30 January 2014

A Few of My Favorite Things: N is for News

I’m a news junkie.  I cruise multiple websites often looking for what’s going on in the world.  I almost never watch TV news, and these days almost never read a newspaper, although I still like them, especially when I’m traveling.  But the local paper is a Gannett clone and not worth the time or expense, and the web just makes it too easy to gather information without wasting trees.  I scan a variety of news sources from a variety of viewpoints.  My usual sources include CNN, FoxNews, The Oregonian, The Wall Street Journal, and for a bit more of an international perspective, Reuters.  My sports fix is usually Sports Illustrated, especially Peter King and Don Banks for NFL coverage. 

But my favorite source is The Week magazine.  Published, as the name implies, weekly, The Week reports a striking variety of articles on business, politics, economics, entertainment, and life interest stories.  Its format is simple: Take an issue; briefly explain it; give multiple (usually) opposing viewpoints; let readers make up their own minds whose arguments they find compelling.  While I (not surprisingly) usually side with more conservative commentators, I like hearing what the “other side” has to say, if only to confirm that I disagree with them.  But occasionally I’m confronted with a compelling argument from a liberal viewpoint, like gay marriage.  Or I’m struck by the weakness of a conservative argument, like direct reductions in food stamp benefits to needy families.  In either case, I believe it is healthy and desirable to know what people are saying, particularly those who disagree with you, and to be able to defend or amend your own arguments when confronted with well-reasoned discussions.  The Week doesn’t always present those; sometimes the commentators quoted are partisan hacks; but they’re always informative and entertaining.  And their website is mostly available to non-subscribers.  I highly recommend it to anyone who doesn’t like their news too sanitized.  The death of civil discourse in this country is tragic, and sources like The Week are a step toward stemming the tide of partisan rancor and arrogant ignorance.

What’s your favorite news source?

“The greatest argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” – Winston Churchill 

19 January 2014

A Few of My Favorite Things: M is for Memphis

I have sort of a love-hate relationship with Memphis.  I was born in Helena, Arkansas but moved to Memphis at a very young age, so although I prefer to tell people I’m from “West Tennessee,” I always have to say “around Memphis” for them to know where I’m talking about.  My favorite town is Arlington, the little eastern suburb I lived in before moving to Oregon in 2007, but I spent most of my life in Memphis. Although I love the life I’ve built here in the Pacific Northwest, and would never consider moving back, the Mid-South will always be “home.”

Memphis is a study in contradictions.  It’s the home of two of the largest, most respected children’s hospitals in the world: Le BonheurChildren's Hospital, and St.Jude Children’s Research Hospital.  It’s largest university, and my alma mater, The University of Memphis, is a perennial basketball powerhouse, and a perennial football dog house.  It’s a political nightmare, having the distinction of electing a city councilman; having him go to prison for taking bribes; getting out and being re-elected; and being convicted of taking bribes AGAIN! 

The music scene is legendary, most notably blues.  Musical legends getting their start in Memphis include  Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, B.B. King, and, of course, Elvis.  Beale Street is one of the most popular destinations in town, but music isn’t the only draw.  The Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is one of the largest and most prestigious events in the world of ‘Q.  I often discourse on barbecue styles with Yankees and other foreigners I encounter out here.  Carolina, Kansas City, and Texas all claim rich barbecue heritages, and their distinctive styles all have their merits.  Other than being the wrong animal over the wrong wood at the wrong temperature with the wrong sauce, they’re fine.

Memphis is situated on a natural bluff above the east bank of the Mississippi River, hence its nickname; “The Bluff City.”  Its first notable inhabitants were of the Mississippian Culture in the late first millennia AD, followed by the Chickasaw tribe.  Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto passed through the area in the mid-16th century.  Its flood-proof location made it an early transportation hub, and the convergence of Interstates 40, 55, and (eventually) 69, as well as the world-wide headquarters of FedEx, keep that distinction alive today.  Until it was overtaken by Hong Kong International Airport in 2010, Memphis International Airport was the busiest cargo airport in the world.

Memphis was founded in 1819 by John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson.  Its transportation advantages made it a cotton mecca and a strategic asset to both North and South during the Civil War.  At the time, the Memphis and Charleston Railroad was the only east-west rail connection in the newly-formed Confederacy.  Memphis fell to Union gunboats in June 1862 and remained in Federal hands despite numerous raids by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.  A series of yellow fever epidemics in the late 1870s cost the city 75% of its population and caused it to briefly lose its charter. 

An example of Memphis’ contrasts may be found in the fact that Travel + Leisure Magazine named Memphis one of its top ten "Dirtiest Cities," for widespread, visibly littered public spaces,[22]  while it made Forbes Magazine’s 2012 list of the top 15 cities in the United States with an emerging downtown area.

Memphis is in the buckle of the Bible Belt, and home to the international headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, the second largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States. Although predominantly “Christian,” virtually all faiths are well represented.  It is strategically located atop four fresh water aquifers, the largest of which is estimated to contain over 100 trillion gallons of soft, pure water.  The river delta soils to the south in Mississippi and west in Arkansas and abundant water sources make it ideal cotton and rice growing areas, and those crops vastly dominate agriculture in the Mid-South.

Memphis history is darkened by a racially charged sanitation strike in February, 1968 and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of that same year.  Racial tensions continue to run high, with the predominantly black population of Memphis contrasting politically and economically with the predominantly white suburbs of greater Shelby County.  The gritty inner city neighborhoods, depicted pretty well in the movie “The Blind Side", contrast with Shelby Farms, the largest urban park in the United States after New York’s Central Park.

During the early heyday of professional wrestling, Memphis was one of the pioneer cities, with Monday nights at the Mid-South Coliseum hosting all the biggest names in the “sport” as they passed through taking on local legend Jerry “The King” Lawler for one iteration or another of the “World Championship.”  Lawler’s most widely publicized bout was likely against comedian Andy Kaufman in April, 1982, after which he famously slapped the comedian on the David Letterman Show.  The arena also hosted concerts by The Beatles, The Jacksons, Judas Priest, and, of course, Elvis, his last being in July 1976, a little over a year prior to his death.

One of these days, I want to get home again, but I’ll settle for a visit.  No way do I miss the heat and humidity that beset Memphis from March to October!

Where is “home” for you?

08 January 2014

A Few of My Favorite Things: L is for Legends

Some of my favorite literature is myth, folklore, and legend.  I thought I’d spend a few minutes exploring a few of my favorites.

When I was a kid and didn’t have much money (as opposed to now being an adult that doesn’t have much money), my favorite store was the used bookstore where I could buy and swap cheap paperbacks.  And one of the earliest books I remember reading (along with Alan Dean Foster’s series based on the characters from “Star Trek”) was “Limbo of the Lost” by John Wallace Spencer.  Spencer’s ground-breaking book did much to popularize the notion of the “Bermuda Triangle,” but the myths and legends of the sea go back almost as far as recorded sea voyages.  One of the greatest stories is the  “Mary Celeste,” a brigantine found abandoned (outside the “Triangle,” however) but otherwise under sail and in sound, if unkempt, condition in the Atlantic Ocean in December 1872.  Although one lifeboat was missing, there was no sign of the crew of seven, she had ample supplies of food and water, and the crew’s belongings were left untouched, as though the crew had simply vanished.  No trace of the crew or explanation for their disappearance or inexplicable voluntary departure was ever found.  (Interestingly, the “Mary Celeste” was originally built as the “Amazon” in… Spencer’s Island, Nova Scotia.  Lots of Spencers in this blog, eh?)

Although it might be the most mysterious, the Mary Celeste is certainly not the only “ghost ship” in seagoing lore:

“The Caleuche" is said to roam the coastline of Chile.

 "The Flying Dutchman” is said to be a portent of doom to any sailor who spots her ghostly passage.

Flaming ships are popular, too, as the Young Teazer and the Eliza Battle are said to reappear in flames near the site of their fiery demises.

Another of my favorite subjects growing up was the land-based legend of Bigfoot.  My early reading days (the early-mid 1970s) would have been shortly after Roger Patterson’s famous “Bigfoot” film; a shaky, grainy bit of celluloid that depicts… well, let’s just say opinions differ as the what exactly it depicts, but the legend is firmly entrenched in myth and folklore.  “Sasquatch,” “Bigfoot” “Skunk Ape,” “Yeti,” “Abominable Snowman,” “Yowie” or whatever you want to call it, people have been reporting sightings of a tall, hairy bi-ped, usually omnivorous and nocturnal, sometimes violent, always reclusive.  Thousands of people in remote areas of the United States, mainly the Pacific Northwest, but also such places as Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, and Florida, report encounters with the creatures, or more commonly, inexplicably large footprints.  While many of the sightings are made by seemingly credible people, I consider a lack of remains a formidable deficit in the evidence department.

One of the most enduring Christian legends is the Holy Grail, supposedly the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, and later used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch and preserve the blood of Christ as he helped inter His body following the Crucifixion.  Joseph is said to have sent the cup with his followers to ancient Britain, where it became central to Arthurian folklore.  The tale was probably corrupted by the Celtic mythology of a cauldron endowed with magical abilities.  While space does not permit an exhaustive interpretation of the unlikelihood of the existence of the Grail, let alone any sort of mystical powers thereunto, I offer a few common sense reasons to entertain doubts:

1. It was a borrowed cup.  The “Last Supper” was held at the eating table of one of Jesus’ followers, since He Himself owned no property (no cups, either).  The cup He used was, in all likelihood, gathered up with the other dishes when the disciples left, probably by a servant or female household member, washed, and put away like all the other dishes.

2. Blood coagulates quickly after death.  Since Joseph presumably didn’t undertake (no pun intended) to bury Jesus until after He was dead, draining the blood would have been difficult for a layman, and rendered him ceremonially unclean.  Further, nothing in Jewish tradition would have offered any advantage or logic to collecting the blood of any deceased person.  Remember that this was prior to the Resurrection, and most of Jesus’ followers still didn’t understand His promise to return from the grave.

3. One of my favorite movies is “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”  The chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery is outstanding, and the script is excellent.  Two of the best lines in the franchise occur within the Grail Room.   One is when the Nazi officer chooses a very elaborate, ornate cup, and pays a dear price.  In a great understatement, the elderly knight states:

“He chose poorly.”

Making his own choice, Jones chooses a simple bit of pottery, likely still too fancy, but it’s Hollywood, not seminary, so, meh.  He wisely remarks:

“That’s the cup of a carpenter.”

4. There is within the heart of man a need for something bigger than himself.  Rejecting the idea of the true Creator, he will deify his world in a pantheistic attempt to fill this void, and he longs for something tangible to express the intangible.  God knows this, and it’s one of the reasons why second of the Ten Commandments forbids relics/idols, which inevitably become the focus of our worship.  Thus, while I find grail literature and other relic fictions like Stephen Lawhead’s “Iron Lance” and “Black Rood” entertaining, they are certainly not desirable, and I’m sure were not intended to be used, for biblical instruction.

What’s your favorite legend/myth?