If I could spend a day with one television naturalist, I would choose David Attenborough.He is not a flashy person, nor does he come across as a know-it-all. Wearing his usual plain-colored, rolled up long-sleeved shirt, and crumpled light tan pants, Attenborough always shows grace and patience with us ignorant sods.He has been a constant of calm, explaining the natural world with an eye for detail and thoroughness that comes across despite his unostentatious and modest manner. It’s as if he’s learning with us rather than instructing us. With slight inflections of tone and little jerks of his head and body, he conveys passion without the antics, high action or loud volume of other television naturalists.Attenborough began influencing Americans in the 1960s, not as a naturalist, but as a BBC controller in charge of programming. He led the creation of innovative programs, including Monty Python’s Flying Circus that set the subsequent tone for many American comedy programs.But Attenborough’s passion was the natural world and he couldn’t be kept from detailing its marvels.So in the late 1970s, Attenborough created Life on Earth, a 13-part nature series on evolution, partly funded by American companies. The series ended up being watched by more than 500 million people worldwide. It established Attenborough as the premier nature documentary maker. Over the years, Attenborough did not fail in retaining his reputation or his viewers.Five years after releasing Life on Earth, Attenborough released his next series, The Living Planet, a gloriously filmed work on the adaptions of Earth’s living things. Other programs followed over the years. Even in his 80s and 90s, Attenborough continued his work.Then last year, at 92 years of age, Attenborough released his latest work, A Life on Our Planet. The documentary is more personal, including remarks about his life and work with BBC.However, Attenborough’s real theme is one other scientists and naturalists have been raising with increased alarm over recent years – climate change and the disruption of Earth’s natural processes by man that has resulted in the loss of many species and the decline in numbers of almost all species.Attenborough’s latest documentary is done with the same patient, thorough argument, exquisite photography, and clear explanation that he has done all of his documentaries. In watching A Life on Our Planet, you recognize what a wonderful naturalist and person he is. He lays out a personal, logical, and passionate explanation for altering our lifestyles and changing our habits in order to save our planet from our destructive lifestyles and greed.
When Carl Sagan died, I thought there would never be a person who could replace him as the spokesman for astrophysics – then came Neil deGrasse Tyson.
In the last twenty-five years, Tyson has more than filled Sagan’s communicator’s shoes.
When Sagan died, Tyson, who had been a fan and friend of Sagan, was becoming a prominent public figure. That year, Tyson was appointed the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City, leading the reconstruction of the facility.
He took up where Sagan left off, becoming not just a voice for astrophysics, but “the voice” for the field and other scientific disciplines and issues.
In 2014, Tyson hosted a television series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, that was structured like Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. That year, Smithsonian Magazine published an article that declared “Why Carl Sagan is Truly Irreplaceable.”
In the article, Tyson says that he was not trying to fill Sagan’s shoes, just be himself. But in the series and the subsequent years, Tyson has proven that he was the perfect person to follow Sagan.
I am not putting Sagan down when I say this, but Sagan was old style.
He was a lecturer in the traditional sense, and at times he could lose his audience in his expositions and reasoning. There’s a YouTube video of him speaking to young people about attempts to contact aliens, something that you think would hold the rapt attention of youths. But in the video, you can see many weary and disinterested faces in the audience. Sagan was intelligent, well-spoken, organized and enthusiastic, but those qualities do not always translate well to the next generation, especially one reared on computers, cable television and video games.
That’s where Tyson met the challenge.
Tyson is affable, genuine, flamboyant, entertaining, and clever. His excitement shows in his face and hands as much as they do in his words. You can’t watch the whirling of his hands and the changes of expression in his face without developing a deep interest in what he is saying. If Sagan inspired thousands of young people to take up the study of astrophysics and increased the scientific interests of millions of casual observers, Tyson has inspired tens of thousands of young people and tens of millions of amateurs. His rich personality reaches out to a much wider audience than Sagan ever had.
Tyson just doesn’t lecture. He interacts with people. He answers his critics and science skeptics not only with well laid out arguments, but geniality, humor that’s not derisive, and passion.
He seems to be everywhere, on science shows, late night talk shows, radio game shows and podcasts. He hosts his own podcast and his subject matter has expanded as he is adept at being a source of reason on social and political issues.
Tyson, now in his early 60s, has many years left, and his magnetic personality will lead some to say at some point, he is irreplaceable.
Most authors you read occasionally or for a stretch at one time in your life, but not Mark Twain. Twain is an author whose books you read over and over throughout your life. I have.
In his writings, I’ve traveled down the Mississippi River, across the American West, and on to Hawaii, Europe, and the southern ocean.
But of even more interest, Twain is a writer who takes his readers further and further back in time. You start out reading about the late 1800s that he lived through in “The Gilded Age,” “Roughing it,” and “The Innocents Abroad,” then travel back to antebellum United States with “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” As you read more Twain, you travel even further to medieval England in “The Prince and the Pauper” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Read more and you’re in mid-Sixteenth Century with “The Mysterious Stranger” and then carried a couple centuries earlier with Joan of Arc. Finally, in “Letters from Earth,” you’re at the beginning of human history with Satan writing letters to his fellow archangels.
In all Twain captures your interest because his stories are plausible, captivating, and enlightening even when Twain, as he often does, descends into the darkest of humor and the harsh realities of life.Twain was a genius with words and language, just as Einstein was with mathematics and Van Gogh was with oils and a brush. No other American author – and there have been a lot of good ones since Twain – has been able to equal Twain’s ability to capture regional and idiosyncratic dialects and no American author can equal Twain in wit, humor and irony.
I grew up in northwest Missouri, in St. Joseph, directly opposite Hannibal on the northeast side of the state. We had a lot of history to be proud of in St. Joe, but of course, Hannibal had Mark Twain. I was sixteen before my parents took me and my youngest brother and sisters to Hannibal. I still remember seeing the boyhood home of Twain, a lopsided little clapboard building. I was thrilled to walk up Cardiff Hill and look out over the Mississippi River winding south towards St. Louis and, eventually, the Gulf of Mexico.
About 15 years ago, my wife and I went to Hartford, Connecticut, visiting the home Twain had built there in 1874. It was there that Twain wrote several of his best books, including “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” His house, now a historical site, is flamboyant and ostentatious. Twain, who was born poor and in the “backwoods” of his time, always worked to rise above his humble beginnings. He derided the greed and corruption of the Gilded Age, but somewhat ironically, always chased wealth and fortune.
Yet, his writings – and this is what I admire about him most – expose the human conditions of pride, prejudice, despair and hypocrisy without being preachy or pedantic. He used an uncultivated teenager to expose our worst prejudice, and even though each of his works are bounded by time, all of them are timeless.
Yo-Yo Ma and I have had a love-hate relationship all our lives.
I have loved him because he’s such a wonderful person and genius, but sometimes – and I won’t say it’s exactly hate that I harbor for him though I used the term earlier – but I find I am exasperated at him because of how perfect he is.
We were born three years apart, he the younger; yet at five, he was playing three different musical instruments and settling on the cello as his instrument of choice. I was still wetting the bed, occasionally.
At seven, he was a virtuoso playing with Aaron Copland and before President John F. Kennedy. I was in second grade, having started school a year early, but not because I was a child prodigy, but because my mother wanted me out of the house and out of her hair.
He was the cutest of children, adorable and lovable. I was, well, I was a kid that when people saw me, they said to my mother, “Hmmm, you ought to be pleased he’s healthy.”
As a young man, he traveled the world over seeing everything there was to see. I was seventeen before I left my home state and traveled to Colorado.
In his mid-forties, he was setting up a non-profit organization, the Silk Road Project, that used music to encourage multicultural interaction, understanding, and collaboration. I was just settling into a profession after years of indecision and jumping from one thing to another.
Yo-Yo Ma was selected to be an ambassador of peace by the United Nations and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Hmmm, let me see what medals have I been awarded: NONE.
This guy has memorized hundreds of pieces of music and plays them flawlessly. I can’t sit down at the piano and play one verse of “Jingle Bells” without looking at the music and hitting half a dozen wrong notes.
The only thing Yo-Yo Ma and I have in common is that we both have had only one wife. He and his wife have been married 42 years, my wife and I for 44 years. My marriage has lasted because of my wife’s enduring lon-gsuffering, but I’m sure Yo-Yo Ma’s marriage’s longevity has much to do with his calm and patient disposition.
That’s the real trait of Ma’s that I envy: his even and humble temperament, his engaging personality. Anytime I have seen him interacting with other musicians he is gracious towards them, and they are always complimentary of his friendship and collaboration.
Everybody loves Yo-Yo Ma; no one has anything bad to say about him.
I think, no, I am positive, the world would be a better place if we were all more like Yo-Yo Ma. He draws attention without demanding it; he yields to others with selflessness. He plays the lead without being a showoff, and he accompanies with the same intensity and humility as he plays the lead.
My favorite superhero as I was growing up was a real person, Roberto Clemente.
The guy was a superhero, a superstar for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
I suppose I liked him because he played the same position I played, right field, although I played right field in Little League because that’s where they stuck kids who weren’t the best players. But in the major leagues that’s where they put the guy who has the strongest arm, an arm strong enough to throw to third base, the farthest distance a fielder has to throw to keep a runner from getting into scoring position.
Clemente had a rocket arm.
I never saw him in person, only when Pirate games were televised. Once, Clemente uncorked a throw from the deepest part of right field in St. Louis to third base. The ball got away from him and sailed high over third base, over foul territory and a dozen rows in the stands. Few major leaguers had an arm that strong, and that error was an oddity. Usually, Clemente got his man. In 18 major league seasons, Clemente won 12 Gold Gloves.
He could hit too. He won four National League batting titles and is one of only 32 Major League Baseball players to attain 3,000 hits in their careers.
Critics talked about the things Clemente did wrong at the plate: He swung with only his wrists, his body bailed out of the box, he reached for bad pitches, he was off balance – but he defied the norms. He hit for average and power.
I heard of Clemente first during the 1960 World Series when the Pirates magically beat the powerful New York Yankees. The hero of the series was the Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski, who hit a seventh-game, down-to-the-last-out, series-winning home run, but Clemente’s style caught my attention, and thereafter, I followed him daily in the box scores of the local newspaper.
Clemente received criticism too for popularizing the basket catch as he would nonchalantly let the ball drop into his waist-high-held open glove. Commentators called him a showboat, and they called him a complainer because playing for the Pirates, Clemente decried the attention players on other clubs, such as the Yankees and Dodgers, received.
He had reason to complain. He was overlooked for other reasons too. He was black and Puerto Rican, and his English carried a strong accent. He played when prejudice was strong toward foreign players moving into American baseball.
But Clemente never forgot where he came from.
He played winter ball in Latin America, too, not because he wanted to show off, but because his “hometown” fans wanted to see him play. He held free baseball clinics and delivered food to underprivileged children in Puerto Rican neighborhoods. Then in 1972, he died in a crash on a plane he chartered to deliver aid to victims of a Nicaraguan earthquake.
Clemente was more than a baseball player. He was a superhero.
Whenever I have seen E.O. Wilson on television programs, I have thought, “Man, I would have loved to have this guy as a grandfather.”
But he has been so much more to the world: an eminent biologist who asks questions few people have the curiosity to ask and the intelligence and stamina to answer, a thinker and philosopher, and a voice of reason and morality.
He has done those things with grace, humility, and civility, which is why I always thought he would make a fabulous grandfather, sort of like the TV grandfather Will Geer played on “The Waltons.” At my side, he also would have been someone who would explain all my questions about nature and explain them with patience and respect even if my questions seemed backward, which would have been most of the time.Wilson’s life had a difficult start. His parents divorced, he and his father and stepmother moved several times, and he was blinded in his right eye in an accident.
Wilson made the most of the hardships, though, even at a young age. The accident left him without stereoscopic vision, but he had exceptional sight in his left eye. While he couldn’t play the games and do things other children did, he developed an interest in things he could see well, the “little things,” ants and other insects.
Wilson determined during his teenage years to become an entomologist, and he began documenting the ants of Alabama. On one of his surveys, he discovered the first colony of fire ants in the United States in Mobile. By the mid-1950s, Wilson graduated from the University of Alabama and moved on to Harvard, becoming a myrmecologist, an ant specialist. He traveled the world collecting ant species and earned his doctorate.
Wilson was not a solitary researcher, however. One of his most amazing character traits was his ability to work with others. He pioneered, with other researchers, new biological theories and studies. A couple of the most important were the development of sociobiology and the discovery of ant communication controlled by chemical means. Those ideas seem intuitive and normal now, but not when he approached them.
Like anyone, Wilson has had his detractors. Mostly, Wilson has been criticized for his criticism of religion. A humanist, Wilson has been harsh on religious beliefs, but he has also recognized the power of religion and made overtures for the best of science and religion to collaborate.
Wilson has written more than two dozen books on a number of scientific themes, from his interest of ants to the question of human existence and human responsibility in the natural world. Even in his nineties, Wilson continues to contribute to science, publishing his latest book in 2019. I’ve read several of Wilson’s works, and his writings only confirm what I’ve seen of Wilson on scientific television programs. He is a remarkable person, intelligent but able when needed to convey his thoughts even to those who are outside of scientific research or study.
He is a person worth emulating, and even as a grandfather now, I still think how nice it would be to have E.O. Wilson for a grandfather.
I was attracted to Sister Rochelle, my eighth-grade teacher, because she was young, smart, patient, understanding. She was the opposite of other nuns at St. James Parochial School in St. Joseph, Missouri, In the late 1950s and early 1960s.
I did have a younger teacher, Sister Julianne, in second grade, but she never took much of an interest in me. She took less interest and could be critical of me. A child can tell when a teacher finds other children more attractive and treats them differently, better.
But Sister Rochelle expected me to be a better-than-average student and was interested in my development.
Unfortunately, I let her down.
Sister Rochelle was a Benedictine nun, as were other nuns at our school. Most were ancient. When I started school, our principal, Sister Mary Michael, had not only taught my older brother and three older sisters, but also my mother. Sister Mary Michael was a tough, little woman, who ran the school as she ran it when my mother attended in the 1920s and 1930s. The Benedictine nuns, all of them, were long on discipline and short on empathy.
Sister Rochelle arrived as the new principal with a different approach. But she was not a pushover. My class had several rowdy boys, and she dealt with them when she had to. But she had a soft side, a compassionate side, that made her pleasant and attractive.
She was not great looking, but she was nice looking, at least not marked with the wrinkles of age. She had fair skin, was stocky but not overweight. She wore heavy-black-rimmed glasses that complemented her face and her long black habit.
She also had a physical defect, a limp, the result of one leg being shorter than the other. She didn’t let that bother her, especially when insensitive boys spoke of her as gimpy. I liked her even more because of it, and maybe she realized that. Whatever it was, I felt I was the teacher’s pet for the only time in my life.
But I let her down. I was on safety patrol one day with John Capps, and we started messing around, playing instead of being responsible crossing guards. Sister Rochelle’s disappointment was evident as she suspended me for a month.
A few weeks later, coming in from recess, Steve Eggleston began pushing and slapping me. He could be ornery, but he had never been a bully. I had no idea what came over him, but I fought back. Feisty Sister Rochelle broke it up. She was never as friendly with me after that. Maybe she thought I started the fight.I ran into her years later, after I graduated from high school. She smiled at me, and I waited for her to ask how high school went and where I was going to college. She said, “Been in any fights lately?”
I was disappointed in myself all over again, not her.
I read The Red Pony in eighth grade, and I instantly became a fan of the author, John Steinbeck.I’m sure I identified with Steinbeck’s Jody character mostly because he was young, my age. Unlike him, I didn’t live on a ranch and my father didn’t give me a pony to take care of. But my parents were big on child chores and expecting responsible behavior.
And who could not appreciate an author who created the character Billy Buck, who was played by Robert Mitchum in the movie version of The Red Pony? Billy Buck is the classic loner and sage whose dark past begs interest and sympathy.
After that, I read Travels with Charley, Cannery Rowand Tortilla Flat on my own. In high school, I read other required Steinbeck readings. More than any other author, except for William Shakespeare, we read Steinbeck: Grapes of Wrath, of course, The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, and East of Eden.
I know the comparison isn’t apples and oranges, but Steinbeck’s characters, like Shakespeare’s, were troubled and tormented, usually poor, “no-goods and blots,” and they faced appalling predicaments or choices. But then, that’s what makes good drama, an impossible quandary, a petrifying crisis.
Steinbeck was great at drama and why many critics were harsh on Steinbeck. When Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962 – I was 10 then – he was called a tenth-rate philosopher and his writing was described as childish. The critics seemed to believe if a novel could easily be turned into a popular movie, then it didn’t qualify as literature.
In 1968, my junior year in high school, a television version Of Mice and Men with George Segal and Nicol Williamson in the roles of George and Lennie aired. My English teacher encouraged students to watch the movie. We hadn’t read the book yet, but would soon. I watched the movie, then read the book, and I believe that story troubled me more than any other I read or saw depicted in film.
Of Mice and Menis not The Grapes of Wrath, where the bigger social issue eventually dominates the plight of the novel’s characters. Rather, Of Mice and Men intensely focuses on the choice an individual makes when faced with social injustice or human cruelty. It’s a deeply personal novel. It asks what would you do if you faced a decision that only had bad consequences. I once earned a part in a community production of To Kill a Mockingbird by reciting at an audition George’s lines in his final scene with Lennie.
Steinbeck may not have been the greatest writer who ever lived, but he deserved a Nobel Prize. He was read and is still read in American schools because he wrote honestly about life in a world bigger than America, and he wrote with compassion for the unfortunate and oppressed. Steinbeck disturbed the trickle-down economists of his day, and unfortunately, the ugly economic world and misguided values he called attention to haven’t gone away.
As a child, I thought Davy Crockett was the bomb. Years later, I realized he was a dud.
The movie Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, debuted in 1955, and my family went to the Cowtown Drive-in in St. Joseph, Missouri, where we lived, to see it. I remember it, though I was three, because the theater sponsored a drawing for one lucky child.
I won and received a coonskin cap, buckskin clothes – actually plastic – and toy Kentucky rifle. My family called me Davy Crockett, and the name stuck even into grade school. I was proud of the name and legend. We were taught Crockett was an American hero, and the Disney movie portrayed him as such.
In fifth grade, I was devastated when a kid named Davy Crockett joined my class. He was a direct descendant of Crockett. I was demoted to nothing. One of my cousins remembered my past association with the legend and said, “You only thought you were Davy Crockett. He’s the real thing.”
Being demoted was all the harder because our classmate was a bully and braggart. He may have turned out a decent guy; I don’t know, but my fifth-grade memory is of a loud smart aleck.
The result: I disassociated myself from the legend Davy, but Davy didn’t disappear.
John Wayne played Davy Crockett about that time in The Alamo, a highly Hollywood-ized version portraying Crockett as a supremely courageous, patriotic figure.
Since then, I’ve read about Davy Crockett, and I’ve had time to reflect on his life because he meant something to me as a child.
Crockett was a resourceful person. He learned to make it on his own while very young. He was also humorous. His ability to tell a good story and fire off verbal zingers earned him popularity and a seat in Congress.
But he was not stable. He did not accept criticism, nor did he care about compromise or other views. He was what we now would call a political maverick, and he was proud of it.
He was so sure he was right about everything that when he lost re-election to Congress that he told everybody off and left for Texas. He left because he thought Texas would be an independent country where an American could get away from the politics and responsibilities of being an American citizen and do and say whatever he wanted – but only after stealing Texas away from Mexico.
Crockett had no qualms about that as his opinion of Mexicans reflected the one he had of Native Americans: They were worthless people undeserving of the land they had. They were better off dead.
Today some say of Davy what they say of other famous figures: Well, he was a person of his times. They say that as if it’s an excuse for ignorance and cruelty.
Ironically, Davy thought of himself as someone above his times. But he wasn’t. He was a sore loser; a troubled, egotistical individualist; and a racist.
Galileo is my favorite among great Renaissance figures.
Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rafael are immortals with their wild creativity and extraordinary artistic skills. Copernicus is a supermagician, pulling a heliocentric universe out of a bag of astronomic observations and thin ethereal air.
But Galileo, he’s human through and through.
Galileo was talented and beyond intelligent. He was no slouch when it came to art or ideas, but he was a struggling, suffering figure that I identify with.
First, he wanted to be a priest. Of course, in the Sixteenth Century, most young men because of the persuasion and pervasion of the Catholic Church were pulled toward a religious vocation. But Galileo changed his mind and told his father he wanted to be a doctor. He went to medical school, then something else happened. He told his father he wanted to be a mathematician.
I imagine his father saying, “Come on, son, make up your mind.”
And off he went to mathematics school, out of money, still an extremely religious person, and got a woman pregnant, not once, but thrice.
He was no deadbeat though. He had exceptional observational skills and created great things from simple things.
He created the compass, not the thing that points north, but a device for solving mathematical calculations, the precursor to the slide rule. Others worked on the same thing, but his was the best, and he usually is given credit for being its creator.
He invented the thermometer, and by simply watching a hanging lamp swing in a church nave, he laid out the law of the pendulum, leading to the invention of clocks.
And then he did something even more stupendous and crazy. He hauled balls of different sizes up the leaning Tower of Pisa, dropped them off, and disproved the notion of the greatest scientist of antiquity, Aristotle, wrong about the rate of falling bodies, that they fall at different rates.
No, Galileo said, everything falls at the same rate, and he said it so smugly he was fired from the University of Pisa.
Galileo’s career was not over though. Inventors were playing with a new creation, a spyglass, that had a power of magnification of three. In six months, Galileo created a telescope with thirty power of magnification. He pointed the device at the night sky, determined the Catholic Church erroneously held the Earth was the center of the universe, and the people who once loved and supported him, now turned on him. He was hauled to the Inquisition, and he ended his life imprisoned in his own house, where he continued correspondence with his living daughter who had spent her life in a nunnery and encouraged her father in his work.
What a great tragedy, only Galileo’s life wasn’t a tragedy.
He changed the way we view the world – well, for most of us.
Somehow, some people today, like those idiotic Catholic leaders of long ago, refute Galileo’s insights and scientific advances, and claim the world is flat and still.
Lily Tomlin is the only celebrity I’ve ever written.
I wrote her the spring of my college freshman year. She first appeared on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” the previous year, 1969. I was a devoted Laugh-In fan. Nothing like it had been on television before, and I loved the madcap format of one-liners and bizarre comedic situations.
The program was loaded with great comedians, but my favorite was easily Tomlin. She replaced Judy Carne, and established herself as the most talented, most versatile, and funniest regular.
I don’t know what led me to write her since I had never done that before. I do admit I found Tomlin attractive, but I did not write out of a romantic interest. I just wanted to let her know how much I appreciated her talent.So I wrote that she was my favorite on the show and that I found her characters, especially Ernestine and Edith Ann, to be the most amusing of any portrayed on Laugh-In. At the end, I added that she was also a beautiful woman.
I addressed the envelope to Tomlin in care of Laugh-In, Burbank, California, and I looked up the zip code for Burbank in the postal code guide at a post office. I didn’t know if my letter would make it without a street address, but it turns out in those days, Post Office workers went out of their way to deliver letters with incomplete addresses.
Tomlin responded the following winter, a few months later. I received a note card with no return address, only “Lily” written in the upper left-hand corner. And, oh yes, the card was strongly scented with perfume. Inside, Lily wrote simply, “Thank you, you’re sweet,” and below that she made two X’s and two O’s. I kept the notecard while I was at my apartment for the rest of the year. But when I moved out for the summer, I tossed it with other papers and things I didn’t want to haul to my next apartment. I have never been terribly sentimental, although my next roommate made me wish I had kept Tomlin’s notecard. He had a letter from Jonathan Winters that he had framed and hung on his wall. My roommate had written Winters after he appeared in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Winters had replied with a three- or four-paragraph letter.
But my letter had had a note with two X’s and two O’s, which seemed to count for more. Ironically, Lily is gay, which wasn’t public knowledge in those days. However, it wouldn’t have changed my opinion even if I had known, although I didn’t follow Tomlin much after Laugh-In. I haven’t seen any of her movies, even “Nine to Five.” She was so good in Laugh-In, I couldn’t picture her in anything else.
But I have always been a fan, and in 2003, I was pleased Tomlin was the second woman awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. She deserved it.
Kurt Vonnegut’s novels are not for the faint-hearted. He was a troubled man, troubled by an incomprehensible, cruel world, and troubled by his own identity struggles. But Vonnegut always was a dedicated humanitarian, concerned that selfish behavior could eventually be turned to alleviate suffering and initiate justice.
We grew up with dystopian novels in the 1960s. Common required secondary readings included Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, and A Canticle for Leibowitz, among others.
So Kurt Vonnegut’s novels naturally attracted many people to them, including me. I didn’t know who Vonnegut was until nearly twenty years after he began writing. My older brother introduced me to Vonnegut’s novels, giving me a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five.
It was easy to identify with Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s protagonist in that work, his most popular. Pilgrim was a man who walked into a maelstrom, which was somewhat akin to being a young person in the 1960s with its civil rights struggles, assassinations, and political and social turmoil. Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim is a World War II American soldier captured by the Germans near the end of the conflict. Pilgrim survives his capture and the Allied firebombing of Dresden to be forced into digging the bodies of civilians out of the rubble. The inhumanity and senselessness of the bombing, and the world war, weighs heavily on Pilgrim, who is a fragile character to begin with.
From that brief summary, it is easy to see the appeal Slaughterhouse-Five made on a generation struggling with the Vietnam conflict, which spread to two other countries and included inhumane bombings. More than 7 million tons of bombs, three and a half times what the US dropped during World War II, were dropped during the Vietnam conflict, leading to the deaths of 3 million people. Of course, it is easy to say, “Well, they were the enemy.”
It’s harder to say, “Still, they were people, people whose lives were just as important as ours,” and that is, in part, Vonnegut’s point. Following his writing success with Slaughterhouse -Five, Vonnegut became a leading humanitarian spokesman, a task he accepted even though he probably was not the “most qualified.” Vonnegut could be very pessimistic, which is found in his novels. He accepted an inevitably of depravity among humans reflected in one of his most popular, and oft-repeated, sayings, “So it goes.”
At the same time, Vonnegut promoted kindness and humility, values that softened the blows of the dark humor in his books. That was hard for some people to see. They said Vonnegut was crude and anti-American. Several school districts in the United States banned his books, which eventually led to a Supreme Court decision that books cannot be removed from a library just because a school board does not like their ideas. The court also stated that boards could not prescribe orthodoxy.
Unorthodox probably best describes Vonnegut and his writings. His plots and characters were some of the most bewildering and disoriented plots and characters invented, definitely not for the faint-hearted.
He could be corny and old-fashioned, and his songs were sentimental and conventional, but several songs I sang frequently in the 1970s and still sing today are John Denver songs.
John Denver popped onto the American music scene the same year I was graduating from high school. Then before I dropped out of college two years later to work on a cattle ranch in the mountains of West Texas, John Denver was a star.
Some of the blame for my leaving school and heading out had to do with John Denver. He sang about the great expanse of the west, the mountains and the streams, and being free of civilization and its curse, and I took him literally. Of course, his compositions were about more, but John Denver’s legacy is a love of nature and a life devoted to environmental and humanitarian issues.
“Poems, Prayers and Promises,” a 1971 album by John Denver, was the first album I purchased. I bought a guitar and learned to strum it, too, which is all I can do still, but John Denver was the impetus for that. I had never been inclined to music much before even though my older sisters and brother had piano lessons and could play.
My mother became a John Denver fan, too. I’m sure many older women, despite the generational gap, found him attractive and entertaining. He was a product of the 1960s revolution, but in an odd way, he was also a throwback to the crooners of the previous era, a sort of Bing Crosby or Dean Martin. He seemed to be drawn to entertainment as much as songwriting, so he ended up on television with his own shows, even hosting an annual Christmas program that drew millions of viewers. His show was ABC’s highest rated show for a number of years, and when I was home for the holidays, I sat with my family in the living room watching John Denver each year.
Despite his popularity, John Denver never won a Grammy for any of his songs, well, not until after he died in a plane crash in 1997. The next year, he received a Hall of Fame award posthumously for “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Critics and other songwriters had long counted him as a lightweight composer, writing soft, cheesy, simplistic ballads.
For a long time, I disagreed with them. I still do, to some extent, but they were right about some songs, especially “Sunshine on my Shoulders,” which is almost painful to listen to with its maudlin lyrics and slow, slow delivery even for the type of song it was. More than sunshine on your shoulders, the song wants to make you cry.
But John Denver penned one of my top ten favorite songs ever in “Perhaps Love.” In the 1980s, I listened to that song on tape and CD more than any other song I listened to. Just call me sentimental and cheesy.
We called him Uncle Walter. His associates called him Iron Pants. But no contradiction exists between the two terms describing the life of Walter Cronkite.
My family called him Uncle Walter because he came into our household every evening. We trusted him. His associates called him Iron Pants because of his reluctance to leave his newscaster’s chair during a big story, outlasting the most dedicated of his fellow journalists.
Cronkite was born in the same city that I was born in, St. Joseph, MO. But when I was born, he was 36 years old, had worked for United Press International for 14 years, and worked with CBS for a year.
Cronkite hadn’t lived long in St. Joseph. His parents moved to Kansas City when he was a year old and then to Houston when he was ten. So his childhood influences had little to do with our shared hometown. But St. Joseph residents claimed him for their own because he was a character worth claiming. He was honest, hard-working and smart. He didn’t necessarily make sense of the world every evening, but he brought the world into perspective.
He was the first to tell us about most everything that happened in our time. Of course, the most notable and infamous thing that happened was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The shock and disappointment in his face and voice mirrored the pain we felt.
Cronkite’s other painful job was informing America that the Vietnam War was a mess and a mistake. A World War II correspondent, Cronkite reportedly agreed early on with the necessity of the conflict in southeast Asia. But after a visit there, he recognized the futility and brutality of the conflict. When Uncle Walter broke the news that Vietnam was a lost cause, we knew for certain it was.
I especially remember “The Twentieth Century,” one of Cronkite’s innovations. It was a documentary television program that Cronkite hosted about recent political and cultural events. At that time, there was nothing like it on television and he set the standard for the evening news programs that would follow. Cronkite was big on technology too, especially the space program. He devoted himself to explaining it to Americans, and NASA recognized the effort. The space agency gave him an Ambassador of Exploration Award in 2006. He was the only non-astronaut or non-NASA employee to receive the award.
I often wonder how Uncle Walter would rate in today’s skeptical-of-the-media climate. In his time, he was repeatedly named the most trusted man in America. Once he was fired because he refused to report a story that had not been verified.
But nothing about Uncle Walter was fake. He earned the loyalty of honest people, and the political career of Johnson ended when Cronkite reported on the Vietnam War and Nixon’s career was doomed when Cronkite wouldn’t let Woodward and Bernstein’s undercover journalism die. If Cronkite said it, it was true because he was devoted to the truth.
We only knew of two Frenchmen in the 1960s when Jacques Cousteau and The Undersea World aired on television.
One was Maurice Chevalier, who sang the song “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” on American variety shows. The other we heard about occasionally was Charles DeGaulle, the French president who, like US President Eisenhower, had been a military general in World War II.
In those days, everything on American television was strictly American. So it was different and strange to see foreigners other than The Beatles, Herman Hermits, or Tom Jones, make appearances on American TV, and especially find a foreigner there with his or her own show.
Then add another twist. Jacques Cousteau was not a singer, comedian, or actor; he was an environmentalist. We didn’t know what an environmentalist was then, only that they wanted, according to American corporations, to take away all the good things that gave us cancer and asthma.
But by the mid-1960s, the environmental movement had begun making inroads into American consciousness. Still television lagged behind; all we had was a nature show, Wild Kingdom, which though good, gave us mostly a Disney version of the natural world.
Jacques Cousteau began to change that. He talked about protecting marine environments when the oceans were considered beyond polluting. He saw what others did not and advocated restrictions on dumping waste in the sea, including nuclear waste. He knew then what we only began to realize twenty or thirty years later, the oceans were not too big to fail.
Cousteau was an interesting character with his red stocking cap, sunburnt face, and ridiculously thin body. He looked like someone the ocean’s cold water could send to his death by pneumonia or squish with a few atmospheres of pressure.
Not many people were going down in the ocean depths then. Scientists were exploring and discovering new things about forests, mountain ranges, and deserts, but few were sucking bottled air in salty water and providing us visions of life under the waves.
I say that, but that is not exactly true. Five years prior to Cousteau’s breakthrough on American television, a program featuring a scuba diver finished a five-year run. Sea Hunt starring Lloyd Bridges, however, was not an environmental program. It was an adventure program with plots that included at times undersea exploration or scientific experiments.
Still, to us growing up in the 1960s, the oceans were a Jules Verne mystery. Every episode of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau provided a glimpse into something we had never seen before and knew nothing about. Each week, there were Cousteau and the crew of Calypso sailing like Captain Cook to far flung places, except unlike Cook, they didn’t come to destroy native culture and exploit the natural world. They came to protect all that they discovered.
And they did it with their sexy French accents that drove my mother crazy. She never learned to swim, but Jacques helped her appreciate the water.
Students were taught no other American president came close to the moral and egalitarian stature of Abraham Lincoln when I attended elementary school in the 1960s.
Today someone claims to be as good as and even a better president than Lincoln. Don’t worry, the claim is obviously bogus.
But it’s worth noting that Lincoln was just a man, not the demigod he was made out to be after his assassination and during the next 100 years. Lincoln had his faults.
He did not consider the welfare of Native Americans to be of great importance, and Lincoln advocated at one time sending black Americans to Africa to live. He seems to have believed that blacks and whites belonged on separate continents.
Another fault of Lincoln was that he was a tried-and-true Republican. As an attorney, he worked for railroad corporations, defending their interests in land and money grabs and against employee and citizen injury lawsuits.
And finally, Lincoln didn’t always stick to his principles. As a congressman, Lincoln called President Polk a liar when Polk lied about the start of the Mexican War. Lincoln said he could not support the war. But when it came time to vote, Lincoln voted for war funding, afraid to appear non-supportive of American soldiers. Lincoln forgot if you’re going to be against a war, you vote against it and vote to bring soldiers home.
Still, even in today’s cynicism, most Americans would agree Lincoln was a great man and our greatest president.
Most will say Lincoln was great because he rose above his dismal and impoverished upbringing. Or they will say he was great because he held the union together, which he did, but he did that with the help of many other strong leaders at the time.
But Lincoln’s real greatness is in his humility. He rose to a position of power at a time when character was intensely challenged. Yet Lincoln remained the good-natured, honest, open-minded and sympathetic person he had been before he became president.
And though the Civil War shaped his presidency, he did not allow the war’s ferocity and cruelty to drag him into savage name-calling and calls for revenge.
He also was willing to admit his mistakes. After being rebuked by Frederick Douglass and others for proposing to send black Americans to Africa, Lincoln accepted the folly and injustice of the proposal and dropped it.
Finally, Lincoln was a manipulator. He knew how to get what he wanted out of people, which is what Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recent best-seller, Team of Rivals, reveals. Even one of Lincoln’s greatest accomplishments, the Emancipation Proclamation, which only freed slaves in the Confederacy, was a play to appease residents of non-seceding states and the Northerners who favored abolition, as well as disrupt Southern war efforts.
Yet despite being manipulative, Lincoln was an extremely honest person throughout his life. He even earned the handle “Honest Abe,” which despite repeated scrutiny over the years, has endured. You can’t say that about many politicians.
During the presidential election of 1976, opponents of Jimmy Carter said, “Jimmy Carter wears his religion on his sleeve, but Jerry Ford wears it on his heart.”
I’m not commenting on Gerald Ford, who lost to Carter that year, but what was said about Carter was wrong, very wrong.
Jimmy Carter was vocal about his faith, but he was no empty-sounding drum. Carter backed his words with a devotion to many causes, especially, the work of Habitat for Humanity. Carter has been associated with the group so long that I can’t hear Habitat without automatically thinking of Jimmy Carter.
Last year, at 95, Carter was helping build homes, 21 of them, in Nashville for low-income people through the nonprofit. Carter worked despite suffering a fall days earlier at his home which left him with a black eye and 14 stitches in his head.
Ironically, the criticism of Carter in 1976 came from other, alleged, born again Christians. They did not like Carter’s liberalism or Carter’s proposal to tax the book companies, radio and TV programs, colleges, and other lucrative businesses run by megachurches and TV evangelists who claimed their businesses were religious and exempt from government taxation.
Sadly, Carter lost the election because of the hypocrisy of those fundamentalists along with the hypocrisy of those in his own party who opposed his pork barrel cuts. Only months after taking office, Carter criticized 19 federal projects in a spending bill, and fellow Democrats who had proposed the projects never forgave Carter. Democrats failed to support Carter’s economic reforms which led to disillusion with his administration.
Carter also lost the election over a ridiculous issue. During the second half of Carter’s term in office, the US faced an oil shortage due to the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. Domestic oil producers were in no position to make up for the loss of imported oil, and gas prices rose.
Carter encouraged a 55-mile-per-hour highway speed limit, which was passed by Congress. Driving slower burns less fuel, and the action did, in fact, help to provide some relief from the shortage.
But just as during today’s coronavirus pandemic, people were reluctant to do the simple thing to alleviate a crisis. Drivers didn’t want to drive slower to make more fuel available for others, just as some people today will not wear a mask to protect others from coronavirus.
Carter did accomplish something no president before him had been able to do: bring together Israeli and Arab leaders and get them to agree to a wide-ranging peace plan. Carter hosted Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat at a Camp David summit that ended with the peace deal that still holds today.
I know Carter is often referred to by many as the worst American president since the early Twentieth Century. But that is said by those who don’t understand what Carter attempted to do and the hypocrites who undermined his presidency.
I have been guilty, like many men, of objectifying women.
I admit years ago, as a budding, hormone-seething teenager of the 1960s, I looked upon Raquel Welch as only an object of sex.
In 1966, when I was 13 years old, Raquel made an appearance in One Million B.C. — giving only three lines in a nearly two-hour movie.
My thoughts about sex were a little ill-defined and nebulous then, but there was nothing ill-defined or nebulous about Raquel’s physical appeal. She was all well-defined curves, sharp facial features, and dark skin that spoke directly and unmistakably to my male curiosity and budding libido. Her curvaceous and well-endowed frame covered by a negligible skin-of-an-animal bikini spurred an already active imagination and drive.
After her big breakthrough, Raquel began receiving more roles and leading roles, usually as a sex symbol, until the 1980s when older, but still beautiful, she began to flag in popularity and she was cast in a made-for-television movie that attempted to portray her in a new role as a smart, inquisitive reporter/investigator/writer. Despite being clad in pantsuit, suit jacket, and blouse buttoned to the top of her neck, Raquel provoked in me memories of the gorgeous woman in a bikini made from the skin of an animal.
Some today will say it’s a shame, and it is, that she was treated mainly as a symbol of sexual appeal. And it is a shame that she made her way to stardom predominantly on her shape even though she had enough acting ability to be more than a body; otherwise, she would have been relegated to low-budget movies with limited exposure.
What I grew to appreciate about Raquel, however, is that she never submitted herself to gratuitous sex scenes or puerile nudity. She was discreet about the roles she took, and I would wager she was as tough in the movie industry standing up to men as the roles she played on screen.
She was not a fragile, mixed-up megastar who needed cajoling, preening, and extra attention. She didn’t make a mess of her life with drugs, alcohol or sex despite being subjected, most likely, to the sexual harassment and mistreatment of the day in the movie industry.
I last saw Raquel on a Seinfeld episode. The episode came out in 1997, but I wouldn’t have seen it then. I caught it on a rerun, probably five to ten years later. When the episode was made, Raquel would have been near 60 years old, but the curves were still there.
And not only the curves. All the sass and spitfire of her younger days were showcased too. She took the Seinfeld writers’ quirky, fun-poking characterization of her in stride and good humor.
Or maybe she helped to create the character she portrayed.
If she did, I would appreciate her even more.
I was not quite three years old when Albert Einstein died, yet his face, figure and accomplishments became so much a part of popular culture that I feel as if he lived well into my manhood.
Even today my nine-year-old grandson recognizes Einstein’s immortal face and the brilliance of his life and mind. Even after other giants of physics followed Einstein – Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, Peter Higgs, Freeman Dyson – they have not come close to displacing Einstein as the epitome of intelligence and the ability to peer beyond the visible or established.
Of course, Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity and discovery of the photoelectric effect were not arrived at in isolation. They came about as the result of the work of physicists before him; as Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
But if anyone in science or philosophical thought skipped beyond the principles of known natural law and reasoning into a completely new universe of principles and behavior, Einstein is the human who did it.
I started college taking physics and calculus because I thought I had a good grasp of mathematics and mathematical reasoning.
I did fine in Calc I, getting an A, and I went into Calc II thinking I would conquer it too.
But halfway through, as we began revolving various curved and jagged lines around an axis to determine the volume of the 3D shape the spinning made, I lost my way. My grade dropped from an A to a C, and if the semester had lasted longer, I would have failed.
So, Einstein’s accomplishment is far beyond my paltry comprehension and the comprehension of most people.
But we can appreciate the benefits his work, theoretical as it was at the time. If relativity were not accounted for in the orbits of GPS satellites today, for instance, their navigational value would falter within two minutes, and the plane you may be in would not be able to land safely.
But we can appreciate Einstein’s dedication to his craft, his wonderment at the universe’s existence, and his burning curiosity toward the natural world. All those earned him the highest respect from others.
He also earned high marks as a human being. Even though his theories led to the realization of the atom bomb, Einstein did not take part in its development, nor were his first inclinations at e=mc2 that they could lead to an ultimate weapon.
Einstein did sign his name to a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt encouraging the development of uranium research leading to the possibility of a bomb. But Einstein said years later he signed his name only because he had been assured the Third Reich was developing an atomic bomb. That was not true, and Einstein regretted signing the letter written by another scientist.
Einstein lived and died a pacifist. His last years were about encouraging an end to war and the bomb his theory engendered.
If there was a daily comic strip I did not miss during its running, it was Calvin and Hobbes. While other strips have been just as inventive and unique — think Peanuts and The Far Side — no other comic strip carries the same intensity of human pathos or presents complex life issues and paradoxes in such an effortless and elementary way.
Watterson had encouragement and direction for his strip. He submitted a query that had Calvin as a minor character, and Universal Press Syndicate encouraged Watterson to make Calvin and his stuffed tiger the main characters in a revised strip. Here is a case of critics making the correct call regarding artist creativity — which is an example why people should listen to expert opinion — they can be right.
Of course, Universal Press Syndicate did not develop Calvin and Hobbes. The credit goes to Watterson, although there are precedents, especially for Calvin.
Calvin is reminiscent of Dennis the Menace and other mischievous and sardonic characters before him: Think Woody Woodpecker or Bugs Bunny who played the trickster, the sarcastic commentator, the hedonist.
But Calvin, personality-wise, is much more rounded than Dennis, Bugs or Woody. Calvin’s vanity is countered by childishness, his impulsiveness by creativity, and his moments of disrespect by his inquisitive mind.
And despite his sometime crass nature, he is vulnerable. At those times Calvin and Watterson are at their best. When the sick baby squirrel that Calvin finds dies, Calvin cries in his mother’s arm and reflects on the meaning of life and purpose of death.
Watterson also created an enduring character in Hobbes, the stuffed tiger who comes to life in Calvin’s imagination when the two are alone. He balances Calvin’s excesses and enlarges Calvin’s sense of wonderment.
My daughter as a child had an imaginary friend. He wasn’t a stuffed toy or a definite object, just someone who hung around and who she talked to at times. We made allowances for the imaginary friend; then one night I pulled a chair to the dinner table for JoJo and my daughter said the extra chair wasn’t needed.
“What about JoJo?” I said.
“He’s gone,” my daughter said.
“He gone. He’s not coming back,” she said.
I was not heart broken, but I had a several-month investment in JoJo. I was disappointed at my daughter’s callous display of indifference at his departure.
I felt an even more desperate loss when after 10 years, Watterson abandoned his creation. But maintaining a daily comic strip, especially one with the level of creativity Watterson displayed, is a demanding, draining work. Knowing when to quit something is as valuable as knowing when to start something.
So when I am reminded of Calvin and Hobbes, and I feel a wave of nostalgia, I go to the collections of Calvin and Hobbes strips I have and read a few weeks’ worth. Calvin and Hobbes are not just enduring characters, but they have become imaginary characters I cannot live without.