Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Words the Sisters Taught Me

I was thinking recently, apropos of nothing , about the words and concepts introduced into my very young brain in elementary school some 74 years ago at St. Anthony's School in Atlanta. At the end of second grade, having arrived at the Age of Reason, we were prepared for our First Communion, preceded by out First Confession. We had already been apprised of the concept of sin, both Mortal and Venial. We had studied the Baltimore Catechism: Q.Who made you? A. God made me. Q. Why did God make you? A. To love Him and serve Him ...and so on and so on.

These questions and answers got more complicated as we made our way through succeeding grades, with very long answers to very complex questions, most of which were forgotten as soon as the answer had been memorized and parroted back to Sister Mary Frantic, et. al. We had to memorize the Ten Commandments and the Seven Sacraments, but not the Seven Deadly Sins, mainly because I don't think the nuns particularly wanted to have to explain Lust. It was bad enough getting past Adultery really fast before some smart ass kid blurted out a detailed explanation. Then there was a mysterious thing called Impure Thoughts, which had no meaning until we reached the Age of Lust much later.

I'm not sure how the Church (all these things must be capitalized by order of the Papal Nuncio, whoever that is.) came up with the idea that seven was the Age of Reason, but pounding these heavy concepts into my head at that age caused such confusion that I was sure having a book overdue from the library was some sort of sin. Now, Mortal Sin meant that if you died with one on your Soul you were going straight to hell, not passing Go, but directly. Mortal Sin was, like, killing somebody or missing Mass on Sunday. Venial Sin, on the other hand, well, you would not go to Heaven, but Purgatory, a sort of mini-hell. However, there was a system involving Indulgences, Partial and Plenary, which meant that the folks you left behind could have masses said, or pray for your Immortal Soul, until you had accumulated enough Indulgences to get you out of there and up to heaven where you probably should have gone in the first place, being only human. While you were alive, that is.

Along with regular Sin was the Occasion of Sin, which one was to avoid. There was even the Near Occasions of Sin. We just figured out that meant you were standing next to your sister when she talked back to your mother. (Talking back to one's mother or lying were the main sins of childhood. How bored must the priests have been in the confessional!)

At least we were picking up a rich vocabulary, even though there were few opportunities to show off our superior linguistic skills to our neighbors, who went to the Protestant School (which is what we called public schools). Words like Partial Indulgence could not ea sly be worked into a conversation about whether to play hopscotch, Red Rover, or Mother, May I? We used to think that Protestants were lucky that they didn't have to worry about sin. They were doomed anyway, since they didn't belong to the True Church.

One thing about growing up in Catholic schools is that one has a hodge-podge of confusing religious concepts. Not the nuns fault; I just never reached the Age of Reason by their standards. They were just trying to keep us from going to hell, after all.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Deja Vu All Over Again

This past Saturday was the annual Kent State Folk Festival day of workshops
at the Student Union. Actually, there are no students present at these workshops because they are all holed up in their dorms Twittering with their friends in the next room, or glued to their computers. Another reason is that most students these days have to work in order to pay for the outrageous costs of higher education. The folk festival was started 40 years ago by students, and although they are no longer a part of it, it still goes on, supported by old folkies and the Kent community.

I remember going to the very first one, which was held in a classroom building. I took my guitar with me, hoping to learn a few new licks. At the time, I was mostly playing tunes from the Burl Ives and the Weaver's Songbooks and mournful ballads like "Lord Randall." I felt very old (I was 41) and all the participants were, like, 20 or so. Kent was a hot spot for folk music, along with a magnet for rock groups in the bars downtown. Some of the kids I met at that first folk festival kept returning over the years until they were way older than I had been at the beginning of it. Unfortunately, if their kids came to the university, they did not carry on their parents' love of folk music.

Its glory days are over, since everything is scaled down and the top performers now come in for one night only, playing at the theater downtown over a week of concerts. There are no more Andean pipers, or Appalachian balladeers, or old Alabama shape note singers doing the workshops. The Saturday workshops now feature area musicians, all of whom are worth hearing and watching, but they are people you've seen a lot of times already. There was a fine Irish group, but my favorite was a group playing choro music from Brazil, beautiful dance music, European with an African beat.

Along with its being good day for music, it's an even better day for people watching, since these folks come out of the woods or wherever they live during the rest of the year. I'm not sure where they find the clothes they wear, but they are always interesting. The couple pictured were there last year, and I looked for them this year, but they might have been in disguised as suburbanites and I just could have missed them. Fedoras, worn with long hair, were big this year among the younger men. Ugg boots were also prominently displayed, even though the weather was quite mild.

This used to be held in February, which was a perfect month for it in terms of fighting cabin fever, but it was also a bad time for traveling, so they moved it to the fall - and then ran out of money to bring in acts who would have had to travel, thus creating a perfect Catch 22.
Time to Stop
I think it's time to lay off the Obama cult. Last week's New Yorker cover is the kind of thing I am talking about: a picture of the Lincoln Memorial, and the "O" in the title is hovering over it in silver. The new Newsweek has a picture of Lincoln looming over Obama. Editorial headlines proclaim the hope that Obama will save the country. Editorial writers I admire have joined in the Obama worship, as if he is the second coming.

I realize that we have just been through an 8 year "dark night of the soul", if I may paraphrase Scott Fitzgerald, but this is too much to put on the shoulders of one man. Along with everyone I have great admiration and high hopes for this new president. However, it seems to me that we are setting him up for failure if we have such unrealistic expectations of what he can achieve. I think everyone just needs to calm down and get real. He is not the Messiah. He is not Lincoln. He is an intelligent, responsible, good man whom we all need to support in any way we can, but this adulation is getting ridiculous.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Obscure Connections to Fame

A number of years ago, my daughter Polly developed an idea about obscure connections to fame, spurred by the fact that the uncle of a man she was dating had invented the UPC, those little stripey things that are scanned whenever you make a purchase. This idea caught on with my family, and extended to anyone careless enough to have experienced such a connection. The obscurity can pertain to both an obscufre person who has done something noteworthy, or to whatever object or activity may be connected to a famous person. For instance, there's the wonan who had been thrown up on by Paul Lynde at a drunken football game at Northwestern. Another person was offered a joint by Jack Nicholson, a stranger to her, on a ski lift in Colorado. My son's girlfriend's sister's boyfriend, who is a leather worker in Kentucky, made the harnesses used in the movie "Seabiscuit." It can't be something as prosaic as "I met George Cloonery", but rather that you bought a second hand jacket in a Good Will store that George Clooney's' father had worn on a local TV program in Cincinnati in 1965. I don't know anyone to whom that has happened, but only offer it to demonstrate the limits.

As I have shared this phenomnon with people, I have gathered some really fine connections and it has even grown into the Burnell Museum of Obscure Connections to Fame, nade up of objects sent to me by enthusiasts. I have a dried up apple from the orchard of the writer and critic Edmond Wilson, who was at one time married to Mary McCarthy ("The Group"). I have toilet paper from the home of the late Norman Mailer. These came through the originator of Obscure Connections, Polly, who lives in Provincetown. I have a paper napkin used by Hal Holbrook, when he was appearing in "King Lear" in Cleveland, snagged from his table in a restaurant by daughter Emily. A Playbill from a performance of "Chicago" in New York that was taken from the seat occupied by Rex Reed was sent by friend and Obscure fan Chris Jehle. Chris also sent me the picture of Rip Taylor. What makes that a worthy entrant is that Chris and his partner were walking on a beach in Hawaii, encountered Taylor, asked for his autograph (for my museum) and Taylor already had on him a pack of autographed pictures. On a beach in Hawaii!

The prize of the collection is a cigarette butt, dug out of an ashtray by our friend David C. Barnett, who interviewed Joe Esterhaz on the Cleveland NPR station when Esterhaz was in Cleveland for the opening of his movie "Telling Lies in America." He refused to put out his cigarette for the interview, telling David, "no cigarette, no interview." This butt is a trifecta of sorts. A few years later, Esterhaz developed throat cancer and was interviewed by Terry Gross to talk about the dangers of cigarettes and his battle with cancer. Then, recently he was on some NPR show talking about how his bout with cancer and his recovery had led him to become - A BORN AGAIIN CHRISTIAN! So, this butt has a lot going for it in the obscure connection story. David is also responsible for the piece of video tape, which he clipped from a videocassette of "Freebie and the Bean," which came from the estate of Sammty Davis, Jr. "Freebie and the Bean!"

I met a woman who had dated the son of the woman who does the "Find the hidden object" pictures for Highlights magazine. But the very best of all the encounters related to me came from my brother Mike. Several years ago, he was walking through the hospital where he gave people new hips and knees, and met a colleague who had just returned from Poland. This doctor was a proctologist. He held up his forefinger and said to Mike, "Touch my finger." Well, one hesitates to touch the forefinger of a proctologist, doesn't one? So Mike hesitated. "Go ahead," the man repeated. "Touch my finger." Reluctantly, Mike did. "You have jut rouched the finger of a man who traveled to Poland specifically to give a rectal exam to the Pope's confessor!" he proudly exclaimed. So that is one of the best of all obscrue connections. Not the Pope (the late John Paul II), but his confessor. There may be other Obscure Connections to Fame out there. but this is the absolute best.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

My Country 'Tis of Thee

Well, I didn't go to a movie. I didn't turn on the TV, but I had left the radio on after "All Things Considered" and let it play. I started fooling around on the computer when they started talking about the map you could follow as the state returns started coming in. So I sort of followed along with side trips to YouTube and FaceBook. As some of the states turned blue, I kept myself from jumping to conclusions. A little after ten o'clock, when Ohio turned blue, my phone rang. It was Emily in Germany, where it was 4 a.m.

"Can you believe it?" she cried. "I am so thrilled!. We have a bottle of expensive Champagne chilling in the refrigerator which we're about to open. We're going to stay up for the acceptance speech, too. This is just great." The girls had already gone to bed, but were really interested in the ourcome.

It wasn't long before it had truly happened. Barack Obama is the new president of this country which is my country once again. I am so proud of us. I am so proud that people began to actually think about what this country needs and did not let racism interfere with their vote for the right man.

I went to bed, but not to sleep, because the phone rang again around 11. It was my friend Susan in Dayton.
"Can you believe it?" she shouted. "Obama made it. I am so relieved. I didn't think it could happen." I could almost see her jumping up and down. We exchanged mutual happy shock.

I drifted off watching my little black and white TV, and saw a bit of the acceptance speech. I watchd more of it this monring. It was so moving and even though Mr. Obama and the Rev. Martin Luther King are from a different era, there were echoes of that wonderful speech from 1963, which I can never hear without tearing up, in the words of the new young president-elect. Everyone I have talked to today has had the same sense, and everyone I have talked to has been moved to tears. Emily called again today and she said that she and Chris were both crying as they watched the speech. Emily said that she saw on TV a German waving an American flag. They are wild about Mr. Obama over there. The Europeans had written us off after the incompetence and arrogance of the Bush years.

There are those who say that race should not be an issue here, but it cannot help but be. It's a landmark, a promise kept after centuries of limits imposed on Americans because of color. It's just plain wonderful for all of us. I hope that the Democrats keep a cool head and do not act like Republicans in Congress. We've been given a gift, which many people worked very hard for, and I hope we use it well.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Moving to Canada?

Tomorrow is the big day for all of us here in the United States of America (which all of the candidates keep calling the country we live in, with emphasis on the last two letters, like KAH!) I am leery, having been down this road so many times in the last 40 years. I was thinking today of all the times I swore I would move to Canada in the various election years: Both times that Nixon was elected, both times that Reagan was elected and both times that Bush II got into the office of President (of the United States of AmeriKAH.)

The media, the current villain of all of us in AmeriKAH, is giving the election to Obama, which I find worrying. There are people, among the undecided (Who are those people and where have they been for the last year and a half - or for the last seven years?) who might figure that they might as well not vote at all, or vote for McCain, figuring they want to make him feel good. I don't trust undecided people to make good judgements at this point in time.

I worry that all that early voting will somehow screw things up. Since I live in a small precinct, I have no problem voting on election day, because it is rarely crowded, so I can understand those who live in big cities who may have to wait in line forever on official election day. However, there have been waits of up to an hour in the early voting areas, so I don't know what the point is. In our county they are not using paper ballots, so that isn't an issue here.

What the current administration has done to this country in the last seven years has created the most dangerous time in which I have ever lived. It is hard for me to believe that anyone can think that we need more of the same.

As for McCain's choice of a vice presidential candidate, I agree with Colin Powell that it does call into question his judgement. I am astounded that people think she is capable because she is "just like us." I don't know if the people who say this think themselves capable of dealing on a global level with other world leaders and the many problems of planet earth, or if they are just too dumb to understand that we are not considering a race for the student council president's office.

Tonight (Monday) I'll be watching NBC's Saturday Night Live Presidential Bash for comic relief. Tomorrow morning I shall vote for Barack Obama and every Democrat on the ballot. Tomorrow night I shall go to a movie and not turn on the TV or radio until Wednesday morning. No matter what, I'll probably not move to Canada once again.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Telling Stories

Last night, on the official Halloween, was the second annual ghost walk in Kent. Last year this was quite a success, so this year there will be two nights. I am one of the storytellers stationed at the various places purported to be "haunted." I lucked out last year by being at the great old Kent mansion on the hill. It was the home of the person for whom the town was named. It's a wonderful, magnificent house, which has belonged to the Masons for over 80 years. It's beautiful inside, with walnut woodwork, vast rooms with high ceilings and exquisite workmanship throughout. The Masons have, over the years, taken loving care of it.

Back in the 1880s, one of the Kent women was burned to death while trying to light a heating stove in the ballroom. There have been sightings of the figure of a young woman, dressed in white, wandering around in the billiard room, or floating down the graceful winding staircase. Her grieving husband had sat on the great porch in his rocking chair, and after his death some 15 years later, the empty chair was seen rocking all by itself.

Well, I don't believe in ghosts, but I think these are fine stories for the telling, and last year I had such a good time. I sat in the massive doorway with a lantern at my feet. We had over 200 people from all over during the 3 hours. I had never had to tell the same story 10 times, and by the third hour I felt as if I was babbling a bit.

This year I was not so lucky. Stories had been solicited from the public and I was given a story which in itself was a good one, except that there was no background that would explain why this particular place might be haunted. I was finally able to work it into a narrative of sorts. I had assume that I would be able to stand or sit on the porch of the "haunted" house, but no one had bothered to tell the present occupants, and I was relegated to standing across the street and pointing to it as I wove my tale.

Unfortunately, right behind me was a storefront church which was sponsoring a Halloween party for teenagers, complete with a really loud rock band, heavy on the drums and bass (MBOWMBOWMBOW) and that sort of guttural screaming stuff, like "OWOWOWOW "- Rockin' with Jesus, I guess. The kids were very nice, not rowdy, polite, but VERY NOISY. The "music" was coming from inside the building, but many of the kids were congregating in front of their "church." They politely moved out of the way when the tour groups came along. I couldn't move too far away from the noise because my ghost-ridden house could best be seen from that vantage point, avoiding the trees screening it. I couldn't cross the street because there was a lot of traffic and the large groups in the tour might have gotten stranded waiting to cross and it would have slowed things down, with tour groups piling up on each other. Or worse, turned into group road kill. Which would maybe create a whole new ghost story for next year.

In a way, it worked, because once in a while the moaning electric bass came in at the point where the ghost showed up in my story. I had parked my car right there, so between groups I could sit in the car and listen to NPR and try to drown out the booming music. I was there from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and the weather was mild and not too cold. Tonight someone else will be at that spot and will not have to compete with the Christian teenyboppers.

I don't think I shall do it next year, but I have certainly enjoyed it up to this point. I'm learning that a lot of people actually believe in ghosts. I have decided that these are Sarah Palin people, bless their hearts. And my ears are still recovering.