Sunday, December 20, 2009

On The Ground

8:36pm: reading
Originally uploaded by Laurel Fan

Every year around this time some pleople make a list of the most overworked words and phrases. A few years ago one was "on the ground," especially "the situation on the ground" in Iraq or Afghanistan, but also "boots on the ground," "reporters on the ground," etc. Christopher Borrelli complained "what else would troops be doing, hovering?"

I sympathize, but today I remet an old friend, Mark Twain's Roughing It, published in 1872, and in his Preferatory I came across this phrase "no books were written by persons who were on the ground in person..." Clearly the same meaning.

I have since found the phrase (through the very wonderful twin websites, Making Of America) in an article that appeared in American Whig Review in 1845. It was clearly describing a military siuation.

So the phrase may be overused, but it is venerable, at least.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Awful Library Books

Weeding...Deacquisition.... No librarian likes to do it, but we have to. Books this marginal make it less painful.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Hallelujah redux

I know I posted a recording of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah once before, but my gosh, how much beauty is too much? What I would love is to hear K.D. Lang sing with Rhiannon of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. A Beatles song. An Alka-seltzer commercial. Anything.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Digging the Middle East 2: Thieves of Baghdad

As a youngster in New York City, Matthew Bogdanos expected to go into his family's restaurant business. Then, on a whim one day, he tried to enlist in the Marines. The recruiter took one look at his test scores and said: no. He was going to enroll in college and the Marines would then be happy to accept him to the Officer's program

So Bogdanos became the first in his family to attend college. One result was that when 9/11 happened he was a prosecuting attorney in New York, as well as an Marines Reserve officer. Off he went to Afghanistan, among other places.

When the U.S. troops took Iraq and the museum in Baghdad was infamously looted, Bogdanos convinced his superiors that he - a lawyer/warrior with extensive knowledge of classical art and literature - was the perfect man to lead the team to get the stolen art back. And that is the main story of Thieves of Baghdad.

Like everything else in the Middle East, the theft was more complicated than it looked. For example, Bogdanos learned that many of the items were not really stolen. Some were taken by museum staff and others to protect them from the invading Americans. So he had to add diplomat to his job description: convincing Iraqis that the U.S. forces didn't intend to steal the relics for American museums.

The book is fascinating. I just opened at random and found this discussion between Bogdanos and a Lieutenant Colonel he liked:

"Matthew, would you like to join an experimental multiagency counterterrorism unit General Harrell is forming?"
"What is it?" I replied.
"I can't tell you. It's focal point." (meaning a security clearance above top secret, and -- like 99.99 percent of the people -- I didn't have that clearance).
"What will it do?"
"I can't tell you that either."
"You can't tell me where it'll operate either, can you?"
"Sounds good. I'm in."

A commercial announcement

David Malki does a wonderfully strange comic strip on the web called Wondermark. He repurposes Victorian graphic art with very strange captions. I wrote about it once before on my other blog.

However, Malki is now offering free copies of his new book, Clever Tricks To Stave Off Death to ten bloggers who write about Wondermark in November, so here is my shameless attempt to grub a book.

It took me a long time to find this cartoon, which is one of my favorites.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Relax your mind with a government source

I know, when you are looking for a stress-buster, government information is not the first thing that comes to mind. But try this website. Unfortunately it only works during daylight hours on the East Coast.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Digging the Middle East 1: The Buried Book

Not that you asked, but I’ve decided to tell you about my (roughly) five favorite books about Middle Eastern archaeology. I’m just a buff in the field, but I recently read a terrific book and decided to blurb/blog (blurg?) about it and four other faves. In no particular order…

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of our oldest literary masterpieces. With its themes of quests for immortality and concerns about the proper way to live as a king (or a person) it is still fascinating.

It is easy to forget that the Epic was lost to memory for millennium. David Damrosch has constructed his The Buried Book, as he notes, like an archaeological dig. It begins with the most recent layer, and moves farther back in time.

The first chapter is about George Smith, an Englishmen with a unique ability to translate ancient texts. A printer by trade, he used to visit the British Museum on his lunch hours, and contrary to the stereotype of Victorian England, the scholars recognized this lower class tradesman for the find he was. He was able to bring the ancient tale of Gilgamesh into modern language and, in 1872, discovered one of its most greatest attractions: a story of the world flood with unmistakeable parallels to the one in Genesis.

Next Damrosch tells the story of Hormuzd Rassam who discovered the texts but was cheated of some of his fame because of English prejudice against foreigners – surely he was no more than the hired digmaster, working for some proper British supervisor!

The book then covers what we know about the writing of the Epic, which is rather surprisingly much – even including the name of the scribe who is credited with putting the final version together. Even more amazingly, while we only have two thirds of the text of this final work, we have some of the Sumerian poems from which the Assyrian version was compiled – which is as if we had some of the early texts Homer had used to compose the Illiad.

Finally Damrosch shows us what can be glimpsed through the veils of time about the historic person Gilgamesh – or more properly Bilgamesh. Take this little tidbit. One ancient scribe compiled a list of all the kings who had ruled in Sumeria. His collection of the monarchs of the city of Uruk can be divided into recent historical figures (with reigns from 6 years to a few decades) and ancient mythical figures (who supposedly ruled for thousands of years each).

These two groups are neatly separated by a king who supposedly ruled for 126 years. I don’t think you need to be a scholar to speculate: “this one isn’t completely a myth. They knew something about him but he was so legendary that they had to credit him with a century of rule to account for everything he supposedly accomplished.” As you may have guessed, that king was Bilgamesh.

The Buried Book is great fun.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Dead Egyptian Blues

I seem to be in an archaeological mood lately, so here is a video of the best archeologically-themed song in the history of the world being performed by its composer, Michael Peter Smith, with Anne Hills. If you aren't familiar with Smith, he is best known for writing "The Dutchman," which has been recorded by practically everybody.

And by the way, Smith wrote the second best archeologically-themed song, too.

Like Bob Bossin

This fall I went to the
Princeton Tradtional Music Festival in British Columbia and had a lovely time. One of the highlights was seeing the Canadian folksinger Bob Bossin for the first time in many years.

I've had my complaints about Bossin over the years. He butchered, IMHO, a song by two of my favorite songwriters the last time I saw him. But I got his latest album The Roses on Annie's Table, and it is pretty wonderful.

As a sometime songwriter what knocked me out most was his similes. Here are a few of my favorites:

"She's got love, like a Jehovah's Witness, bangin' on her door again." - "Shirley Ann"

"The years rolled by like empties." - "Gary Davis"

"Love bears down like an eighteen-wheeler. Try to argue with an eighteen-wheeler." - "Lily"

You can hear some samples here.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Old-fashioned Saturday night

Mary Pickford
Originally uploaded by twm1340
Last night my wife and I went downtown to take in a movie. Then we walked over to the ice cream parlor for dessert.

And it occurred to me: my grandparents, either set, could have done that in Plainfield, NJ, eighty years ago. We even saw the film at the Pickford Cinema, an independent theatre named after Mary Pickford.

Of course, I don't think my grandparents would have appreciated a dark and hilarios film like A SERIOUS MAN, and I'll be their icre cream parlor didn't have huckleberry, white pepper, or cardamom flavors like Mallard does.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

When They Severed Earth From Sky

My wife bought this book by Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber and I promise I will let her read it as soon as I am done with it. That's the generous kind of person I am. She may be tired of it by then, since I have been reading her big chunks of it as I go. It's that kind of a book.

When They Severed Earth From Sky is about myth seen thorugh the lens of cognitive psychology. In another words, mythology sticks in our heads because of the way our brains work.

Start with a couple of simple assumptions. A pre-literate society only knows what it's members can remember, so important information has to be passed on in memorable ways. A story is more memorable than a list of observations. A wild story is more memorable than an everyday one.

We all know that some myths are attempts to explain natural events. I remember at age 10 reading in D'aulaire's wonderful book of Greek myths that Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths had a foundry under Mount Aetna. Nobody had to tell me that was an attempt to explain a volcano.

But what the Barbers emphasize is that these explanations are not silly. Humans are hardwired to try to understand their surroundings and, lacking scientific tools or theories, they worked with what they understood: Willfullness. If something happened, someOne caused it to happen.

In fact, mythology turns out to be embarassingly full of volcanos when you start looking for them. (One-eyed giants who throw mountaintops, monsters with snake-like hair that turn men to stone, etc.).

The Barbers offer about forty principles for examining myths (and repeat them in a convenient appendix). I pick one at random: "If certain events are not understood, according to already known ("natural") principles, they must be un-understandable - that is, "super-natural" - and there is no point in trying to understand them." They drily call this one the "UFO Corollary."

The Barbers' tools are powerful enough that they can make and test predictions. For example, they look at an old story related in Homer about many of the gods coming together for an event, and they conclude that it represents an unusual alignments of the planets who bear the names of those gods. Using planetarium software they went searching for that alignment and found it in February 1923 B.C. - one thousand years before Homer. Apparently myths can carry information for a long time.

As the above indicates the Barbers have a lot to say about myths and the stars. They argue that the flood stories found in many parts of the world are actually about the ocean above us and represent the precession - movement of the sun in the Zodiac over thousands of years, with each shift being the creation of a "new world." They don't mention that the Navahos, far from any ocean, nonetheless have a story of their ancesters moving to new worlds three times. A different mnemonic for the same observation?

In this book you will discover why Prometheus and Loki are both chained to rocks by the gods, why in Andean flood tales the fox gets his tail wet, and what dragons really look like. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Autumn haiku

I saw a robin
Screaming at a crow that ate
roadkill, the bird's mate.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

People on the highway

I bought a double CD called Light Flight: The Anthology, by Pentangle. They were a great British fock-rock (or folk-jazz) group. The album consists of songs from 5 LPs (one double) they made in the sixties and seventies. And it's pretty good.

But what amused me is that in the liner notes they casually mention that after leaving this record company they went on to make one more album, which is not included on this CD. That album was Solomon's Seal, and leaving it out is like saying "we decided not to include anything in this Beatles anthology after Sergeant Pepper." A little eccentric. Among the missing are: "Willy of Winsbury," "The Snows," "Sally Free and Easy," and don't forget this little number...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Log Driver's Waltz

This is cool. The National Film Board of Canada has just made hundreds of their films available for free on the web. Go to

As an example, here is a cartoon based on the classic song written by Wade Hemsworth.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Madrona amidst the firs
Originally uploaded by wplynn
I recently spent a week in Port Townsend on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. It is a beautiful place but I find that one of the things I look forward to most are the Madrona trees. They shed their bark year round and the wood underneath is a shockingly bright red. Always grow near salt water and seem to prefer growing on stone.

In Canada and Britain the tree is called Arbutus. Paddy Graber has a wonderful song he learned in Ireland as a boy about a princess named Arbutus who is forced to remove her brown dress "but before its hem could touch the ground, she had turned into a tree." Gordon Bok does a gorgeous version of the song on his album Return To The Land.

Summer Haiku

Fruit in my garden
Growing strangely incomplete.
Where are the stickers?

photo by mustangaly911

Saturday, July 18, 2009

I'm changing my name to Fannie Mae

One of the weird things about being Tom Paxton is that after over 40 years of writing topical songs he doesn't need to write new songs, just dust off old ones and bring them up to date. A couple of years ago he changed "Lyndon Johnson Told The Nation" to "George W. Told The Nation." Now here's a new transformation.

After the "United Breaks Guitars" video went viral I was reminded of Ton's song on the same subject, "Thank You, Republic Airlines." I went looking for him on Youtube and found his remake of his own "I'm Changing My Name To Chrysler." Remarkably, the new lyrics are even more clever than the old.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sing For The Song, Boy

I thought of Bob Gibson yesterday for the first time in years. I had never heard of him until one day around 1980 when we went into Greenwich Village to see Tom Paxton. Out came the opening act: a plump, fifty-ish guy in a jacket and tie. He solemnly placed the jacket on a chair, picked up a guitar, and sang: "Yes, Mr. Rogers, I'm living in sin with your daughter..." and he owned the room.

Everybody in the folk movement borrowed from Gibson. With (Bob) Hamilton Camp he made some of the coolest albums in folk. He discovered Joan Baez (which he said was like trying to take credit for discovering the Grand Canyon...SOMEONE was going to notice it); he tried to talk Phil Ochs out of writing political stuff and Ochs took the tune he played as he talked and wrote "One More Parade." He was probably the best interpreter of Shel Silverstein songs (LIke Yes, Mr Rogers, and the Gibson-inspired "LIving Legend").

Can't find either of those on Youtube, so here he is with Gibson and Camp on what looks like a cable access show, doing a Silverstien classic. Great harmonies.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I Don't Get It

The comic strip 9 Chickweed Lane is occasionally funny. It's mostly about relationships and cats. For the last weeks it has been about God telling a former nun that her unborn child is going to be a giant cockroach. Is somebody off their meds or have I lost my sense of humor? This arc reads like something from the alternative weekly.

9 Chickweed Lane

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Any little boy's grandfather can be president of the United States

Harry S. Truman
Originally uploaded by alfromelkhorn
I have been reading the Spring 2009 issue of Prologue, the magazine of the National Archives. The issue is dedicated to Harry S Truman on his 125 birthday. One article is written by Clifton Truman Daniel and the title of this blog entry is what his mother Margaret told him when, at age 6, he finally discovered what his grandfather did before he retired. His folks were afraid he would get a swelled head, you see.

Mr. Daniel explains that when he and his brother were 4 and 2 years old they would try to avoid their grandfather in the morning because if he caught them on their way to watch TV he would read them Thucydides.

Fun article.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Taylor Dock

My last entry found me riding my bike on Taylor Dock. Here is a photo of part of it. This wooden trail connects Boulevard Park near downtown Bellingham, with Fairhaven, Bellingham's southwest corner. It is a new addition to the Bay, and gets a lot of use. Last fall I saw a group of teenage boys riding their bikes down that incline you see, riding up onto an inclined board and somersaulting into the freezing water - with their bicycles.

I didn't join them.

Sunbow Warrior

The sunbow ring!
Originally uploaded by British Mac
On Monday I was riding my bike along Taylor Dock (see next entry) and renewing my love of Bellingham, when I looked out over the Bay and saw a sunbow. I didn't have a camera but this photo by British Mac tells you pretty much what I saw.

As I rode along the Dock I said to each person I passed "See the Sunbow?" and pointed. Some ignored me. Some looked like I was trying to sell them a bridge. But some looked up and said "Where is it - ohm my gosh!" or words to that effect.

So there I went along the wooden road, a meteorological messenger. "Have you seen the sunbow? See the sunbow?"

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Digester's Reader

This is a new one on me. Some libraries have been having Edible Book contests. For example, this is A CLOCKWORK ORANGE by
Jeanne Mithen, from the 2007 contest atTopeka and Shawnee County Public Library.

I discovered this when I came across the 2009 contest at Staley Library of Millikin University. I can't copy their pictures here easily but go look at them, especially Eric McKinney's little masterpiece.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Three Men in a Boat

Three Men in a Boat
Originally uploaded by think_ram
Ever read Jerome K. Jerome's masterpiece THREE MEN IN A BOAT? An utterly trivial comic novel about three young Englishmen traveling up the Thames. You have certainly heard one line from it: "Work fascinates me. I can sit and watch it for hours."

Back in 1975 it was made into a tv movie in Britain, starring Michael Pailn and Tim Curry, with a very faithful script by Tom Stoppard. As far as I know the thing has never been available on video or DVD in the US.

However, someone has just put chunks of it up on Youtube starting here. Unfortunately it won't let me embed it on my page so you will have to go there to see it.

Monday, April 27, 2009


One night last week I was sitting in front of my computer, too tired to do anything useful, so I went to Youtube and typed in "Hallelujah." Started checking out versions of Leonard Cohen's masterpiece. Jeff Buckley's is stunning. Rufus Wainwright's is beautiful, although he insists on losing the rhymes for the hook. I had never heard the John Cale recording before, and that was amazing (piano, fiddle, cello).

There's also a young woman named Alyssa Bernal who was a surprise. At a glance I assumed that she had acheived her popularity on her looks (sexist? I suppose, but listen/look at some of our other currently singers, make and female) . Turns out she has a great voice. On the other end of the scale we have Dylan's recording, which was not so impressive.

This all popped into my head because I happened to see a review of the movie Watchmen (which I haven't seen), by Marvin Olasky in a Christian magazine in which he complains that "It's pornographic in part, most obnoxiously in a sex scene that uses Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" as sacrilegious musical background."

My question is, does Olasky think Cohen's song is sacriligious, or is it just the use of it in a sex scene that he finds to be so? If the former, I'll grant him his opinon. If the latter, I think he's missing the point of the song, which seems to be about the spirituality of lust.

I may have missed one, but I don't think any recordings on Youtube included the last verse, which Cohen sang a live recording. It has the to-die-for line "I couldn't feel, so I learned to touch."

Watching the piano versions where Cale and Wainwright pour out endless sets of triplets I was thinking: Hmm, some Celtic band ought to record it as a jig. 6/8 time. Wouldn't that annoy people?

Here is Mr. Cale's version.

ceremonial cabbage

The first Saturday in April, the 4th, was cool but beautiful in Bellingham, Wa. We made sure to be downtown before 10 AM for the annual opening of the farmer's market in the City of Subdued Excitement. I was there with someone who recently moved to town so I made sure she had a good view as Mayor Dan Pike officially opened the year by throwing out the ceremonial First Cabbage to the young daughter of one of the vendors.

As people applauded I told the newcomer. "Well, that's it. The highlight of the year in Bellingham."

A woman nearby nodded her head solemnly. "Subdued excitement."

Monday, February 16, 2009


World War II
Originally uploaded by Paperback_Writer
Dick Stodghill is a terrific mystery writer. His stories about depression-era Akron appear not often enough in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I just read his blog entry about returning from World War II. It is sad, hilarious, and instructive.

He uttered the stock answer given by all government clerks: "That's your problem."
Treat yourself.