Tuesday, March 27, 2012

When I was on TV

I didn't grow up watching "Romper Room" or "Captain Kangaroo" or Mr. Rogers. Instead, when I was a kid I watched a couple of guys named Harvey and Cannonball who had a local weekday morning show called "Hotel Balderdash" and showed Looney Toons cartoons. As well as I can recall, there wasn't much to it really: Harvey was tall and thin and Cannonball was short and round, there were some jokes and pranks, sometimes there was a creepy guy called Raymond (who was often the butt of the jokes), and they'd have a group of kids trying to win a bag of toys and candy by guessing a number, but mostly they showed a bunch of cartoons. It must have been pretty low-budget, but that's what I watched while eating breakfast and getting ready for school. (Yes, I can just hear some of my friends saying "oh, that explains a lot about John.")

I'm not sure how Living Life inside the Lines: Tales from the Golden Age of Animation made it onto my to-be-read list, but it sat there for several years before I finally got around to reading it. Martha Sigall spent over 50 years working for different animation companies in Los Angeles and Hollywood, mostly as an "inker" or "painter." As she explains it, the producers and directors would come up with the storylines and gags for the cartoons and the animators would draw it out. Then the "in-betweeners" would draw all the in-between frames that gave motion to the cartoons. All these drawings had to be inked onto transparent sheets of celluloid ("cels"), and finally they were colored in by the painters. These cels would typically be layered up to four thick on top of a background with each layer having different parts of the scene - maybe even just the eyes of a character while the underlying parts didn't move. When each frame was assembled it would be photographed and all the pictures would be put together into the film. It's a little more complicated than that, but more than I ever would have guessed when I was seven or eight years old!

Mrs. Sigall tells of the people she was able to work with, some names you might recognize, although you'd more likely recognize their creations: Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Speedy Gonzales, Tweety Bird and Sylvester, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, Tom & Jerry, Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang, etc - basically all the cartoons except Disney. It's kind of interesting and has the feel of hearing your grandmother tell stories about her life, except this is someone else’s grandmother and you just happen to have fond memories of the cartoons. It's not the kind of book I'd recommend unless you have a specific interest in the history of animation and I ended up skimming over some parts. But still - kind of interesting.

And my cub scout troop was even on "Hotel Balderdash" one morning and it's really weird to see yourself on television when you're a kid, but it makes you a minor elementary school celebrity for a day or two. I guess we shouldn't have been surprised when the kid who won the goodie bag was the den mother's son... but we were. I think I might even still carry the tiniest grudge.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Gum drops keep falling on my head...

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan certainly seem to have taken a toll on America's reputation – and not just in the Middle East or even the rest of the world, but here at home, too. Even if we take the most optimistic view of our involvement there, it's getting harder to argue that we're accomplishing what we set out to do or that our presence is welcomed by the people. And I hate to even think of the terrible toll it's taking on the soldiers and their families.

That's one thing I like about reading history – we already know the outcome and I can pick and choose the events I want to read about. And a time when America built a tremendous amount of worldwide goodwill was in Europe after World War II. But it didn't happen automatically, and it definitely didn't start out well. American and British planes had bombed Berlin (and much of Germany) into rubble. And when the Russians beat us into Berlin (another recent book I read was very critical of Eisenhower for allowing that to happen) they raped, pillaged, and plundered on a horrific scale, leaving the survivors even more traumatized. According to the agreement FDR made with Stalin and Churchill, Germany and Berlin were to be divided up among the Allied powers (France was included because of what they'd endured under the Germans). And Roosevelt believed that the Germans needed to be taught a lesson and made to feel the full weight of their crimes – and even though FDR had died, Truman carried on his vision. And for three years Germany was just an occupied country, and the people lived at the mercy of their occupiers.

Gen. LeMay: "We must have a bad phone connection. It sounds like you are asking whether we have planes for carrying coal."
Gen. Clay: "Yes, that's what I said. Coal."
Gen. LeMay (after a long pause): "The Air Force can deliver anything." (pg 252)

But events became more complicated when the Soviets began overthrowing Eastern European countries. Making the situation even more tense was the fact that the divided city of Berlin was over 100 miles inside the Soviet partition of Germany, and when they closed the supply roads leading into Berlin everyone thought it was only a matter of time until the Soviets gained complete control. It was also widely feared that the world was on the cusp of WWIII and that atomic weapons would be used again. But an amazing thing happened that summer of 1948. The American commander, General Lucius D. Clay, asked for the city to be supplied by air. It was a ridiculous suggestion that 2.25 million people could be supplied by air, but he thought if they could send a message that America would not be pushed around it might at least buy them some time. But as the Soviet blockade dragged on, the Berlin Airlift kept going. Initially it was a haphazard "cowboy" operation with little organization and failing to deliver anywhere near the needed amount of food and supplies, but under Maj Gen William Tunner's command the airlift became streamlined and efficient.

"Hell... Call it '[Operation] Vittles' if you have to have a name." General Joseph Smith (pg 264)

In The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour, Andrei Cherny explains that the real change in attitudes for the Germans and Americans towards each other came when one of the pilots, Gail Halvorsen, began dropping candy attached to handkerchief parachutes to the children gathered at the end of the runway – which was against the rules. But as news of the candy drops spread among the children and other pilots it eventually became sanctioned by Gen. Tunner, and "Operation Little Vittles" became a widespread campaign to win the hearts of Berlin.

As Cherny tells this inspirational story, foremost among the many heroes are Clay and Halvorsen, but he includes lots of background information, including Truman’s unlikely election win over Gov. Dewey. Even though the Blockade extended throughout a brutally cold and foggy winter, the Airlift showed the determination of the Americans to keep Berlin and Germany from falling in the face of Communist intimidation and violence. And he shows that even though the suffering was intense that winter, it was their trials during this stand for freedom that changed both German and American hearts.

That's the kind of story I prefer to read about. And it's the kind of ending I wish we could help create in other places, as well.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The view from the drive home

I can't complain about my commute, because for LA it's relatively short.  But once in a while the freeway traffic is a little heavier than I care to deal with after a busy day at the office.  On those days I take Mulholland where it winds through the hills.  It takes a little longer but I feel "unwound" and more relaxed when I get home than I would in the bumper-to-bumper 101.  And the view's not bad either.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Hunting the Snark

Why would anyone in their right mind go wandering into the jungle? Sure it's pretty from the outside and there's a lot of interesting plants and animals, but those animals make some really scary noises once you get more than a few steps into it (as Teddy Roosevelt found out). I guess there's also long been rumors of gold and untold wealth just waiting to be found, and that might be enticement enough for some brave explorer. Or maybe he just had a really wimpy name and wanted to prove he was a man.

As long as Europeans have been visiting and colonizing the Americas there have been legends of an ancient city of gold in the jungle. Thousands have lost their lives searching for El Dorado, and in 1925 the famed British explorer Percy Fawcett, funded by the Royal Geographical Society, set off with a small group consisting only of his son, Jack, and one of Jack's friends. This was still the romantic era of exploration, when the last corners of the map were being filled in, and the expedition had excited the imagination of many. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fawcett's expedition was never heard from again.

In The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, David Grann has written a very readable story of what is known of Fawcett's life and the doomed expedition, and interestingly weaves in his own search for information about Fawcett and the lost City of Z (as Fawcett called it). He does this very skillfully and his own account stays in the background, only providing glimpses now and then of the trail he himself blazed, thus keeping the focus on Fawcett. And he illustrates exceptionally well what a forbidding place the Amazon is, even today. With his colorful descriptions of the snakes and spiders and man-eating fish and hostile natives (etc. etc. etc.!) the reader is left to wonder why anyone (right mind or not!) would go exploring in such a place. And it's not hard to see why so many expeditions ended in failure (even Henry Ford couldn't tame the jungle, but I'll get to him another time).

It's not deep or scholarly history, but reads like an exciting adventure tale. I listened to the audio book and, having lived in Brazil myself for a couple of years, was a little bothered by some of the pronunciations. The narrator repeatedly mispronounces Manaus (saying manNOOSE, instead of muhNOWSE), and there were a few Portuguese translations that I found questionable, although it has been quite a few years and I could be wrong. Nevertheless, it's an exciting read. And who knows, maybe good ol' Percy found Z after all.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

It's a two-way street

"Polarized" is a word I hear frequently, as in 'our nation is becoming increasingly polarized.' I sometimes wonder if it's really more polarized than in the past or if it just seems like it, but regardless there's plenty of extremism and intolerance for differing viewpoints in the news every day. Wasn't it Rodney King who said: "Can't we all just get along?"

"Every party cries out for Liberty & toleration till they get to be uppermost, and then will allow none." ~ Lord Bishop of Salisbury

Unfortunately, this polarization and extremism extends deeply into religion as well, and historically it always has. But America was different because its founding included the idea that freedom of religion was a basic right – to worship where and how one chooses, or not. Nonetheless, we sometimes hear appeals to restore our country to the Christian principles and ideals it was founded upon – ignoring the fact that freedom is the most important of Christian principles.

"It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself." ~ Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia

Jon Meacham has written a very interesting little book called American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation that looks at what the founders really intended when they established our government. He points out that while many of the earliest settlers came seeking religious freedom, they usually forgot about the "freedom" part once they got here, mandating religious adherence and severe punishments for those who didn't conform. But when the colonies came together to form a new government they seized upon this radical idea that Americans should be free to worship – or not – according to their conscience. No one should be compelled to attend or support (especially with their taxes) any church, and the government should stay out of such affairs.

"If Scripture cannot err, certain of its interpreters and commentators can and do so in many ways." ~ Galileo

But don't get the idea that Meacham is anti-religion. He argues strongly that religion has an important place in American society and history. The Declaration of Independence along with many of the writings of the founders (and most leaders since) make frequent mentions of God or the Creator or Providence. The Constitution is deliberately free of such statements, but the Bill of Rights clearly defines the religious freedom we should all expect. It's what Benjamin Franklin and Meacham call "public religion" that makes America different from the European powers, giving religion an important voice in the public forum yet not sanctioning one viewpoint (religious or not) over another.

"Democracy is easy; republicanism is hard. Democracy is fueled by passion; republicanism is founded on moderation. Democracy is loud, raucous, disorderly; republicanism is quiet, cool, judicious – and that we still live in its light is the Founders' most wondrous deed." ~ Jon Meacham

And this is a viewpoint I appreciate – not throwing religion out of the argument but allowing for tolerance for all opinions. I like how Meacham sums it up: "Secularists point to a 'wall of separation between church and state,' while many conservatives act as though the Founding Fathers were apostles in knee britches... [but] neither extreme has it right." And it's a middle ground – as well as a short and easy read – which I recommend.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

JFK 9/12/1960

"I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish--where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source--where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials--and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

"For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew--or a Quaker--or a Unitarian--or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim--but tomorrow it may be you--until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

"Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end--where all men and all churches are treated as equal--where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice--where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind--and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood."

~ John F. Kennedy, Sept. 12, 1960

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"The River"

Speaking of the Amazon River, have you seen a new television show called "The River?"  As I might have mentioned a time or two already (or maybe more), there's not much I find entertaining or worthwhile on television (which is why if I watch anything it's usually sports or re-runs).  But Jamie's got me interested in this one.  It's clever and creepy, and I even find the 'reality TV' look of it interesting.  The one thing I haven't figured out yet is why the ship's mechanic and his daughter (as well as the natives) speak Spanish?  Don't TV people know they speak Portuguese in Brazil?  But I missed part of the first episode, so maybe I missed something.  (You can find the past episodes on Hulu.)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

'Relentless monotony, infinite variety, simply green'

You should know I'm not the most adventuresome individual; I kind of prefer my creature comforts. But that doesn't mean I don't appreciate a good story about those who were brave enough to face the unknown, like Lewis & Clark did when Thomas Jefferson sent them to look at some property he bought from Napoleon. I've already reviewed books about some forgotten sailors like John Kendrick and Charles Wilkes, as well as a few who went out for ice and took their time coming back like Shackleton in Antarctica and some funny Brits who ate shoe leather in the Northwest Passage. But I think I'll switch gears and look at some books about exploration in the steamy jungles - mostly the Amazon - and I might as well start with The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard.

After losing a bid for a third presidential term, Theodore Roosevelt set off for South America. It started out as a speaking tour but soon evolved into a poorly prepared expedition to explore an unknown river that passed through an unmapped portion of the Amazon forest. The River of Doubt, so named because of the uncertainty surrounding its connection to the Amazon River, started in the Brazilian highlands near the border, but dropped through a punishing series of rapids and cascades over 400 miles of dense rain forest. Roosevelt saw it as a sort of therapy to his defeat, but the river and the jungle nearly killed him. Although he was traveling with Candido Rondon, Brazil's most famous explorer, he had allowed friends who were not familiar with the area to plan and provision the trip. Three porters died on the expedition and it's extremely lucky the number wasn't much higher given the quickly dwindling food provisions, hostile indians, sickness and diseases, treasonous porters, and numerous other dangers.

Candice Millard does a great job of bringing the Amazon to life in all its weird beauty. She not only discusses the expedition, its beginnings and preparations and the people involved, but the jungle itself - and this, to me, was the best part of the book. She describes the fish in the river like the dangerous piranhas and the one inch candiru that quickly burrows into bodily openings; the animals of the forest and why the expedition couldn't find enough to replenish their food; the trees that grow there and how they are spread throughout the forest; the indians who constantly monitored their progress and could have silently killed them at any moment. The ecology of the forest made the story so much more full, and helped to illustrate the point of why it was such a dangerous journey - not to mention the constant sickness and disease they all suffered with.

But beyond the ecological information, the history itself was fascinating as well. I'm not especially familiar with the history of TR (I always wondered how he got himself sculpted alongside men like Washington and Lincoln) but I enjoyed learning more about him: his relentless drive, thick head, and (to some degree) thin skin. I was also impressed by his friend, the naturalist George Cherrie, and may look for a biography on him sometime, as it sounds like he led an exciting life as well. Overall, a very interesting book for armchair explorers like myself.