Friday, April 30, 2010

Poetry and songs

I graduated from high school in 1965, and at the time I was too young and dumb to appreciated the wonderful music that was in the air. The Beatles (do I have to name a tune?), Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," Simon and Garfunkel's "Sound of Silence," the Rolling Stone's "Satisfaction," etc. etc.

Which reminds me about a call I got today from a friend commenting on my recent post about T.S. Eliot and April being the cruelest month.

Basically, he reminded me that he "hates poetry." He saw poets as some kind of weird people.

I asked him if he hated John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon . (His age group.) He actually thought about it. Some success!

Playing in the background near my computer now is another - 1970s - take on the month of April by Paul Simon. On an album from Simon and Garfunckel from that time, stuck between songs called "A Most Peculiar Man" and "We've Got a Groovy Thing Going," was a song with its own, but similar, take on the month of April.

It starts:

"April come she will
When streams are ripe and swelled with rain
May, she will stay,
Resting in my arms again."

The song goes on, month after month, to record the end of the love affair in September:

"A love once new has now grown old."

Simon, who recently had borrowed from a famous poem to write his memorable song "Richard Cory," had to have been thinking about the cruelest month in order to start his song. In fact, I think, Eliot's poem "The Waste Lane" was foremost in his mind.

But Eliot's other most famous poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is as much loved as "The Waste Land" is not. Of course it is too long be a popular song, and its stream-of-consciousness narrative is not exactly a Cole Porter air, but hey, as you read it, think how Lennon, McCartney, or Simon might have sung it. A "Richard Cory," without the suicide ... not quite. A poem not all that different from a sound of silence.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A nasty month

"April is the cruelest month" has long since become a cliche. After all, it starts out a famous T.S. Eliot poem (The Waste Land) that's been around for 88 years now, and to most readers it is memorable only as an oxymoron of sorts: Spring is cruel?

Eliot's poem begins like this:

April is the cruellest (that's how he spelled it) month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

OK, we get it. Spring brings hope for happiness, hope which will be crushed, etc., etc. Better to keep subsisting on dried tubers. Then the poem proceeds (essentially unmoved) through hundreds of lines spiked with foreign languages and abstract esotericisms, leaving most students snoring loudly upon their desks.

But, as it turns out in west-central Montana, April really is a bitch. Maybe the cruelest. Eliot, an American living in England, didn't get the half of it. Today, April 29, dawned with 35-degree temperature winds snapping new tree buds back and forth like Lash LaRue's whip. Then came snow - hours of it now - covering roofs and lawns and reminding us all that "Springtime in the Rockies" was a song for people who lived somewhere else.

April in Montana promises springtime, and often delivers. Then it pulls away the rug. Reminding us yet again that, hey, at least we can rely on dried tubers.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Robins and Wall Street

I've just come off the nightly news, watching the top people of Goldman Sachs reveal themselves. A senator, a Republican gal from Maine, asked whether or not their job was to serve their customers' best interests. Replied Goldman brass: (something like this) "It is to give them good service."

This from scam artists, no better than phishers or other identity-theft creeps.

Anyway, I've allowed my ire to detract me from my idea, which is a robin, red of breast and sharp of beak. It flew into my yard this morning and started stalking my yard in true dinosaur fashion. Except it started stabbing at the ground, not in search of worms, but of dried lengths of brown grass. Before long, the robin looked as though it had whiskers - blades of dead grass sticking out of both sides of her beak as though she were a cat or something. And she kept bobbing down, grabbing more grass. It's beak was filling up. I couldn't believe the little bird could hold more dead grass.

And then, as though not even slightly burdened by her load, she flew off toward the nest she was building. Somewhere to the north, beak full. Out of sight.

The robin, read breast shining, was doing her thing. So, apparently, was Wall Street.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mnemonic honors

Way back on October 28 I wrote about sending an entry to a contest in the magazine Fantasy & Science Fiction. The contest, "Hooked on Mnemonics," noted that with Pluto being degraded to a "minor" planet alongside other such "planets," the old memory device - My very earnest mother just showed us nine planets - was out of date. The contest sought a new mnemonic for the new list of major AND minor planets: Mercury Venus Earth Mars Ceres Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto Haumea Makemake Eris. (A science fiction or fantasy twist was required.)

So I emailed them this: "My vicious, evil, mad cyborgs, just suppose unexpected new possibilities: humans might emerge!"

Yeah, the joke was a bit snarky. Humans might well be WORSE than the evil cyborgs. They had better watch their cyborg asses!

But imagine my surprised smile this afternoon - after I bought the May/June issue of the magazine - to see that I had earned an honorable mention! My immortal mnemonic enshrined in a national mag! Fame! Celebrity!

Or not.

Anyway, nobody should leave this post without reading the far better mnemonic, by a guy in Key Largo, FL, that won first place: "Mischievous village elves magically conjure jelly sandwiches. Unicorns, nutritionally possessed, hate mischievous elves."

Friday, April 23, 2010


A memory that still makes me smile involves my late father-in-law, who visited us shortly after we moved into our house (We Owned It!) in Helena. Ken had grown up on a farm (about 50-60 miles east of the Twin Cities near Highway 12) and he had a feeling for the natural way that plants would grow - at least in Wisconsin.

Ken walked into our backyard in mid-June and did a double-take worthy of Charlie Chaplin. He damn near wrenched his head off staring at my apple tree. NO apple tree should still be flowering so late!

Well, of course it was flowering. This was Helena.

As I looked outside today, that same apple tree has started to bud. Yes, in late April. Blossoms due in June. Sorry about that, Wisconsinites.

What's cool is that come August, when little deer with spots on their backs will get a hankering for sweet little yellow apples, those fawns will get their fill.

Gosh, I won't have to rake those apples up. And I get to watch little deer twerps, munching!.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Deer cliques?

Do deer have cliques? Are there insider deer and outsider deer? Extroverted deer and introverted deer?

I'm accustomed to seeing small groups of deer wandering the neighborhood. They stay generally together, although their individual ramblings seem random.

But this morning three does leaped the fence into my yard. Two of them grazed together, while the third ranged off into the farthest corners. When, one by one, the deer nested down to rest and chew their cud, the two settled side by side. The third moved off into my side yard - out of sight of the others - before curling her legs under herself in that awkward-looking way deer have and plopping herself into the grass.

One of the two does started grooming the other, licking or nipping her neck, her muzzle, even the top of her head right between her big ears. Then they relaxed, and although once in a while one or another would get up to feed some more (or sprinkle some pellets on the grass), the couple and the solitary one stuck to their segregated areas of my yard. Eventually, after many hours, all three left together.

So do some does make special friends? Can a doe be socially aloof? Can it be ostracized?

Only one thing's for sure: People can't help being storytellers.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Of brains and poop

There is little doubt that Aristotle, born in 384 B.C.E., is one of the most influential philosophers in Western written history. He certainly was one of the greatest minds on record. An empiricist, he set the stage for all later scientific thought. Hell, of his time, he was the top biologist, ethicist and political theorist around. His startlingly new contributions to the deepest of thoughts are without parallel. He also, I find, could be full of poop.

I refer to his writings on slavery.

Aristotle suggested that there are two standards that have to be met to justify slavery. One is that the institution of slavery has to be needed (to free citizens of Athens to participate in politics), and the other is that the slaves must be well fitted to their station. (Too dense of mind, in other words, to handle any other station.)

Aristotle figured that in Greece, both conditions were met. Sheesh. Most slaves in his country were enslaved because they were captured in war. Sorry, but prisoners of war were not beasts of labor.

I guess it would be difficult to blame the guy for living in his own time. It took rather many years (especially in the U.S.) to wise up. But the question remains ... what does this mean for a philosopher's musing on ethics?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

To turn or not to turn

There is a very famous conundrum in the teaching of ethics. Suppose the driver of an out-of-control trolley has a choice between smashing into five workers on the track, killing them all, or can turn off onto a side rail and kill only one worker. Most people would say he should turn. But what if you and others are standing on bridge above the track, and some fat guy is leaning over the rail, easy to push off. And if you push him off, sending him to his death, his body will stop the trolley, saving the lives of all six people on the track. Once again, the death of one person saves many others. But most of us would say, no, this isn't moral. (The idea is to show the difference between a "utilitarian" ethics (the best for the most) and a categorical ethics (wrong is wrong, period.)

Or take the case of four shipwrecked souls (another famous case). They are in a lifeboat, starving after 19 days. One, an orphan cabin boy, is near death. The others, with family back home, decide the boy must die so that the three might eat his flesh and perhaps survive. Would it have made a difference if the boy had willingly entered into a life-or-death lottery? If he had volunteered for death? Or was it just murder?

Such are the questions raised by a cool PBS series I'm watching called: "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?"

I love such questions. I'd like to ask whether any right-wing nuts had thought through such things. (I'd also ask the same question of left-wing nuts, if there were any left.)

Monday, April 19, 2010

In heaven there is no beer

I started out thinking about the disappearance of really cold snaps during Montana winters during the past decade: warming that, without -20 to-30 degree periods, has allowed pine beetles to thrive, killing a whole bunch of trees. Then my mind wandered to all those really cold spells in which I grew up in northwestern Wisconsin. In Eau Claire, at the confluences of the solidly frozen Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers, a car's tires (before radial tires) would freeze flat where they touched the ground. As my Dad would drive my sister and me to school in the morning, the tires would thump for several miles until the friction would warm them up enough to get round again.

Thinking about Wisconsin, my mind wandered farther, thinking about that state's culture. By my time, the cities were becoming large, but the little agricultural-supporting towns at the intersections of highways retained their pioneer beginnings. For instance, central and west-central roads heading north-south in Wisconsin still would alternate: German Catholic, Norwegian Lutheran, German Lutheran, etc. A tavern in one town might feature a bowl of raw hamburger on the bar; a church basement in the next, 20 miles up the road, might be serving lutefisk. (Hard to know which was the more lethal.)

But, as my mind continued to wander, I remembered those county roads that crossed the main roads somewhere halfway between the little towns. At almost every corner was a roadhouse - a bar with a big dance floor that really bounced on a Saturday night.

People came from everywhere, nearby towns of every religious persuasion and farms from all points of the compass. A band would be playing a polka - "In heaven there is no beer; that's why we drink it here!" - and pint-sized granddaughters would be dancing with their granddads, young people would be swinging themselves around, and mothers and fathers would be stepping pretty with their kids. There were no arguments, no fights. Everybody was having a good time, and everybody would get up Sunday morning to attend one church or another.

I might be sitting at the bar with some friends, there because we could get served, enjoying a scene I sort of miss.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ever heard of this guy? (10) (

After the Boston Tea Party - a serious and well-thought-out protest against taxation without representation that current-day "tea party" folks rather demean - the British Parliament cracked down on Boston and it's state, abolishing its assembly and closing Boston harbor.

Thanks to Samuel Adams and the system he set up that facilitated quick communication between the 13 colonies, the rest of the now-maturing British settlements in the New World had a big choice to make: back Massachusetts, or let it suffer the consequences of its actions.

To skip over a whole bunch of stuff, the Continental Congress convened. It met in Philadelphia in the fall of 1774. The rest of the story is called the United States.

But, sort of a sideshow although really not, the Congress included something that absolutely dismayed the Massachusetts delegation. It agreed to hear an appeal by a Baptist minister from Massachutchetts named Isaac Backus. This Baptist would end up sparking one of the central tenets of our country.

(I have to admit that for a long time my understanding of Baptists has been parochial at best. It consisted mostly of an (1960s) understanding that "southern" Baptists appeared to be conservatives against civil rights, liked to dunk people in rivers, and didn't let their kids go to dances.)

Isaac Backus traveled to the site of the Continental Congress, demanding to be heard. His complaint: Back in Massachutchetts, he and his flock were forced to pay taxes to fund the Congregational (Puritan) Church. Was this not taxation without representation?

Rather astonishingly, given that freedom of religion was something entirely new in the world, the Congress agreed with Backus. Before long, the State of Virginia passed the Statute of Religious Freedom, forbidding the state from taxing people to support any particular religion and forbidding it from persecuting anyone for his religious beliefs. (Even, the sponsors wrote, Jews, Muslims, and even people who rejected any religion at all.)

I don't know about you, but I think old Isaac, unwittingly or not, was a cool dude.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A stitch in time

Ben Franklin has long been one of my heroes. And Cotton Mather ... well, he was a Puritan theologian. Enough said. But I've just learned about a case in which Cotton Mather was right - about a matter of science, no less - and a young Ben Franklin was dead wrong. And in this case, dead is the operative word.

Smallpox was a periodic scourge that terrified people around the globe. It left a third of its victims dead, and many others with horrible scars. One day Mather was told by his servant, Onesimus, that back in his West African community healthy people had been protected by taking a drop of pus from a pox and inserting it into a small cut.

Later, Mather - who kept up with the top scientific journals from England - read a doctor's report about how similar inoculations protected people in Turkey. He vowed that when smallpox returned to Boston, he would spread the word. In April, 1721, when a sailor came ashore with the pox, that's just what he did.

Few believed him. Injecting smallpox pus into healthy people seemed insanely homicidal. The printer James Franklin started a second newspaper in Boston specifically to oppose inoculation. His younger brother, 16-year-old Ben Franklin, wrote a devastating satire of Mather, lampooning the preacher's sanctimoniousness. The newspaper harkened back to Mather's support for executing Quakers and hanging witches. Now he wants to give people smallpox! (Somebody threw a home-made grenade into Mather's window. Fortunately, it was a dud.)

In any event, almost nobody in Boston got the treatment. As a result, by September hundreds of people had died of the disease, and deaths continued into the following year.

Years later, long after Franklin's own four-year-old son had died of smallpox, the now-ambassador to France answered a letter from Mather's son, Samuel, praising Cotton Mather as a wise man and a doer of good. Meanwhile, a scientist in Germany had discovered that cowpox does the job much more safely, and smallpox began the long road to global eradication.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mistress Bradstreet

I know my interest in the Puritans is bordering on the unhealthy. But let's think about a 400-year-old lady named Anne Bradstreet.

Bradstreet, the bright daughter of an English Puritan leader, sailed in 1630 to the New World of Massachusetts Bay. (She would have scoffed at the Pilgrims, who arrived in New England 10 years earlier, as being fanatics, but a Puritan still she was.) She had three tenets: Love God and contemplate her sinful evilness, as Puritans did. Make her household work despite privation. And be a good wife. (Hey, eight kids.)

What's cool about Bradstreet is that she is the first American poet. She published a book of poetry that was widely read in England, as well as the colonies. She was a hero to many Puritans (her poetry was religious), but it also blew away everybody with its quality. It was big-time smart! She somehow clued in men that a God-ordained woman's frailty of mind and body, her female weakness, could be sidestepped. She could even make men think!

As Charlotte Gordon, author of a recent biography of Bradstreet, "Mistress Bradstreet," quoted in her introduction, Anne Bradstreet wrote:"I am obnoxious / to any carping tongue / who says my hand a needle better fits."

I can enjoy that.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tea party precursors

The folks in Boston, known for liking baked beans and being prudes, are perhaps best known for instigating the American Revolution. Remember the Boston Tea Party?

I've just discovered a way in which modern extreme conservatives, calling themselves "tea party" types, echo the colonialists. And I don't mean people in the 1770s.

Back in the late 1670s, a century earlier, an investigator from England was appalled. People in Massachusetts were holding their own town meetings! Electing their own assemblies! Executing Quakers who, after all, were citizens of the United Kingdom! Somebody had to stomp down on these people!

Eventually, the English monarch sent Edmund Andros to govern all of New England, lumping the various New England colonials together in order to better deal with the coming "French and Indian War," as the Americans later called it. Andros quickly announced higher taxes, an end to the limited local democracy enjoyed by the colonials, and basically demanded that all British laws must be obeyed. The folks in Boston responded by briefly putting Andros and his advisors in jail.

What's interesting here is that the New England "tea partiers" of 1689 (not the tea dumpers of nearly a century later) quickly discovered that Andros had been born on the Isle of Guernsey - an island that, off and on, had been either owned by the British or the French. Was Andros a French spy? Sent to Boston to send Boston militia to the border with French Canada for his own nefarious purposes? Was he SUBVERSIVE?

Did he have a birth certificate from our 50th state? Was it valid? And what about Kenya? The more things change ...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


What does the founding of South Carolina have to do with cowboys?

I supposed folks in that southern state are well aware that their colony's genesis was different from colonies to the north. Rather than being started by British companies, with colonists from Britain, South Caroline was founded by venture capitalists from the (British) West Indies island of Barbados with a few whites and a whole bunch of black slaves. The money men on Barbados (and back in England) already had devoted every arable acre on Barbados to sugar cane that was harvested, crushed and boiled by a huge population of African slaves. The investors were looking to expand.

They were aware that their new colony in North America wasn't going to be able to raise sugar cane, but they knew it was at the same latitude as the Mediterranean, and so it might grow olives and the like. No dice.

So they tried other crops. One was rice, which Englishmen knew little about. Fortunately, West African slaves were familiar with the complicated process of growing and harvesting the crop. By 1710, some 1.5 million pounds of rice was shipped each year. By 1730, it was 20 million pounds.

Another economic venture involved cattle. Northern colonies generally raised cows for dairy products, but the plantations in South Carolina tried raising them for beef. Trouble was, as was the case with their lack of knowledge about rice, the English were unfamiliar with tending open-range cattle herds.

Once again, black slaves from Africa - where cattle were routinely raised for beef - took over. They knew what to do, so the plantation overseers gave their slaves the responsibility.

They called those cattle-tending slaves "cowboys."

Monday, April 12, 2010

What's for dinner?

Readers of this blog are aware that I have a special interest in deer - specifically mule deer, who often pass my house in early-morning expeditions, big ears pointed to detect early-morning cars, dogs, whatever, happily browsing the mid-April grass, sometimes venturing into my back yard to, basically, poop. So, while reading an article in the New York Review of Books today, I rather eagerly read the part of a review that dealt with a new book: "The Hidden Life of Deer" by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.(Harper, 239 pp. $24.99).

The review was not particularly satisfying. It dealt with the author putting out food for deer, and the food attracting a big black bear instead - a once-injured bear that the author had dissuaded the police from shooting. (The bear, all healed, pretty much knocked on her door, then ambled away.)

As it turns out, Thomas is not against hunting game animals. As long it is done right. Expertly, and quickly. But as is the case with the other books in the review, she is against cruelty in the name of profit, be it slaughterhouse profits from mistreated cattle or poachers' profits from elephants.

As the reviewer, Tim Flannery, noted, it wasn't long ago that people thought they were somehow special. Top of the pile! As it turns out, animals make us human. How we treat them, whether for food or for enjoyment, define what kind of humans we are.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ever heard of this guy? (9)

Many people actually have heard of the Rev. Roger Williams. He's the guy exiled from the Puritan Massachusetts Bay region and who moved down to Rhode Island, where the textbooks say he encouraged freedom of religion and made nice with the Indians.

All true, but what got him into trouble in the first place? As it turns out, he was a pain.

Williams, for instance, started thinking about the Puritan practice of calling all the men in the colony Goodman, much as we might say "Mister." Williams raised the question: "Are all these people 'good?'" If not, as certainly was the case, why should we honor them all with such an honorific?

When the community in which Williams was the pastor got into a land dispute with a nearby town over boundaries, the folks in his congregation naturally assumed the reverend would take their side. But Williams said: Wait a minute - this land belonged to the Indian tribes. Who is to say any of us "own" any of it?" You can imagine how that went over.

Communion was another problem. Williams began thinking that the privilege of drinking Christ's (literal) blood was a privilege earned only by the truly holy among the congregation. Soon, fewer and fewer of the members of that congregation were deemed holy enough to partake. Eventually, it only was Williams and his wife who were allowed to take communion. And then Williams started worrying about his wife.

Before long, recognizing the reductio ad absurdum nature of his thinking, Williams decided that EVERYBODY was sinner, and therefore communion should opened to everybody as an incentive to grace, sinners or not.

All this stuff, especially his congregations' ire at Williams' insistence on challenging every thought, led the Puritan authorities to declare him a heretic and banish him. To them, it was good riddance. (Incidentally, despite being a staunch Puritan, Williams also was America's first Baptist. He decided people shouldn't be baptized until they were adults, old enough to know what was up.)

Let's add something about someone almost nobody has ever heard of: An early Puritan merchant named Robert Keayne. Keayne sold a bag of nails for a six-shilling profit, and was accused of "profiteering," a sin in the eyes of the church. He was tried and fined 200 pounds. For years, until his death, Keayne objected that commerce - free trade - must be unregulated. It must be left alone by the powers that be.

Unlike most Puritan controversies of the time, points out Professor Robert J. Allison of Suffolk University in Boston and the Harvard Extension School, this dispute has endured right up to the present day.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The bat and the tennis racket

Today on TV I heard someone call someone else "batty," and my mind, uncontrollable as it is, zoomed back to a memory.

It was the 1950s. I was in the fifth or sixth grade, and my third- or fourth-grade sister was lying in her bed, recovering from a tonsillectomy. (Back then, doctors thought that tonsils, like appendixes, were some kind of evolutionary mistakes - breeding grounds for disease - and should be removed. The appendix required some serious surgery, so it wasn't removed, but tonsils were relatively easy to cut out of kids.)

On the night my sister came home from the hospital after her operation, a bat escaped from it's nest in the crawl-space part of our basement and flew around my sister's bedroom. She screamed, started to hemorrhage from her mouth, and was rushed back to the hospital.

My sister turned out to be fine, but my Dad, who had been so scared for the welfare of my sister, now was a hater of bats. And soon, another bat appeared, flying around the circle made by the back entryway, the kitchen nook, the den, the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, the back entryway, etc. It swooped and soared, as well as it could, but my Dad grabbed a tennis racket (a 1930s-40s model with huge wooden parts) and waited for it's next circuit, blasted it out of the air, and beat it to death.

The bat, of course, just wanted to find a way out of the house to find some gnats or something. Dad, of course, just wanted some revenge. I was just a little wide-eyed grade-school kid watching all this.

You probably are waiting for a moral to this story. Let's try to think of one.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Ever heard of this guy? (8)

So, who was the biggest party guy in the newly founded American colonies? My vote goes to a fellow named Thomas Merton (1576-1647), who really gave the Puritans fits.

The Puritans, of course, had left impure England and had settled in the Netherlands, which accepted folks of any and all religious sects. But when the Puritans saw that their kids were growing up like the Dutch - tolerant! - they arranged passage to the New World. Hence the Mayflower and all that.

But when, after much hardship, Gov. William Bradford and his followers made alliances with some Indian tribes and had become a successful colony, other people started to show up - non-Pilgrim colonists sent to bolster the population, traders, etc. And these folks were more interested in making a living than sharing in the Puritan lifestyle.

One of them, Thomas Merton, founded a village about 20 miles north of Plymouth. In this place, mostly filled with men disenchanted with Puritan rules, the guys would set up maypoles and danced with Indian women. Drinking went on. It was grim. As Bradford wrote, they would engage in "dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, or furies rather, and worse practices." Bradford organized a military expedition in 1628, staged a 2 a.m. raid - when the bad guys were likely to be hung over - and unceremoniously shipped the men back to England.

Later, in England, Merton wrote a book describing life in New England, hoping the British authorities would crack down upon a colony setting itself up as so independent. But Bradford and the Pilgrims had won. For a while, anyway.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ever heard of this guy? (7)

If you've been around the Chesapeake Bay region, you may have wondered why there's no sign of a Spanish influence, as is found not too many hundred miles to the south. After all, by the early 1500s, the Spanish had pretty much taken over what would become the southern Atlantic coast of the U.S., busy looking for gold, native slaves, fountains of Eden, etc. Why not head north and take over there, too?

An important reason was a young Indian, and the Spanish themselves were to blame.

In 1562 a Spanish admiral called Pedro Menendez de Aviles sailed into the bay and before long persuaded the leader of the local tribe, the Pamunkey, to send his son back to Spain to get a "civilized" education. Once in Spain, the son was baptized Don Luis Velasco and trained to return to the New World and convert the pagan natives.

Velasco did return. He was taken to Mexico, where he saw how his Spanish benefactors had wiped out the Aztecs. The light began to dawn. Maybe these white folks weren't exactly a good deal.

Less that a decade after being sent to Spain, Velasco, now back in the Chesapeake area and quite disenchanted, led Pamunkey fighters on a raid on a Jesuit mission, wiping it out. Largely as a result, Spain's efforts to colonize the Chesapeake region were abandoned. So much for an Alamo along the James.

Subsequently, the Pamunkey and other tribes in the area banded together against any other dangerous weirdos who might arrive from across the sea. As it turned out, the alliance wasn't particularly successful. But, because in my entire supposedly well-educated life I had never heard of Don Luis Velasco, I feel as though I have learned something cool. (After all, probably unlike the Pocahontas story told by John Smith about the girl pleading for his life, Velasco almost certainly was real.)

Monday, April 5, 2010

My Momma Done Told Me

When I hear Katie Melua sing the blues, I have to smile. This gal, who was born in the former Soviet state of Georgia, moved to Belfast with her heart-surgeon father at age 8, and left the Northern Ireland "Troubles" for England at age 14, is singing "When I was in pig tails?" A central European chick doing the blues?

Listen to her, doing "a man is a two-face," lamenting the tears (beat, beat, beat) "in the night." When she asserts that "My Momma done told me," you believe.

But you still have to think: This is not music that has come from the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Nor from the Celts. Nor from England. This, like jazz, has come from black Americans.

The blues, at least for me, starts with that first bar. You listen, and you go, yesss.

I've just started watching and listening to the Martin Scorsese-produced series (circa 2002 or so) called "The Blues," and my foot is tapping. As a friend once said, enticing me out with him and his wife to a nearly empty bar on a New Year's Eve nearly 20 years ago, "It's the blues!"

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Little heads

It always is rather impossible to get into the head of a wild animal. (Sometimes, you don't want to, like the time that a neighbor's dogs chased a doe out into busy 11th Avenue, where it was hit by a car and cracked the car's windshield before falling to the gutter, legs convulsing. A cop put a .22 caliber rifle shot into her head. No, I didn't want to get into THAT animal's brain. (But my neighbor gal, owner of the dogs, hugged the deer's dead body.The cops had to pull her away,)

This morning, at a little after 5 a.m., I looked outside and saw three mule deer does walking along my front sidewalk, a relaxed walk, until they suddenly stopped and stood totally motionless, big ears aimed like military sonar. I watched, fascinated, as a few moments later a middle-aged woman ran by, far across the daytime-busy street, leashed to a couple of big dogs. The woman and her dogs turned south, away, and disappeared toward the St. Helena Cathedral. The deer resumed their stroll, munched some grass at the 11th Avenue intersection with my street, and somehow decided to part company. One doe headed west. Another strolled toward the east. A third, obviously undecided, dithered for a while. Then it wandered after the eastern voyager. The two disappeared into the darkness across my street.

What were they thinking in their little deer heads? What was I thinking, watching at 5 a.m.? Hey, little heads want to know.