Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Bird Is the Word

I’m usually ambivalent about official or socially mandated holidays. “You shall celebrate XYZ on such-and-such date” prompts the response, "I'll celebrate what or whom I please in my own time for my own reasons, thank you." As a practical matter, though, there is an advantage to observing the conventional days: other people are more likely to be off from work, and so are much more likely to show up to your party. Besides, in the case of Thanksgiving, I actually like turkey.

For the past decade, I’ve had Thanksgiving at my house. It is the one major meal that I personally cook – the turkey, one other critter (lamb or ham usually), and a couple of sides anyway: I buy some additional items pre-prepared. Obviously I’m not vegetarian, though invariably one or two guests turn out to be, so I make accommodations for them, too. I thereby maintain a reputation as chef when in fact my oven gets little use the rest of the year. The stealthy way to be cheap is to be lavish on rare occasion. It is really vastly harder and more admirable to cook on a small scale daily than to go large scale once per year; I appreciate those who do, but I just don’t want to work that hard.

Conventional families are less common than they once were. I don’t have one (anymore), and neither do most of my friends, so an eclectic bunch of a dozen or so always shows up at the table. This year the guests ranged from ages 20 to 80 and hailed from five countries (US, Canada, Lithuania, Morocco, and the UK). Two I met for the first time on Thursday (great to meet you, Amanda and Michelle, and I expect both of you back again), and two (hi, Aunt Diane and Tim) actually are extended family. Oddly enough, the mix worked socially, and a post-meal game of Scruples revealed our various ways of looking at things. This is the new normal. It’s rather nice, too, even if Norman Rockwell never painted it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Internecine Battle

In their intra-league roller derby bout last night with the Corporal Punishers, the Major Pains, the one-year-old B-team of the Jerzey Derby Brigade based in Morristown, NJ, again proved they have come of age. To be sure, the Pains lost to the veteran A-team Punishers, but this time it was no walk-away. When up against the Punishers last spring, the inexperienced Pains took a 203-63 beating. (See my April blog Wheel Appeal .) The team continued to struggle, and had its worst night when it endured a 351-16 crushing at the hands of the Long Island Roller Rebels. Practice and perseverance paid off, though, and the Pains scored their first win (a solid one at that), against the New Brunswick Hellrazors two weeks ago. Last night the two Morristown teams were almost evenly matched – more so than is really reflected in the 156-106 final score in favor of the Corporal Punishers.

Syd Deuce (#2) again showed herself to be an exceptional jammer for the Punishers, not only exploiting holes in the opponents’ defense, but moving very fast when in the open and circling around to meet the pack again.. In the very first jam she broke through and quickly picked up 4 points for the Punishers, a feat she would repeat. Maggy Kyllanfall (#187) gave her usual strong performance for the Pains, in one jam racking up points on three passes through the pack. ASSault Shaker (#AK-47) and Inna Propriate (#8008) were notably effective and hard-hitting blockers for the Punishers as were Texas Bulldoz-her and Ginger-Ail for the Pains. At one point the Punishers employed the star pass, a tactic which is fairly obscure, but allowed by the rules: when in the pack the jammer can pass off the star helmet-cover (which indicates who is jammer) to the pivot (the lead blocker), a move which can confuse or bypass the opposing team’s blockers. ASSault Shaker, who started as pivot, took the star and went on to score points.

The Pains’ biggest weakness in the past had been blocking – individual skaters were fine but they often were scattered by opponents, leaving holes for the opposing jammer. That has been corrected. While the Punishers still had a slight edge with their defense, the walls, blocks and hits on both sides were well coordinated and none-too-gentle. Syd Deuce, while skating with her usual speed, took a particularly solid hit while overtaking the pack; she went down hard, slammed into the wall, and stayed down. Play halted while the paramedics attended. She was back on her feet in a few minutes but was out of the bout as the paramedics escorted her out, showing once again that, for all its theatrical elements, roller derby is a full contact sport. (I hope you’re OK, Syd.) The bout resumed and continued to be fought hard through the last jam, ending in a victory for the Punishers that had not been gained easily.

On a more personal note, when I was in school in the 60s (yes, the decade was real), I always watched professional roller derby, which regularly was broadcast on local stations (typically WOR or WPIX in the New York area). In 1972 I caught Kansas City Bomber in the theater, which remains my favorite Raquel Welch movie. (The wrist splint she wears in the movie is not a prop, by the way; Raquel broke her wrist in a skating fall.) Derby also was at the Coliseum in DC during my college years. I was sorry to see the professional leagues shut down when economics turned against them – Leo Seltzer, inventor of the sport, blamed the ‘70s fuel crisis and the associated transport costs as the final nails in the coffin.

What was the attraction of the sport? Well, partly it was the attraction of any spectator sport, and derby is a particularly fast-paced and exciting one. I would be lying, though, to deny that the rough-and-tumble playfulness of the derby girls had – and has – a special appeal. While in 2011 I may be just a bit superannuated to chase them (besides they’re awfully fast on quad skates), I still enjoy watching them on the track more than I do watching 280-pound men struggle over a football. The current revival in derby owes much to it being an all-women’s sport. (There are men’s and mixed leagues, but they haven’t gotten the same traction as women’s roller derby.)

Last night was the last bout of the season in Morristown, but I look forward to 2012.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sodium Chloride

All times are uncertain times (even without invoking Heisenberg). Nevertheless, a parlous world economy and another insanely drawn-out US election have added to the usual sources of head-scratching. So, professional fortune-tellers – most describing themselves as pundits or experts – are having a profitable year as they opine about the future to us avid listeners. I’ll refrain from repeating a shopworn Yogi Berra quote (you know the one), but here are just ten past predictions or evaluations by very smart people.

“The major part of the US military task in Vietnam can be completed by the end of 1965.” Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense.

“You ain’t going nowhere, son. You ought to go back to driving a truck.” Grand Ole Opry manager Jim Denny while firing Elvis Presley in 1954.

“No woman in my time will be prime minister.” Margaret Thatcher, 1969.

“Transcontinental mails will be forwarded by means of pneumatic tubes.” Felix Oswald, on the future of communications, 1893.

“I don’t need bodyguards.” Jimmy Hoffa, 1975.

“Rod will stay with me forever.” Britt Ekland on husband Rod Stewart in 1976. Forever lasted a year.

“I want to be an old-fashioned lawyer, an honest lawyer who can’t be bought by crooks.” Richard Nixon, 1925.

“You will never amount to anything.” Teacher to ten-year-old Albert Einstein.

“No matter what happens, the US Navy is not going to be caught napping.” Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy, December 4, 1941.

“Inventions reached their limit long ago and I see no hope for further development.” Julius Frontinus, 80 AD.

It would be easy to extend the list to thousands. There are so many more ways to be wrong than to be right that the odds are any expert opinion will be the former. It doesn't hurt to listen, but keep the salt-shaker within easy reach.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Dala Gala

When it comes to contemporary music, I like major headline performers as much as the next person, and accordingly I have spent my share of evenings at Roseland, the Nassau Coliseum, and Madison Square Garden. More often, though, I like cozier venues and lesser known acts.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that the globalization of modern media has been a little hard on the majority of creative folks. Thousands of years ago, in the typical ancestral village of 150 people, he observed, the best artist was regarded as a Picasso, the best tenor as a Caruso, the best dancer as a Pavlova, and so on. With urbanization later in antiquity, the competition among poets, musicians, painters, philosophers and the like stiffened but remained pretty lean. Even in such a major cultural center as ancient Athens, which attracted talented people from all over the Mediterranean, while it was very hard for an artist to rise to the status of Number One, it wasn’t so very hard to be a respectable Number Ten. The populations of preindustrial cities simply were not large enough to have many more than ten outstanding performers at anything: fifth century BC Athens – big by ancient standards – was about the size of Fargo, North Dakota. (This makes the Classical artistic achievements all the more remarkable, it must be said.)

In the modern world, all this has changed. Today, any new artist of any type is judged (and self-judged) against world champions, all of whom are readily available on demand on electronic audio and video. In most small towns and suburbs, the most prominent local musician most likely plays in a corner bar, if in public at all, and few even of the patrons know his or her name.

Nevertheless, a lot of the lesser-knowns are very good, and seeing them in smallish venues is closer to the ancient (or primordial village) experience. Their concerts are frequently more satisfying on that level than are big blow-out stadium affairs, and it is always easier to get out of the parking lot afterward.

Fortunately, one friend of mine (hi, Ken) is a lot more social and club-oriented than I am, He frequently seeks out live music multiple times per week, and often gives me a heads-up when some local event is especially worth attending. When I’m not in grumpy/solitary mode, I sometimes go. Yesterday he recommended a show presented by The Folk Project at the Unitarian Fellowship in Morristown: the show was an opening act of songwriter/performer Anthony DaCosta followed by the main act Dala (the duo Amanda Walther and Sheila Carabine). Although yesterday, the 11th, in addition to being Veterans Day was Metal Day (as in “these go to 11”), not Folk Day, I went. I’m glad I did.

Identifying Dala (from AmanDA SheiLA) as “lesser-known” is not entirely accurate. They are fairly well known in their native Canada and they’ve attended folk festivals in the US for years, but it is fair to say that most folks in this country haven’t ever heard of them. It is worth hearing of them and hearing them, preferably in a smallish venue while that is still possible. They play and sing mostly their own material, but mix in a few covers (Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, for one). They are charming, clever, and talented. If you are open to easy-going contemporary folk, give them a try. If not, I urge setting aside the digital media for an evening and attending in person the live performance of some other lesser known. Getting in touch with one’s primordial village side is refreshing.

Global media have effects beyond elevating world champions to a fame that overwhelms local talent, of course. They also allow for the rise of stars (as on "reality" shows) who are famous for no other reason than being famous – but that is a subject for another blog.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


A few weeks ago, while cleaning out clutter from the corner of my garage, I noticed a dried muddy footprint which for years had been covered by clutter of the sort that fills corners of garages. It was a work boot print a size smaller than mine, which means it was made by my dad who died in 2000. There is something about a footprint or a handprint. It brings a sense of immediate presence in a way that photographs or autographs just don’t – it is why film stars still set them in concrete in Hollywood.

Perhaps the most famous footsteps on this planet (thereby excluding Armstrong’s on the moon) were set in a dusting of volcanic ash in Laetoli Tanzania by human ancestors (or close relatives of human ancestors) 3.7 million years ago. There are plans to build a museum around them. When first discovered in 1976, the prints were interpreted as belonging to three individuals, with one (perhaps a child) deliberately stepping in the prints of another. (Why? Playfulness? Was the undisturbed ash hot?) Recently, some scientists have argued that there were four individuals – the evidence consists of what may be three discrete big toe marks in the overstepped prints, though the case for this is unsettled. No one knows for sure to what species the amblers belonged, but the prints show a posture and a gait identical to those of modern humans. Researchers have duplicated the tracks simply by walking barefoot.

I’ve never seen Laetoli in person (the prints currently are buried anyway in order to preserve them), but I have met Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis who must have been very much like the print-makers, if not actually one of their species. There is disagreement among anthropologists over whether Lucy was a hominin (direct human ancestor) or a non-ancestral hominid (a larger group including hominins). Either way, she is family; if she is not a great great grandmother, she is something like a great aunt. I met her twice, actually: once during a visit her fossil made to the Museum of Natural History and once again a few years ago at the Discovery Times Square Exhibition in NYC.

Lucy’s celebrity has been upstaged lately by Ardi. Ardi is the nickname of a 4.4 million-year-old female Ardipithecus ramidus described in Science magazine in 2009. However, Ardi is 110 fragments that don’t look like much of anything, no matter how you arrange them. Lucy is complete enough to be satisfyingly recognizable. (Yeah, I know: just like a man to prefer the younger woman.)

Viewing Lucy evoked a curious sensation that was not quite nostalgia, but something like it. It was something akin to handling a quilt sewn by a family member who died over a century ago.

What is our legacy from Lucy? How much of her nature remains our own? It’s hard to say, but perhaps we have more in common with her than we commonly acknowledge. It’s a long way from Laetoli, but, for well or ill, we all still walk in Lucy’s footsteps.

Laetoli Prints

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Reign of Pain

It’s nice to see a struggling team come together. That why movies like the The Bad News Bears not only get made but remade.

Regular readers will know that a personal quirk of mine is a fondness for live roller derby, and I rarely miss a home bout by the Morristown-based Jerzey Derby Brigade. The Brigade has two teams, the Corporal Punishers which (albeit with a name change) has been skating since 2007. The second team, Major Pains, was formed last year, largely from neophyte skaters stiffened by some veterans shifted from the Punishers. 2011 was the first actual season for the Pains. Understandably, the Pains had growing pains, and endured roughings-up when up squared against experienced teams; opposing blockers were often able to scatter the Pains’ blockers. One loss followed another, the most recent being a crushing 351-16 romp by the Long Island Roller Rebels.

Last night, assisted by a decision to push the veteran skaters on the team to the fore, the Pains came together in a tough contest with the New Jersey Hellrazors that was marked by solid hits, pile-ups, tight defenses, and very aggressive jamming on both sides. (For brief basic info on derby play and terms, see an earlier blog Wheel Appeal .)

This bout looked different from the moment the Four Old Farts (a barbershop quartet) finished the National Anthem. In the first four jams, the Pains’ jammers (Heinz Catchup, Maggie Kyllanfall, Miss USAhole, and Voldeloxx) quickly broke through the pack as lead jammers. Despite firm opposition – Voldeloxx took a particularly solid hit from the Hellrazors’ A-Bomb (#235U) – they racked up an early lead. The Pains narrowly kept the lead through most of the first half, but the Hellrazors closed the gap and, by halftime, had nudged ahead with a score of 52-49.

The half-time break included dancers and a children’s Halloween costume contest; all the participants seemed to have fun. I spoke to Cherry Mercenary of the Hellrazors at halftime break. She told me the team is from the New Brunswick area, and plans to add more bouts to the next year’s schedule with Morristown and Skylands (Hackettstown). Sounded good to me.

In the second half, Morristown clawed back the lead. The blocking was effective on both teams. The Pains refused to be scattered this time; at one point, for example, Doom Hilda and Sid Deuce obstructed the Hellrazors’ Thiza Glory long enough to restrain her point gain when, since the Pain’s jammer was in the penalty box, she was threatening grand slams. The blocking of A-Bomb and Cherry Mercenary stood out for the Hellrazors. Morristown’s jammers were consistently good throughout the bout; Heinz Catchup had the best multiple lap of the evening. For the Hellrazors, Jen-O Go-Go did well, but Turtle of Death was just superb, and was declared MVP after the bout. In the final minutes Morristown expanded its narrow lead into a broader one, with a final score of 122-88, the first ever win for the Major Pains.

As always, it was an altogether enjoyable evening, and I recommend doing a quick internet search for derby bouts near you. You, too, might find the sport addictive.