Tuesday, February 24, 2009


I visited Charleston, South Carolina today for the first time. For a northern liberal like myself visiting a southern city for the first time is always interesting. While I am interested in history and I love visiting places where something important happened, I find myself having to hold my tongue when I do something like walk by the grave of John C. Calhoun. Today I started to tell my wife about Calhoun's politics and I had to stop because another tourists was listening. I am pretty sure that this southern man probably wouldn't have like what I had to say. Calhoun was a state's rights man which isn't enough for me to bash anyone, but in his time state's rights was shorthand for slavery and slave owner's rights. I always thought that if not for Calhoun and his secessionist rhetoric the American Civil War may not have ever happen. But I learned today that he died 11 years before the war. So perhaps not. It is hard to say.

Charleston is on the Atlantic Ocean but it is also in between two rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper. The bridge going over the Cooper, the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge, is the largest cable-stayed bridge in the Western Hemisphere. It is quite impressive. Charleston is also home to Fort Sumter, the site of the first battle of the American Civil War and the Citadel, the famous military school made even more famous by the Conroy novel, The Lords of Discipline.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Road Trip log: PA Changes

I take at least one major road trip a year. The more the better. I love being on the road. It is exhausting and sometimes difficult, but in the long run, the stimuli, the experience and the adventure make it worth it.

I noticed a couple of changes in Pennsylvania this year, one change I liked and one I did not. Along the ridge of some mountains, I saw a long line of huge wind mills. I find these to be quite awe-inspiring and exciting. I don't know why anyone would find these to be ugly. There are only 13 of them now, but they are expected to add 51 more soon. This is an awesome trend that I hope catches on everywhere. It is sights like these that make me want to buy products in PA to support their economy.

The change that I saw that I didn't like was electric billboards. It is probably the fact that I live in a state without billboards (against the law in Vermont) that I didn't know about these yet. What an awful idea. They are LED screens and their messages change before your eyes. This idea combines two really bad ideas ... wasting energy and distracting drivers. I find billboards so incredibly ugly. Pennsylvania is such a lovely state, I don't know why they would clutter their countryside with this crap. The all mighter dollar rules, I guess. If not for the windmills, I'd be looking for a way to avoid the state. I love driving through Canada.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

William Zantzinger is finally dead

One of the most haunting songs Dylan ever wrote is The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. It chronicles the death of a 51 year old black woman, Hattie Carroll, at the hands of a 24 year old drunken white racist, William Zantzinger in October 1963. In the song, Dylan calls him Zanzinger. I don't know why he misspelled the name. Perhaps it was a legal issue or perhaps it sounded better. I couldn't find anything about this.

Zantzinger struck Carroll over the head and shoulders with a cane in Baltimore's Emerson Hotel after she took too long to bring him his glass of bourbon. Eight hours later she was dead. Zantzinger served 6 months at a county jail after being convicted of this crime. His defense: he was drunk. Also, Carroll's health was not good so the charges were reduced to manslaughter. His wife, whom he also beat that day, stated "Nobody treats his niggers as well as Billy does around here." Zantzigger was actually freed for a time during his sentence so that he could tend his tobacco crop. He spent more time in jail in the 1990's for 50 misdemeanor counts of unfair and deceptive trade practice.

This is a sad story of injustice but is only uncommon because it was immortalized in a song one of best selling pop albums of the era, The Times They Are a'Changin'. If not for the song, most of us would know nothing about this particular story. Zantzinger died a few weeks ago, a wealthy real-estate developer. I am willing to bet that Carroll's 11 kids didn't fair as well. If it is any consolation, the song did help the cause of the Civil Rights movement and his name has become synonymous with white privilege. Not much of a consolation for the Carroll family.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Happiness is a Warm Gun

John Lennon got the title of the song, "Happiness is a Warm Gun," from an NRA advertisement he saw in a magazine. The full quote "Happiness is a warm gun in your hand" was the working title of the song. The idea of a warm gun (meaning that it was just fired) being the object of happiness was a little shocking to Lennon. He thought a love song for one's gun would be a great exercise in irony. This is ironic in a lot of ways, not only because of Lennon's death by gun violence, but the fact that he may not have known that the advertisement itself was a parody of a Charles Schultz Peanuts books, Happiness is a Warm Puppy. This Beatles' song is a parody of a parody.

Lennon called this song a chronicle of the history of rock n' roll. It changes tempo many times going from 2/4 time to 3/4 time to 6/8, 3/4, 4/4 and ends in 6/4 time. It also includes some spoken word and a doo-wop featuring the lyrics bang bang shoot shoot. It also contains one of my favorite Beatles' lines, Mother Superior jump the gun. It is a great song but didn't get a lot of airplay as you could imagine. Lennon was not only a victim of gun violence but he was a victim of bad timing. The Beatles album (more common known as The White Album) was released in November 1968. Considering what was happening in the news in 1968, one can understand why no radio station would go near this song. The public had had enough of gun violence, the irony of the song would have been lost on most of them I am afraid.

What I have always found interesting about The White Album is how if you shuffle some of the songs around, you basically have a couple of solo albums featuring Lennon and Paul McCartney with a handful of Ringo and George songs thrown in. The Lennon/McCartney songs were a lot more just Lennon or just McCartney songs rather than the usual collaborative pieces. The fissures in the band were very deep by then. The end was near.

The album was originally going to be titled The Doll House but was changed when another band called Family released an album with the same name. The White Album is 10th best selling album of all time and considered by many to be the best Beatles album. Rock 'n roll lends itself well to discord. Some of the best rock albums were created during chaotic situations where the band members were not even talking to each other. Off the top of my head I can think of Rumours by Fleetwood Mac and The Final Cut by Pink Floyd. I am sure there are more.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

John Maynard Keynes

John Maynard Keynes is in the news almost every day lately. The guy died over 50 years ago, yet his name is in the news more now than ever before. Due to the bailouts and the stimulus packages, Keyes' economic theories are being put to the test like never before. I went to business school in the 1980's when that it was taught why Keynes was wrong. Yet, here we are. Can the government spend the country out of economic ruin? Can the stimulus pay for itself by stimulating and then taxing the business that results from it? I guess we'll see.

Keynes was an interesting character. He was openly gay in an era that was not tolerant to this, at all. He dine out ever night with his partner and referred to him as his husband. Eventually, he married a Russian ballerina. He was an extreme elitist who basically believed that if you took a handful of smart guys (preferably from Cambridge) in a room could you solve any problem. He hated the working class, Americans and the Irish. He thought they were all better off being managed from afar, preferably Cambridge.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The War Against the Trees

I grew up in a southern New England town where people hated trees. It is a northern Rhode Island (aka the Pavement State) mill town that has very few trees and probably getting more paved everyday. People who live there seem to have a love affair with pavement. You could actually hear people complain about a tree in their yard that is destroying the pavement. The roots of the tree were busting through and cracking the pavement ... must kill the tree. I grew up there and it wasn't until I was older, in my twenties, that I started noticing how odd this was. The ironic thing is that the city stank and no one seemed to connect the two. The same people who hated the trees would also complain the loudest about the smell. Since trees are actually clean air factories ... you think they would want more trees. Ignorance is infectious and it is easier to move when you are an American, than it is to change people's minds.

I know this is not a "city thing." I lived in Boston for 10 years. Actually for a few of those years, in the largest city in New England, I lived on a dirt road. It was a dead end road and a lot more like an alley than a road, but it was dirt and gravel. This is rare in Boston but I wasn't far from a lot of trees. The arboretum wasn't far. Bostonians are in love with their arboretum. Visiting Arnold Arboretum on a sunny day in any season is a joyous event. This is all you need if you ever need any proof that Bostonians really are not that rude, but quite friendly. They just need some trees and perhaps a little sun to cheer them up. The same could be said about Central Park in Manhattan and probably any other big city. I am not sure why the tiny city that I grew up is any different. I don't know if it has changed. I haven't been there for years.

I live in northern New England now in a rural setting. I would have to walk for over a mile from my front door to find pavement. For a while, if you looked up my address in Google Earth, all you would see on your screen is a big green patch. Quite lovely! When I step out my door each day, I take a deep breath of fresh air to remind myself of where I live. I am grateful for getting out and pleased of the choices I have made in life.

We lost an apple tree during the first snow storm at our current house. It was the closest tree to our back deck so we were quite sad to lose it. But now, several years later, another tree is growing in its place. I sometimes feel that I have not moved two states north, but a different planet. People love their trees up here. I guess I am a tree hugger. I feel at home here in tree-hugger-central.

One of my favorite NPR commentators is Robert Krulwich. His show Radio Lab is my favorite science radio show. I listen to a lot of science shows but this one is the best. He also does a commentary now and then on NPR and I heard one today about trees. That's what got me thinking and then writing about them. According to this commentary the ratio of trees to humans on the Earth are 61 to 1. Considering the amount of tree products we use everyday from toilet paper to chewing gum, this number isn't very big at all. But Krulwich points out that unlike oil, trees are a renewable resources. If you are feeling guilty about your tree product use, plant a tree now and then. If you don't have room, I do. I have a few acres that are only field. You buy the tree I will plant it for you and please stop hating the trees, they are our friends and when they fall, they do make a big sound even if there is no one there to listen.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Willie Lincoln and parties at the White House

Mary Todd Lincoln was the first First Lady of the United States to actually throw a private party at the White House. Before then parties at the White House were open to the public. I can't imagine this happening now, but considering the population of DC in 1850 this was a lot easier. The most interesting of these parties is the wedding reception the Lincolns threw for General Tom Thumb ( Charles C. Stratton) and his wife, Amy Sharpe, who were the very famous two foot tall members of P.T. Barnum's Circus.

The first of these parties was in January 1850. For those who were not invited this was an outrage and for those who were ... they were the talk-of-the-town. This particular party was very stressful for the Lincolns because their 11 year old son, Willie, was sick in bed with a fever. Each of them would excuse themselves from their guests to go upstairs to cater to the boy. Willie died a week later of what we now believe to have been typhoid fever.

Of the President's four sons, only one grew to full adulthood. Robert Todd Lincoln lived to be 86 and served as our 35th Secretary of War. His brother Edward died at the age of four and Thomas at the age of 18. Childhood death was fairly common before the 20th century.