Saturday, February 26, 2011

Van Winkle and a Mess of Metaphors

Pietro Longhi's "The Confession" (1755). The Venetian artist
painted the wealthy and poor of his day queuing to unburden
themselves. Here at the Van Winkle Project we must do likewise...
The most significant thing that's happened to me of late can be seen on the right-hand margin of this blog.

A few days ago the counter that shows "Time Remaining Before I Awake" fell below two hundred.

This may not sound momentous, but as difficult as it has been  for me to get through the first 165 days of this project, I find myself claiming comfort wherever I can.

Hurray! I'm getting closer to the halfway point.

You see, I'm not exactly enjoying this regimen of keeping my eyes and ears away from television, newspapers, and a major chunk of the Internet or ordering my family to remain silent at the dinner table about whatever might be going on in any part of the world, large or small.

One reason for my discomfiture, which I've confessed at various points along the way, is that I tend to fail. Or to use the phrasing of old-timey alcoholics, I must confess that on occasion I have fallen off the wagon.

It's time to analyze what's been going wrong of late and develop a plan to do better with the remainder of my time "asleep."

It seems like there are three ways someone in my position can easily mess up. Conveniently, there's a metaphor for each.

1 - I'm a Cracked Egg

That would be Van Winkle (me) with the dent on the right...

It's hard to blame myself for those times when I happen to be in the presence of someone who reveals something about the news or developments in culture. I'm struck by their information like a fragile egg that's received a hammer tap. I'm not completely shattered, but my universally uninformed status has been cracked. A couple of quick examples:

- Someone in church mentions "the sad thing that happened in Tuscon" and asks us to "pray for the victims of the shooting."

- I see a person the week of the Super Bowl wearing a foam chunk of cheese on her head walking into the grocery store. The day after the game I overhear someone saying, "It was a tough day for us Pittsburgh fans." you think the Packers played the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV and won? Duh...

2 - I'm a Hungry Hibernatin' Bear

Van Winkle is a like a blissful sleeping bear until he stretches,
gets up and begins to groggily prowl...

The real Rip Van Winkle was a world-class sleeper. In his twenty-year uninterrupted sleep he outdid any bear hibernating throughout the winter. Bears are known to stir in their dens and briefly arise and then go back to sleep.

Somedays I'm more like one of those bears than I'm like Rip. Without completely realizing what I'm doing I flip open a newspaper or glance at a news magazine cover. It's not like I fill my belly with news. I just crunch upon stray words as if they were dried berries. Examples:

   - Republicans, House, Budget Cuts, Obama Reaches Out to Business

   - Egypt, Riots, Dictators Fall, Libya, Vow to Fight to Last Drop of Blood

3- I'm a Straw Attached to a Vacuum

Sometimes I long to suck up the news
without regard to consequences...

When I have misbehaved and actually betrayed the spirit of the Van Winkle Project it been by giving into temptation and starting to read an entire article including the following:

- A review of the Coen brothers latest film, a remake of True Grit. I found it irresistible. The Coen brothers have made some of my favorite movies (see The Big Lebowski and the Whole Brevity Thing), yet they've never shot anything but their own original scripts. What's up with this? Why True Grit, which with John Wayne in the 1968 lead role is already an Academy Award-winning classic and so who needs a remake?

- An article on the lawmakers meeting in our state capitol this year and suddenly dealing with a multi-billion dollar deficit whereas the last time around they still had been able to balance the budget using leftover money from flush times. My excuse for reading this? Well, as an educator I could be affected because if they start hacking at student loan money...

I learned something from my breakdowns and failures. Even having little chips off the news in the form of headline words or a picture here and there or an overhead remark is enough to assemble the larger picture. The mind can fill in the missing pieces.

I suppose this is why so much of the news is habitually boiled down to soundbites or crawls at the bottom of the television screen. It may not do justice to a complex, larger experience or issue, but it conveniently conveys just enough that people are happy to settle for it.

Recently my wife warned me: "If you start to hear more about certain things, then you might as well stop the whole project." That frankly frightened me. I've invested too much into my not knowing to have it all turn out to be a meaningless exercise.

So I've resolved to take the following steps.
  • Never take the newspaper out of the its plastic sleeve.
  • Make sure the copy of Newsweek is always lying cover-side down.
  • Keep my road vision high enough when I'm stopped at stop lights that I can't see bumperstickers.
  • Think about other things besides news, sports, entertainment, and weather.
  • Take lots of cold showers.
All right, that last bullet point is a joke, but if this project is to set me up for a windfall of missed information in something less than 165 days from now, I do need to remain where I've vowed to metaphorically be. Outside in the cold. - V.W.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Chance Meeting - Two Veterans

When I created this blog I vowed that there would be no political or religious opinions expressed herein. The reason for this is that I feel such material tends to divide people from one another wherever they are in the world.

Instead, I'd rather write about everyday wonder and memories and what strikes me as humorous. These are things that humans can mutually love and appreciate and they might bring us closer.

But I suppose it's possible something historical and harsh can bring us together as well. If nothing else, I hope in the wake of what I'm about to share we can stand shoulder to shoulder and affirm that the pain some military veterans still suffer is worthy of concern and grief. 

What follows then, in true Van Winkle style, isn't likely in the news headlines that I've forbidden myself to consult. Instead, it amounts to a wholly accidental, face-to-face discovery. I sat down to eat dinner and I ended up hearing the tale of Margaritte and Tyrone (names changed to respect their privacy), a husband and wife who were caught up in a horrific war.

There was no agenda as they told me their stories. It was an outpouring, as if they felt, "I have to finally tell someone what happened over there."

He fell in love with her hands...
So I am at a writing festival this past Thursday-Saturday and it is on the campus of a college which happens to be a few miles away from a major U.S. Air Force base.

At dinner on Friday night I see a neatly dressed twenty-something couple sitting by themselves at one of the tables in the Theater Building. I get my shrimp cocktail, sit down beside them, and we introduce ourselves.

Margaritte works in the human resources department. Her husband Tyrone, who is wearing a sport coat and tie, has just begun his first week at a new job with a technology based organization.

Margaritte and Tyrone have not come to attend the writing festival. What happened is that Margaritte got an email earlier in the day from the festival organizers saying there was extra food and the university staff and spouses were invited to join us at the dinner at no charge.

So she told Tyrone about it and there they are--a free delicious meal is before them; it's a smart thing to do.

I finger a shrimp and begin to ask the first of my get-to-know-you questions.

":How did you two meet?"

"In the Army."

"Oh, really. What did you do?"

"I was a dental assistant and x-ray technician," Tyrone says.

"I was trained in heavy weapons and chemical weapons detection," Margaritte says.

"We met," Tyrone says. "when I took x-rays of her hand."

"Yeh, I slipped in the shower and I thought I broke my hand. It hurt!." Margaritte laughs. "Then I get it x-rayed and Mr. Suave here tells me I have beautiful hands."

I tell them that's a nice story. Then I do it.

It's like stepping on a mine. Except at first it doesn't go off. If anything maybe there's just a little "click." The "click" is in their eyes when I ask, "Did you ever go to Iraq or Afghanistan?"

They're thinking. Should we tell this stranger or not?

Margaritte: I moved up to the Kuwaiti border 48 hours before the deadline we gave Saddam expired. I was inside a tank. The deadline came and went and we rolled in. It took us a week and a half and then I was in Baghdad.

VW: Did you think you would find weapons of mass destruction?

Margaritte: No. But we tried! We found stuff. All of it was ours.

VW: What do you mean ours?

Tyrone: The U.S. gave Saddam weapons in the '80s when he was fighting a war with Iran.

Margaritte: We knew he had it. We gave it to him.

VW: If it wasn't about WMD, why did you think we were invading the country? Was it for the oil? Or bad intelligence?

Margaritte: We wanted to have a government in there that would be friendly to us and do what we told it do. That's all. It was regime change.

Margaritte: At first they wouldn't let us shoot unless we were shot at. We couldn't believe it. It was crazy!

Tyrone: Saddam had his Republican Guards, but most of the Iraqi army was just a bunch of men who they found and stuck guns in their hands. A million of them. All of these people are suddenly out of work. And we're surrounded by them.

"We were told to do things we had no training for..."
Margaritte: The Army told us we had to go on patrol. We were told to do things we had no training for. They should have called in the scouts, but they'd tell me to go clear a house. I have no idea how to clear a house. I refused.

Tyrone: I'm a dental assistant. They put me on street patrol. There was looting going on and we just watched it. They told us to report it. So we'd get on the radio and tell them where the looters were and where they had moved to next.

Margaritte: One of the myths was that women weren't in combat. I was walking around with a rifle in my hand. Before that I was manning the 50-caliber machine gun on a tank. I was in a fire fight. After three hours I couldn't hear anything. I could only see the tracers and RPGs going by. It all appeared in slow motion. We'd move to a new position, they'd find us and start shooting again. After 24 hours I couldn't do it anymore.

Tyrone: There was no "insurgency." It was all various tribes fighting us and each other. They started sending women suicide bombers to check points because they knew Americans wouldn't pat them down the same as men. After one week when 9 Americans got blown up that way the higher ups changed the plan. Now we could shoot and ask questions later.

"It was totally misreported..."
 Margaritte (still thinking about the women's role in the Army issue): That Jessica Lynch thing. It was totally misreported. She was injured all right, but she ended up in an Iraqi hospital. The Iraqis tried to give her back to us twice. But we wanted to stage a rescue to look good for the folks back home.

Tyrone: And they didn't report, too, that the Iraqis after they killed everyone else in that convoy, they beheaded the bodies and buried the heads in the sand. They thought it would keep them from going to heaven. I know. Because I was involved in identifications. You know, dental records.

Tyrone: We met some special forces from Macedonia. I said you're from Macedonia? What are you doing here? And they told us. We don't follow the Geneva Convention. That's why you want us here.

Margaritte: Abu Ghraib that was all misreported. You can look today. None of the military personnel they identified as the perpetrators are in jail. You look at those photos and you know these people didn't do this torture because they were just sitting around and felt bored.

Tyrone: Yes. Look at the photos. It's all done according to the textbook. The torturers were trained. Then they left and the reservists were fall guys.

Margaritte: That's why I got out. I couldn't take any more of the Geneva violations. The stuff we were willing to do.

Tyrone: You want to know about the Surge? The Surge isn't what stopped the bombings and the violence. Adding those troops wasn't enough to make that kind of difference. What happened was that they turned loose the special forces and they went out in  assassination teams. At Fallujah they surrounded the city and they let out the women, the very young, and very old. They made the males age 9 to 60 stay inside. Then they killed them. All of them.

VW: If the media failed to cover this, why didn't soldiers speak out about some of these things. Or at least tell their families? They had access to the Internet and...

Tyrone: The Army controlled what you sent on the Internet or said on the phone.

Margaritte: If you were standing in line to use the phone and someone ahead of you said something they shouldn't, they'd suddenly say the phones were down. In the whole country! Once I sitting around while some officers were talking and I had a notebook. I was doodling in it. An officer came over and took it away from me. Even after I showed him I hadn't written anything.

After the couple got out of the Army it was clear that Margaritte suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, something the Army has been reluctant to acknowledge is a legitimate combat caused disorder. She is now part of a class-action lawsuit (Sabo v. United States) to receive benefits and care for this injury. She admits, "No one thinks you have it. You look normal on the outside. But you're not normal on the inside."

When Margaritte enrolled in college one of the first classes she took was history. She dreaded the possibility that the class might reach the Iraq War as it moved forward in time. It did. When she spoke out about a few things she experienced she was told by two 18-year-olds, "You were never there!" Another student took another line of attack and called her a "baby killer."

Hearing that I understood why the couple was so reluctant to speak in the first place. But I couldn't help thinking they deserved to be heard. Maybe they weren't eyewitnesses to everything they claimed, but they actually had their boots on the desert ground while the rest of us were sitting at home in comfort. They put their lives in harm's way every day.

I'm sad to see them end up this way. Conflicted about what they did. Feeling used and abandoned by the people in power.

I hope they are successful in what they're trying to do nowadays. Move on, raise their son, and forget about those bad years of their lives except whenever the nightmares still overtake them in the dark. - V.W.


Friday, February 18, 2011

An Oprah Reading Fantasy (Black History Month - Part 3)

At this point  I suppose no one needs to heap praise upon or call further attention to Oprah Winfrey.

Who is this woman? Just one of the best known people on the planet, that's all.

Yet, as I conclude this series on Black History Month, I would like to point to Oprah as one of the few celebrities who manages to deliver to us a valuable paradox.

Oprah is not a case of "what you see is what you get." Think about it. Here is a person who comes to the us via the borders defined by a box and moves around with complete comfort and ease in that medium, She is so successful in the realm of the glowing rectangle that she has virtually owned daytime TV for decades.

Nevertheless it is Oprah who has been using television to tell us that we, in effect, need to turn off our TVs. She reminds us that we are missing out on something huge if we don't shun the "boob tube" from time to time and make room in our lives to read more books.

A while ago Oprah devoted an entire issue of her magazine to books and authors. One can see: this is someone who takes reading very seriously.


If I keep unwrapping the mystery of Oprah, I find a further paradox. The woman who loves reading so very much that she had constructed a personal library to die for has a very different story lurking in her background. As an African-American, Oprah is a descendant of slaves. One of the strongest prohibitions that slaves lived with was that they were not allowed to learn how to read.

The slave masters understood. Access to books could begin to erode their power structure. Ignorant slaves were the most malleable. Books, by contrast, taught a man or a woman how to think for himself. They delivered identity. Books could become keys and gateways to freedom.

Frederick Douglass
In the famous Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, American Slave, the author notes that, " it is almost an unpardonable offence to teach slaves to read in this Christian country," but Douglass got around this high wall when his "kindly" Mistress taught him the alphabet.

He took those 26 letters and literally ran with them.

Douglass tells how as he went on errands for the master he took a book with him and got the white children in the neighborhood to give him informal lessons in reading. And his eyes were opened...

Douglass was born in 1818. Nearly two hundred years later Oprah Winfrey, born in a world that no longer withholds literacy from anyone, asks all of us to remember what reading can do for us. At the same time, the pressures not to read books increase.

We're busy. We spend hours on the Internet doing casual, superficial reading of emails, Facebook posts, websites, and yes, blogs. And if we finally wish to turn our attention to a full-blown narrative, it's easier and faster to pop a DVD into the Blu-ray player than to crack the cover of a book.

I think Oprah understands what's happening. With her Book Club she has not only performed the role formerly played by influential critics and teachers who singled out works that everyone should read, she has also tried to create a culture of reading. She promotes the idea that one can enjoyably and profitably gather with friends who are reading the same book and discuss it.

Advocating the idea of reading these days is like trying to roll a rock up a steep hill. Will the rock make it to the crest or will it roll down upon us? I honestly don't know. Reading may become more and more a niche activity that goes through frequent bursts of revival (like knitting) and at the same time never reclaims the more thoroughgoing popularity it had, say, at the height of the paperback revolution in the 1950s. That was before television and movies began to siphon away the mass audience.

I suspect that without Oprah things would be worse. Fewer people would be reading and many books she's brought to their attention over the years would be vastly neglected.

I think of the time a few years ago when I was on an airplane and I saw a woman reading a thick trade paperback of my all-time favorite novel.

Anna Karenina.

Who on earth would be reading Count Tolstoy's masterpiece? It's rarely studied even in college. It's too long and perhaps not obtuse enough for lit professors who think wrestling with "difficulty" is the purpose of their discipline.

Then I saw the sticker on the front cover and I understood: A.K. was an Oprah Book Club Selection.

How remarkable are the twists and turns of history. I can imagine Oprah, this descendant of those who were forbidden to read, paying a visit today to the white-washed, stately, suburban home of the great, great, great, great grandchildren of those who owned the slaves. Just after dinner she rings their door bell.

Ding-dong! Very sonorous and impressive! But...

When no one answers, Oprah shyly opens the door and looks around. No wonder no one heard the doorbell. Inside the white-washed, stately, suburban home the parents and four children are:

  • Playing video games
  • Watching TVs and movies on high definition screens.
  • Noodling around at their computers.
  • Texting on their phones

Oprah looks about, shakes her head, and at last speaks.

"What's wrong with all of you? Why aren't you reading?"

And it's true. There are shelves in the house, but on them rest knick knacks and DVDs. Other than some obscure tomes obviously chosen for their decorative cachet, there isn't a book in sight.

The family hears the commotion as Oprah strides through the house, moving from room to room. Each, in turn, looks at her, noting the strong voice in their midst, but their eyes remain vacuous, unfocused.

"Don't you get it?" Oprah shouts. "You've all become slaves!"

In desperation she places a stack of Book Club books on the dining room table where perhaps the family will stumble upon them the next time they sit down to eat their microwave meals. Then she departs and tries the house next door...

The family members in the white-washed, stately, suburban home turn back to their individual screens and diversions. I'm sorry to report that hour after hour the loudest sound in the house is the clanking of chains. If you've ever been around slaves, then you know the harsh truth. You can only free those who actually want to be free. Not even Oprah Winfrey can change that. - V.W.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Clifford Brown, A Life in Jazz (Black History Month - Part 2)

Life is odd. Horrible things can happen (like my ancestors owning human beings as slaves, see previous VWP post), but from such horrible things sometimes quite different states of being emerge. Unambiguously good things.

Like jazz.

If African-Americans had never been loaded aboard slave ships and brought to a distant land, if they had remained just what they were, Africans, who would have invented this most American of music?

And without jazz I wouldn't be telling the story of quite likely the greatest and least known trumpeter of all time.

Clifford Brown.

Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Tchaikovsky. This was the music I grew up with. My father wanted his sons to be exposed to the best of culture, and in the Western world, European classical music was considered to be at the pinnacle of the human effort to turn instruments and notes into compelling sounds.

My first musical love...classical music.
Our father purchased stacks of RCA and Columbia Masterwork records at what happened to be a propititious moment. He could still get his boys' attention by dropping the needle on, say, a Rachmaninoff piano concerto.

A few years later, though, the British Invasion of rock 'n' roll roared ashore in America. Our ears tuned into a new sound. Goodbye, Ludwig. Roll over, Beethoven!

Oh, I still liked, even loved, classical music, but it took a backseat in my musical interests. Rock music was so much more dashboard and steering wheel direct. For starters it was louder and the singers sang words about what was on their minds.

Classical music, on the other hand, was more of an extended impression of a feeling, that gradually unfolded and shaped the listener's soul over time. Why a symphony might require an entire forty minutes of listening! Rock music tended to serve up three-minutes doses of sound that gouged, carved, and stomped the psyche in satisfying ways.

If classical music was courtship and seduction and love letters written back and forth, rock music was a vivid one-night stand, a sudden jolt of a drug to the head...

But where was jazz in those days? Actually, we were living in the golden age of it, the late 1950s and early 1960s, but I had no idea. I heard jazz, in a degraded or altered form, and no one told me that was what it was.

Call it jazz...because it sorta is.
Jazz was in Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther Theme". It was in every other note of the elevator music of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. It was even in the only instrumental The Beatles ever wrote, the blues inflected "Flying" on their Magical Mystery Tour album, and in the lonely saxophone wail of "Us and Them" on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

And why was it I loved the massed brass, and most of all the horn solos, when I sat down and listened to the Blood, Sweat and Tears album or one of those classic numbered double albums by Chicago--I, II and III?

I was starting to hear the music I was destined to fall in love with.

Decades later I probably listen to more jazz on a daily basis than any other kind of music. I'm no jazz expert, but I like how jazz shares with classical music the idea of being a musical impression of an emotion. I like too how, unlike classical, the musicians have the freedom to solo and display their technical virtuosity as well as express how they're feeling while the tune progresses.

I'm still making discoveries in jazz. Like the trumpeter Clifford Brown aka "Brownie."

For me it's like finding out that between Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms there was another equally great composer, but somehow I never heard of him until now.

Of course, anyone who is very conversant in jazz will have heard of Brownie, but the casual jazz listener not so much. In fact, no one even assayed a book-length biography of the man until 2001.

It's not that Clifford Brown didn't have the chops to match Miles Davis. He did and then some. It's not that he didn't play with the greats of his time like Art Blakey, Max Roach, and Sonny Rollins, He did. It's that he died young. Way too young.

Brownie was just getting started.

It is the summer of '56 and it is Clifford Brown's wedding anniversary. Normally he and his wife LaRue travel from gig to gig together. They have a baby this year and they would even bring the baby along.

In those days the jazz musician typically traveled by car. It's a hard way to make a living even if you're 25-year-old Clifford Brown who is seen by critics as the next great jazz star. He already has an album whose title sum up the possibilities:

New Star on the Horizon.

Brownie doesn't take wife LaRue and baby Clifford, Jr. on the trip on June 25, 1956. LaRue goes to her mother's house because she had never met her grandson. And it is her birthday. Yes, she and Clifford had married on her birthday two years earlier.

The birthday party is being held at the home of saxophonist Harold Land and his wife. Land isn't in the current incarnation of the Clifford Brown quartet, but he remains a close friend. Someone comes over and says there's a call for LaRue at her mother's house down the street.

Brownie has been playing at Music City, a jazz club in Philadelphia. After the show the band packs up, drummer Max Roach and Sonny "Newk" Rollins, the saxophonist in one car. Brownie travels with his pianist Richie Powell (younger brother of the great pianist Bud Powell) and Richie's wife in the other car. They hit the road, caravan style, Roach and Rollins in the lead car.

The band is headed to Chicago for more music making. Brownie and the Powells are riding in Brownie's 1955 Buick.

It is raining as June 25 heads toward June 26, 1956.

After midnight, Brownie's car stops off on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Bedford, PA to buy gas. It's the last time Brownie and the Powells are seen alive.

Nancy Powell, who is now driving, misses a curve, smashes through a guardrail, and the car falls down a 75-foot embankment.

The rain continues to fall.

"...BROWN IS BEAUTIFUL." - Kalamu ya Saaam, poet/author
If Clifford Brown had lived, then what? For one thing, I wouldn't be writing a blog post about him in 2011 anymore than there's a need for someone to post about Miles Davis and what a great jazz musician he was. Everyone with even passing familiarity with jazz would know the name.

Brownie's solo for "Daahoud"
Brownie only had five years in which he recorded and played and positioned himself in the forefront of the future of jazz. It is an amazing accomplishment that is validated by the recordings. Sometimes Brownie's playing is, no other way to put it, jaw dropping the way you listen to a Charlie Parker sax solo and wonder how any human can have the breath and finger speed to produce such sounds. Other times, with the riotous bebop pushed to the background and replaced by a ballad, Brownie is simply moving and soulful.

He could do it all. Always his horn playing is impeccable and intelligent and commands my attention.

But there's one more thing that's always mentioned about Brownie. In an age when many jazz musicians followed the Charlie Parker model of dissipation--burn bright and burn out young--Brownie was a clean living family man. He didn't touch drugs. He was gentle and kindly. This is not myth making. It's what all those who knew him said upon learning of his death. The world had lost a great jazz musician and a great human being.

There were tapes in the trunk of the 1955 Buick that took Brownie to his death. He liked to record his rehearsals and gigs on his own reel to reel machine. Only one of the tapes was labeled, which means that as the tapes have finally come out on CDs in recent years people are left to guess where and when Brownie is playing. But what really matters is that he is playing. He will keep on playing. That's my definition of classical. - V.W.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

The White Album (Black History Month - Part 1)

Even though we probably don't think of it very often, I'm sure most of us would agree that at least some of today's news derives from what was once news in the past, but we now choose to call it "history."

For example, a "new" military conflict turns out to be just a revival of an ancient war. The animosities and divisions have never been healed.

This month in America happens to be devoted to a study and appreciation of the life and times of African-Americans. I find this fertile soil for my thoughts and dreams as I reside in my Van Winkled state.

You see, there's much that happened back in the early days of America that affects every breath I take today whether I read the headlines or not...

Years ago, my grandmother on my father's side took all the faded sepia and black and white photos that had been stashed in an old trunk and shoe boxes and she pasted them onto photo album pages like this...

As I turn the pages I see men with squashed down hats, women in flouncy, long dresses, children with dirty knees and scissor cut hair.

As for these old ones' predecessors, I'm left to guess at their garb and dimensions because they inconveniently lived before the age of the camera. I assume I would see much the same thing as in my photo album, minus the occasional glimpse of a spindly Model T Ford in the background.

White faces. No black faces.

Page after page of just white faces, ...

There's a reason why it's worth remarking the absence of something in these pictures.

A long time ago, I encountered the hard documentary evidence. My family in long ago days owned slaves.

Over 150 years later I think it's necessary and just that I claim those black men, women and children as something more important than the chickens and mules and the dogs and cats that wandered in and out of the barnyard.

They were human beings who shared their lives with my ancestors. They were purchased and then expected to labor and in return they received food and broken down houses to live in and maybe some cast-off clothes.

In their forced degradation, they lived and died alongside my kin. I think that's enough to make them part of my family.

In 1976 my Great Uncle John went to the copy shop and placed on the glass the first page of over 100 carefully typed pages and genealogical charts he had composed in his retirement. When he was finished he mailed copies of the resulting comb-bound, cardboard cover document, entitled In Search of Roots, to my paternal grandparents and each of their siblings. I started reading my father's copy.

My great, great, great grandfather...
ready to go to war for the South.
No surprise, there were no heroes in our family line, no artists, no inventors, not even any sports stars. I was disappointed, but I had to admit that there wouldn't be such a thing as "average" in this world if most people didn't fit that mold. Our family certainly did.

The one thing my ancestors had in common was their Southern heritage. On my great grandmother's side, they were from Kentucky. On my great grandfather's side, the side that gave me my surname, the family locus was Smith County, Tennessee.

From 1861-1865 at least a half dozen men bearing my last name fought, and some of them died, for the Confederate States of America.

These ancestors of mine weren't fighting to hang onto their wealth and a privileged existence such as that of the Southern plantation owner. In my family all of the men had small farms and large families. And, as I learned to my dismay, they had slaves to help them get the work done.

This is when at light bulb illuminated for me: slavery was such a widespread way of life in the southern United States that one didn't have to be rich to own slaves. It was part of agrarian life. Just like you had buckets, wheel barrows, and shovels, you purchased some slaves and they helped work the land.

In the age before photography, newspapers printing engravings
of drawings that showed what a slave sale looked like.
One of the first pieces of paper that Great Uncle John found as he began to authenticate where the family was living before the Civil War was a bill of sale for a slave purchased in 1856. Who was this person who was bought and sold by my family? I don't know.

But as my great uncle engaged in further research he unearthed a paper trail of wills that offered up a treasure trove of names.

In 1845 in Smith County one of my ancestors bequeathed to his wife "the tract of land whereon I now live & the following negroes..."

Their names were...

James, Adam and Sisley.

The will continues in the very same sentence to blandly leave to the wife after these three human beings "two bedsteads and furniture and as much other household & kitchen furniture as may be necessary for her convenient support, also my Black mare and the Toney filly and as much of my stock of cattle, hogs, sheep, and farming tools as will be necessary for her to have."

In the eyes of the law, and my distant relations, James, Adam and Sisley were property, just like kitchen furniture and the hogs.

That noted, the will isn't finished yet with disposing of the slaves...

Item four offers a bequest to a grand daughter named Elizabeth of "my negro girl by the name of Mary."

Item six bequeaths to a son Henderson upon the death of his mother "my negro man James and woman Sisley & hur (sic) increase from this time."

Item seven bequeaths to a son Sanders "my negro boy Andy, and at the death of his mother my negro man Adam."

I'm getting depressed reading and thinking about this, but I'm not quite to the end yet.

In item eight daughter Frances is to receive "my negro girl Cinthy and I have a negro boy by the name of Hillard that is afflicted and if he gets well I wish him to remain in my family..."

In 1863, while the War Between the States raged on, the aforementioned Henderson who had received James and Sisley from his father, sat down and wrote his will in "a low state of health but in sound memory..."

After bequeathing 280 acres of land to his wife he added "all my Negroes (to wit) Gim, Sisley, Alexander, Suix, Em, and my interest in Harry the Blacksmith," then goes on in the same sentence to dispense "horses, cattle, hogs, sheep, household and kitchen furniture, and farming tools."

What names might have gone with these faces toiling in the field?

A slightly kinder picture emerges from the will written by a maternal ancestor living in Casey County, Kentucky in 1848.

She lists her slaves: Mary, Rose, Eliza, Hiram, Robert, Malinda, Reuben, Oliver, Mack, Barnett, James, John, Sampson, Mariah, Mary, Elizabeth, Sally, Francis and Josephine...and then she provides that after her death they be hired out for five years and then the heirs shall...

A new home for freed slaves?
"constitute a general fund for the benefit of all my slaves...and (they) and their increase are to be free upon the condition they remove to Africa...settling them in Liberia or any other African colony to which they may desire to emigrate and which will be be open for the Emigration of Free persons of Color."

Were Mary, Rose, Eliza, Hiram, Malinda, Reuben, Oliver, Mack, Barnett, James, John, Sampson, Mariah, Mary, Elizabeth, Sally, Francis and Josephine ever given their freedom? Did they make the long journey to Africa? If so, did they survive and thrive?

I don't know. It's a family mystery.

Yes, I'm sorry that my ancestors owned slaves and actually did so with free consciences because they honestly didn't believe people from Africa were fully human. But there's a bit more to be sorry for.

What happened after the Civil War when those slaves were freed was far from an automatic redress of past wrongs.

My father still remembers a succession of "colored" people who were in his life, including some who lived in a shack out at the edge of the farm. Supposedly they were now "free," but life remained adamantly hardscrabble. They helped out by performing chores, including hauling water from the well  a long distance to the farmhouse. They left when my father's father decided he ought to charge them some rent. The shack they were living in was turned into a chicken coop.

White Southerners at the time liked to point out bright spots in race relations. I suppose one came in the form of several black women who cared for my father when he was young. The first was Ida who actually wore a maid's uniform. He doesn't remember Ida, but he says somewhere there is a picture, now lost, of him and Ida sitting on the porch. How I wish I could have found that one spot of non-whiteness in our family album!

Then there was Susie Lacy. My father remembered her very well, including her husband with the unusual name of Clearview Lacey. Susie made such an impression on him that when my brothers and I were children, he took us back to the farm and drove around looking for something. Off a dirt road he eventually found an old, toothless black woman sitting on the porch of a stack of boards that was supposed to be a house. Yes, Susie remembered him. Wasn't that fine! He'd grown up and had sons of his own. My father gave her some silver dollars and kind words.

What else could he do? Progress in those days when Dr. King was just beginning his sit-ins and marches was slow. My father's father, a kindly Christian farmer, had only recently transitioned from saying the "n" word to "nig-ra." He couldn't quite get himself to say "Negro," though now and then he talked about the "colored folks." I'm sure he died without the word "African-American" ever coming out of his mouth.

Each generation is arguably less racist, but that cannot mend the past. There is no help for James, Adam, Sisley...Mary, Rose, Eliza, Hiram, Robert, Malinda, Reuben, Oliver, Mack, Barnett, James, John, Sampson, Mariah, Mary, Elizabeth, Sally, Francis and Josephine and all the others who crossed paths with my ancestors. They were falsely judged to be dumb and ignorant creatures by people who themselves were ignorant--in a way I can only hope will never happen again. - V.W.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Death and Taxes and Super Bowl

What I did in lieu of watching the big game... in seven movements...

1 - I'm At Home
I piddle around on Sunday afternoon. I look out the window and I'm glad to see that what was left of the snow and ice that trapped us inside the house for nearly three days last week is gone.

I try not to think about my friend.

When will the services for her be held? What is going to happen to her office down the hall from mine? What about the 120 students she would have taught this semester?

I'm almost certain I'm violating some unwritten rule of blogging.

Don't write about death.

Keep everything light and frothy. People mostly read these things to be amused. And it's Super Bowl Sunday.

I should act like a real American.

Americans don't want to cry. That's why we have "celebrations of life," not "funerals." We always look for the silver lining...or we just don't look. And we move on...

2 - I Go Shopping
At 5:25, as one team is kicking off to another in Dallas, Texas, I head to the grocery store. It is raining lightly. I look at the parking lot and I'm surprised. I'm not the only one who isn't at home watching the big game.

Attention, shoppers. It's 5:25 CST and there's
a Super Bowl on Aisle XLV...

The store isn't crowded, but it is far from empty. Of course, earlier in the day one can assume it was a madhouse of shoppers stocking up on treats for their Super Bowl parties.

I can see the evidence on key aisles [photo below].

As I am checking out, the young,  blue-eyed, red-headed clerk who has a tag that says "Hailey" asks me, "Why aren't you watching the Super Bowl?" I think, "Why are you asking me and not the 200 other people in this store?"

Before I can briefly tell her about the VWP, Hailey blurts out, "The Packers are ahead by two touchdowns."

"Actually, I'm avoiding all the news and the game as part of a year-long project I'm blogging about," I interject.

"Oh no! Then I wasn't supposed to say that." I can't tell if Hailey is apologetic or just amused. Maybe both.

"Don't worry. People say things that I can't help overhearing. Or they wear the jerseys. I'm not blind. I knew it was the Steelers vs. Green Bay. You just gave me one more thing to blog about."

I wonder how many people bought rice, corn and wheat Chex cereal
to make "Chex mix" for the big game? More than a few?

3 - I Work on My Taxes
Once the groceries are put away I begin the second part of my alternative to watching the Super Bowl.

The Van Winkle Tax Bowl.

At 7:25 CST as half-time nears, I'm loading
TurboTax and getting down to business...

I load TurboTax onto my computer which unexpectedly takes 20 minutes and then five more minutes for the program to search for and load on-line updates. But I'm not complaining.

Each year the simple Q & A format and the built-in calculators spare me the agony of puzzling over the tax forms and the impenetrable IRS instructions and then punching calculator buttons.

Without the tax software it would take me hours of work instead of 45 minutes. I would likely have some kind of breakdown and have to be hospitalized...

There it is again. I'm thinking about my friend. The last time I saw her was on Monday of Super Bowl Week. She was on pain meds and speaking softly. She was reconciled, imagining, as she put it, "Not waking up one morning," and "then I'll be in a better place." She spoke of all the people who kept coming by to express their love for her.

"You can have money in the bank or a job title," she said. "It isn't profound. Everyone knows. All that matters is love. I can't go to the bank and take dollars out, rub them on my forehead and feel love."

4 - I Look at the Numbers
Then I am done. Super Bowl XLV is likely gone into the record books. This year calculating our taxes took more time than in the past, partly because I wasted 15 minutes looking in the garage for an official DIV statement on a money market account in which we have a decent nest egg that earned a sum total of interest in 2010 of around 55 cents. Welcome to America post- financial collapse.

Still , there is the good news I hoped for: We don't owe the U.S. Government any money. Instead, we are going to get back a decent tax refund.

What I really want back is my friend.

5 - I Relive the Shock
My friend now has something in common with me. She doesn't know who won the Super Bowl either. You see, she passed away in hospice the day before the game. A few weeks ago she was like me. She stood at the photocopier and made copies of her syllabuses to hand out at the start of the new semester. New students, new names. She was ready to go!

Except she wasn't feeling well. She was in pain. Another professor took away her papers and told her to go home.

The next day they put her in the hospital for tests. Exploratory surgery would follow. Someone purchased a card and put it in the work room for everyone to sign. A cheerful card that would prove wildly inappropriate.

Someone got a get well card like this for us to sign...
After we heard the diagnosis we knew.
Such a card would never be sent.
She had Stage 3C ovarian cancer that had already spread throughout her abdomen. Because of a virus her heart was working at only 20%, and that meant they couldn't give her chemo or operate further. At that point she calmly accepted these facts and began preparing for the end.

It came little more than a week later.

And now begin the summations and orations. With words we try to hold onto a body and soul.

6 - I Grieve
She loved frogs and her office was decorated with them in every shape and form. Her students used to give her plastic frogs. She told them that f-r-o-g stood for "fully reliant on God."

She had a life-size cardboard cut-out of Spock from Star Trek standing in a corner of her office.

At home she loved her pug dog.

Even though she had strong competition from the wits and cut-ups and grown-up class clowns that populate English faculties she was, in my estimate, the funniest person around.

She audited two of my creative writing classes because she always was interested in learning. She was a darn good poet and story teller.

She wrote a story about a one-armed man who could roll cigarettes with one hand and who thought he saw a panther in a Texas alfalfa field. Years later, I still remember it.

She was middle-aged, but she sometimes dyed her hair magenta and wore jeweled glasses.

She was white, but every Sunday she attended an African-American church.

She grew up among rednecks, but from an early age she recognized racism for what it was. She spoke with horror of being in school the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The class of white children broke into applause. She would spend the rest of her life speaking out against that kind of ignorance and evil.

She died at the beginning of Black History Month. That time always held significance for her.

She came to academic late in life after a career in business. That's why she only had an M.A. and her title was "instructor." This meant that effectively she never gained the same respect as the profs who had PhDs and terminal degrees. But she had other credentials that in my mind exceeded most of those our
résumés boasted about.
7 - And Some Day Comes Acceptance?
Another year's taxes are  now done. After 13 years of knowing her, my friend is dead. Life keeps subtracting from my accounts, but I think she would remind me to look at the other side of the picture. Every day something is added into my life.

I just have to pay attention and find out what it is. - V.W.

The outside of her office.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

4 Super Bowl Ads We'd Like to See

In 2005 aired this uber realistic portrayal
of corporate life in America...Pass the bananas, please.
Today Super Bowl viewers around the world will be entertained by the commercials that debut during interludes in the game.

The best talent at top advertising agencies pull out all stops to startle, amaze, or just get a huge laugh. They have to.

The "spots" in the recent past have cost as much as $3 million for 30 seconds. Think about it. That's $100,000 for every tick of the clock.

Read this sentence.

That was $100,000 that just flew past your eyes.

Best Fantasy Ad Nominees
Because of the strictures and injunctions of the Van Winkle Project, I am not allowed to watch Super Bowl XLV. I won't have any idea what drama unfolds on the field, nor will I know which commercials people will be talking about around the mythical "water cooler" on Monday morning.

To compensate for this, I've made up some 30- and 60-second spots of my own. I figure if you can have "fantasy football," why not "fantasy football commercials"?

1 - APPLE COMPUTER - "Humility"
There's hardly an organization that's more successful than the dream team pairing of Steve Jobs and Apple. Before they even release a product and price it, the world is lining up and clamoring to buy it.

Apple also has the distinction of its 1984 Super Bowl "Big Brother" commercial.

"Big Brother" had cinema-quality production values, a then innovative use of veritable black and white, and an audacious, storyline that refused to directly tell viewers what the product was and that they needed to buy it.

For these reasons "Big Brother" is regarded by many ad pros as the greatest TV spot of all time. Apple swung the hammer at the IBM PC and they scored.

Apple knew all along. Apparel is a major consideration
when buying a computer.
Apple also gets high marks for a passive aggressive approach in its more recent Mac vs. PC ads. Call them arch, call them snarky, but to stand on the sidelines and just grin sadly in your hoody and jeans as you portray your competition as a lumpy, dumpy boob in khakis, this was brilliant.

And effective. Apple was so cool, that they could make arrogance and mockery look like socially acceptable behavior.

Surely Apple realizes that success brings with it a danger. The consumer could start to root for the underdog.

Apple with its dominant electronic-device triumvirate of iPod, iPhone, and iPad could start to resemble the Big Brother of its ad of 37 years ago. If so, it's hammer time...

I suggest that Apple run the following 30-second "Humility" ad during Super Bowl:

Meet the new Jobs...Not the same as the old Jobs...

Steve Jobs in trademark blue jeans and black turtleneck sitting on a stool on an empty stage with a blue curtain background. He speaks to an unseen audience.

SJ: No one ever apologizes for success. Nobody. Least of all me. But Apple is a company that's all about surprises. We go where no one has ever before. Therefore, today, at a cost of $100,000 per second, I apologize to the World. With the seductive allure of a cocktail waitress we've sold way too many of our good looking toys.We've helped you waste time. We've made possible the family meal where Dad reads The New Republic on his iPad, Mom is listening to a Sarah Palin podcast on her iPod, and the kids are texting Justin Beiber on their iPhones.

[Pause as Jobs points to a Keynote slide with graphic that is projected on curtain behind him...]

SJ: Today I am announcing Apple's Special Buy-Back program. If you bought an Apple product of any kind in the past year, we'll buy it back at a 10% premium, no questions asked. Please help us at Apple to wallow in some humility. Tell us you don't love us unconditionally. Let us give you money to disown us. That way we'll both make history since no company has ever bought back its own products for no reason whatsoever.

[Pause as new graphic goes up and Jobs gestures toward it...]

SJ: And should you change your mind after the buy-back, we'll be announcing at some vague point in time, can't even hint at it, a new convergence product that is a game-changer and...

[Screen goes black.]

"Let's Bring Back the Reign of Terror"
The Budweiser Clydesdales are an iconic representation of this global brewer of beer that harken back to the days when their product was not made in gigantic factories.

These beautiful horses pulling the beer to market or being allowed to frolic in the field, help beer drinkers feel warm and fuzzy about their latest frosted one. Wrapped in metaphorical sweaty horsehide, a Bud truly becomes a "bud."

The challenge with the Clydesdale spots is to keep thinking of things for the horses to do short of entering the Kentucky Derby. We've seen the horses play football with each other and go on sundry outings. What's left? Crank up the Way Back Machine, Sherman. It's time to travel to those "heady" days of the French Revolution...

The poor Clydesdales have been forced to pull a wagon load of prisoners to the guillotine. But wait! The lead horses look at each other, nod, and go for it! They defy their driver and veer down a side street in Paris.

 The driver whips the Clydes to no avail and then tumbles off the wagon as the horses knock over a large barrel of beer. The prisoners jump off the wagon and are untied by peasants. Everyone is standing knee-deep in beer and praising the horses and toasting la liberte with Buds.

 We end with a close-up Marie Antoinette who has come into the street and has her own mug of foamy delight.

 "Let them trink Budweiser," she says in a charming Austro-Hungarian accent tangled up with French. "And ray-mem-bair. Drink responsibly. Don't drink and drive or... you might looze ze head!"

3 - PEPSI - "Sugar, Sugar..."
In 2010 Pepsi received a logo makeover because its war against Coke never ends and it needs every edge it can get. Pepsi is capable of stumbling massively (e.g., setting Michael Jackson's hair on fire during a commercial shoot) as is Coke (New Coke), so there's a lot at stake in any new ad.

Taking a cue from our fantasy Apple ad, it might be good if Pepsi did something counterintuitive and, at the same time, trendy. They can run an ad positioning themselves as the leader in the world's effort to move toward sugar water cessation. And we're not talking about Diet Pepsi here.

No, what Pepsi should introduce is a new product that is the beverage equivalent of the Nicotine Patch. A way to wean people off their unnatural desire to have the water they drink always taste sweet.

It's not enough to offer bottled water, Pepsi needs to pioneer a way to help sugar addicts find their way back to the natural stuff.

Introducing Pip-si.

Yes, you buy this Pepsi variant drink in a different six-pack each week at the store. Each Pip-si set is designed to give you a gradually, slightly less sweet taste. In a year's time (after drinking vat-loads of this stuff, which equals mega $$$ for Pepsi), you'll finally discover that H20 tastes great...because that's what you're actually drinking by now. Cans of water that you paid $1.99 for.

4 -  GEICO INSURANCE - "The Resurrection"
A lizard is the mascot of a company that sells car insurance? Pure genius! Does it make sense? Only a little. Gecko sounds like Geico. Is it original? Not if you've seen the Budweiser lizard ads from the 1990s.

But does it work? You bet! Overnight, a boring insurance company had an identity. Reptiles are hip!

But after a while they're also a bit cold-blooded. How can we warm up the Geico gecko? The answer is to refresh the image and get people talking about the little guy again.

So here's what we do...

We turn him into roadkill.

But that's not all. After a Mustang convertible rips past and the reptile is made to resemble a  green piece of Wrigley's gum in the first 10 seconds of the spot, we pay homage to a classic film.


The Geico lizard is resurrected by a cute, kindly little girl who reaches down and...touches him. Presto! He reaquires three dimensions and comes back to life!

She carries him home lovingly cupped in the palm of her hand.

And as for the jerk in the Mustang who ran him over? He has a lapsed policy with another insurance company. He's sued and the last we see he's being led away manacled to a home behind razor wire while our lizard hero puts his hands on his slim hips and flicks his tongue. Which, of course, is how lizards laugh their little behinds off...

- V.W.