Thursday, February 02, 2023

So … How Did We Ever Turn to a Groundhog … to Predict Weather?


Well if you guessed “newspaper stunt adapted from a Christian holiday but with ancient pagan roots too”, award yourself 10 points.

It’s complicated.

The first Groundhog Day in America was a newspaper stunt in 1887:

The first Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney was the brainchild of local newspaper editor Clymer Freas, who sold a group of businessmen and groundhog hunters—known collectively as the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club—on the idea.

Who knew that there were groups of “businessmen and groundhog hunters”? I sure didn’t.

In any case German settlers in the area brought it with them from the homeland, where the Germans had adapted it from an ancient Christian celebration called Candlemas.

What is Candlemas?

Wikipedia says it’s about bringing the baby Jesus, just a few weeks old, to the temple for purification:

It is based upon the account of the presentation of Jesus in Luke 2:22–40. In accordance with Leviticus 12, a woman was to be purified by presenting a lamb as a burnt offering, and either a young pigeon or dove as sin offering, 33 days after a boy's circumcision. It falls on 2 February, which is traditionally the 40th day (postpartum period) of and the conclusion of the Christmas–Epiphany season. While it is customary for Christians in some countries to remove their Christmas decorations on Twelfth Night (Epiphany Eve), those in other Christian countries historically remove them after Candlemas. On Candlemas, many Christians (especially Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans and Methodists) also take their candles to their local church, where they are blessed and then used for the rest of the year; for Christians, these blessed candles serve as a symbol of Jesus Christ, who is the Light of the World.

If you’re now wondering how a Christian holiday over a period of 1400 years evolved from purifying the baby Jesus at the temple to “let’s use a rodent to predict the weather”, you’re not alone. 

But wait, there’s more!

February 2 is basically (almost but not quite) the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, and so of course there was a pagan ritual associated with it: Imbolc dates back to the 10th century BC among the Celtic people, celebrating both the the midpoint of Winter and a Celtic goddess Brigid who later became a saint in the Catholic church.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Looking Back with Gratitude

R.I.P. Gerard Vanderleun

One of my favorite people whom I’ve never met passed away a few days ago, and I’d like you to know a little bit about him.

His name was Gerard Vanderleun and he wrote a “blog” — but it was far more than that — that he called American Digest. He gave it a tagline: “Duty, Beauty, Liberty, Country, Honor, Family, Faith”. 

For 20+ years he created true art in written form that entertained you, delighted you, made you laugh and cry consecutively and even at the same time. He told stories, reflected on life and its beauty, wonder, mystery, and absurdities. He noted his own metamorphosis as he traveled through life, especially spiritually and politically. 

He took photos, he discovered and showcased photos by others, he linked to fascinating videos — in other words he loved the visual too. On 9/11 he lived in Brooklyn and watched the towers fall, and then over the next several months he took 10,000 photos in New York City to document the aftermath

And he really liked people. He wrote often about his parents, his brothers, his marriages, his friends … and his estranged daughter that he never stopped loving. It came through in his writing, loud and clear.

What he didn’t do was write about news or politics or much of anything current, with very rare exceptions.  His site was therefore like an oasis in the desert, a welcome break from the relentless emotion-triggering that the internet turned into long ago.

Some people have a gift and they use it perfectly to make the world a better place, and he did that exceedingly well.

His ability to string words together in unanticipated and clever ways, to paint pictures in your head, to tell stories, to make you feel things, was as good as anyone alive or dead. I learned many things about communicating in written form just by reading his work. 

SO many times I would arrive at the end of another of his wonderful essays and just think “wow … now that was a piece of writing!”

The ways that he inspired and encouraged me over that 20 years … this is impossible to put into words. I discovered his blog by chance way back in 2002-3 when he somehow found my little unknown blog and left a comment there, probably as a result of his seeing a comment of mine somewhere else. 

However it happened, my life was enriched by his efforts, many many times over the next 20 years, and I am very thankful.

My suggestion to you:  carve out a few minutes from the usual daily routine and read a few of his essays. A list of just a few of my favorites is below but his website — still around for awhile but time waits for no one — spans 20 years, and out of all the millions of personal websites that have been built over that time this is one of those special few that deserves to live forever in a museum, if such a thing existed.

But as for me, I can do a little something to memorialize him on this site, as a personal note of deep gratitude and to recognize his legacy.

The Name in the Stone

First Loves and Other Sorrows

The Man Who Loved Not Wisely But At Least Twice

Friday, December 02, 2022

RIP Christine McVie


Fleetwood Mac, “Warm Ways”

Christine McVie wrote many fine songs and this is one of the best, although not as widely known. 

I could easily listen to this on repeat 10 times in a row. The melody, her voice, the playing, the arrangement, it’s all beautiful. 

Another favorite, from my favorite Fleetwood Mac album “Bare Trees”.

Fleetwood Mac, “Spare Me a Little of Your Love”

She passed away Wednesday at 79 years of age. 

Monday, November 28, 2022

“Oh Lonesome Me” … Always Go Back to the Original

My first hearing of “Oh Lonesome Me” was a slow, depressing version by Neil Young that I never really liked. Kind of a downer, really. 

Little did I know how very, very different it was from the Don Gibson original in 1956.

Many years later I finally discovered the original and hoo boy, this is a great song, lively and uptempo, which makes it far more interesting both musically and lyrically.

Don Gibson, “Oh Lonesome Me”

So for decades I fell victim to the weird situation where one artist re-interprets another artist’s song, changes it completely, and then because that’s the first version you hear (and hear a lot), your first impression of the song itself is just … wrong.

This can easily happen when you occupy a musical silo, unexposed to certain styles of music especially from a prior era. In this case, classic country music. You’ve probably fallen victim to this too.

Well, better late than never. Nothing against Neil Young here, he was an accomplished and original artist on his own, and he tried something new as creative folks do — and at least for me, it didn’t work. That’s okay. Artists should try to do their own versions of songs, that’s what creativity is all about.

And it’s on me (and you) as the listener to seek out original versions of songs if so motivated, to learn more about the original song and artist.

Speaking of artists re-interpreting the work of other artists, my favorite band for that is The Ventures, who are masters at doing their own versions of other artists’ work and staying mostly true to it but putting their own unique spin on it. That’s who they are and what they do. 

And this version is excellent, of course.

The Ventures, “Oh Lonesome Me”

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Why “Midnight Confessions” is Awesome


Midnight Confessions 

The drums, bass, horns and vocals, and the arrangement itself, are SO great that I frequently listen to it several times in a row just to re-listen to those specific parts. It’s almost intoxicating.

I recommend you do the same, right here. Stop reading and click play again, and then one more time.

Rob Grill on lead vocals — one of the better pop/rock singers of that era, I would say — with Warren Entner taking the chorus and Creed Bratton on backing vocals.

The drums and bass, well that’s Hal Blaine and Carol Kaye — the Wrecking Crew played all the instruments and (no doubt) did all the arranging, too.

Powerful and deft, those two plus the vocals and horns gives this song incredible energy, which is probably why it charted highest of all their hits at #5 in the U.S. 

Overall the production and arrangement on this song is really original for the time — I cannot think of another song quite like it from 1968-69. Chicago used a similar formula, with drums, vocals and horns driving the sound, but in 1968 they were just getting started, and nothing charted as high as #5 until “25 or 6 to 4” in 1970. Blood Sweat and Tears was more vocals and horns heavy with theatrical-style arrangements, more like a performance art project than a straight-ahead rock band.

It’s just a great tune, and it never gets old.

Monday, November 07, 2022

Memories of the Bears with my Dad


Watching the 1963 Chicago Bears Season Highlights video I discovered recently brought with it warm memories of watching Bears football with my dad on Sunday afternoons in our family room during the 1970s and early 80s. 

Watching the Bears together was our thing, a bonding activity we shared; in fact he’s the one who got me started on it in the first place. 

One Christmas back in ‘67 I think he gave me an autographed football from the 1966 Bears, with the signatures of Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, and several other prominent players. The signatures are pretty faded now, as you can imagine, but still visible.

I still have it. There it is, on the right. It’s one of my few treasured possessions. 

We started watching every Bears game together when I was 11, in the 1970 season, and I have many fond memories of sitting in our family room on Sunday afternoons in that decade and into the early 80s —with the dark blue indoor-outdoor carpet and the green L-shaped couch — watching a mostly inferior team lose most of their games, but with some great individual players, especially Butkus and Payton. 

Fourteen Sundays per year … we suffered through a lot together. Ask any Bears fan from the late 60s through the early 80s. 

Just for some context, in 1969 they went 1-13, tied with the Steelers for worst record in the NFL, and so the NFL flipped a coin to determine who got the #1 draft pick. The Bears lost that too, and the Steelers picked future Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, and by the mid-70s they were winning Super Bowls (four in six years) with him along with the many other great players they drafted after him. Bears fans noticed all of this, of course.

During the Walter Payton years starting in 1975 they gradually improved and made the playoffs in the ‘77 season with a 9-5 record — but in the first round they faced the eventual Super Bowl champions, the widely-hated Dallas Cowboys, and of course got destroyed 37-7. This is what it was like to be a Bears fan in that era — the occasional bright spot (making the playoffs after years of failure) followed immediately by crushing disappointment. Suckers!

Then in 1979 they made the playoffs again, at 10-6, but lost to the Philadelphia Eagles 27-17, due to turnovers mostly, but a horrible phantom illegal procedure call that took away an 85 yard run by Payton didn’t help. 

During those years our favorite player was, obviously, Walter Payton, but strong safety Doug Plank was not far behind because of hits like these.

Some Walter Payton highlights from probably his greatest individual season, 1977.

By the early- and mid-80s when they gradually became pretty good, it was finally more “the thrill of victory” than the “agony of defeat”, and they finally began to beat very good teams, the royalty of the league. 

One memorable game was November 4, 1984 when they played Oakland in one of the most famously brutal hard-hitting games in NFL history, and beat them 17-6. 

Then I remember well when we watched together as they won their first playoff game, beating the Redskins in those ‘84 playoffs, which was essentially their coming out party. 

Next up, the NFC Championship against San Francisco. They lost 23-0. It was an absolute thrashing. But they did win a playoff game, so … progress. Patience, grasshopper.

Little did we know how fricking great the following season would be, when the 1985 team ran roughshod through the league, going 15-1 and destroying first the Giants and then the Rams, shutting them both out.

Then in the ultimate celebration of the end of an era of futility, we watched Super Bowl XX together, when that ‘85 team destroyed the Patriots 46-10. 

That was SO much fun as a Bears fan, and it was a form of therapy for us to be together watching it. After years of frustration, including some really bad teams, then slowly getting better only to lose in the playoffs, I cannot even imagine a bigger turnaround, and a bigger display of total dominance to just put an exclamation mark on the whole post-1963 era, than that 1985 playoff run.