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Showing posts from 2017

The Virginian: How the West Was Written by Owen Wister

Just as Homer set the foundation of Western literature with The Iliad, so Owen Wister created the ur-narrative of another kind of "Western" literature in 1902 when he published The Virginian.

Wister is credited with writing the first novel of the American West, based on his own observations of visits to Wyoming, Montana and elsewhere. The book details the life and love of an unnamed character known as the Virginian. Wister touches on what became the classic Western themes: the guns, the cattle drives, rowdy card games, the loneliness of vast distances, the lovely and virginal school marm, religion and religious hucksters, the struggle to build a civil society, and even the gulf between the civilized "East" and the untamed "West." The Virginian's love interest, schoolteacher Molly Wood, hails from Bennington, Vermont, a locale that sets up humor and societal contrasts. A telling details is that Molly's great-aunt had the honor of curtsying before t…

Live From New York: It’s Little Home Companion on the Prairie!

By sheer dumb coincidence, I bought tickets to see A Prairie Home Companion at New York’s Town Hall on December 2. That turned out to be four days after Minnesota Public Radio fired retired PHC host and creator Garrison Keillor for allegations of improper behavior.

I’d been a fan of PHC over the Keillor years, not rabid, but enough to appreciate his humor and inventiveness. I’ve spent much less time listening to the retooled version hosted by mandolin player Chris Thile. Still, I was eager to see the show live.



The Godzilla in the room as the show started at 5:45 pm (great timing for us 60-somethings) was what, if anything, would Thile say about Keillor. Business as usual, which would be ridiculous, or a statement. If so, when?

Thile, to his credit, came right out and addressed what everybody knew.

“It’s been a rough week,” he said, with a chuckle, not directly mentioning Keillor but the line made total sense. He soon turned to Keillor and called the situation “heartbreaking.” He also…

How the West Was Watched

Almost by accident, I’ve become a fan of classic Western TV shows on METV. The titles alone take me back a half-century or more to a boyhood with a family that huddled around the RCA console to watch Gunsmoke, Bonanza and The Wild Wild West.

The more I have watched after finding the programming on Saturdays, the more I felt I had circled back to something vital in my life. Where do our values come from, our role models, our sense of how the world works? The interest took a darker turn after the latest gun-driven massacres in our country, in Las Vegas and a Baptist church in rural Texas, which led me to consider violence as a culturally learned form of expression and problem solving. How do westerns depict violence, who wields that tool, and why? Is the gunplay gratuitous or the last resort against an onrushing threat? How else are conflicts resolved? Before the genre shrank and became the subject of radical rethinking, the western was a big part of the cultural puzzle that shaped the…

Alt-History: All Singing, All Dancing, All Trotsky!

A friend on Facebook recently posed the question, “What if World War I never happened?” Many comments dealt with the geopolitical pressures, noting that some kind of war was inevitable given Germany’s militarization and the creakiness of the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Others were more optimistic, that with no World War I, there would have been no World War II. I took a different approach. Lacking any original insights into the dynamics of European history, I mused on the impact of peace on the United States. I speculated that Fidel Castro would have developed into an ace fastball pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, a crowd-dazzling righty, of course, rather than a communist dictator. My main contribution combined numerous interests into one great big riff I might title “All Singing, All Dancing, All Trotsky!” That’s my kind of alt-social history. Here’s what I wrote:

Without WWI and communism, Lev Davidovich Bronshtein decides to stay in New York and chucks his rev…

Searching For That Red-Letter Day at the Hidalgo County Courthouse

My father recently called me to find out the date he and my late mother were divorced. He needed the information for a matter involving his military pension.

"You were one of the parties there, not me," I said, both amused and annoyed.

The papers had all been misplaced, he replied, in moves from South Texas to Michigan to the East Coast. He hoped I could apply my sleuthing skills to dig up the details. With some reluctance, I agreed. I knew I'd be walking into an emotional minefield.

My parents were married and then divorced in Hidalgo County, Texas. The divorce took place between 1960 and 1962. I hoped the public records would be online, but the Texas divorce decrees are online only back to 1968. The county government's website offered up a likely source to call for details. Never could I imagine, 40 years after I last lived in Hidalgo County, that I would be dealing with the district court in Edinburg to request this document. But I pulled up my big-boy britches an…

The Unspeakable Number Explained

During an August visit to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, I enjoyed the huge exhibit "Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950." It ranged over painting, prints, photography and murals, with plenty of explanation of the pieces' context.

And then I came to one that stopped me cold and sent my memory back 50 years. The exhibit showed a poster with the title "Los 41 Maricones" and below that a poem "Aqui Están Los Maricones . . . Muy Chulos y Coquetones," based on a 1901 scandal in Mexico City where 41 men were arrested at a social event where 19 dressed as women. The exhibit translated the title as "The 41 Faggots . . . Very Cute and Coquettish." The history of the episode can be found here.



The notorious illustration.

The poster and explanation stunned me because it explained a mystery that goes back almost 50 years. During my 1960s days at William Jennings Bryan Elementary School in Mission, Texas, boys regularly invoked the number…

Breaking and Mending, Forgetting and Finding

First Basil the rascally cat pushed my favorite coffee mug off a kitchen counter and it shattered. Then my six-month old Sony a5000 camera froze up while I was on a lunchtime photo prowl in midtown Manhattan. I lost my favorite kippah from the Jewish Hospital in Berlin. Finally, I accidently recycled my $369 commuter rail ticket; I'm sure I did.

This spring brought more its share of micro-exasperations as favorite possessions broke or vanished. Chalk the string up to forgetfulness or disorganization or the fragility of consumer electronics, but I kept stumbling over myself, only to take a deep breath, pick myself up and try again. The lesson: Things can work out if you give them time.

First, the coffee mug that Basil nudged over the edge was from the Red Bull gift shop in Crawford, Texas. I bought it in October 2008 during a visit to Central Texas before starting a new job in the days before the fateful presidential election. Besides armadillo refrigerator magnets, I picked up a c…

Balm of Baseball Memory

Now that Super Bowl LI has moved from conclusion to legend, let's turn our attention to baseball. Our story begins after a recent lunchtime workout at the New York Sports Club in Rockefeller Center.
In the locker room, I walked by a guy who must have felt strained. He was rubbing himself down with balm. While I didn't see him, I caught the aroma of the balm wafting around us. That scent, that instant, was all I needed to trigger a cascade of 45-year old memories.



The smell of balm carries me back to the athletics center of Mission High School in Mission, Texas, where I had been the baseball manager for my freshman and sophomore years in the early 1970s. I became manager by default; my delusions of actually playing for the Eagles baseball team ended quickly, given my inability to hit, field or throw. Still, coach Jake Longoria shrewdly pegged me as the perfect manager, one who combines the talents of a mule, farmhand and nurse to lug the equipment, rake and water the infield, s…

I, Techie

Here I am on the 7:17 a.m. train to Grand Central, typing my first blog post on my brand new refurbished Dell Latitude E6430 laptop. After a three-year gap, I finally have a new used laptop so I can pound out my prose on the train.

The gap started when my Apple PowerBook G4 became too outdated and gave up its iGhost. I bought it off Craig's List in 2006, having gone through two Dell laptops over the years. While I wrote much of a book on the PowerBook, I never warmed up to the Apple experience. After it became impossible to use, I pried the hard drive out, spiked it with a screwdriver and jumped on what remained a few times, then left it on the recycling table at the Westport, CT, town dump.

Since then I've done fun writing on my home desktop, with a Lenovo CPU and Acer monitor. Still, I missed my laptop. My hour-long train commute gives me a great window for writing, away from the phone and Internet. From past projects I know I can be highly productive (like I am now, stopped…