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GP 26 August 2009: Celebrations: Exaltation of Larks, Kindle of Cats, A Convocation of Eagles, Tower of Giraffes, A Rhumba of Rattlesnakes, and other Great Gatherings

In Summers Way Past.  Back before we had cell phones, interstate highways, cable TV, home air conditioning, look-alike shopping centers, and all the other flotsam jetsam that now floats through our lives, we got through summers playing Capture the Flag, reading comic books, and looking forward to watermelon, corn on the cob, hot dogs, ice cream laden with butter fat and real flavorings, and maybe a 2-mile walk down to the movies midday on Saturday to see Tarzan, Bugs Bunny and other cartoons, sometimes even Movietone News. Even without the electronic paraphernalia that has now become the circuitry of our life, there was plenty to do, such that we slept soundly, nicely exhausted by our then-fulfilling round of activities.

And, if that were not enough, we could go off twice a summer to Jones Beach to achieve unneeded sunburn that would leave us mightily tender for 3 days or dive for golf balls in the 5th hole pond at Buck Hill Falls or catch horrible cases of poison ivy when we burrowed in the woods for wild blackberries.  There were no useful cures for the ivy in those days, so one took baths in potassium permanganate on the theory that it would dry out the pustules. Mainly this chemical gave one a phony tan. 

Once in a while perhaps we’d cross the Brooklyn Bridge on an investigation of New York City.  Looking down river, we could conjure up boundless oceans, dream of going to sea again, not unlike Ishmael in Melville’s Moby Dick. For young imaginations it was an all enveloping East River we saw below that ignored all the buildings to the left and right on shore, not unlike the harmonic pathway to the world pictured here by Steve Burnett, the admiral of a marketing firm in lower Manhattan who uses such visions to escape this very intense city.

The nation is sullen and desultory these days—caught in an uneasy quiet before the we-know-not-what gathering storm.  Hurricane Bill roused Bermuda but barely grazed North America, only providing fodder for the Weather Channel, which must, of commercial necessity, turn all minor weather events into major crises in order to stir up its audience through visual torture. The inconclusive news is mainly boring, and the rich and famous are not amusing us, because they are nursing their wounds, having lost 30% of their assets last year.  It could leave one sleepless and enervated.

About the only thing running riot in these the “dog days of August” are the tropicals on our back porch, fueled by their own special steroids—pollinating birds, afternoon thunderstorms, unremitting humidity, and unforgiving sun.  It is easy to be down on August, but if it is a wet enough month, it makes for profligate greenery, unequalled on the other days of summer. The canna now has four blossoms, the fig tree runneth over.  The white ginger flowers and very large red hibiscus redeem a side bed, while the crabapple is o’erladen with fruit.  Nature tells us to shake it up.

Celebrate.  We summon up all this nostalgia for summers past, because the nation is in such a funk, such Fenwaythat we need to inject the citizenry with merriment.  A month ago we went to Fenway Park in Boston for a Red Sox game, and much enjoyed cheering on the opposition, the Oakland A’s all decked out in green and gold.  It was a happy time in an old-time ballpark where it felt liked the players were performing for the fans, instead of for television.  Inside one’s head, that old song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was lightly playing, a sure reminder that summer is all about celebrations, and we need to be waving flags, singing songs, cresting waves, and remembering our commonality.  That’s why, in this letter, we’ve drummed up a few celebrations for you:             

We Are The World.  Michael Jackson, the singer-dancer celeb, just went off to see his maker.  He’s a sad figure, so obviously beset by every kind of problem imaginable.  But he once brought together an unimaginable assortment of entertainers to perform We Are the World, a chorus of voices that reminds us that we are all cut from the same piece of cloth. Written by Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, the song was to support African famine relief.

Stand By Me.  More and more music now brings together musicians who pool their talents even though they are spread across the globe. Through computering we can figure out ways to let people a world apart perform as one. In our letter “Yes We Can,” we touch on the ability of music to knit the globe together.  Stand By Me united a gaggle of singers, and people around the globe have written us to tell us how this recording lifted them out of their seats. It’s a rare and wonderful thing when technology pulls us together:  it has mainly divided us into fractals for the last two centuries. We must become its master, rather than letting it dominate us.

June Weddings.  People get married in June. We don’t know when Jill and Kevin did it, but they really rocked the church. This buoyant wedding apparently offended some Fox News viewers, such that its raspy reporters felt obliged to knock this video. The happy couple is from Minnesota, the land of hot summers and ice-cold winters, and one can only admire their performance, which is a repudiation of the cruel weather that state can offer.  We must all be sorry that we did not get an invitation.  Do you think Jesse Ventura was there?

Nightclubs.  You know, it used to be that there were nightclubs.  The Stork Club. The Copacabana.  None of us ever went to the highflying clubs, but thought we would when eventually we got a spare $50 in our pockets.  There Walter Winchell put together his gossip.  And J. Edgar Hoover showed that he thought about lots of things other than crime and punishment.  And glamorous girls from Brooklyn, finally liberated from chorus lines, such as Lauren Bacall or Barbara Stanwyck, hung out with their dashing Hollywood pals. In Ball of Fire, which came out in 1941, Barbara Stanwyck tried to prove with Drum Boogiethat the clubs were nonstop fun.  New York’s bars stayed open to 4AM in those days, so your apartment was no longer hot by the time you got home.

Boogie Live.  Sultry cities make for great music.  Especially New Orleans, with its mixed heritage, which is, even in its diminished estate, the most exotic city in the United States.  That town even knows how to have a bit of fun when some dear neighbor passes away:  its funeral marching processions are renowned.  Perhaps nowhere else could Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and Jerry Lee Lewis have come together to so light up the night as they did back at Storyville in the ’80s. Sometimes boogie woogie disappears for a while, but it has only gone underground to spring up yet again somewhere else.

Scarlet Sails.  The secret police still come out and tail you in St. Petersburg.  This city’s Soviet past never quite gets buried, and, in fact, Putin, Russia’s autocrat du jour for now, sprang from its NKVD (also Cheka, OGPU, KGB, and a host of other aliases) contingent.  Even so, this is the city of Peter the Great, the Emperor who put Russia on the map and led it to its zenith back in the 18th century, never again to be equaled.  At its best, it is a city of  sweeping action and colorful myth.  Once a year, during the White Nights festival, imperial Russia comes forth on the night of Scarlet Sails, a “school’s out” occasion of music, and fireworks, and grand doings on the water.  It has all the power of our Fourth of July and more, as seen here in 2007. The Red Sails moving by are simply spectacular.

Sweet Home Alabama.  Another kind of Leningrad (aka, St. Petersburg) is seen in this hilarious, bursting performance by the Leningrad Cowboys (a Finnish group) and the Red Army Choir, a delicious mingling of 3 cultures—Russia, Finland, and down home America.  We learn how pervasive American culture is, and how it is being reinterpreted the world over.

La Liberation of Paris.  Just a half century ago, on 25 August 1944, countries throughout the West vibrated with the taking of Paris from the Germans, the freeing of the beautiful city.   It was and is proof that something glorious could happen in August.  August does not have to be a month when our spirits sag.

Whitman’s Joy.  That most American of poets, Walt Whitman, understood that the essence of our national joy arises from a sense of commonality that goes well beyond the letter of our constitution, the mutterings of preachers, or the appeals of jingoism.  In “Song of Myself,” he imagines that we are literally commingled with one another.  “I celebrate myself, and sing myself/ And what I assume you shall assume/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

Whitman, as well, could manage to hear a chorus of unity as we go about our daily activities, music which echoed through his “Leaves of Grass”:

    I Hear America Singing.
    I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
    Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
              and strong,
    The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
    The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
    The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deck-
              hand singing on the steamboat deck,
    The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
              as he stands,
    The woodcutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morn-
              ing, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
    The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
              or of the girl sewing or washing,
    Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
    The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
              fellows, robust, friendly,
    Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Whitman understood that the task at hand is not to understand our differences but to      
comprehend our unity.

P.S.  We could not find appropriate renditions of Arthur Fiedler’s Fourth of July
with the Boston Pops where he would do a rousing 1812 Overture illuminated by
fireworks and punctuated by cannon. The Pops, still fun, has become limper under its     other conductors. Somebody has made a movie of our Bicentennial where the parade of the Tall Ships transformed New York City.  This was the celebration of a lifetime never to be forgotten, the Fourth of Fourths.  We have a need to get more reverberation or ROI (Return on Investment) from our public events.                                                          

P.P.S. Nothing can buoy summer spirits like the circus.  It’s plain old fashioned but never disappoints whether it is Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey, Big Apple, or Le Cirque du Soleil.  Like nothing else, these spectacles remind us that showbiz of old had an immediacy that can stir the heart in ways that we have forgotten.

P.P.P.S. A Murmuration of Starlings. Well, summers are for celebration.  Yet nature itself never stops its parades and escadrilles, no matter the season.  See, for instance, the high flying magic of starlings in the precincts of Oxford during the winter.  We need only to imitate wildlife—be it the dance of the bumble bees or the chorus of coyotes—to become life’s best revelers.

P.P.P.P.S. During celebrations, we have strongly recommended Fish House Punch, a great favorite of George Washington.  But know that it packs a punch, and on occasion it has been reputed to leave many a guest on the floor.

P.P.P.P.P.S.  The country is just now remembering Woodstock, which was a rather muddy affair that actually took place in neighboring Bethel.  We have to admit that it cheers us more to experience the Julia Child revival brought on by Nora Ephron’s movie Julie and Julia.  Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking is now flying off the shelves, and it is the real hit of the summer.

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