Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Empress of the Blues

“No time to marry, no time to settle down; I’m a young woman, and I ain’t done runnin’ around.”  Bessie Smith

The HBO movie “Bessie” about Blues legend Bessie Smith, starring Queen Latifah, was well worth watching, no matter that critics found it somewhat flawed.  From beginning to end we meet a character who refused to take crap from anyone and slept with whom she pleased, man or woman.  As she proclaimed in a 1923 recording, “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.”  At a party hosted by Harlem nightclub frequenter Carl Van Vechten (Oliver Platt), poet Langston Hughes (Jeremie Harris) warns Bessie to clean up her act for the occasion.  Instead she sings provocatively and throws a drink in Van Vechten’s face when he makes a reference to his book “Nigger Heaven.”  The supporting cast was brilliant, especially Mo’Nique, who captured Ma Rainey so thoroughly one longed for her to be in every scene.  At one point she tells Bessie the secret of singing the Blues: “It’s not about people knowing you.  It’s about you knowing people.”  My only quibble was the lack of mention at the movie’s conclusion of Smith bleeding to death in 1937 at age 43 from an auto accident.  Afterwards, record producer John Hammond circulated a false rumor that a white hospital had refused to treat her injuries.  Understandably, the producers and Queen Latifah chose not to portray Bessie as a victim but rather a proud master of her craft.

Because of Joanna Rakoff’s “My Salinger Year” I checked out “Franny and Zooey.”  The scene at Sickle’s Restaurant when Franny visits boyfriend Lane (I’d forgotten his name – wow) for a college football weekend blew me away.  Salinger brilliantly captured Eisenhower-era chauvinists – worried about appearances, caught up in one’s own ego and sexual desires, and clueless about the opposite sex.  Chain-smoking and drinking martinis, Franny opens up to Lane about her disillusionment with academic life and interest in spiritualism, telling him with perfect logic, “in the Nembutsu sects of Buddhism, people keep saying’ Namu Amida Butsu over and over again.”  Rather than feign interest, Lane retorted, “You’ve got a goddam bug, today – you know that?”  In exasperation Franny stared “at a little warm blotch of sunshine, about the size of a poker chip, on the tablecloth.”  What is so devastating is that Lane isn’t an especially bad guy – just bewildered at his girlfriend’s mood and so oblivious he wouldn’t have recognized the symbolism of the little warm blotch of sunshine if it shined directly in his eye.  

Paula Cooper, 45, died in Indianapolis, evidently a suicide victim.  Convicted of killing 78 year-old Ruth Pelke at age 15, she was on death row until pressure from opponents of capital punishment, including Pope John Paul II and Pelke’s grandson, resulted in action by Hoosier lawmakers (raising from 10 to 18 the age when criminals could be executed) and the Indiana Supreme Court (reducing her sentence after receiving petitions signed by 2 million people).  My first reaction to the news after the initial shock was to feel for Bill Pelke, a friend of mine who told reporters he was devastated and had hoped Paula would work with his group, Journey of Hope . . . From Violence to Healing, and become an example for those overcoming being abused as children.  Professor Warren W. Lewis, who taught Cooper while she pursued a degree in prison, said: “I knew her well, and I loved her.  She was practically a child, and she shouldn’t have been treated like an adult.”  While in time Cooper coped well with prison life, she was unsuccessful coping with the outside world.
above, Bill Pelke in 1987; below, Toni, Dave, Jimbo, Omar and Ivan

Saturday at Chesterton’s European Market I met three of my closest friends from the 1970s, Ivan Jasper, Omar Farag, and Dave Serynek – former students and Porter Acres softball teammates.  At the condo for lunch, we shared memories of wild and crazy times and characters from the past who enriched our lives.  All three looked great.  Serynek participates in bicycle rallies; Ivan is a golf pro in Florida; and Omar just returned from trips to Brazil (for Carnival) and Hawaii.  While Ivan was outside smoking and chatting with Toni, who was gardening, Serynek explained to Omar how to sign up for Social Security - harsh reality indeed.

Sunday I hung out at Porter Beach and visited Miller Market, where I purchased a delicious taco and said “hey” to IUN professor Eve Bottando, who was with a vendor selling homemade soap.   Suppose you are invited to a party but weren’t told it was the host’s birthday, Eve casually confided, then added: “How fortunate if you happened to have a bar of homemade soap with you.”  I complimented her on the seamless sales pitch of thought of NWI Times Business Marketing columnist Larry Galler, who identified two contrasting sales techniques: the dreaded “limpet”  (in zoology a snail with teeth to attach onto surfaces) who won’t leave customers alone and the politely persistent helper who respects potential buyers and creates a relationship that keeps the door open for further communication.  In the end I didn’t buy any soap but might later. 

Monday we dined at Bartlett’s and then played bridge with Hagelbergs. They had just returned from an overnight trip (eight hours each way but they’re pluggers) to southwestern Pennsylvania to tour Fallingwater, the unique summer home Frank Lloyd Wright built in 1935 for department store mogul Edgar Kaufman. Alissa was at Newark International Airport awaiting a flight to Dublin to join sister Miranda, who had been in Ireland with other Grand Valley State Social Work students on the historic day when by referendum over 62 percent of voters supported legalization of same sex marriage.  Son Phil and grandson James reported on their separate trips to Washington, D.C. 
above, Miranda Lane in Ireland; below, Phil Lane in D.C.

On Charles Osgood’s CBS Sunday Morning Laura Palmer, author of “Shrapnel in the Heart: Letters and Remembrances from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” discussed the often overlooked support able-bodied vets give their less fortunate brothers.  News coverage of Memorial Day ranged from parades in Crown Point and Portage to interviews with Battle of the Bulge survivors.  And this oddity: ancestors of a seaman aboard the USS Oklahoma killed at Pearl Harbor and buried with his comrades at Punchbowl crater in Honolulu who want his remains returned.

I’m not a true Hoosier because I missed “The Race,” the Indy 500, won by Juan Pablo Montoya.  Bowling buddies Melvin Nelson and Jim Migoski used to attend time trials every year, and Kirsten Bayer has continued the tradition with friends.  Tony Panepinto, on Phil and Dave’s Little League team 30 years ago, posed with good-looking women on each arm.

Wishing me a Happy Memorial Day, old friend Terry Jenkins passed along this joke:
  I was visiting my daughter last night when I asked if I could borrow a newspaper.
  “This is the 21st century,” she said.  “We don’t waste money on newspapers.  Here, use my iPad.”
  I can tell you this . . . that fly never knew what hit him!”

I managed to stay awake for two more unique overtime games in the epic series between the Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks.  On Saturday Chicago led 3-1 before yielding three goals within the blink of an eye, before finally prevailing.  Monday they fell behind 3-0 before getting a single shot on net but two unbelievable Jonathan Toews goals in the final minute tied the game.  Then just 45 seconds into the extra period a miscue by Bryan Bickell cost them the game.

According to his student journal, Jeff Griggs is a huge Blackhawk fan and attended two games within a month. He wrote about spending a night in Chicago’s W Lakeshore Hotel with girlfriend Meagan (below):
  February 19: We left about 2:30 and took 80/94 to Lakeshore Drive, making the trip in less than 90 minutes.  At the hotel the staff greeted us like famous people rather than just a 21 year-old taking his girlfriend on a little vacation.  We took pictures of our room and the scenery from the window of Lake Michigan and Navy Pier.  It was like something out of a movie.  We put our stuff in proper places and before getting ready for dinner, we had to break in the room.  We went to the Cheesecake Factory, whose ceiling looked like it was made of a gold chocolate about to drip on us.  We stared at each other like it was our first date, and I fell even more in love with her.  We had an amazing meal that left no room for dessert but couldn’t leave without cheesecake so we ordered two pieces to go.  I had never gotten a check for two people so steep, but it was worth it.  Back at the hotel we relaxed and broke in the room some more.
  February 20: Our bed was the most comfortable thing ever.  I called for my car, and we were off to the Blackhawks Store. and then the Auto Show.  At our first stop was interactive software that allowed you to take a picture with your favorite Blackhawk.  I took like four, and Meagan bought a hoody.  At the Chicago Auto Show we couldn’t use her dad’s discount for parking so paid the full price and then grabbed some pricy food. In the exotic cars section I spotted my dream car, a Lamborghini Aventador.  Meagan got to sit in a Chevy Cruze.  We arrived home in time for my brother Alex’s birthday party.  We had gotten him a Marian Hossa shirt plus a hat I received at a recent Blackhawks game to the first ten thousand fans.
above, Albert Shane; below, Robert Parker

When overwhelmed by work, school, and life in general, Albert Shane tells himself to POR – push on regardless – a phrase learned from his mentor, Portage History teacher Robert Parker, as he explains in his journal:
March 1: My brother started Purdue Calumet intramural basketball with his fellow golf team buddies.  A notorious trash talker, he bragged that he’d rain threes and score 30 points. Needless to say, he struggled throughout and was held scoreless.  
March 5:  One of my closest friends is moving away.  We took one more trip to Taco Bell, as has become a tradition.  I am going to sorely miss my friend.
March 8: Game day once again for the “golf boys” at PUC.  After the first week, you would think my brother would be less cocky, but you would be wrong.  He would not stop jabbering about how well he was going to play, and that the last game was a fluke because he was nervous, and the opponents had better players. The team ended up losing by slaughter rule once again after falling 40 points behind. The opposition, mostly from East Chicago, looked like an NBA team compared to these guys.  Most were.  One guy ven played in high school; most all the others were on soccer teams. 
March 16: Spring Break has been a major disappointment.  The original plan was to go to Panama City Beach with four friends, but they all pulled out, so my Spring Break has consisted of studying and working.  A second cyst has formed on my wrist, causing serious pain to the point where I made a doctor’s appointment. 
March 26: I received new assignments in every single class.  This put a serious damper on my nightly plans.  I have to POR, however (an acronym of Portage teacher Robert Parker); it means push on regardless, as he used to say.  He is a big reason I am a History major.  He was very outspoken and never forgot a single name; he could pick you out of a crowd and call you by name.  Sadly, from what I heard, this is his final year. My dad and uncles had him, and my brother and I had him for an Advance Placement course.
April 2:  My baby cousin Bradley saw the Easter Bunny at Bass Pro Shop. The line was insane, almost circling the entire store.  It took nearly an hour and a half to get a couple pictures with a guy in a Bunny suit that I could have put on like the past two years.  The most work was keeping an eight month-old crying baby entertained. We pushed on regardless and ate at the Bass Pro Shop restaurant.

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