Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Steven, Cat and Yusuf

Cat Stevens is one of the most enigmatic characters in pop/rock music history. He was born with the name, Steven Demetre Georgiou, changed his name to Cat Stevens while pursuing his musical career and then changed it to Yusef Islam after converting to Islam. Change is his thing. He's been on a search and I have to admire him for it.

I knew he was British, but knew nothing else about his early life until today. His father was Greek and his mother Swedish. I always assumed he was from Middle Eastern stock because of the Islamic conversion but that was obviously wrong. He received a guitar for his 15th birthday and started hanging with the hipster crowd in Soho shortly thereafter. He took the name Cat because his girl friend said he had cat-like eyes. He had a few early hits in Britain but they did not sound much like what we would recognize as your typically profound and introspective Cat Stevens song. At the age of 19 (in 1968) he had a life changing event when he contracted tuberculosis and almost died. While convalescing for a year or so, he wrote the songs that would make up his next five albums. This is the period that he wrote such songs as "Wild World," "Peace Train," "Father and Son," "Morning Has Broken," and "Moon Shadow." These are the songs you think of when you hear the name Cat Stevens. I think I'd volunteer to have T.B. if I had a guarantee I could come out of it with just one of these songs.

The more famous he became, the more miserable. He sought out religion. In 1976, he almost drowned off the coast of Malibu. While taking what he thought was one of his last breathe of air, he cried out "to God" that he would work for God if God saved him. He claims a huge wave came out of nowhere and pushed him ashore. He continued his spiritual search thereafter, he converted to Islam in 1977 and changed his name to Yusuf Islam. He gave up his music career for 25 years, but not because the music was evil or against his religion, but that there were aspects of the music industry that were incompatible with the teachings of the Qu'ran. He returned to music in 1990's. I like what I have heard of his new stuff. If you like his old stuff, you should check it out. The new songs are similar but less catchy and more complex. My favorite of his new stuff is the song, "Indian Ocean."

Monday, July 27, 2009

Stowe and the European Canon

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was the best selling American novel of the 19th century. Overall, it was the 2nd best selling book behind the Bible. It was such an influential book at the time that Abe Lincoln referred to her as "the little lady" that started the war. But at the time, the American literary canon did not accept this book as literature. This is probably not only because it was written by a woman, but also because it was a very popular book. To this day, American intelligentsia think of a popular book as non-literature. At the time, the book was well accepted around the world. While great European writers like Tolstoy, Turgenev, Balzac and George Elliot were calling it a masterpiece, American universities wouldn't go near it.

This is one of those books that I started but never finished. Like a Ulysses or The Sound and the Fury, it is difficult read. Not something you pick up and read on the subway. I need a more controlled environment to read something like this. It is on my book shelf awaiting my retirement. Hopefully I get to it before then.

One embarrassing note is that I always assumed that she was a black writer. Apparently, she is not. Every picture I see of her she looks like caucasian. I checked several internet sites that list African American writers of the 19th century and she is not listed. She is from Connecticutt and wrote her most famous novel in Brunswick, Maine. Who would have thought it?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Stimulating Confusion

Confusion has set in! It has settled, relaxed and become the norm. I am not sure where to go with this. I've been stewing on these thoughts for so long, I might linger way too long for a blog post. I wonder if someone who knows a lot about history is destined to spin it ... and if someone doesn't know history is bound to repeat it ... then if someone just knows a little of history, like myself, does that mean I am destined to spin repeatedly around in confusion. Because this is what is happening to me and I don't like it.

To be specific one point of confusion is the naming of things. If you give something a new name, does that make it different from the old thing even though it is basically the same? ... like when you name something "The Surge" or "The Stimulus Package" but then do exactly what we were doing earlier... in this case, sending soldiers over seas and spending government money, respectively. Or do we name it something new because it slightly larger than what we have done in the past? We send soldiers overseas all the time, but since we are sending just a little bit more and concentrating it into one area ... does that constitute a new name? History and current events would be less confusing if rhetoric would go away.

A lot of confusion stems from those who complain about the Stimulus Package like it is a new idea or it has never worked before. Stimulus packages and government spending in general have not only worked on a very large scale, economically, but have worked culturally as well. Here are some examples:

A Stimulus Package defeated Hitler and Imperial Japan. The government spent an exorbitant amount of money on World War II, not only for weapons but parachutes, socks and uniforms for the troops among other things. This spending trickled throughout our communities and pulled us out of the biggest economic depression in our history.

A Stimulus Package sent these guys to college and created one of greatest cultural revolutions in the history of the world. After World War II, the government was going to stiff the GI's as usual but thanks to a handful of Senators, Congressmen and President Eisenhower, they received Grants to go to college, buy property and start businesses. Because most of them were working class, many believed that this would not come to anything. Yet here is just a handful of Americans who used the GI Bill to do amazing things with their lives: Harry Belafonte, Charles Bronson, Johnny Cash, Bill Cosby, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gene Hackman, Joseph Heller, Jack Klugman, Norman Mailer, Frank McCourt, William Rehnquist, Rod Steiger, James Whitmore and James Wright. Not only that but the GI Bill sent my father to college. How cool is that?

A Stimulus Package sent a man to the moon.
A Stimulus Package built the railroads and easily connected cities and towns from coast to coast to each other and their resources for the first time ever.
A Stimulus Package built our interstate highway system ... the envy of the world.
A Stimulus Package built the Hubble Telescope.
A Stimulus Package built the Panama Canal.
A Stimulus Package built the Erie Canal, Grand Coulee Dam and the Hoover Dam.
A Stimulus Package defeated polio.

Government spending paid for my primary education, paves my roads and brings me my mail each day. How much more evidence do you need? Because I have a lot more.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Celebrating Sarah

I am not very happy with how our country celebrates Independence Day. Fireworks are pretty but I enjoy the serenity of a lake much more than squiggly lines of color or big booms. Considering the amount of debris that ends up in our country's lakes due to fireworks and the effects that the big booms have on the wildlife ... a quiet time of reflection is more to my liking.

It also seems that we celebrate the wrong things during this holiday. Our parades and floats are filled with remnants of war: veterans, weapons and flags. Jet fighters fly by all day. I acknowledge the importance of these things and the sacrifices that are involved, but they have their own holiday in May. War is NOT what is great about America, our Independence is. Our country's great documents like The Declaration of Independence, The Federalist Papers and The Constitution were put together by the geeks of 18th century. Many of them didn't even fight in the war. Shouldn't we be celebrating geeks on Independence Days, not war heroes? War is something that we do to maintain our Independence and way of life, hopefully, as a last resort. It is not a good thing, it is a necessary evil. This is not something that is good about America. I understand that freedom is not free, I get that, I just resent having the idea beaten over my head like it is.

Why has war become so much of a focus of Independence Day? July 4th, 1776 is the date that we signed the Declaration of Independence. Shouldn't it be a day that we celebrate boldness or bravery in spirit, not so much in war but in deeds ... in innovation? Geekiness? Shouldn't we be celebrating Thomas Edison, Henry Ford or even Susan B. Anthony or Arthur Miller on this day? Not the guys down at the Elk's Clubs? Why aren't scientists, business leaders, writers and/or journalists being put on pedestals as great patriots on Independence Day? Surely, our independence means more to us than a 19th cannon or the 1812 Overtures (composed by a Russian).

Why aren't we celebrating Sarah Vowell? I ask this question today because when I hear Sarah Vowell speak or read from her journals, I hear such amazing reverence for America in her voice. I just shake my head and think what a wonderful country this is. Her books are amazing. Isn't Fourth of July the perfect day to celebrate Sarah?

I just heard a piece by her on NPR's This American Life (one of my favorite podcasts). It was about the Maquis Lafayette. In 1824, President Monroe welcomed Lafayette back to America for a visit. He hadn't been here since his days in the Revolutionary War. He was only 19 when he originally came to America in 1777. He was an unpaid volunteer in Washington's Continental Army. His charisma earned him much accolades. George Washington claimed that he wanted to adopt him. He was a pen pal of Alexander Hamilton. Lafayette's welcome party was probably the biggest party ever thrown, proportionately, in America. At a time when the population of New York City was 120,000 people, 80,000 people showed up to greet him. Sarah says his arrival not only saved Independence Hall in Phillie but he kissed Walt Whitman as a child. What an amazing country we have! Thanks Sarah for sharing this. I only wish I heard this a couple of days when I was reflecting on America while my neighbor's fireworks were keeping me awake.

I am not going to regurgitate everything she says in her piece. You can hear the whole thing on This American Life's web site. Her piece starts at around 49 minute mark and is only 9 minutes long. I just want to let you all know that when you are celebrating the war heroes during the 4th of July ... I am celebrating Sarah ... (and other innovators like her) ... and the country that produced her and her awesomeness. That is my America.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Restoring Your Virginity

I listen to podcast all day while I work. I feel more informed than I have ever been in my life. I feel even enlightened at times. Some of the stories I hear sometimes renew my faith in humanity. Not today though. Today I heard about how plastic surgeons are now offering the restoration of a woman's virginity. They surgically restore the hymen and tighten the vagina. Some women are doing it as a gift for their lovers/husbands. It is like something out of a bad sci-fi novel. This not only exists but it is growing in popularity.

While googling about this subject, I also learned that some women are auctioning their virginity. A young woman recently auctioned her virginity on the Howard Stern Show to pay for college. Considering the virginity could be fake, I hope she didn't get a lot.