Sunday, August 29, 2010

Katrina, five years later

Yesterday marked the five-year anniversary of the nation's worst natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina left 1800 dead in its wake and tens of thousands of people homeless. It decimated not just New Orleans, one America's most unique and inspirational cities, but hundreds of miles of the Gulf Coast region.

But perhaps its most pervasive, enduring damage was to the nation's psyche. It gave us all the feeling that government is powerless to help citizens who need help the most -- or worse, that it willfully neglected to do what was necessary to protect its people. That feeling will linger much longer than it will take to rebuild New Orleans' residences and reconstruct its battered levees.

Many of the nation's newspapers ran front page articles yesterday recalling the catastrophe and its enduring aftermath. Few of us needed to be reminded of the terrible events of that day. We still carry vivid images of the hurricane's terrible landing: the whiplash rain pelting the streets of the city like bullets; huge oaks upended by 70 mile per hour gusts along St. Charles Avenue and downtown palm trees on Canal Street bent double; the roofs of buildings torn off; cars and boats piled up like so much flotsam.

And then, in the tortorous, apocalyptic days that followed, who could ever forget the crowds of impoverished people, with no means of escape, crammed into the windblown Superdome, clutching their worldly possessions and clinging to loved ones, begging for relief; stranded survivors standing on the rooftops of their flooded homes, waving white flags to National Guard helicopters, desperate to escape the oppressive heat and their hunger.

And finally, as the full recognition of the tragedy finally struck home, we witnessed dozens of embarrassing images of drowned bodies, floating face-down in flooded, stagnant streets, dispossessed of life but lying out of reach of anyone who could give their carcass a decent burial.
Katrina still hurts us emotionally. It it made America look like a Third World nation. Elected officials in Washington, D.C. and Baton Rouge, La. had known for decades the levee walls would be breached some day. None of them took steps to prevent it from happening. When the bill finally came due, none of them took blame either.

New Orleans is one of the most remarkable cities in the world: the birthplace of jazz, a place of rich and varied architectural styles and exquisit cuisine. It was left in harm's way.

As the Sunday front page stories attested yesterday, New Orleans is gradually recovering from the hurricane, primarily because the people who lived there before the hurricane love it so much. The place is too special to abandon.

We must never forget the lessons of Katrina. The forging of our national character demands that much.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

desert island air guitar contest

I posited this question to some music friends of mine today.... our responses throughout the day have provided some amusing points and counterpoints..... read them below!

My original question: You are landing on a Pacific Island next week. You have room in your luggage for just ten CDs. You are bringing nine classics..... one Dylan, Revolver or Rubber Soul by the Beatles, a Stones CD, one by the Who, one by Van Morrison, etc. But you after you arrive, you are participating in an air guitar contest and at least ONE of the ten desert island discs you are bringing MUST be an album by a hair band act that was big between 1972 and 1987.

You will be lip-syncing the entire album and playing along on your air guitar. Which CD makes the trip?I posed this question to a friend last night at the Phillies game and we both thought it was a fun contest idea.

My initial response was "Tres Hombres" by ZZ top, but we both concluded that ZZ Top was too "raw" and bluesy to really jive with the context of the question. Here are some of the responses I received today from several of my Geekier music loving friends.

Bill H: "Highway to Hell, AC/DC."

Chuck: " Nice answer and hard to top. I prefer Back in Black myself if I am bringing Angus, but I could live with that one. Mine was Boston's first."

Bill H.: "Love Back in Black, but too monochromatic. Highway's actually a great pop album. Great tight production, almost every song has a great chorus and Bon a better singer. "

Bill H.: "My coworker Ruthie is breaking the 1985 rule and going with Metallica's 'Metallica'."

Dominic U.: "I'd like to side with Ruthie in regard to breaking the 1985 rule, if only to bend the statute by a hair -- I choose Metallica's 'Master of Puppets'. Haven't heard it in years, but I'm sure that's the one. That is, because I'm assuming you guys wouldn't allow the Suicidal Tendencies debut. Even though one of those dudes definitely had long metal hair at the time."

Chuck: " My own personal opinion is that Metallica is 'too political' to qualify as a hair band. I thought my band would be Boston. Boston's first really is an infectious piece of ear candy and a staple of the stadium rock crowd. But one of my other friends told me Boston didn't 'qualify' either because Boston wasn't really a band. He called it a 'non-band' and I have to admit it probably didn't play too many gigs."

Bill H.: "The first Boston album is still pretty great....a guy who used to work here would take the day off on those rare times when a Boston album would come out and spend the day driving around listening to it in his Camero."

Chuck: "Sounds like we found one of our air guitar contest judges on our fantasy island!!"

Bill H. "Yeah, he would have been a perfect extra in Dazed and Confused."

Dominic U. : "Between the two of you jokers, these remarks probably rank among the most satisfying I've read this week. I might share the goddamned Camaro email with a colleague, in fact. I love 'Dazed and Confused'. There's a party at the moon tower tonight."

Bill H: "this was the same dude who used to tell me he couldn't be at work until 1 pm because he was up late watching tv every night because it was part of his job ...and i saw him step out of a skanky strip joint in weehawken and run across the street in front of my bus."

Chuck: " Picked up a Bad Company 2-disc Anthology the other day guys. They may be too close to the classic rock genre to qualify as a hair band. I don't especially thrill to the 'bad boy' postering, but I am a sucker for the way Paul Rodgers sings. Are you fans?"

Bill H.: "I like a lot of their songs, but I would say they qualify as the musical center of all rock music. they distilled everything that came before and came up with perfectly average ROCK music. If you had to boil FM radio rock down into one band and rub off all the rough edges it would be Bad Company. The beer beer of music."

And they say no work gets done while employees are using the internet! Sheesh. What cynics!

Monday, August 16, 2010

the charms of Cape May

At the risk of sounding snobbish, I wanted to make some remarks about my favorite shore point, Cape May, New Jersey.

It's one of the most remarkable beach resorts on the East Coast. If you've been there, you probably already know how special it is. If you've never been, you owe it to yourself to discover its many charms. There is no place like it on the Jersey Shore. It's a pleasant anomaly of a place, especially when you consider how celebrated the Snookies and The Situations of the Jersey Shore have become this summer.

I spent this past week vacationing at Cape May and enjoying its Victorian ambiance. My blog today contains five pictures I took of homes within a two or three block area of the center of town. The remarkable thing about these pictures is that you could take a camera just about anywhere in Cape May and find places as interesting and charming as these at every turn.
Cape May homes are exquisitely cared for. They represent a fantasy palette for homeowners to interpret or reinterpret the Sherman Williams color wheel. No color is too outlandish or too garish to be part of the grand scheme of this wonder world of color. It's not like "stepping back into time" it's more like stepping into a dreamworld of aesthetically pleasing paintings and street murals. Everywhere you look is a new detail: an avacodo colored railing that matches the window shutters or a peach-colored lamppost that compliments the wooden slats on a front porch.
Cape May calls to the quiet in you. It is a place of reflection and beauty. Not surprisingly, you saw as many gray-heads as towheaded youngsters, as many grandparents as children.
It is a place of stately bed-and-breakfasts; courtly hotels and fine restaurants.
For a diversion, and for the sake of comparison, I took a 20-minute drive up the coast to Wildwood, to check out the boardwalk and to see what the rest of the Jersey Shore has to offer. The comparison was amusing but a shock to the senses. Getting to the ocean in Wildwood required a half mile hike across burning hot sand. The attraction of Wildwood was not the beach at all, but the boardwalk. A bevvy of tawdry t-shirt and beach shops, pizza parlors and hoagie stands and thrill rides or faux horror shows lined either side of the boardwalk. It was a place crowded with teenagers and 20-something Snookie wanna-be's.
Wildwood is was a place of "fun" and "action," I'll give it that. It's a town of lowslung, paint-peeled, motels build of cinderblock. Two hours there felt as if I had landed in purgatory for the sin of being crass enough to visit it.
I know, I know. Different strokes for different folks. So be it.
Give me Cape May anytime.

Friday, August 6, 2010

65 years ago, Pandora's box opened

Today marks the 65th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. President Truman's decision to use a weapon of mass destruction will forever be debated -- for good reason.

Although it ended the war before an invasion of mainland Japan was necessary, and doubtless prevented thousands of American casualties, the use of nuclear weapons on civilians to end the war must forever be challenged rigorously by ordinary people, who have the most at stake in this ethical debate.

Most Americans -- and many historians -- feel the use of excessive force to end the war was justified because of Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. Nearly 3,000 American lives were lost on that "day of infamy" and their sacrifice to the nation should always be honored and remembered. Americans were no longer isolationists after Pearl Harbor. It drew us all, willingly, into the war.

Nevertheless, it is hard to justify Truman's decision from the perspective of hindsight (Truman did not have the luxury of this perspective; he justified his decision as a way to bring the troops home). It is also hard to justify the decision from a moral perspective. As heinous as the attack on Pearl Harbor was, the Japanese targeted a military naval base. The victims of the attack were military personnel.

The Truman administration claimed on the day the first atomic bomb was used that Hiroshima was a military target. There was a small base with 30,000 Japanese soldiers there. But the city contained more than 300,000 civilians, so 90 percent of its total population were non-combatants. They were people like us. Yes, they had an emotional stake in whether Japan won or lost the war, but they were not actively threatening the United States. They were residents of a foreign city at war with America. They had reason to expect they would be safe from the fighting.

Other political leaders during World War II had already crossed the moral threshold of bombing cities and, therefore, civilians. Churchhill and Hitler were using incendiary cluster bombs on cities years before Hiroshima was destroyed. But those smaller bombs, designed to cause fires, could be aimed at specific military targets. They weren't always accurate -- there was nearly always the accidental loss of civilian life, what came to be known as "collateral damage." But they did not indiscriminately kill tens of thousands of innocent women and children.

There were plenty of other options to end the second World War quickly. A diplomatic option would have allowed the Japanese to keep their emperor as a figurehead leader, in the same sense the British look to their queen as a symbolic leader of the nation. Or Truman might have waited for the Russians to start the land invasion. They were rushing across China to come to help finish the Japanese on the day the bomb was dropped.

Therein lies one of the most distressing aspect of this debate: that Truman's decision to use inappropriate nuclear force wasn't really designed to end the war at all. That his intention was to "send a message to the Soviets." Such a show of force, he hoped, would help establish the United States as the preeminent world power in the post-war years and give us the upper hand in future negotiations with the Russians.

This was a fatal miscalculation that has had horrendous ramifications for the world in the last 65 years. Because the United States used nuclear force to destroy two Japanese cities, the Soviets had no choice but to try to develop their own nuclear weapons as quickly as possible. They had lived through invasions on their homeland by the armies of Napoleon and Hitler. They vowed to do all they could to prevent being held subservient to another world power.

Pandora's Box was open. There would be no way to stop nuclear proliferation or the arms race from escalating.

All humankind has a stake in stopping the production of nuclear weapons. But Americans, especially, should take stock in this day because we have more than any other nation in the world and we continue to spend billions of tax dollars in the research and development of these heinous weapons that could end human existence on our planet if they were ever used.

More than 200,000 Japanese civilians died between August 6th and August 9th in 1945 by weapons that were developed and dropped by our country. America remains the only nation that has ever used nuclear weapons. We should all work to make sure they remain a part of history, not a part of our military defense strategy.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Music in Motion: Tonight in West Chester!

Tonight in West Chester University's Farrell Stadium, local residents will become reacquainted with one of the loudest, most raucous forms of musical athleticism America has to offer: drum corps.

If you have a youngster at home who may be interested in learning a band instrument, this is a quick, easy and highly entertaining way to introduce him to the best and the brightest young musicians who play brass and drums. Expect to be blown away. Drum corps is a combination of music, dance and athleticism: it's one of the most rigorous cardio-vascular workouts you will ever see. Watching them perform will change the way you feel about marching bands.

Tonight's drum corps gig in West Chester is a prelude to the Drum Corp International's Eastern finals, scheduled for tomorrow and Saturday evenings in J. Birney Crum Stadium in Allentown, Pa., where seedings for the finals next weekend in Indianapolis will take place. It's a good time to see some of the top drum corps in the nation because they are close to peak performance and seeing a world class drum corps performing at peak performance inspires awe.

The schedule will include Carolina Crown, the Cadets and the Phantom Regiment, winners of the DCI finals two years ago. Missing from the program tonight will be the current leader in the DCI standings, the Blue Devils. Likewise, my own favorite corps, the Bluecoats, will not be performing.
My two oldest children were both in the Bluecoats. Five years ago, when my former colleague, John Kelly, was searching for a suitable subject to get into the documentary film-making business, I suggested to him we go to see the Music In Motion show during the first week in August. It was a quintessential American story, and the subject had never been succcessfully explored in a documentary film. He wanted to know what made it so special; why anyone would care about a movie about marching bands.
Come with me, I told him. YOU decide if it's a film or not. Each corp features 135 members, half of them playing loud brass instruments, the other half playing percussive instruments or running pell mell over the football field accentuating the music with an assortment of props: including spinning flags and rifles. It's got three integral parts: one part orchestral band music, one part broadway show, one part athletic sprint. All three parts are combined in a 10 to 11- minute performance that is visually engrossing.
Beyond that, I told him, the culture of drum corps was an untold story. The performers range in age from 16 to 21, they are in the prime of life. Their commitment to the corps is something that lasts long beyond the end of the season, usually it's a lifetime connection they make.
They begin planning and practicing their show in December in monthly, week-end long meetings. Once colleges let out in mid-May, they meet daily and live with one another, honing and perfecting their show. They pay for the privilege of being in the corps, because they are eating three square meals a day and because they are traveling all across the country in buses.
When a drum corps decamps, it always is staying at a local high school. Corps members sleep in sleeping bags on the gymnasium floor and use the high school's lockeroom and shower facilities. Their daily regimen usually includes 6 to 8 hours of practice, then a performance, then a long bus drive to the site of their next performance. Then a repetition of the previous day's events. Over and over and over, all summer long. They are lean and tanned come mid-summer. By August, they are bronzed gods and goddesses.
After that one show, John Kelly was convinced the subject would make for a good film. He plunked down a significant amount of his retirement savings betting others would think so too. The film was released in 2008, just a few months before he passed away. It's called "Throw It Down"; it follows the Bluecoats during their 2006 season. You could see a trailer for the film and visit it's website by clicking onto this link:
If you go, go early and try to find a drum or horn line that is practicing near Farrell Stadium. Because the starting times are staggered, the corps who will be performing will be scattered all around the stadium. Getting up close and personal is a great way to feel the power of their horn playing or their drumming.
It's an experience you have to experience to really understand it. Your 11 year old will think it's about the coolest thing in the world.
He may be right.

Monday, August 2, 2010

local columnist reaches national audience

West Chester University's Larry Davidson, a professor of history who specializes in Middle East issues, has taken on a new role this summer: one that is earning him a national reputation as a political pundit.

Since early June, Davidson has published six columns for the Reader Supported News, one of the internet's most highly regarded independent new services, an off-shoot of His columns provide the sort of thoughtful political analysis that has been missing from the nation's newspapers for the past 10 years. His writing voice is acerbic and provocative; his columns are thoroughly researched, highly readable and based on a historical perspective that makes them hard to refute. In just two months time, his columns for RSN have become a must read for politically progressive thinkers.

One published today is about a 29-year U.S. citizen named Ray Knaeble who has been working for ITT Systems, Inc. in Kuwait since 2006. Knaeble was put on the nation's "no fly list" because he recently converted to Islam and has started a blog to try to convince Americans that Islam is misunderstood by Americans and misrepresented in the American press. Knaeble's central premise is that -- like all of the world's primary religions -- Islam preaches peace. (Read it here:

Of particular interest to me as a professor of journalism is Davidson's perspective on mass media in America and his assertion that media has abandoned its traditional role as a watchdog of politically powerful elites -- especially multi-national corporations and the people who run them.

In a column published on July 25 ("Free Speech Takes a Hit") Davidson writes about the Supreme Court's decision to uphold a federal law that "defined any interaction with members of groups designated as 'terroist' by the United States government as 'material support' for criminal activies. Punishment can include a prison sentence of 15 years." The case was about an organizxation called the Humanitarian Law Project, had been teaching members of a Turkish group to have their grievances heard through accepted United Nations channels. Read his column here:

Davidson writes: "For the present, the First Amendment is an emasculated facade behind which the government operates to severely limit what the Amendment is designed to protect....this emasculation has been going on for almost a decade and the Court has now confirmed the 'legality' of the process. This part of the Patriot Act has already been used to harass and destroy a number of benign Muslim charities, nonviolent supporters of Palestian rights and even the American lawyers of individuals charged with terrorism.

"One of the important factors that makes possible this history of assaults on free speech is that most U.S. citizens do not care that they occur, or welcome them. This accounts for the remarkably sparse media coverage of the Court's decision and the almost total lack of public concern... For the majority within a democracy, the legal right guaranteeing freedom of speech is only an abstraction. On a daily basis most citizens are not conscious of either the existence of or the need for such a right...the speech of such a majority is by definition normative speech, and as such is not felt to be in need of protection."

On July 10th, in a column entitled "The Right-Wing Thought Police" Davidson asserts that the nation's right wing is "achieving its long-standing goal of becoming America's thought police". Conservative outbursts threaten the careers of American journalists who contradict any part of theiconversative political agenda. How do they get away with propagating such slander?

Davidson explains.

1) Americans are apolitical, they don't care about left or right politics because it doesn't seem to have much to do with their local lives.

2) This audience does not live in an apolitical media enviornment. "There are no 'objective media' much less a 'liberal' one," he writes. Media outlets are two kinds: "a) overtly conservative because they are owned by right-wing ideologues who are interested in inserting their ultra-conserative worldview into the heads of their audience (the Murdoch/Fox news bunch) or b) they are 'politically neutral' media operations (often owned by bigger businesses liek Westinghouse and Disney) whose foremost interest is making a profit (CNN and its ilk)."

3) Since the end of World War II, leftist ideas have become "demonized almost out of existence and since 9/11 the 'commies' have been transformed into Muslims. These simplistic stereotypes set the parameters for correct and patriotic thinking...and they are delivered to you at different levels of intensity by both the conservative and 'neutral' media systems. No matter how apolitical one might be in one's daily local life, these notions are in the media air. You take them in almost by osmosis. They mess with your mind without you realizing it." Read the entire column here:

Anyone who is interested in getting a dose of reality, written with clarity, wisdom and panache, should be on the lookout for Lawrence Davidson's column.