And newspapers continue to die. And the internet and NPR are insufficient replacements. Imposing solutions from above–foundation funded and such–are reasonable short-term solutions. More than a hundred years ago, Gandhi was dealing with very different realities, but his concept of pull vs. push is very much alive today.

I’m not read finished reading The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of Writings on His Life, Work and Ideas, but this particular idea captured my imagination, so I thought I’d share it with you.

 

 

 

He, and They, but Mostly, Babe

There is always a longer story. Often, more than one. Pull one strand and three stories become visible.

The first one begins begins in 1890 when Arthur Stanley Jefferson is born into a noted theatrical family in Ulverston, a market town in Cumbria, which is located north of England’s second largest city, Manchester. The family controlled the Metropole Theatre in Glasgow. Before he was 16 years old, the boy was occasionally performing onstage. By the time he was twenty, the young actor was understudying for an actor he would always admire, Charlie Chaplin. An American tour followed, and he decided to relocate. Soon, he was making movies with the first of what would become many wives. By 1925–by now, he was 35 years old–he was calling himself Stan Laurel, and working as a writer/director for Hal Roach Studios (also known for the Our Gang comedies). Hardly famous, Stan Laurel’s involvement in dozens of films (all two-reelers, each about 20 minutes long), with a long resume of stage performance, with a distinct talent for comedy, might have taken him a long way as he matured along with the growing business of motion pictures. We’ll pick up on that story shortly.

The second story begins two years after Stan Laurel was born, in 1892, this time in Harlem, Georgia, then in Milledgeville, not far from Macon. Again, a show business family of sorts. Norvell Hardy sang locally, and operated a movie theater. By age 21, he (most often, “Babe,” less often “Oliver”) was working in Florida for Lubin Motion Pictures (one of the largest early movie companies) as a production and script assistant. A year later, Oliver Hardy made his first film, and more than 200 short films followed. When Florida’s film industry failed, he and his wife (again, many wives in Babe’s story, too), and ended up at the Hal Roach studio.

When Hal Roach puts the two actors together, the third story begins in 1927 with two-reelers. Laurel & Hardy are among the few silent film stars who built even-more-successful careers in full-length features with sound. Stan is in his glory as head writer and creative lead–he develops the gags, and simply falls in love with the popular confection known as Laurel & Hardy. Babe is more of a talented actor who enjoys the lifestyle–including gambling, women, and so on–but when he on set, he is the consummate professional.

220px-Laurel_and_Hardy
Both live a life consumed by failed relationships with women, and money issues (both closely related). They are among Hollywood’s biggest stars, but they are contract players with little economic leverage. Each lives with his own demons.

At times, they are not sure whether they even like one another, but there is no question about whether they love one another. The story of Laurel & Hardy is the story of one of the great 20th century friendships, often tested by the ups and downs of a career that continued into the 1950s.

That’s when the end of the third story picks up, not in real life, but as a motion picture. It’s called Stan & Ollie (2018). This chapter begins while Laurel & Hardy are at the peak of their creative endeavors at the Roach studio, and provides several winning examples of the two making movies. There are hints of financial troubles and struggles with producer Hal Roach, and these advance the plot to a less-than-stellar start of a tour of England in the 1953. As they wait for a British movie producer (“Miffin,” often called “Muffin” by these silly guys) to green light a feature based upon Robin Hood (which is never made), they tour to modest audiences that are only partially filled. It’s depressing, a too-close look at what happens after a star is no longer a star. Still, the show must go on, even if it requires free promotional appearances to get their names out (most people seem to think they’ve retired, but they cannot because past divorce settlements must be paid). Somehow, the promo dates turn things around, and suddenly, they are filling the biggest theaters. But Ollie’s health is beginning to fail.

shareThe magic of Stan & Ollie is presented with ideal timing and winning personality by John C. Reilly (in a fat suit), and British comedian Steve Coogan (with a bit of prosthetic as well, most to shape his chin). They do marvelous work with several of the funniest bits, including a “double door” routine at an onstage railroad station that demonstrates Stan’s spectacular control over coming timing.

Along the way, we gain some insight into Stan’s creative mind, his insecurities about his relationship with Babe, the decisions never made or made for the wrong reasons, the wives, the financial mess he keeps getting himself into (as Babe does the same), the stormy relationship with Hal Roach, who seems to be getting rich on the backs of their work. And then, it ends. Babe dies. Stan continues writing scripts for Laurel & Hardy in a Los Angeles apartment because he cannot imagine any better way to spend his days.

Every good show business story demands a fair amount of imaginative leeway. So, too, is the case with he. Who’s “he?” He is Stan Laurel, unsure what remains of Arthur Stanley Jefferson, and the young man who was once nearly on par with the great Charlie Chaplin. He is Stan Laurel who never could convince Babe to leave the Roach studio so they could set up their studio and make the fortune to which they were so deeply entitled. He is a sad man who experienced so much happiness, fame, and if not fortune, so much pleasure during the heights of his creative activities. He made magic.

s-l640He is the title of a novel–not a biography, but a novel that seems a lot like a biography but allows itself ample opportunity to explore what Stan was probably thinking and why. At first, author John Connolly’s idea for a book seems too ambitious, too flaky, too far removed from reality, too close to reality. And then, half the book is passed. Embellished by moving images of Steve Coogan portraying Stan Laurel, illuminated by watching Harold Lloyd, Chaplin and especially Buster Keaton on YouTube (another opportunity for none of them to get paid for their work), Stan takes shape as more than part of a famous show business duo. He becomes a whole person, powerful in his way, and deeply wounded, too.

The wound runs deep. There is resentment–why could Chaplin succeed in ways that he could not–why was Roach so unfair–how did Laurel & Hardy lose their careers–how did they manage to go so low as to play to small unfilled houses in 1953–but in the end, none of that stays in his mind for too long. When he looks out the window, and watches the ocean–he does that a lot in his later years, at least according to Connolly, he thinks only of Babe.

They were swell together.

And he wants nothing more than to work a gag with Babe for eternity.

800px-Stan_Laurel_c1920

 

 

Eunice, Nina and Laiona

“White people had Judy Garland–we had Nina. God bless ya, baby!”

Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical – Written and Performed by Laiona Michelle – George Street Playhouse 1/27/19 Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson© T Charles Erickson

Richard Pryor’s quote introduces a 4-CD box set, a concise summary of more than forty record albums, mostly in the 1960s. Nina Simone’s story parallels the evolution of race consciousness and rights during that period. In fact, it’s a very good story, the kind of story that deserves a proper stage show to feature both the music, the struggles, the era, and a remarkable performer that most people do not know very well.

Fortunately, I was not the only one who thought that was a good idea.

There are three names to know. The first is Eunice Kathleen Waymon, a talented girl born in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933 who never lost the child within her, for all of the good and the bad that may bring. The second is Nina Simone, a stage name built from the Spanish term for “little one” and “Simone” after the actress Simone Signoret. The third name is Laiona Michelle, a Broadway actress and singer who decided to write and star in a small stage show so the story and music of Nina Simone could be shared with a 21st century audience.

This is not a one-woman show, and that was a wise production decision. Instead, Laiona/Nina appears with her small jazz band (basically: piano, bass, drums) in an imaginative styling of a club set in the early and later 1960s (lighting and scenery are supportive and well-done).

Maybe in another time, the story would be a happy one. Watching the show, recently staged at The George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey (on the Rutgers University campus), one wishes it could have been otherwise. Her regrets are our regrets. Waymon was a gifted classical pianist, clearly special from the age of three, who benefitted from a small town piano teacher who not only recognized her talent, but helped her get to the Juilliard School in New York City (the community raised the necessary funds). Sadly, we were deprived of her work on the classical side because Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music turned down her application, almost certainly as a result of the color of her skin (in 2003, just before her death, they offered an honorary degree). She was devastated.

And, she was resilient. Determined. Vastly talented. Capable of holding the stage at a time when this was not easy for a singer to do on her own. She had a sense of humor, too, and a sense of how to keep her career in motion despite indefensible obstacles. At the start of the stage show, Laiona begins to find her way and the audience becomes comfortable with her interpretation of Nina Simone. In time, despite the occasional subtle miss, she becomes Nina Simone–and everyone in the theater is on her side. It’s not easy to be Nina/Eunice; she struggles more than any person ought to struggle, but those were her times, and she wasn’t getting the kind of help that might be available nowadays (under the best of circumstances).

It’s striking to see just how much music, and Nina Simone, and our consciousness changed in a decade. Her earliest recordings, and her earliest hits, come from Broadway. For example, George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Something Wonderful,” Cole Porter’s “The Laziest Gal in Town,” and Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue” (which titles the stage show) are part of the repertoire. And they sit beside some hipper Broadway tunes such as Anthony Newley’s “Feeling Good” and “Beautiful Land.” One favorite, not included in the stage show, goes back to the early days of vaudeville, the Ziegfeld Follies, when songwriter-performer Bert Williams would perform his signature “Nobody” in blackface. The juxtaposition of this material against one of Simone’s best-known songs, “Mississippi Goddam” seems striking, but this composition, and many more of her original songs, also stand beside the Billie Holiday song, “Strange Fruit” (written by Lewis Allen), and Holiday’s own “Tell Me More and Then Some.” Certainly, the first act’s closer, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” is both a show stopper and a wonderfully sensitive reading of a song that doesn’t get much attention nowadays.

There is a lot of music in this show. Some of the above songs, some of Simone’s most popular songs, are not included in the stage show (it’s impossible to include everybody’s one favorite). (Laiona does an especially good job with one of my favorites, Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” and easily one of the best versions of the sometimes-yukky “My Way” I have ever heard). Still, there is an appropriate mix, the right songs to propel the story of Nina Simone’s progress from jazz/pop singer in the early 1960s to a fully aware, righteous Black woman and social activist later in the 1960s, and on through the 1990s and beyond. Her engagement in the Civil Rights movement leads to time in Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland and The Netherlands. Much of the time is difficult, and as she continues to perform, the dramatic story becomes emotional on two levels. There is the life of Eunice Kathleen Waymon, who never quite left her childhood memories behind, and finds herself deeply disappointed by some of what has happened to her. And there is the life of a spectacularly talented dark-skinned singer who represents far more than herself, and tries to make things better, often against adversity. It’s not an easy story to hear because none of us did nearly enough to make things better, but the music soothes and eases the bad feelings. It’s a patent medicine, an elixir, a mode of storytelling that allows the story to progress without tearing our insides out.

As I write this article, I’m listening to the Four Women box set that recaps her work for Verve. I have a particular attachment to “Nobody,” which I mention again because I’ve just listened to it again, but as I browse the stage show’s song list, I realize that I have a particular connection to many of the songs. And not just the songs. The sense that this was a life that I should have known better, a body of work, an artist who deserves more of today’s stage than she has been allowed.

Here’s hoping we have not seen the last of Little Girl Blue by, and starring, Laiona Michelle. Here’s hoping Nina Simone finds her place in an off-Broadway theater for a spell, and then, here’s hoping she takes that show on the road so that everyone can experience, and remember, who Nina Simone was, and was she still matters.

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Excellence in Design: The Look of Jazz

You probably don’t know the name Reid Miles, but you probably know his work. He was the art director for an extensive series of significant Blue Note jazz albums. For those who care about jazz, and design, and typography, and photography, this is a lesson worthy of your time and attention.

You may know the name Francis Wolff. His photographs tell the story of Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Tony Williams, Art Blakey, and so many others.

And you may know the name Michael Cuscuna, a jazz record producer and “Blue Note archivist.” His insights bring the visual storytelling to life.

The film is produced by Vox. Nice work!

Oh Idiot! What should I want more Children for?

One of the less well-lit areas of human history is the history of children. Today, there are television channels, endless videos and photographs, schools of every description, as well as the occasional well-publicized story of a child who built a business or a charity. Our contemporary view of childhood is very different from the views held in the past, but I’ve always been insecure about the details.

Looking for a good book about childhood’s past, I waited for the new Second Edition of A History of Childhood, written by a Professor Emeritus from the University of Nottingham named Colin Heywood. Although written with scholarly correctness, it’s accessible, and it turns out to be a pretty good story, too.

He gets started in the Middle Ages, “a society which perceived long people to be small scale adults. There was no idea of education… and no sign of our contemporary obsessions with the physical, moral and sexual problems of childhood. The ‘discovery’ of childhood would have to await the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Only then would it be recognized that children needed special treatment, ‘a sort of quarantine’, before they could join the world of adults.” These early years are complicated because religious belief dominated; Puritans, for example, “did not necessarily have a high opinion of infants, the more zealous brethren assessing they were born as ‘filthy bundles of original sin’…

The Age of Innocence by painter Joshua Reynolds, circa 1788

By 1788, there are lovely paintings of innocent children, representative of romantic view, if not of all children, then certainly the fortunate upscale among them. She seems to be the perfect child, but parents remained conflicted about just what they were raising. There were constant ideological conflicts between innocence and depravity, superb and dreadful behavior, honorable and horrifying treatment, nature and nurture, independence and dependence.

To begin his fourth chapter, Professor Heywood begins with a provocative question, “To begin at the beginning, were children wanted?” Happily, the answer through the ages seems to be yes… but not too many! There were critics opposed to the whole idea, including the fourteenth century poet Eustache Dechamps, who write “Happy is he who has no children, for babies mean nothing but crying and stench; they give only trouble and anxiety.” In the throes of motherhood, Hester Thrale (1741-1821) wrote in her diary, “this is a horrible Business indeed: five little Girls, too. & breeding again, & Fool enough to be proud of it! Oh Idiot!’ What should I want more Children for?”

After leading us through history of delivery, naming, godparents, and other ceremonies, we’re faced with the unfortunates, the unwanted children and their unhappy parents, and deepening the despair, the common death of infants and young children, no less a tragedy then.

Still, children survive and thrive. There are more and more of them, especially after we determine that they are better educated than put to work as small versions of farm hands and factory workers. In fact, they thrive, leading first to the astonishing 3 billion people on earth by 1900 (just as public education is beginning to take shape), then (beyond the scope of the book), taking us to 8 billion by about 2025.

As we begin toward the modern age, fathers have more time at home, so childcare, and the love of children, shifts from primarily a mother’s role, to an increasingly common model of shared parenting.

Heywood provides much more than a historical overview. He takes us into the room with the child as he or she grows up. Example: learning to walk, children were discouraged from crawling. Why? Indoors, floors were often shared with animals, and there was a certain discomfort in seeing one’s offspring propelling himself or herself in the same manner as a pig. There was also the cold of those floors, and the filth. Better to walk up on two legs–but not too soon, lest the child become crippled or otherwise deformed, as so many others seemed to be.

There have always been toys, and games, and nursery rhymes, too. And questions about gender stereotypes. “In antebellum America, for example, many girls preferred outdoor activities such as skating and sledding to playing with dolls. Toward the end of the century…three quarter of boys studied [were] playing with dolls, while girls sometimes acted more aggressively than their parents might have hoped.”

For those with mobility, some money and parents who would take them, there was “an impressive array of entertainments designed to instruct as well as amuse in eighteenth century England in the form of ‘exhibitions of curiosities; museums; zoos; puppet shows; circuses; automata; horseless carriages; even human and animal monstrosities.” Working class families made do with “cheap and cheerful entertainments such as dancing on the streets to a barrel organ or enjoying the hustle and bustle of a street market.”

There is evidence of children’s books in England as early as the 1470s–before Columbus visited the Caribbean. By the 1770s, there were plenty of children’s books, along with enough literate children to make good use of them.

Along the way–and beyond the frame of this article–we determine that children are worthy of their own education on a large scale, and that health care specific to childhood is a good idea, too.

Of course, I want to time travel, to talk to children and teenagers at the time they lived, in the places they lived. Even the best book on this subject–and this one is quite a good one–provides only snapshots and excerpts from earlier descriptions or diaries. Considering the great progress we have made on their behalf, I can only hope that someday, through some miracle of human genius, we’re able to travel back and understand the story more completely.

 

 

 

 

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