Friday, May 11, 2007

Daily D-Gest Week Two - (May 5 - 11)

May 11 Birthdays - More artists today from the age of the not-so-distant past.

Salvador Dali (1904-89) was born on May 10 in Spain and emigrated to the U.S in 1940. For many both casual and serious fans of painting, Dali was both the symbol and master of surrealism, a form that takes realistic images and combines them in fantastic and unexpected ways, often times to tell a story or make a political or artistic point.

Irving Berlin was born on May 11, 1888 and lived for 101 years. He composed hundreds of popular songs, the most famous of which are probably "God Bless America" and "White Christmas".

May 11 in History - In 1934, one of the worst dust storm of the Dust Bowl era blew from the Great Plains all across the country to New York and Boston. Here's a link with a video.

Ten years ago, IBM's Deep Blue computer beat chess champion Garry Kasparov in a rematch, the first victory over a world-class chess champion by a computer.

May 10 Birthdays - It's musicians' day at the D-Gest. I found that four popular musicians of the 20th century were born on May 10.

Mother Maybelle Carter, matriarch of the famous Carter family singers, was born on May 10, 1909. Her daughter June Carter married Johnny Cash--the story of their courtship is part of the recent movie "Walk the Line."

Rock and blues artist Fats Domino was born May 10, 1929. Domino's biggest hit was, of course, "Blueberry Hill". He lost his home in New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina and for awhile lived in Baton Rouge in the apartment of JaMarcus Russell (LSU quarterback and #1 pick of the recent NFL draft), then boyfriend of Domino's granddaughter.

Donovan (Leitch) was born in Scotland on May 10, 1943. Donovan reached the height of his popularity during the "flower power" era with such pop-flavored psychadelic hits as "Mellow Yellow" and "Sunshine Superman".

Bono Vox was born as Paul Hauson in Dublin, Ireland on May 10, 1960. Bono has led the Irish rock group U2 for more than 20 years, while becoming a world-known political and humanitarian celebrity for his work on a number of social justice causes. Over the years, I haven't listened to much of U2's music (I own none of their CD's), but I particularly enjoyed their song "One", which was a hit when we lived in Richmond in the early '90s.

Another famous entertainer born on May 10 was Fred Astaire (1899-1987). Whoever drew Fred for "Dancing with the Stars" would have been a sure. The ageless and perennial popular dancer was first paired on Broadway with his sister Adele, and later with Ginger Rogers in a number of films.

May 10 in History

Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson died on May 10, 1863, eight days after being accindentally shot by his own troops. Jackson proved to be an irreplaceable leader in the Confederate Army.
In 1869, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads were joined in Promontory, Utah with a golden spike, completing the first transcontinental railroad in the United States.

May 9 Birthdays - Mike Wallace, still a working journalist, celebrates his 89th birthday today. Wallace's term on "60 Minutes" seems as long as my life, or at least my adult life, which is going on 35 years.

From long ago history, I'll highlight Italian poet Dante Alighieri, born on this day in 1265. "The Divine Comedy", a allegorical trip through heaven, hell and purgatory is his most famous work. A few years ago, I read an English translation of "Inferno" (the hell part), which is written in a very restrictive form (even more so in Italian) and runs for several hundred pages. I got through it, though I wasn't as successful with "Paradiso" (heaven) or "Purgatorio". Nearly 700 years from its publication Dante's Inferno has a very strong influence on how people envision hell. Dante is also one of those rare cultural phenomena, known for all time by his first name only (to trivialize, ala Cher, Madonna, and Roseanne).

May 9 also marks the both the end of one political career and life, and the beginning of sorts of another.

On May 9, 1978, Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro was found dead in the trunk of a car in central Rome after being kidnapped by Red Brigade terrorists. At the time, we was considered the most able Italian politician since the end of World War II. The assassination occured after the Italian government refused to meet the terrorists' demands for his release.

On May 9, 1994, Nelson Mandela, who had been held in captivity as a political prisoner from 1964-1991 by the apartheid regime in South Africa, was inaugurated as the first black President of that country. A man who loved his country when it seemed impossible to do so, and who fought with unimaginable courage for the liberation of his people, Mandela remains one my heroes--truly one of the great men of the 20th century.

May 8 Birthdays - America's 33rd President Harry S. Truman was born 123 years ago today. He died in 1972 at age 88. Truman became President when four-term President Franklin Roosevelt died suddenly in May 1945. He made the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, which brought about the Japanese surrender and the end of World War II.

These days, we think of American support of Israel as a given, but Truman's decision to recognize the new state of Israel in 1948 was controversial at the time, and privately opposed by both his wife Bess and his Secretary of State, George Marshall. (I learned this listening to NPR's "Fresh Air" show tonite. Terry Gross interviewed Michael Beschloss, author of a new book of Presidential history, "Presidential Courage.")
The story of Truman's recognition of Israel also appears in details in the current issue of Newsweek magazine.
Enigmatic author Thomas Pynchon turns 70 today. Some day I'll work my way up to reading one of his books. I tried "Gravity's Rainbow" years ago, but didn't get far.

May 8 in History: V-E (Victory in Europe) Day in 1945 celebrated victory of Allies over Germany in World War II.

The first Westminster Dog Show was held in New York City in 1877. As dog lovers, we enjoy watching this one on television. Sometimes, we can even pick the winners, though it's hard to figure out how the judges determine the "best of the best" among such beautiful dogs. I think this guy is an Akita.

May 7 Birthdays - Classical composers are featured today. Contemporaries Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) and Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) were both on May 7. Tchaikovsky said, "Truly there would be reason to go mad were it not for music." NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas (1933-2002) was also born on May 7. Not as physically imposing as many current QBs, Unitas won with his arm and head.

May 7 in History - In 1945, Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies at Rhiems, France, ending World War II in Europe.

In 1915, a German sub sank the British ocean liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, an event that increased American sentiment to support Great Britain in World War I, although that support wouldn't include troops until two years later.

May 6 Birthdays: Two contemporary and well-known figures get birthday greetings today. May 6, 1953 was the birthday of Great Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, a popular but more recently controversial leader of that country for his steadfast support of the Iraq War. Like me, many Americans may have a stronger image of Blair from the recent portrayal by Michael Sheen in the Academy Award-nominated film "The Queen".

Speaking of actors, actor, director, producer and one-time "Sexiest Man Alive" George Clooney was born on May 6, 1961, and celebrates his 46th birthday today. Clooney came to prominence on the TV medical drama "E.R." back in the '90s, but has gone on to become one of Hollywood's most bankable stars. My favorite role of his is as Ulysses Everett McGill, the conman leader of three escaped convicts in the Coen brothers' hilarious film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou". I've struggled with Clooney's directorial efforts, "Syriana" (where he also played an overweight CIA agent), "Three Kings" and "Good Night and Good Luck" (about Edward R. Murrow).
Also born on May 6 were father of psychology Sigmund Freud, legendary filmmaker and actor Orson Welles, baseball superstar Willie Mays, '70s rock-and-roller Bob Seger. Willie played his best years before my time and in the National League (I was an AL fan) so I can't make the call first hand, but he's still recognized as probably the best all-around baseball player ever (excluding Babe Ruth's prowess at both pitching and hitting). Seger's "Hollywood Nights", about the life of a midwestern boy in LA, is still one of my all-time favorites.

May 6 in History: "Oh the humanity!" cried radio reporter Herb Morrison on May 6, 1937 as the German zeppelin Hindenburg went down in flames in Lakehurst, NJ. Thirty-six people were killed. Many causes of the crash have been postulated and explored, but a definitive answer has not been found.

May 5 in History: We went to a breakfast joint in Baton Rouge this morning and found the wait staff wearing sombreros in honor of "Cinco de Mayo", a popular celebration of Hispanic culture in the U.S. based on a relatively minor event in Mexican history. On May 5, 1862, the Mexican army defended the town of Puebla against the French army (and some traitorious Mexicans in a huge upset it seems), which under French Emperor Napoleon III was trying to reestablish a French presence in North America. The date became a Mexican national holiday that morphed into the unofficial holiday of Cinco de Mayo in the U.S. The defense of Puebla was short-lived as French reinforcements captured Puebla in March 1863. French influence in Mexico lasted just a few years more, until 1867 when Napoleon III abandoned the effort and withdrew French troops.

May 5, 2007 at Home - in an event with no connection to Cinco de Mayo, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama came to town to speak to the Black Mayors' Conference. My wife saw the notice in the paper so we headed to Southern University (via Frank's "Cinco de Mayo" restaurant) to hear what the man had to say. Obama is a very polished and dynamic speaker with a great bass voice. To a primarily African-American and very supportive audience he stressed his themes of education, housing and economic opportunity, particularly for those at the low end of the economic ladder. He wrapped his policy ideas in the metaphor of a baby born during the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, who in utero had been shot in the arm. When the gunshot wound was detected, the mother quickly got to a hospital, where the baby was delivered and repaired--the bullet removed. Obama likened many current problems to "leaving the bullet in" and pledged to "remove the bullet" if given the chance. The biggest ovations, however, came when Obama reiterated his strong opposition to the Iraq War, and described his commitment to ending it from his current place in the U.S. Senate. Though I wish the war would end, I'm concerned about Obama's pledge to send "bill after bill after bill after bill" to the President to force the issue. He also talked about needing only "16 Republican Senators" to join Democrats and override a presidential veto. That seems like a very tall order as long as there is any perceived chance of a "positive" outcome in Iraq, discounting the "catastrophe" scenarios that the administration will broadcast to counter each and every attempt to bring the war to an end. I have a long-range picture from the event that I'll post later, but for now I'll just include a Google-derived picture of Obama.

May 5 birthdays span from the Communist to the absurd. Karl Marx (1818-93) authored "The Communist Manifesto", a call for an economic system based on the power of labor rather than capital. Marx's ideas were most notoriously put into practice by Lenin in the creation of the Soviet Union, and by Mao Dezong in the revolution that resulted in the People's Republic of China. Today's world finds very few Marxist states - Cuba, China, North Korea, Laos and Vietnam, although China has instituted many capitalism market reforms and North Korea purports to follow the ideology of Juche rather than Marxism-Leninism.

Michael Palin (1943 - ) represents the absurd on May 5. Palin is one of the members of the Monty Python comedy troup, whose absurdist television show of the late '60s and early '70s is still popular today. For me, many of Palin's most memorable roles come from the world of commerce. Most famously he played a pet shop owner trying to rationalize the lack of movement shown by the dead Norwegian blue parrot ("beautiful plumage") he'd just sold to John Cleese ("it's all tired and shagged out after a long squawk"), and again with Cleese, a cheese shop owner without any cheese, though Cleese has the better lines in this sketch ("No Cheddar??? Why it's the world's most popular cheese!") as Palin basically responds with some form of "no" when asked whether he has particular varieties of cheese. Palin is also a scream as a Spanish inquisitioner who subjects his victims to the tortures of the "comfy chair" and the "soft pillows," and he may have been the host of a quiz show (though I think it was Eric Idle) that pitted Karl Marx against Mao Tse Tung (as he was known at that time). This was a great skit, in which Mao knew that Jerry Lee Lewis's biggest hit was "Great Balls of Fire", but poor Marx couldn't name the winner of the 1951 F.A. Cup. Even if the host wasn't Palin, the skit still makes a nice link between these two men born on May 5, the Communist and the Absurdist. Today, Palin appears to be more active as a travel documentarian than as an actor and humorist.

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