Monday, June 29, 2009

Double Reeds, Sledgehammers, and Sonny & Cher

This post was extremely difficult for me to make. Ummm... compose. In fact, if I hadn't received so many requests from so many of you over such a long period of time, I probably would never have managed to persevere until the finely-crafted masterpiece upon which your eyes are now feasting materialized from the nether regions of my unsettled mind to the virtual paper upon which it now appears for your reading enjoyment.

Even so, it is possible (due to the convoluted nature of the subject matter) that my mind may have wandered off course from time to time in this post and if so please forgive me or at least make adequate allowances; it is simply near-impossible to stay on the subject continuously when the subject is bassoons.

::I have no idea why, but a mental image of that photo of Edgar Allan Poe in his casket just flashed through my frontal lobe. Whoa.::

Let me first say that I have never actually touched a bassoon in my life, and, frankly, never hope to do so. At the same time, I would not want to leave the impression that I am the least bit afraid of bassoons.

A bassoon is of the double reed persuasion. It is sort of a bass version of that other double reed misfit, the oboe. I say "sort of" because the word bass is relative if the bassoon player is under sufficient stress or otherwise tight lipped, as they often are if you get my drift. To my knowledge, these are the only double reed woodwinds unless you allow the definition to drift over into the realm of duck and moose calls, or you find yourself in India in the presence of a snake charmer.

The bassoon makes its ungodly noise when some dolt blows his hot air between two reeds in such a manner as to make them flap rapidly together and, thus modulated, be guided through a crook and into a log-shaped conglomeration which, thus stimulated, begins to moan and carry on like Marley's ghost on Christmas eve. Feel free to substitute the word vibrate for "flap rapidly together" if you wish. Feel free to wonder what a reed is. Feel free to go out and get a Big Mac and fries instead of reading this. Crook. Get it? Never mind.

A reed is a slice of cane whittled to the proper length and thickness which, when made pliable by proper moistening (with the player's saliva) can be made to vibrate in a reliable fashion. When you think "cane" think bamboo, not sugar.

Incidentally, double reeds make fine hors d'oeuvres garnishes in a pinch.
The bassoon is an instrument made primarily for playing classical music in an orchestra and is almost never used in marching bands since the player needs to not be bobbing up and down when he tries to play it, and also it has been known to become wedged between cars if the parade route is heavily trafficked. The Music Man lyrics, notwithstanding.

Incidentally, the odd lyrics of "76 Trombones" indicates there ARE bassoons, plural, present in that great marching band, but disappoints us by merely saying "each bassoon having its big fat say." Well. Could be two, could be 3 million.

And, since I can see the question right on the tip of your tongue, no I cannot recollect the bassoon being used heavily in rock and roll music. Save the use of a bassoon in the introduction of Sonny and Cher's first hit, "I Got You Babe". That song also makes use of an oboe as well in between the two lovebirds' vows of foreverness. Later, Sonny was fated to ski into a tree and die, but Cher had long-since moved on by then and had even divorced others too. Ettarose did a recent post on their sweet little daughter, Chastity, and was very respectful, I thought.

The crook is the part of the bassoon which connects the bassoon proper (an oxymoron if there ever was one) to that double reed thingamajig. Thingamajig being the technical symphonic term. This is to say you stick the double reed part into one end of the crook and the other end of the crook is attached to the belly of the beast itself.

If you ever have occasion to break open a bassoon with a sledge hammer, as Descartes insinuated might be done without any repercussions from fellow passersby, you would discover that the bore inside the cylinder is not uniform in diameter, like it is in, say, a sewer pipe, but is, rather, larger on one end than the other. What all those words in the previous sentence mean is the bore is cone-shaped. The bassoon is never less than 5 feet long and sometimes as long as 8 feet long, depending on how much rosewood is available at the time of creation and the sobriety of the craftsman. It is, of course folded back on itself and not 8 foot long like a two by four, for god's sake. I mean, it isn't played by laying it on the free shoulder of one of the first violinists.

Bassoon craftsmen, one would think, are probably a dying breed, but there is likely enough demand to keep one Romanian family going, I suppose. I do fear they may be going the sad way of the didgeridoo guild. Imagine a world without bassoons. Or at least new bassoons.

When you were a kid, did you like popsicles in the summertime? My favorite flavor was grape. I remember shortcutting down the railroad tracks and through the grain elevator to get to Nickerson's little mom and pop grocery and take the popsicle fresh out of the slide-top freezer and stick my tongue on it so it froze to my tongue. Then I would sit out on the store front porch and lick it in the hot sun as the sticky grape sugar water ran down my arms and dripped off my elbows. I would imagine the passing truck wheels crushing a bassoon I had placed in the street for my viewing enjoyment, and the drivers would wave at me.

Some of this may not have actually happened. When one is doing a bassoon post, one's mind (as I say) sometimes wanders and reality blurs into fantasy. Trying to concentrate for too long on bassoons will do that to you. I invite your own fantasies on this subject in the comments. Surely this post must have induced one or two by now. (Read: "hallucinations.")

Let's see. What else? We've talked about the parts of a bassoon, the bovine-like noises it makes, Romanian Gypsy retirement and, by proxy at least, Australian aboriginal musical contributions. I think that may nearly cover the subject as much as I care to cover it.

It pains me to replace a sweet post like "First Kiss" with garbage like this. It is hard for me to be consistent.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

First Kiss

She had long blonde hair. Her name was Norma Jean. Later she changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. Elton John never met her, but he wrote a song to her, "Candle in the Wind."

"Goodbye Norma Jean..."

Start over.

She had long blonde hair. Her name was Norma Jean. We were in 5th grade together.

She was the prettiest girl in 5th grade, so of course she didn't even know I existed. She didn't even bother to kick me in the shins like some of the other girls did. When they did that with their pointy cowboy boots it hurt so bad you almost had to cry reflexively. Of course you couldn't do that. Boys don't cry, at least not in front of girls. So you just turn and walk away really fast, feeling the double rebuff of your clumsy overtures inside and the real physical pain outside.

But Norma Jean never kicked me. You don't kick someone you don't even know exists, right? She was always surrounded by the cool guys anyway. I wasn't cool. None of the things I had in my head all prepared to say never seemed to come out right.

Every Saturday afternoon found all the kids in our little town - or so it seemed - at the Strand Theater for the matinee. A nice dark place where all the cool guys in 5th and 6th grade could make out with their girlfriends for a couple hours while their parents were off shopping or doing whatever parents do on a Saturday afternoon. I don't think it even crosses parents minds that 10- and 11- and 12-year-old-children sit in dark movie theaters on Saturday afternoons and make out.

I went to the Saturday matinees like all the others. I wasn't supposed to, but I did (a story for another time.) I didn't make out, though. I watched the movies. The same theater where years later I would be employed and would explore other options with the popcorn girl down in the storeroom. Some of you long-timers may remember that post.

I had just turned 11 years old. It was still winter. I remember I had just recently broken my right arm and it was in a big heavy cast, past the elbow, right up to my shoulder. It rested in a home-made sling my mom had made out of a folded pillowcase and safety pins.

Saturday afternoon, almost 1:30 in the afternoon. I was late, having just finished my paper route, walking since I couldn't ride my bike with one hand and still carry the papers. So I was late. The movie started at 1:30. As I hurried around the blind corner to the box office, I almost ran into someone in my haste.

Suddenly the world stopped. Just like that. Stopped. Slow motion. Only two people in the entire world, standing alone in front of the theater box office in the softly falling snow. Me. And Norma Jean.

I didn't have time to think. I had never been this close to her before. In the slow-motion world, the first thing I noticed from my new up-close perspective was that Norma Jean had brown eyes. Isn't that a crazy thing to remember? Somehow, when I had daydreamed about her, she always had had blue eyes. Blonde girls have blue eyes, right? Uh-uh. Not always.

"Sit with me."

I almost looked over my shoulder. Was that MY voice? Was that ME that just said that?

I don't know what I expected her to say. I guess I expected her to kick me in the shins. But she didn't kick me and she didn't say a thing. Her brown eyes suddenly looked amused and I discovered that Norma Jean had the most beautiful dimples when she smiled. Then I felt her warm hand take mine and still without a word she led me into the theater. Good thing, too, or I would still have been standing rooted there still.

Did I mention Norma Jean was the prettiest girl in 5th grade?

I walked down the sloped aisle in the darkness - the movie was already starting - with Norma Jean still holding my hand. I was conscious of the stares we were getting from the already-seated guys with their girls. Now I had a girl too.

Halfway down. Left side. She gets in first and I sit by the aisle. She is sitting by my good left arm. Good. We slip off our jackets and put them on the backs of the seats. We sit there. We still haven't spoken. Does she even know my name? Of course she knows my name. We are in 5th grade together. I take her hand in mine again and she doesn't pull away. Cool.

Now what?

I am still conscious of the eyes boring into me in the darkness and the whispers behind me. To her credit she doesn't turn around and greet any of her friends. She pays attention to me. I am almost floating. A dream. Has to be a dream. I always dream about her. I will wake up soon.

What do I have to lose? - I put my arm around her. Not exactly around her, around the seat behind her, actually. Then, just like it was the most natural thing in the world, she leans her head on my shoulder and my arm goes around her for real. And soon her hand is holding mine as it drapes over her shoulder. Just like it was the most natural thing in the world.

I don't know how long we watched the movie. I knew that my arm could go to sleep if it wanted to, but I wasn't about to move it.

And then - and I still don't exactly know what happened, how it happened, or where I got my courage from, but - suddenly we weren't watching the movie anymore. We were looking at each other, faces really close together. I caught another glimpse of those delightful dimples again in the flickering half-light, and then, with no real conscious thought, our lips were touching.

Neither of us knew how to kiss. Not really. I'm sure it wasn't her first, but it was mine. Soft. Warm. Lingering. Just the right amount of pressure. The whispering behind us stopped.

Did I mention Norma Jean was the prettiest girl in school?

Now, I have kissed a girl or two since that winter day in the dark theater - even a few in that same theater over the next few years. And each one was special. I remember Carolyn in 7th grade. Carolyn was another blonde, a gorgeous farmer's daughter with equally gorgeous sisters. But Carolyn was a twin and I learned the hard way not to confide in her twin and expect what I said not to get back to MY twin. But it was as good as 7th grade gets.

I remember, in the same theater in 8th or 9th grade, Judy (yet another blonde, but with blue eyes) kept me in awe at the marvelous things a girl can do with her tongue. I was always an eager student.

Yes, there have been one or two other ladies over the intervening years.

But if I live to be 100, I will never forget the pretty little girl who took my hand in hers, never forget the twinkle in her brown eyes and the dimples in her cheeks when she smiled at me, never forget the soft warmth of her lips as she gave me my first kiss that winter afternoon so long ago.

Thank you, Norma Jean, wherever you are.

Tell me about YOUR first "real" kiss.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Channel Crossing: A little late for D-Day and going the wrong direction, anyway.

This post was originally going to be a description of my first kiss, but a more newsworthy event is in process.

The Travelling Spouse is coming home.

After what seems like forever - 4 months, I think - in France, our little A. is coming home to Winchester Cathedral. That's why she has those pictures of it today on her blog. I think. Maybe not - she's pretty religious, as most of you know. (No, she doesn't actually live at Winchester Cathedral. Sheesh!)

As I write this, God willing, she has arrived at Versailles and has taken the pictures of the fountain and gardens I have "requested" her to take. And has hopefully then found a place to spend the night, since it is, like, almost 3am over there right now as I write this.

Then, more pictures for me at the port of Le Havre before driving her auto aboard and setting sail. Another six or seven hours of leaning over the rail barfing the last of the rich French food out of her system into the choppy seas and she will be safely home to Merry Olde England. Just a few clicks up the road from Portsmouth to said Winchester Cathedral and - voila! (as her beloved French brothers and sisters would say) - and it's home to finally rest in your own bed. If it is still there.

Please upload my pictures before going to bed, if you please, though.

Godspeed little A.

Your comment on this post will be our signal you have arrived safely.


Update: I feel so badly about lying about A. barfing over the railing that my conscience made me do this update apology. A. has made the channel crossing so many times, she hardly would barf, even in choppy seas. Only sleep, most probably. So I apologize!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Lines of succession

If everything goes hunky dory, history will record the recent succession of the monarchs of the United Kingdom as follows:

Edward VII
George V
Edward VIII
George VI
Elizabeth II
Charles III
William V

Unless it is something else or they decide not to use those names. Clear enough.
The line of succession to the Presidency of the United States, should the president die, is as follows:

The President of the Senate
The Speaker of the House
The President Pro-Tempore of the Senate
The Secretary of State
Los Otros Memberes del Cabineto
300 Million other people
The succession to the High Crazy of El Korea del Norte is as follows:

Kim Jung Il
Whoever he says.
A succession of heavyweight boxing champions of the world were:

Rocky Marchiano
Floyd Patterson
Ingemar Johansson
Floyd Patterson
Sonny Liston
Cassius Clay - Muhammad Ali
Who cares.
The succession of "Rocky" motion pictures was:

Rocky I
Rocky II
Rocky III
Rocky IV
Rocky V
Rocky ummmm.... ummmm... ummmm

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Best Followers

Thank you, Sage, for thinking of me with this lovely award. I may be grumpy but I try to be faithful.

Each and every person who follows my blog is very special to me, and some have been loyal beyond belief. I have to forward this award to every one of you.

The rules for this award are:
1. Put this award on your blog.
2. Invite 10 people to take this award.
3. Don't forget to link back to the person who gave you this award.
4. Let them know that they have received this award.
5. Share the love to those who get this award.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The wait will not be much longer

I know there are many of you waiting patiently for the special late-June bassoon post, and I just wanted to tell you that your patience is about to be rewarded. Soon. Very soon.

In the meantime, without Googling, can you tell me how many bassoons in the lyrics of 76 Trombones?

I know, I know. Too easy.

Canucklehead. Still watching you. Cheers.

My friend Canucklehead and his family are off to Greece this weekend for a well deserved holiday.

It has been so long since he and I have done anything, he probably doesn't think we are even friends anymore.

But we are.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Double Speak: Would you buy a used car from this company?

Normally I don't bother you with crap letters I receive in the mail. And a lot of other things, too. In fact, you probably have no real idea of how little I really bother you. But I could.

I got a letter yesterday (I was going to say "in the mail", but I resisted) from General Motors. If you live in the USA, you will already know that, after 100 years of mismanagement and arrogance, General Motors finally went belly up and declared bankruptcy, stiffed their creditors, and got taken over by the government. Which is to say you (if you are an American) are now the proud owner of 60% of this loser (I almost said "once proud" but they were never proud, only arrogant) company.

If you happen to be a non-American reading this, meh. Well, actually, you probably have heard of General Motors too, and may even be aware that they have recently been "bailed out" with several billion 'bama bucks but declared bankruptcy anyway, after spending the money. At any rate, this will be funny for you too if you are an English speaker.

The letter was sent to all their ex-customers to assure them that despite what they may have heard on the news and from President Obama, everything down at RenCen on the Detroit River is still just hunky dory. I, by the way, am worse than an ex-customer: I am both a past owner of a GM product and a present owner of a GM product. I only got one letter, though, so apparently the new cost-cutting features are already phasing in.

The beauty and excellence of the incredible spin contained in this letter goes FAR beyond the expertise of a corporate lawyer. Even beyond the ability of a master politician. No, the author of this spin letter deserves some sort of Pulizer Prize in advertising fiction.

Remember, this is a company which is bankrupt. Mismanaged. Humiliated. Run into the ground. Corrupt. Inept. Lost more money for their stockholders than Enron. Taken over by the government. Second only to Chrysler. How in the world can you put a good face on something as slimy and hopeless as that? How can you expect to keep your customers and ask them to spend more money with you? How indeed. Just read these paragraphs from their letter:

"Dear ______

First off, I'd like to thank you for being a GM customer. Your current and future business means a lot to us. Given all of the recent media coverage about GM, I am writing you today to address some questions you may have, and to assure you that we are here to stay [vomit stain here] and ready to serve you.

As you may know, GM is using an expedited, court-supervised process to accelerate the reinvention of our company. ..."

So. It is not bankruptcy, then, as we were told? It is an "expedited, court-supervised process"?

The government did not fire your CEO and step in and start barking orders? Instead, it is a "reinvention" of your unbelievably inept and wasteful company?

Later on in the letter, they even bragged that their new vehicles would now be covered by a "special U.S. Government-backed comprehensive... limited warranty." [More retching sounds from Relax Max here.]

JesusJosephandMary, people. Have these losers no pride?

And now I see that the courts have cleared the way to form a new car company called "Chrysler-Fiat." Isn't that special? All the reliability of a Fiat coupled with the fine design that made your grandfather think Chrysler was keen.

Walter Chrysler and Billy Durant are spinning too. In their graves.

God help us all if this is what corporate America has come to.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Happy Father's Day!

Tomorrow, Sunday, is Father’s Day in the USA.

Gifts from the kids. A special meal. Good family time.

I have been watching the news reports of President Obama giving speeches with a Father’s day theme. A funny speech last night speaking in front of the Washington press corps.

In between jokes, he reminded us of his own father, and challenged us all to be better fathers than his own was.

Obama has written a whole book about his father, “Dreams from My Father”, in which he talks about the man who abandoned his family. But Obama mainly talks about his own parenting today; a father to his own Sasha, 8, and Malia, 10.

As usual, he is telling American men what sort of fathers they should be, what kind of father he himself wants to be. The method is pretty simple: just be the opposite of what his own father was like.

Barack Hussein Obama, Sr., was a sometime Kenyan Goatherder cum Harvard scholar. Or so the storyline goes. Left his Kenyan family behind for a U.S. education and started a new family there, only to return to Africa with another woman when Barack Jr. was 2 years old.

Senior worked for an oil company in Africa, and for the government. His promise never materialized and when his 21-year-old son in America was a student at Columbia University, the senior Barack finally succumbed to the bottle and then died in a car crash.

He left his son a Muslim name, an African heritage and a basketball. Not much else.

“I don’t want to be the kind of father I had,” the president says quietly.

Although Obama’s preaching is most obvious when addressing other black men, his message is for all men: Be better fathers.

"Let's admit to ourselves that there are a lot of men out there that need to stop acting like boys; who need to realize that responsibility does not end at conception; who need to know that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise a child."

"We need to step out of our own heads and tune in. We need to turn off the television and start talking with our kids, and listening to them, and understanding what's going on in their lives."

"Any fool can have a child. That doesn't make you a father.”

Obama is quick to acknowledge his own shortcomings as a father. His fierce career ambitions many times kept him separated from his family.

"I know I have been an imperfect father. I know I have made mistakes. I have lost count of all the times, over the years, when the demands of work have taken me from the duties of fatherhood."

But, during the recent campaign, and now that he is in the White House, Obama finds time - makes time - to spend time with his girls and wife.

Obama was a schoolboy in Hawaii when his father came back to visit one time. He gave his dad a tie. His father gave him some African figurines and came to his class to speak about Kenya. And then he left again.

Before he left, he gave his son a basketball.

Cat’s in the Cradle
by Harry Chapin

A child arrived just the other day,
He came to the world in the usual way.
But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay.
He learned to walk while I was away.
And he was talking 'fore I knew it, and as he grew,
He'd say, "I'm gonna be like you, dad.
You know I'm gonna be like you."

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
"When you coming home, dad?" "I don't know when,
But we'll get together then.
You know we'll have a good time then."

My son turned ten just the other day.
He said, "Thanks for the ball, dad, come on let's play.
Can you teach me to throw?" I said, "Not today,
I got a lot to do." He said, "That's ok."
And he walked away, but his smile never dimmed,
Said, "I'm gonna be like him, yeah.
You know I'm gonna be like him."

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
"When you coming home, dad?" "I don't know when,
But we'll get together then.
You know we'll have a good time then."

Well, he came from college just the other day,
So much like a man I just had to say,
"Son, I'm proud of you. Can you sit for a while?"
He shook his head, and he said with a smile,
"What I'd really like, dad, is to borrow the car keys.
See you later. Can I have them please?"

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
"When you coming home, son?" "I don't know when,
But we'll get together then, dad.
You know we'll have a good time then."

I've long since retired and my son's moved away.
I called him up just the other day.
I said, "I'd like to see you if you don't mind."
He said, "I'd love to, dad, if I could find the time.
You see, my new job's a hassle, and the kid's got the flu,
But it's sure nice talking to you, dad.
It's been sure nice talking to you."
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me,
He'd grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
"When you coming home, son?" "I don't know when,
But we'll get together then, dad.
You know we'll have a good time then."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Caution: Relax Max is frothing at the mouth this morning

This post is just to remind you that, no matter how good your intentions, or how well you think you have everything figured out, not everyone in the world thinks like you do. It is also to remind you that freedom is not free.

This young German protester (above) has it all figured out, too. If we can only get the UN and their repulsive food and protection out of Sudan, things would be peachy. And do send money for reparations. Reparations for how we have made the situation how it is today, I guess. The dictators would surely use the money to take care of the people, right? No intervention.

They were doing so well before the intervention.

And Britain? Let's have a look at how your policy of tolerance for all things non-British is paying off, shall we?

1. Londonstan in the making:
2. Well, at least they are respectful of your society.3. And share common values... This one, below, is especially hilarious. The speaker just doesn't get it. At least your tolerance is appreciated and returned to you... Slay. Butcher.
I don't preach against Islam and I don't preach against immigration and I don't preach against tolerance, whenever tolerance is needed.

I do preach against misguided tolerance and against lilly-livered citizens who refuse to stand up for what belongs to them.

Religion of all brands has much to answer for, for the condition the world is in today. But I don't preach against religion, either. I believe those of quiet faith must now stand up and condemn those who would pervert their faith. That goes not only for Muslims, but for Christians as well.

Muslims: stand up and condemn these heretics. To non-Muslims around you, your silence is implying your agreement. These people do not represent your beautiful religion. Christians: stand up against the lawless vigilantes who kill abortionists in your name. And thank you to the thousands of Christians in my own country who ARE standing up and speaking out against the recent atrocity committed in the name of your religion. Vengance belongs only to God.

I have written so many posts about misguided tolerance. I am growing weary of preaching to the wind.

Tolerance does not apply to evil. You must not tolerate evil. Evil must be confronted, not tolerated.

Yes, you have the right to define evil in your society.

Evil is that which will steal from you your entire history and way of life. Evil is malevolent. Evil seeks to currupt. Evil does not care about what you want, doesn't care about your values, doesn't care about your history. Evil wants only to destroy that which you hold dear.

You must not sit and watch these protests on television, sitting on your couch and shaking your head. You must be on the streets, standing with your own signs, standing shoulder to shoulder behind your police, showing your police they are not out there alone. The television cameras must record that there is opposition to this evil that is infecting your country.

These people are not in your country to assimilate. They are in your country to proselytize and take over. They are there to subjugate you to their own beliefs.

Britain used to be filled with warriors who wouldn't take this kind of crap. Where have the warriors gone? All dead? Or are their sons and daughters merely cowards? Evil is already in your midst; time to fight back.

If it is worth living in, it is worth fighting to keep.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Three Michaels

Before the modern-day Russian Federation, there was the USSR - the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union ended on December 25, 1991. The last premier of the Soviet Union was a man named Mikhail Gorbachev.

Before the Soviet Union, the vast Russian Empire was ruled by kings or emperors, called “tsars.” The last family of tsars (sometimes spelled czar) was the House of Romanov. The Soviet Union was formed after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Shortly after that, in July of 1918, the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, and his family, were executed.

Thus ended the Romanov Dynasty which had lasted over 300 years. Of course, there is still a pretender to the now nonexistent Russian throne, but for all practical purposes, the royal line ended with the execution of Nicholas and his family.
[The above photo was taken several years before their execution. For example, Anastasia had just turned 17 at the time of their deaths, and the boy was almost 14.]

The early 1600s were known as the Time of Troubles for Russia. With the death of Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) and his childless son Feodor, Russia was without a tsar. Civil wars and foreign intervention marked the Time of Troubles between 1606 and 1613.

But in February of 1613, the wars finally came to an end, and the Poles were driven from Moscow, and the Boyars (noblemen) from 50 major cities (and even some peasant-electors) elected a new tsar to be the ruler of Russia. It was not an easy task to find a candidate suitable to the noble families, many of whom had their own candidates in mind.

In the end, a young boy by the name of Michael Romanov was chosen to be tsar of all the Russias and the nobility swore allegiance to the boy, and the church blessed the new young ruler of the vast territory.

The Romanov dynasty would rule Russia until 1917 - over 300 years.

When, during the end stages of WWI, the March Revolution took control of the government, the tsar was forced to abdicate the throne. At first, he abdicated in favor of his young son Alexis. But, unable to part with his frail hemophiliac son, he scribbled out the name of his son and, instead, abdicated in favor of his [the tsar's] younger brother.

His younger brother was named Michael.

Although Michael declined the throne immediately (when the generals could not guarantee his safety), he was, technically, for a short time, the last tsar of Russia.

Thus the dynasty began with a boy named Michael Romanov, and it ended with a distant descendant named Michael Romanov. Not long after, he, too, would be executed by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution of 1917.

The first leader of the Soviet Union was one Vladimir Lenin. His mysteriously embalmed body is still on display in Red Square. He was followed by Josef Stalin, who ruled with an iron hand. After his death in 1953, a power struggle ensued. After a brief period of joint rule, a man named Nikita Kruschev emerged as the leader of the Soviet Union.

Throughout its history, the Soviet Union was marked by power struggles behind the scenes and struggles for leadership of the communist party. A powerful party favorite by the name of Leonid Brezhnev finally gained enough support to oust Kruschev in the fall of 1964.

Brezhnev died in 1985, and was followed briefly by two transitional figures (Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko) who died in rapid succession, and then the final leader of the Soviet Union emerged.

His name was Michael.

Michael in Russian is Mikhail, and Mikhail Gorbachev was nothing short of a visionary. He began unheard of reforms and a new openness in government. He became very popular in the West because of his willingness to talk candidly and negotiate. The times they were a-changin’.

Gorbachev was not so popular back at home as he was in the West. The sudden shock of price controls being lifted and other market changes led to great shortages, especially of food distribution, and long lines formed for bread. Not since WWII and even the revolution before that, had things been so hard and food in such short supply. For the first time, the Soviet Union began accepting food assistance from the West.

A new baby was being born, and the entire Russian population was experiencing wrenching labor pains.

Starting in 1989, the satellite countries under the influence of the Soviet Union began to drop away and declare independence. Poland. Hungary. czechoslovakia, Rumania, and, finally, East Germany. The Berlin wall was torn down by jubilant young protesters and celebrants through the night. Not long before, President Reagan had challenged Gorbachev to tear down the wall. And so it finally came to pass, though not directly by Gorbachev's hand. It was a heady time to be alive.

Then the actual countries that made up the Soviet Union began to declare independence. Even Ukraine, the breadbasket of the Union dropped away. The USSR was disintegrating. Finally, on December 21, 1991, The vast Russian Federation seceded from the Soviet Union and the Union was no more. It’s official date of death was December 25, Christmas Day in the West.

From a boy named Michael to a brother named Michael to a visionary named Michael.

Nobody loves poetry like a Russian. And next to poetry, they love ironic jokes. That’s how they face hard times. Here’s a joke about the terrible food shortages and long lines for food, supposedly told in a speech by Gorbachev himself:

Two Muscovites, Ivan and Piotr, are waiting in line on a Moscow street, waiting to buy bread. The line is blocks long and it hardly moves.

Finally, Piotr says to Ivan in exasperation, "I can’t take this anymore! This is so ridiculous - waiting in line every day for hours! I’m going to go shoot that bastard Gorbachev!"

The people in earshot in the line begin to cheer. “Yes! Yes! Go and shoot the bastard!

And so Piotr trots off with fire in his eye, to shoot the bastard Gorbachev.

But about 45 minutes later he returns, the fire gone out of his eyes.

“Did you shoot him? Did you shoot the bastard?” The people all gather around Piotr, eager for the news.

“I wanted to but I couldn’t. The line of people wanting to shoot him was too long.”

Mikhail Gorbachev at Reagan's funeral.

At the time of their execution, Nicholas had just turned 50; Alexandra was 46; Olga 22, Tatiana 21, Marie 19, Anastasia 17, Alexis 13. Also killed were two servants who had stayed with them throughout their captivity. (Actually one was not a servant, but rather the Tsarevich's doctor.) The Bolsheviks even shot the children's small dog. Screams of dying young girls, and air so thick with gun smoke the shooters could hardly breathe or see, that unspeakable July night in the cellar.

And blood. So much blood.

Lenin was at a meeting when the note was handed to him informing him that the Tsar and his family were dead. He read it, then put it in his pocket and didn't even mention the event to most of the others at the meeting.

Oddly, the family were still allowed to write in their journals during their 16 months of captivity. The family normally spoke English or French amongst themselves (because Russian was somewhat unnatural for the German-born Tsaritsa, a Hessian princess before her marriage to Nicholas), but were required to speak only Russian in captivity so that the guards could understand them. But they kept their journals in English, and didn't try to hide it. Their journals were preserved after their execution, and the following passage comes from Olga, shortly before her death. It has become famous:

"Remember that the evil that is now in the world will become yet more powerful, and that it is not evil which conquers evil, but only love."

Click here to

learn more about the daughters of the last Russian tsar.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Just let it out

Writing is rewriting.

No need to think about style and elegance, not at first. Just write.

Write the first draft with your heart, refine it later with your head.

It's already inside you, like Michelangelo's David was already inside the marble. Let it out.

It was Ernest Hemingway who said writing is rewriting. Those of you who have read Hemingway know how succinct he could be. At times, perhaps too much so. But then, he was his own worst critic, finally resorting to a shotgun when liquor proved too slow.

The late George Plimpton became famous for his interviews and for his first-hand experience reports. In an interview with Ernest Hemingway, the famous author mentioned that he had rewritten the ending to "A Farewell to Arms" 39 times. When Plimpton asked him why so many times, Hemingway responded simply that he wanted to get the words right.

I can't remember ever having rewritten anything 39 times, but neither does anything I write ever appear in the original form.

A century or so ago I once worked for a couple of years at a small radio station, and like the other sales staff had to churn out copy under a deadline gun. So I did learn to write things in my head as I typed and make it come out right the first time. Or at least acceptably right for a radio commercial, containing just the right number of cliches to make it come out to exactly 30 seconds. If one wanted his stuff produced that evening, one learned to write fast and get on with the next 30 seconds of forgettable drivel. But that kind of crap writing makes for pretty weak story lines.

I no longer want to write things that will make you have an irresistible impulse to run out and buy new carpet or eat at certain restaurants, and so I don't write like that anymore. I find I have become more like Papa Hemingway. Minus the shotgun, of course.

Writing is rewriting.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

—Gillespie Magee
[Photos of Neil Armstrong and moon print courtesy of NASA]

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Observations from the far side of the moon

Electricity is actually made up of extremely tiny particles called electrons. You cannot see these with the naked eye unless you have been smoking pot. Then everything becomes crystal clear. You can even slow them down in time so you can examine them more closely. Even then it does no good to try and talk to them; they are on a mission. Sometimes I think I understand everything in the universe. Then I regain consciousness.

One of the first things the Soviets did to show up the USA back during the Cold War when artificial satellites were the latest cool thing, was to send one to orbit the moon and take pictures of the dark side of the moon. Mankind had never seen a picture of the "back" of the moon - the moon always shows the same face to the Earth. It is just as barren and cratered as the side Earthlings can see, but the features are different. No Sea of Tranquility back there.

Actually there is no real "dark" side of the moon; the sun lights up that side too, but you just can't see it. I have a copy of one of the pictures of the other side of the moon that the Ruskies took a long time ago, but I am not going to show it to you because you are not paying attention.

That's a big fat lie. Unless you are blind you have already looked at the photo above. You just didn't know how sublimely awesome it was, did you? Now you know. Beethoven never saw this. William the Conqueror never saw this. George Washington never saw this. You did. Just a little dividend for being alive at this point in history.

But the USA got the last laugh because they won the Space Race. See, there used to be a competition to see who could land a man on the moon first. The Soviet Union had a really big head start. All the USA seemed proficient at was blowing up rockets on launching pads. It was quite embarrassing. But then our scientists, both home-grown and ex-Nazi, got down to business and, just in time to save JFK from being a liar, put men on the moon before the decade was over, as he had promised.

And then we did it again. And again. And again.

And then we played golf on the moon. At least Alan Shepherd hit one up there. A nice little 1200-yard drive. I don't think NASA knew he had sneaked a club and ball into the LEM. Maybe they did. But contraband wasn't new. The astronauts, after all, were American, and that meant ingenuity and free enterprise. Rumor had it that as early as Gus Grissom, they were carrying rolls of coins into space and then selling them for a premium. Space dimes. Come and get 'em while they're hot. And let us not even TALK about the little moon rocks that didn't make their way into the hands of our scientists. Or so they say.

And the Ruskies? It has become very apparent that the only way they are EVER going to get to the moon is if we take them.



Alan Shepherd was the first American in space in 1961, but many remember him as the man who played golf on the moon 10 years later.

[The photograph at the top of this post was taken by NASA and is not a copy of the photo taken much earlier by the USSR. If you click on the photo, you can make it MUCH larger.]

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Hump day

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Goodbye to an era: voice of "The Right Stuff" passes

A man who lived in my state in recent years, and who was the voice of the early NASA broadcasts has died.

Paul Haney, who was known as the "voice of NASA's Mission Control" for his live televised reports during the early years of the space program, died last Thursday of cancer at a nursing home in Alamogordo. He was 80.

Haney became NASA's information officer in 1958, only three months after the agency was formed. Haney pioneered a real-time system of reporting events as they happened in the first manned flight program, Project Mercury. In 1962 he became the public affairs officer of the Office of Manned Space Flight and moved to Houston to work in what is now Johnson Space Center.

Later he went on to manage information from the Gemini and Apollo flight programs. During those early years, Haney worked in the Mission Control Center, where he broadcast live to television viewers, and the news media covering launches. If you are old enough to remember watching the Mercury flights on television in your high school cafeteria when they used to let classes out because of the importance of those events, then you have heard Paul Haney's voice.


I have a thirst for new knowledge and am constantly searching. Not all that I come across is worthy of taking up brain-cell space. Here is some interesting (and not-so-interesting) information in my travels around the internet; things you simply MUST be aware of...

There are 200 million Blogs which are no longer being undated (3 years ago)

More than one in eight people in US shows signs of addiction to the internet (how could you know something like that?)

Fathers tend to determine the height of their child. Mother’s tend to determine the weight. (I doubt that. Unless you are talking about parental supervision and not genetics)

Panspermia is the idea that life on Earth originated on another planet (for scrabble players, no?)

The Mona Lisa used to hang on the wall of Napoleon’s bedroom (but then, Napoleon use to sleep in the Louvre, right?)

Barbie’s full name is Barbie Millicent Roberts (I'm trying really hard to think of something I care less about. Nope.)

Cows can have regional accents according to a Professor of phonetics. (Who wants to bet me that he got a grant from the U.S. Government to study that crap?)


Photo credit: The New Mexico Museum of Space History, Alamogordo.


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