Sunday, January 30, 2011

One Month, Twelve Lives...

Aaaaaaaand... we're back. Sometimes so much happens in a short amount of time (see also, Genesis) that a meaningful response is elusive. It's as if one's senses are hung--like Windows '98--or that the act of carrying on from day to day freezes us out of the immediate, and into a State of Shock.

And thus it was with BlaiserBlog, its winter voice lost in an 18" snow drift. However, as we drew the weathered curtains on this first month of 2011, we seized upon that last bit of January light, and salvaged a raison d'être: paying tribute to some Great Americans who recently shuffled off to Buffalo their mortal coil.

Contrary to the grand tradition of awards shows (teary montages that invariably make one think, Oh that's right....I forgot he died this year... huh.....where'd that bowl of Doritos® go?) the crack team of researches here at BB present some dearly departed folks whose singular contribution to American life may have passed unnoticed on your radar, and about whom we will now sing. (For an aural companion, please press Play (below) for the thoughtful strains of legendary cellist Jacqueline du Pré, and then read at your leisure: All Great Americans will be honored in order of disappearance.)


Frank S. Emi (above, left), a grocer and one of over 100,00 Japanese-Americans herded into prison camps during the Second World War. Not one of our finer moments. This brother, however, left the comforts of his home and went quietly to Wyoming to the ironically named Heart Mountain facility, which defaulted into the largest "city" in the entire state during the war years. (School yourself here.) Mr. Emi would have patiently waited things out, had the government not decided to conscript the prisoners into fighting for Democratic ideals conveniently forgotten during their mass relocation. For his courageous stand and organizing efforts--one of six, out of the Heart Mountain population of 11,000 who stood up and said No--he was rewarded with a conviction on federal conspiracy charges. An appellate court restored sanity by overturnng the decision, but not before he spent 18 months in the Leavenworth Pen. President Truman pardoned some 300 of the internee resisters in a silent apology, but my research indicates Mr. Emi didn't make that list. Many years later, his patriotism was finally recognized by a group of Japanese-Americans veterans, shoring up a critical brick in the American foundation: There is more than one way to fight for American liberty. Although he lost his family business during "relocation," he became a postal worker and enjoyed a long life, dying at 94 with a family that included two daughters, one stepdaughter, nine grandchildren and four great-granchildren. May we all be so lucky.

Allan R. Sandage, 84, the scientific heir apparent to Edwin Hubble, who acheived susperstar status amongst, um, telescope guys. Most notably, he broke with the findings of his mentor, arriving at the hypothesis that the actual age of this universe is 15 billion years old, not 13 million. This can only be good, because I'm certain we're going to need the extra time to figure out a bunch of life's ineffable questions, the first of which is: Why are there so damn many spellings of Allan...?


Here's to you, Mr. We-evolved-from-space-alien-gods-who-hail-from-a-12th-planet-called-Nibiru-and-who-crossed-the-solar-system-in-B-movie-styled-rocketships-to-enslave-proto-hominids-and-mine-terrestrial-precious-metals. It's a long name, I know--you may choose to call him Zecharia Sitchin--but it's apt for a fellow with a long tale. You can debate whether his methods are sound science or insane fantasy, but you can't really argue with his book sales: His first treatise, The Twelfth Planet, is enjoying its 45th printing, and that's just here on Earth. Story goes, in the mid-Pleistocene Epoch, some really tall dudes on a 3600-year orbit swung by to plunder our gold and stayed for 447,450 years. In exchange, they created us. (Thanks, for that!) One can only imagine why they ran screaming from the place, around 550 BC, but it was probably man's unique talent to take the beautiful and simple, and twist it into the ridiculous and complicated. The births of both Confucious and the Buddha suspiciously coincide at this time, for example. And, it's not hard to imagine extraterrestrial exasperation getting the better of them after1500 years of the Babylonians counting their mutton in Base 60. ("We give you the gift of life through interstellar DNA and the best number system you can come up with is this shit?")

Mr. Sitchin rode the strength of his convictions to age 90, and delighted millions of readers along the way. On the subject of his life's work, a top Amazon reviewer gushes, "Ultra important...even if 50% of it is wrong..." May the same be said of all of us.


For 50 years, the brilliant Paul Conrad (1924–2010), dean of editorial cartooning, cracked up his colleagues, pissed off politicians, and shrugged off death threats in service of drawing our national conscience. He was Pulitzer-ed three times during a tenacious career, and singled out for top honors in the foreign press as well. In 2006,  PBS's critically acclaimed series, Independent Lens, documented his life. If you Netflix it, I'll warrant you'll not be disappointed.

Self-describing his work as "90% idea and 10% drawing," was a modest assessment. Indeed, he was an accomplished sculptor as well; bronze was his medium. I like bronze but I don't think I realized why until just now: it's the working man's precious metal--a substance of honesty and integrity. Gold (despite its attraction to space aliens) is soft. Silver is for show. You want to craft a no-nonsense truth that refuses to hide behind a glittery facade? Go with bronze.

Reagan Hood --- He steals from the poor.....

Thank you, Mr. Conrad, for helping to keep it Real, in often unreal circumstances.


Let's face it: most of us are horribly underread. So was this guy by all accounts--but in his case, it wasn't that he hadn't read a lot; rather not enough people have read him. My Lebanese–American brother Vance Bourjaily slipped on to the next life having made it to 87, leaving an enviable trail of literary breadcrumbs, and here I sit, a man of some letters (B through perhaps I?) and I learn of the guy posthumously. From Wikipedia.... one could weep.

Turns out, he was a bon vivant who did it all: rubbed shoulders with Mailer and moviestars; taught at the celebrated Iowa Writer's Workshop for 20 years and directed the first writing MFA program at Louisiana State;  wrote features in 'Frisco and threw the best literary parties in New York. And lots of other writing and editing, including reviews, essays, short stories. And don't forget the novels, too--seven of 'em. His Big Book was his first, apparently. It's The End of My Life, published in 1947. I'm budging it to the top of my Library queue (sorry Roger Angell... I'll get to you, I swear it)


Dan Schorr makes me think of my grandpa, who passed away in 1989. He was a journalist as well, and he was born the same year as this giant of American reporting. I knew Schorr's work primarily from NPR, but the gentleman from the Bronx had long ago dug the trenches from which other reporters made their bones.(And mixed their metaphors...) For starters, he interviewed Khrushchev before my mother was even out of middle school. He also gave President Nixon enough grief to make it on the infamous List of Enemies, which he discovered when he read the list on live television. That must have been one hell of a moment. On the radio, his voice--liquid and wavy like his elderly-gent face--carried the kind of measured gravitas that said "I'm telling you the way it is because I have nothing to lose and I've seen it all." And consider this: Any newsman who also sang Gershwin with Zappa and stared down Congress, refusing to name names, is a fella I'd want on my side. And I think he was. Dan Schorr was 93, and lived a great American life.


Bob Greene, Sr., the oldest Makah World War II veteran, passed on at the age of 92. Who are the Makah you may ask? Well, they're the Qwiqwidicciat, of course, a marine-loving people of the Olympic peninsula, and no, that's not the one in Greece... Bob Greene was, by all accounts, a great guy. Until they banned it, he'd sit in the gym stands of his grandkids' high school and whale away on a cowbell to whoop up the crowd. A logger by trade, he was also known as a boxing champion, a one-man aluminum-can recycling tour-de-force and the keeper of his tribe's oral traditions as the oldest speaker of the Makah tongue. Let us remember him and give consideration to his people.


Dustin Shuler liked to crack jokes
and frequently did, with his sculpture. His best-known work was Spindle (above), an installation in the parking lot of an Illinois strip mall. (The cars, in order of skewerage, are here.) You may remember this Midwest icon from the "Wayne's World" movie, or, if you happen to be a reader of the comic Zippy the Pinhead. Sadly, the pinheads in Berwyn finally decided to knock Spindle down, and that must have been a poor day for Mr. Shuler. Happily, much of his work survives, a legacy kept safe from the caprice of municipal bureaucracy. Good thing, too.


Carolyn Rodgers' work brought poetrics to the Black Power movement. She also helped found the Third World Press, perhaps the most important publisher of Black writing, and wrote poems rooted first, in angry liberation and later, evolving spirituality. And, she apparently had no problem holding a room: Fellow poet and publisher Haki Madhubuti said, "“When she read, people would sit up and take notice. Men gravitated toward her like she was a Corvette.” She taught in many universities, from her native Chicago to Indiana and Washington state and wrote widely on Black American life for many publications. Here's an early poem, written in response to (largely) male critics made skittish by her "unfeminine" voice:

they say,
that i should not use the word
muthafucka anymo
in my poetry or in any speech i give.
they say,
that i must and can only say it to myself
as the new Black Womanhood suggests
a softer self
a more reserved speaking self. they say,
that respect is hard won by a woman
who throws a word like muthafucka around
and so they say because we love you
throw that word away, Black Woman ...
i say,
that i only call muthafuckas, muthafuckas
so no one should be insulted.

Had Ms. Rodgers lived past 69, this self-described "little black slim ink pen" would have certainly continued her dance of mighty calligraphy across the pages of American literature.


From 1952 to 1986, Eugene Allen never missed a day on the job and worked his way up from a dish washer to Maitre D'. His employer? The U.S. federal government. His patrons? Eight administrations of presidents, their famililes, their thousands of guests at state dinners and official White House functions. Mr. Allen always put his work first, even respectfully turning down an invitation to JFK's funeral so that he could be on hand to feed the First Family upon their return home. In 34 years on the job, however, he only saw one black man granted passage through the highest peaks of the executive branch: Colin Powell, who was appointed National Security Advisor during the twilight of the Reagan presidency. More than 20 years after his retirement, his story became a national sensation on the heels of Barack Obama's ascendency to the Oval Office. Nonplussed at the media clamor at his front door, he said No to numerous offers, declining to cash in on the advent of a black president. The following January, he was a special guest of honor at the inauguration. I cannot fathom what that day meant to Mr. Allen, as a U.S. Marine escorted him to the VIP seating, but I do know it was one of the greatest days I've seen as an American. Also, that careers such as his, those of longevity, integrity and humility ought to be required study in our schools and universities. Eugene Allen was 90.


T-Bone Wolk, who lived and died on four strings, was not only a bassist's bassist but a bandmate's bandmate. If you listened to any radio at all in the 80s, you heard him making everyone around him better. If you were ever mesmerized by G. E. Smith's camera mugging, when SNL returned from commercial break, chances are T-Bone was backing him up. If you've listened to songs by Billy Joel, Carly Simon, Roseanne Cash, Elvis Costello, and especially Hall & Oates, you heard T-Bone. Allegedly referred to by his good friend Daryl as "the ampersand in Hall & Oates," T-Bone was universally loved and respected, and his death at 58 sent shockwaves through pop-music afficiandos of a certain age. In a joint statement released after his passing, Hall said, "T-Bone was one of the most sensitive and good human beings that I have ever known," while Oates added, "His musical sensibility was peerless..." and that Wolk had led other bandmembers by example, evolving organically into the group's musical director. T-Bone showed people how to play, and how to live, from late period Philly soul right up to his death, appearing regularly in the popular Web series, "Live From Daryl's House," shot monthly in Hall's home studio. They gave ol' T-Bone a memorial show, and you can check it out here.


This brother also played four-stringed soul in Philadelphia--on the cello--but started just a little earlier than T-Bone. In 1924, Orlando Cole walked through the doors of the Curtis Institute just as soon as they would swing open. Ten years later, his training finished, he toured the world with the Curtis String Quartet. Despite an artistic tiff between the Institute and the Quartet--birthing their own damn program, the New School of Music--Cole logged over 75 years of teaching at Curtis, and, given the chance, would have done it all over again. Don't know about you, readers, but for me, the cello is the human heart built in maple, gut, horsehair. Its origins date to the 1500s and the best players today are stewards of instruments over 300 years old. It doesn't matter how long Steve Jobs cracks the whip in California... there ain't never gonna be an iCello that stacks up against a Strad.

And so it's fitting at the end of this do-decal homage to Americans Past, that we offer the great "Landy" Cole, who died in his 102 year, listening to Schubert's Cello Quintet and surrounded by some of the many who loved him. Here's a lovely tribute, written by one of his hundreds of students. 

That's all, folks. Thanks for reading, and I hope this one was worth the wait. I had fun discovering these righteous humans, and bringing a little bit of their lives to you. See you in Feb. It's only got 28 days, I hear.