Monday, December 27, 2010

Dateline Beverly Hills

Biggest Story in 2010? The Gulf Oil Spill. That was big. But the second biggest story was this one.

Dateline Beverly Hills, California, July 29, 2010. This just in:

Bowing to public pressures and the call to action by irate California officials, the Board of the Beverly Hills-headquartered Campett Corp has just announced that Jed will be replaced as head of the Clampett clan effective immediately. Multi-millionaire Jed and the OK Oil Company he leads have been under fire from many fronts since it came to light that his reckless marksmanship back in Tennessee caused an uncontrolled and unprecedented oil spill there.

“What it was, was an unmitigated unnatural disaster for residents, wildlife and our town’s fragile tourist economy,” claims the Mayor of Gooberville, Will Chasen. "We done ran Jed and his kind right out of town here because of those reckless actions – I don’t know where the cussed varmint fled to, to tell you the truth,” mused the Mayor. The Federal agency that issued the huntin’ license to Clampett and his oil company could not be reached for comment at the time of the incident, or anytime thereafter. Officials have since renamed that government division the “Black Gold Ladies Aid Society” in an attempt to revamp its image with the public.

Reportedly, the Clampett Board will be meeting tomorrow to select a new clan leader and that the Board is hungry for new blood from the outside to help re-polish the tarnished Clampett brand. Sources indicate that among the individuals under serious consideration are Tony Blair and Tony Hayward from “away,” or possibly Beverly Hills' own Tony Awards. The family spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny those rumors.
Related story: Interview here with Gooberville resident Skeeter McCoy who lost his squirrel farming business because of the Clampett disaster and hasn’t worked a day since.

Christmas Spirits

While shaving and dressing on Christmas Eve morning, the radio was broadcasting some dramatic readings excerpted from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Thinking of Ebenezer and his business partner Jacob Marley, I mused that my wife and I had our own three spirits of Christmas visit us this year.

Christmas Past. December 23rd marked the 44th anniversary of my wife and I meeting for the first time. It was while Christmas caroling with a church group in Needham, Massachusetts when were both in high school. The Methodist church in town held a street caroling event, maybe annually, I’m not really sure. This was not my family’s church but a number of my friends attended. One of those friends, Chris Ryder, asked if I wanted to accompany him to a Christmas party one coming evening. A girl from his church invited him and did not mind if he brought along some friends. But the catch was we had to attend the caroling event that preceded the party at her house – just showing up at the party would have been tacky (What class my friend Chris had! He could separate tacky behavior from “we’re just dumb teens”). So we committed to the caroling and caught up to the crowd of adults, teens and kids in front of the Needham Fire Station. There was a wider group of friends from the church there and one introduced me to my future spouse that evening, on the sidewalk, under a dark and crisp sky, in the midst of Methodists’ caroling.

Christmas Present. We’ve been without a formal church home for sometime – about two years I calculate. When the gas prices shot up in mid 2008 the church we had been attending several towns and 45 minutes away just didn’t seem like the right home for us any longer. Because we were not part of that geographic community, it was difficult to connect with folks at times other than Sunday mornings. For those of you who know New England, finding a suitable church can be easier said than done. Plus, we were a bit burned out from past church involvement and just welcomed an opportunity to be attendees for a while instead of roll-up-your-shirtsleeves members. So we’ve “visited” a number of churches within a closer radius to our home. One church we attended on a Sunday last Spring didn’t seem like a good fit for us at the time; but we gave it a second chance before Thanksgiving and after several Sundays it’s beginning to feels more like a fit. We’re certainly happy that we have regained an enthusiasm to get up each Sunday morning and attend church. It has been a real blessing, and especially nice during this Advent season.

Christmas Future.  In August of 2010 we were blessed with a grandson from our youngest daughter and her husband.  Our first grandchild, so naturally these new grandparents can’t help thinking about new life and specifically of Caleb’s future.  Just anticipating next Christmas and seeing it through a young child’s joy keeps us wondering out loud.      

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve

I’m reading Primal – A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity by Mark Batterson. Some of his reflections that seem appropriate to me on Christmas Eve:

“I’m afraid we’ve lost our holy curiosity. We’ve settled for thoughtless theologies and mindless theologies. Why? Because it’s much easier to give answers than it is to ask questions. But Jesus didn’t just give answers. Have you ever noticed how often Jesus answered a question with a question? It seems to me we’re afraid of questions. We’re afraid of asking them, and we’re afraid of answering them.

The quest for the lost soul of Christianity is a quest driven by questions. Any question. Every question. But especially those most difficult and most important questions: Who is God? Who am I? And what is the true purpose of life? Holy curiosity isn’t satisfied with easy answers. It doesn’t settle for the platitudes we’ve picked up along the way. Holy curiosity asks the tough questions, the honest questions, the questions everyone else is afraid to ask. God isn’t threatened by those questions.

Maybe it’s time to admit that we don’t know all the answers. But we know the One who does. Maybe we’ve been offering the wrong thing. We offer answers. God offers a relationship through Jesus Christ. His answer to our question isn’t knowledge. It’s a relationship. And that relationship is the answer to every question.”

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Charlie Brown Triumph

A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired in December 1965. Commissioned by Coca-Cola, Charles Schulz and the production company finished the show just barely one week before the broadcast date. When it was pre-screened by two top executives at CBS they were underwhelmed at the final product. “Well, you gave it a good shot,” said one. “It seems a little flat…a little slow,” said the other. “Well,” said the first, “we will, of course, air it next week, but I’m afraid we won’t be ordering any more.”

The rest, as they say, is history as the special knocked the socks off a pre-Woodstock, pre-Superbowl America and has aired on TV every Christmas since 1965. Even though we have the special on VHS and DVD at my house, my tradition is to try to watch it “live” every Christmas season. I’ve been known to watch it by myself in a hotel room in some far-flung city while I was traveling in December on business. There is something different about the “live experience.”

I feel sorry for those who think of Schulz’s animated classic as only a “cartoon.” In the Newark Star Ledger on December 1, 1995, columnist Matt Zoller Seitz hit the target when he wrote:

“Television today favors fast, frequent, exaggerated bursts of action and confrontation. In comparison, A Charlie Brown Christmas is almost unnervingly reflective, dependent on words, emotions and small grace notes rather than speed, glitz and noise.

Charlie Brown… is America’s most-beloved loser, forever falling short of his goals, endlessly stung by failure. Yet he keeps striving in his own mopey, block-headed way, to become a better person and to make the rest of us better, too.

In the process, he gives his friends, his dog, himself and us an invaluable Christmas gift: the gift of introspection. As we watch the Peanuts gang singing songs around a little tree nobody wanted, we realize that unless we’re willing to look inward, to recognize our own selfishness and conquer it, we remain incapable of bringing lasting happiness to others. We remain boxed inside our own preconceptions like beautiful unwrapped presents.”

And regarding the highlight of the classic special, a scene Charles Schulz insisted be kept in the production, Gene Edward Veith wrote a number of years ago:

A Charlie Brown Christmas deals precisely with the misunderstandings of Christmas—the commercialism, the frustrations, the frenetic efforts to attain a perfect holiday. But the story is resolved when Linus on the stage simply recites the account of Christ's birth from the second chapter of Luke. ‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.’ That is the best moment in Christmas TV.”

Amen to that.

Let It Snow

Lots of weather-related travel disruptions across Europe this holiday season. I feel bad for those stuck in airports trying to get somewhere for Christmas. So it’s not a funny situation by any means, but then there’s this gem buried in an article on Yahoo! News:

"I am extremely concerned about the level of disruption to travel across Europe caused by severe snow. It is unacceptable and should not happen again," European transport commissioner Siim Kallas said.

Hear that snow gods? You’ve been forewarned by a European official no less!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

In Praise of Alvin

No, we’re not talking about the animated musical group, Alvin and the Chipmunks created by Ross Bagdasarian (stage name David Seville) in 1958. A classic novelty record act, the Chipmunks themselves were named after the executives at their original record label. But hey, I digress (you distracted me, didn’t you?).

Alvin is a 16-ton, manned deep-ocean research submersible owned by the United States Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). The submersible was named to honor the prime mover and creative inspiration for the project, Allyn Vine, a scientist at WHOI. Alvin was put into service in mid 1964 (5 months after the Beatles stormed the Ed Sullivan show and 5 years before man walked on the moon). This was a time when French oceanographer and SCUBA inventor Jacques Cousteau was all over our black & white TV sets showing us how to explore our watery planet. The oceans were spoken of as man’s salvation for their mineral wealth, aquaculture potential and maybe future human habitats. High School guidance counselors assumed that a large percent of their graduating classes would be employed in some facet of ocean-related careers. As it turned out, not-so-much.

But Alvin has had a stellar run and this month will be sidelined for 18 months of refurbishing – not its first make-over in its long career. The three-person vessel allows for two scientists and one pilot to dive for up to nine hours at 15,000 ft. The submersible features two robotic arms and can be fitted with mission-specific sampling and experimental gear. Alvin has taken 12,000 people on over 4,000 dives to observe the life forms that must cope with super-pressures and move about in total darkness. Some claim that research conducted by Alvin has been featured in nearly 2,000 scientific papers. Talk about publish-or-perish!

On 17 March 1966, Alvin was used to locate a submerged 1.45-megaton hydrogen bomb lost in a United States Air Force midair crash between a B-52 bomber and a KC-135 tanker during mid-air refueling over Palomares, Spain. Three of four unarmed hydrogen bombs carried by the B-52 landed on Palomares while a forth fell into the sea. After much searching Alvin found the missing bomb found resting nearly 3000 ft deep.

A year later Alvin encounter a somewhat less dangerous situation as it was attacked by a swordfish during a dive at 2,000 ft. The swordfish became trapped in Alvin's skin, and the submersible made an emergency return to the surface – where the swordfish was recovered and cooked for dinner.

Another Alvin accomplishment was locating the wreckage of the USS Scorpion (SSN-589), a nuclear armed Skipjack class submarine which sank for unknown reasons off the coast of the Azores in 1968. The Alvin was able to obtain photographic and other environmental monitoring data from the remains of the Scorpion.

Late in 1968 Alvin, was lost as it was being transported aboard the NOAA tender ship Lulu and two steel cables snapped when it was being lowered into the water for a planned dive. The three crewmembers escaped, but Alvin flooded and sank in 5000 ft of water. Severe weather prevented the immediate recovery of but it was photographed on the bottom in June 1969 and found to be upright and apparently intact. It was decided to attempt recovery of Alvin; although no object of that size had ever been recovered from a depth of 5,000 feet. In late August 1969, another submersible was able to secure a line and safety slings on the Alvin allowing it to be hauled up to near the surface where it was slowly towed back to Woods Hole.

Alvin continued to serve marine science as its months under water at those depths and cold temperatures provided a real-life experiment. Alvin was so intact that lunches left on board were soggy but edible. This incident led to a more comprehensive understanding that near-freezing temperatures and the lack of decaying bacteria at increased depths prevented biological decay. Researchers found a cheese sandwich which exhibited no visible signs of decomposition, and was in fact eaten. But the submersible itself required a major overhaul by WHOI. Earlier in my career I worked with an electronics technician who had been responsible for replacing all of the wiring and electronics on Alvin during this overhaul.

Certainly from a popular events perspective, Alvin’s most famous efforts may have come from its involvement in the exploration of the wreckage of RMS Titanic south of Newfoundland in 1986. She carried Dr. Robert Ballard and two companions to the wreckage of the great liner. Many of the photographs of the expedition have been published in the magazine of the National Geographic Society which was a major sponsor of the expedition.

WHOI has a detailed history of Alvin for those who care to delve further and NPR recently ran a story about this most-famous submersible and the 18 month refurbishing it will undergo.

A Great "Fella"

I usually leave the baseball stories and statistics to AVI who knows far more about the game than I. But I did want to note this week’s passing of Hall of Famer, Bob Feller at 92 years of age. In 1936, as a high school junior, Mr. Feller signed with the Cleveland Indians for $1 and an autographed baseball (he never pitched in the minor leagues). By 1940, he was one of the highest-paid players in the game. Before he turned 23 in 1941, Feller - nicknamed "Rapid Robert" - had 107 victories and was well on his way to being one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball history.

But two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Feller gave up his lucrative baseball career to join the war effort. He enlisted in the Navy and missed three full seasons and most of a fourth while serving as the chief of a gunnery crew aboard the battleship USS Alabama. He returned to baseball late in 1945, then recorded his finest all-around season in 1946, with 26 wins and his 36 complete games that year remain the highest total in baseball since 1916.

Throughout the ’40s, the Indians were a powerhouse, battling the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Detroit Tigers for the American League pennant. Ted Williams once referred to Feller as “the fastest and best pitcher I ever saw during my career.” Red Sox Nation members today could no doubt identify with Feller’s “I would rather beat the Yankees regularly than pitch a no-hit game.’’

Feller retired in 1956 and some say he could have attained even greater prominence in the game if he hadn’t made the detour for military service. But ever grounded, Feller’s only response to that conjecture, "You'll never hear me complain about my time in the service.” Baseball is insignificant when it comes to war."

Occasionally, in the chat leading up to launching their “Who’s on First” comedy routine, Abbott and Costello would drop Bob Feller’s name into the dialogue. But here, they performed a variation of the routine just focusing on Feller. A comedic, but great tribute to a notable American.

These Things Happen...

After several months of test driving this blog thing (or in the South, "thang") I decided to switch my blog title and descriptor around; especially since I blog about topics other than science.  “These things happen.”  Why do these things happen?  I don’t wonder any longer because my favorite movie cleared everything up for me. Thanks to Ethel Merman, Milton Berle, and Dorothy Provine in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”  Or “4M” for short. "We gotta have control over what happends to us!"

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

States' Rights

At the Dollar rental car counter in Phoenix, the counter attendant looks at my driver’s license and asks: “New Hampshire – is that still a state?” “Yeah, I don’t think states can get demoted” was my terse reply.

But Canada, with 10 provinces and 3 territories has more creative options than the U.S. Heck, they only had two territories until 1999 when the powers that be carved up the Northwest Territories and created Nuavut - home to a grand total of 33,000 folks. When my wife and I lived in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador for a time, Labrador was anticipating huge revenues from off shore natural gas reserves. Always feeling like a poor cousin to those Provincial Bureaucrats in St. Johns (pronounced “sinjohns” there), Labrador considered petitioning the federal government (that’d be Ottawa for you States people), to let it default to the status of a territory. That “demotion” made a lot of sense to some at the time. But no matter, it turns out that the natural gas revenues weren’t about to start gushing after all and the whole idea was dropped.

But back in the U.S., I think I like the idea of being able to demote a state. I can think of a few choice candidates right now based on their past voting record….

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Annoying Christmas Songs

One feature that Scott Simon does periodically on his weekend NPR show is to invite Jim Nayder from Chicago on as a guest. Nayder compiles annoying songs, usually with an event or holiday theme to his compilation. If you care about novelty songs, one-hit wonders, and what-were-they-thinking music (and I do), Nayder’s compilations are a treasure.  His Christmastime collection from last year includes such gems as Bob Dylan singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and ‘Hanukkah Rocks” by Gefilte Joe and the Fish. Now where do I go to apply for a dream job like Nayder’s?

Everyone's Small Town

Seemingly, New England has no shortage of small towns, some thriving, some dying. Stand-alone towns, those that are not merely bedroom satellites of larger cluster cities, have the best opportunity to uniquely define themselves and to avoid being part of bland suburbia. It helps if the town has a celebrity or two, some charming architecture, some arts connection and a scenic location. The Town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts has all that and more going for it.

Cradled in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts, almost on the border with New York State, it’s a destination location for those among us scouting out a feel-good New England scene at any of the four seasons. But add in the fact that Stockbridge is Norman Rockwell’s town, and you’ve also got the celebrity and artsy angles well covered. Rockwell lived and worked in Stockbridge during the last 25 years of his life. His studio on the outskirts of town complements the official Norman Rockwell Museum close by.

With Rockwell already well-known for his Christmas themed magazine covers, in 1956 McCall’s gave him the assignment to illustrate their next year's holiday edition. But that deadline was missed by a mile. It took him more than a decade to complete the works, which didn’t see print until December 1967 in a section called simply, "Home for Christmas." Rockwell’s painting of "Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas" became a large pull-out section of the magazine. The artist reportedly worked from a series of more than a hundred photographs that depicted the scenes along one side of Main Street in the days before Christmas. The original oil painting now hangs in the Rockwell museum (and a fine framed copy hangs over my fireplace!). Here is just a section of the elongated painting:

The lasting attraction of the painting is that it well captures our imaginations of an idealized New England small town at an emotion-rich time of the year. We read a lot into the images of people walking along a snowy sidewalk, kids playing in the street, and vintage cars parked while their occupants visit the no-malls-in-sight Main Street shops. The Rockwell Museum’s chief curator, Stephanie Plunkett, was filmed in an ABC news segment saying the painting "was meant to evoke the quintessential American holiday, to evoke a sense of warmth and peace ... that would make people all over the country, possibly all over the world, feel as though they had come home from Christmas."

Every year in December, Stockbridge recreates the street scene so familiar from the artist’s painting. For a few hours Main Street is blocked off and becomes the sole domain of vintage cars, horse-pulled wagons, and mingling folks. This year, my wife and I were two of those characters, poking in shops, admiring the well-restored cars and trucks, and slurping down hot clam chowder while standing in front of the Red Lion Inn enjoying the Christmas carols being sung from its porch. It was very cold, why didn’t we bring a warmer coat – we’re New Englanders – we know better? And then there was the arrive-on-cue snow showers – a gift from lake-effect snow of neighboring New York. We first hit the snow traveling east on the Mass Pike about half an hour outside of the Stockbridge area and the light snow obliged all day long. No accumulation on the roads, just the welcomed boost to the mood effect. Not all may agree I realize, but I’ll choose places like Stockbridge over South Beach any Christmas – no contest.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mulberry Street

We know Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) as a renowned teller of wild children’s tales, especially this time of year when The Grinch That Stole Christmas is all over the TV tube. But his first book was much tamer, and it is a small miracle it ever got into print at all.

He was born in Springfield, Massachusetts March 2, 1904, the son of German immigrants. Schooled in Springfield, and later at Dartmouth College, Geisel was drawn to writing, either under his own name or a fanciful pen name. But he struggled to get his first children’s book published. Originally titled "A Story That No One Can Beat," his manuscript was rejected by 20 to 30 publishers. In fact, Geisel nearly burned the manuscript at one point after being rejected by so many publishers. The manuscript finally found a willing publisher and was released on December 21, 1937 under its final title, “To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street!”

The story follows a boy named Marco, who describes the sights and sounds of imaginary people and vehicles traveling along Mulberry Street in an elaborate fantasy story he dreams up to tell to his father at the end of his walk home from school. The real life sights and sounds just seemed to plain, too ordinary to him. Boring! But in the end Marco sheepishly decides instead to simply tell his father just what he actually saw, no embellishments. Geisel reportedly wrote the story as a commentary about how he felt adults stifled children's imaginations.

It turns out that Mulberry Street is an actual street in Springfield, approximately a mile south of Geisel’s boyhood home. Mulberry runs off of a larger street, Maple, in the Maple Hill historic district of Springfield. Many of the stately homes here were built between the 1820s and 1920s and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mulberry Street is my favorite Seuss story, in fact, once my two daughters outgrew their childhood years; I found that most of Seuss’ more popular (sillier?) work just didn’t hold much interest for me. It also turns out that this is a very special father-daughter story in our family. Mulberry Street was part of a children’s anthology book that my wife had since her childhood. Our oldest daughter loved to be read to at bedtime, as did our second daughter as a matter of fact. So bedtime rituals included either outloud reading or making up stories. Mulberry Street from the anthology was a constant read-outloud favorite. I couldn’t estimate the number of times it was requested (Ummm, or maybe it was Dad’s choice!). Anyway, our daughters grew up with a love of reading and the oldest became a high school English teacher.

I love history and sense of place, so when my oldest daughter took a teaching position about an hour from Springfield, AND her husband has relatives in the Springfield area, you would think a simple request to get a Mulberry Street photo would be acknowledged chop-chop, wouldn’t you? After polite waiting and repeated renewal of requests, I took matters into my own hands this past weekend when my spouse and I were passing close to Springfield on a day trip. Thanks to the GPS on our Smart Phones, finding the legendary Mulberry Street was pretty easy. Nice enough street, but not exactly a friendly neighborhood. “No Parking” signs on both sides of the street, “No Trucking” and a one-way-the-other-way switch about half way up the length of the street. No matter, the wife helped with me with my anger management and we found a place to park and catch a few quick pix before heading on our way.

I’ve been to Mulberry Street! THE Mulberry Street. Cool.