Charles Woodson: A Poster Boy for Packer Ageism? — Part 2

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Raiders strong safety and NFL Hall of Fame shoo-in Charles Woodson (top) shows his athletic prowess with a pick of Chargers QB Philip Rivers last season, after the Packers determined he was over the hill for their youth-oriented roster. Courtesy news great.org
Woodson, with Tracy Porter (above, in 2014), remains a vocal and action-oriented team leader. Courtesy gallery hip.com

Noting that a posting from last November about football great Charles Woodson is among my most frequently viewed posts lately, I decided to update the piece, for your consideration, in honor of Woodson, one of my four favorite Packers ever.1 My revised post starts with a story about the Packer-Bears game this Thanksgiving.

“We won this game early in the week in practice … with our preparation,” (Bears cornerback Tracy) Porter (above, with 2014 Raiders teammate Charles Woodson) said.

“This one came down to the final minute even after Porter’s interception. The Packers gained possession at their 20 with 2 minutes, 45 seconds remaining and drove to the Bears 8 with 51 seconds left. They called for four straight passes, and four straight times the defense held.

Porter put a gold star on his night on third-and-goal by slapping down a lob to James Jonesin the end zone. On fourth down, Rodgers rolled right to extend the play. He fired for Davante Adams, but rookie Bryce Callahan contested the throw, which sailed through the back of the end zone.” http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/football/bears/ct-tracy-porter-interception-aaron-rodgers-spt-1127-20151126-story.html

That was Chicago Tribune reporter Rich Campbell’s description of perhaps the most sickening and ignominious second half of any Packer game this season — letting a lead slip away away before half time, then pissing the game away, on Thanksgiving Day. Bear fans everywhere gleefully stuck a fork in the dead Packer turkey’s rump.

I raise this unpleasant but perhaps instructive memory, because Woodson mentored Porter last season when they were teammates in Oakland. That includes instilling the young cornerback with his deeply savvy knowledge of the Packer offense. “Preparation” was the key to the Bears win, Porter said. He seemed to toy with the Packers, including Rogers, and was, in effect, Charles Woodson in a different guise.

Woodson is possibly the most gifted player to ever roam the Packers secondary, which is saying plenty if you think back to Darren Sharper, Leroy Butler, Willie Buchanon, Willie Wood, Herb Adderley and Emlen Tunnell, who played with the Packers late in his storied career. Not to mention Don Hutson, who played defensive back as a two-way player, but who’s an NFL legend as a dominating wide-receiver who opened the door to the NFL realizing the potential of a wide-open passing game.

Tunnell was a comparably great player to Woodson, I think, but he played most of his career with the Giants, and his last three with Green Bay. He ended his career with a NFL record 79 interceptions (since surpassed by Paul Krause), which he returned for 1,282 yards and 4 touchdowns, and 16 fumble recoveries, along with another 3,506 return yards and 6 touchdowns on special teams.[3]He was elected as the first African American in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.[3]

Woodson’s stats stand as an interesting comparison, which I won’t get into deeply here. But Woodson is sixth all-time with 65 career interceptions and 11 “pick sixes,” which is second all time. And he’s tied with Darren Sharper and Ron Woodson for most career defensive touchdowns, at 13. He has 139 passes defensed, and 20 quarterback sacks, along with 800 career solo tackles and 996 combined tackles.

Maybe one of the last NFL two-way players ever, Woodson started on both sides of the scrimmage at Michigan where he won a rare Heisman Trophy by a defensive player, and led the Wolverines to a national championship in 1997. And remarkably, Woodson also has 253 receptions as an offensive receiver in the NFL.

He was named AP Defensive Player in the Year with the Packers in 1997, and was absolutely crucial to the Packers winning the Super Bowl in 2010. But the longtime shutdown corner back lost a step as all players do over time, and was evolving into a mastermind and skilled safety.

And this is the supreme athlete that Packer GM Ted Thompson decided to toss in the old-man heap, from which Woodson’s first team, the Raiders, gladly snatched him up. In his third season back with Raiders this year, at age 39, he led the NFL in the early part of this season with five interceptions, better than any of the Packers current defensive backs have done all season. Check out the “old man” on this wide-ranging interception with the Raiders: http://www.nfl.com/videos/next-gen-stats/0ap3000000541140/Next-Gen-Stats-Charles-Woodson-s-interception

Had he stayed in Green Bay, he would’ve played safety better than anyone the Packers have installed at that position since he left. A sometimes uncanny playmaker, Woodson forced three fumbles in his first season back with the Raiders.

Even playing with a bad shoulder against the Packers last week, he had a forced fumble and made a terrific tackle behind the line of scrimmage, which unfortunately re-injured his shoulder. Yet he was back in the game shortly afterwards. His skill set and knowledge of the Packer offense allowed the Raiders to play him as a single deep safety so they could crowd the box and effectively shut down the Packer running game, which had trampled the Cowboys the previous week. And Woodson has two more games to add to his career totals.

Getting back to the magnificent Emlen Tunnell, Woodson was far more important to the Packers, helping them to their first Super Bowl in 2010 since the Butler-Brett Favre-Reggie White-led Packers of 1996, an all-around juggernaut who dominated the league all year. That was unlike the 2010 Aaron Rodgers-led Packers, a team that — with a modest 10-6 season record and a sixth seed in the playoffs — heroically put on a late-season charge with a stunning blast through the playoffs to beat the tough-nosed and talented Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl. As with most Super Bowl champs, a huge part of the story was the defense, led by Woodson. That thieving, opportunistic group had four Pro-Bowlers — Woodson, Clay Matthews, Nick Collins, and Tramon Williams, and also young nose tackle B. J. Raji, in his only great year as a Packer.

When Woodson retires at the end of this season, figure on him being one of the quickest inductees to the NFL Hall of Fame in recent history.

My first blog on the possible Packers ageism was prompted by a friendly debate with a good friend, but I’m not here to play “I told you so,” rather to honor Charles Woodson.

I know Culture Currents doesn’t have lots of sports fan readers. But I still invite anyone to weigh in on Woodson — and the possible Packer ageism topic — which relates to another mature cast-off picked up by the Raiders, receiver James Jones, who — after leading the Raiders and receptions last year — came back with the Pack this season and helped salvage the team’s foundering passing game, after the loss of Jordy Nelson.

Some people say Jones was over the hill two seasons ago, especially with Davante Adams “poised” to take over. How well has that worked out?

Here’s my initial post:

My dear fellow blog readers I invite you to weigh in on this, and I should be able to tabulate the votes given this blog’s meager readership.

I recently began a good-natured debate with my good friend Ed Valent,  a gentleman and an unassuming scholar, who enjoys the verbal joust and, especially, jest. 

After we began our little debate, I sent him the news of 38-year-old Packer cast-off Charles Woodson winning the AFC defensive player of the week award for his nine tackles (two for losses), quarterback sack and one pass defensed in the Raiders’ huge upset of the Chiefs recently.

I just don’t know if Ed knows how much of a loser he is on this issue. I’m talking about a loser like hairy, socially-award Rob Lowe who just has cable for his worldview, or at least for sorry-ass NFL “packaging” in his stinky-pizza man cave.

Put a cheesehead on Ed and he’d be Abert Einstein. For now, he’s Albert the Alleycat.

Sticks and stones aside, and seriously (somewhat, considering the state of the world), what do you think about this issue? It matters to me most pointedly because of the ageist subtext, but also as a green-as-Kermit-the-frog-doing-Irish Whiskey-shots Packer backer who, like Kermit, doesn’t know he’s just as ugly as the Rob Lowe of your choice.

Ah, but like Kermit (and Rob for the ladies) this proverbial Packer Backer is just as lovable as the Packers. 

Here’s the e-mail response which prompted my response (and invitation). And it goes without saying, Ed, you’re invited to defend your position further, if you so chose.

Ed sed: “If it were up to you to you, Favre would still be QB for the Pack.”

I wrote: “Ed, my man, 

You can punt jokes all you want to avoid the specificity of the issue which hurts the team. Here I’m talking about the team’s mistake over Woodson.

(And yet, James Jones still is also a better third receiver than any they have right now.)
Thus, their Super Bowl chances will continue to be hurt by a policy of excess youth — mark my words — though I hope I’m wrong.
Each personnel case should be judged on its own merits — not on a clearly ageist hiring and firing policy. Thompson has a decent personnel track record but it’s still too policy driven — or blindered, not knowing the man’s soul.
And the Pack is consistently well over the salary cap for a variety of reasons that make such indiscretions usually unnecessary.
But then, I admit I’m a fan who’s interested in the team’s truest best interests – to win, not squirrel away money like a  Scrooge.
To paraphrase Waylon Jennings, I don’t think Vince woulda done it this way.
Kevernacular (Bleeds Green like Kermit.)
So what do you think?
Do the Packers err on the side of an ageist, youth policy by not being more savvy about veteran team leaders who can still play, like Charles Woodson and James Jones?
Try not to bring Battered Batman Brett into this — if you can help it.
Please, vote and/or comment below,
1. Yes.
2. No.
3. I’m thinking, I thinking!
4 Better yet, comment, please!
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My other favorite Packers are cornerback Herb Adderley, wide receiver James Lofton and safety LeRoy Butler.

If you are what you eat, did I know what I was, and how all that stuff got to be food?

 

 

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I was dragged back to an old, troubling memory during my recent drive out to the West Coast. It arose again today when I read a review in The Book Review of The New York Times on Sunday.

I omitted this anecdote from my blog account of that journey because of the travelogue’s expanding length, and due to the unsavory nature of what I experienced — both on that westbound highway, and on an eastbound highway many years ago.

Now a new book compels me to share this, because the issues it raises are too important to ignore as the evidence, only a bit figuratively, stares back up at us from our dinner plates. Yet, the experience did not deter me from indulging in processed meats at least once more on the trip, at a restaurant in Lincoln, Nebraska. The accompanying photo reveals all, which I am now slightly ashamed of, though my facial expression is slightly self-mocking. I’m also aware of the irony of wearing a T-shirt from the culturally enlightened City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

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If you are what you eat, did I know what I was, and how all that stuff got to be food? Photo by Ann Peterson.

As road partner and girlfriend Ann Peterson and I drove west, I don’t recall exactly where it was, probably Nebraska, but it felt like the middle of nowhere.

We smelled this nowhere before we saw it. Until then, the trip had been, among other things, a liberation from the foul smells and sights of urban pollution, and I rejoiced at having finally purchased a car with a sunroof, which let the pure air of America’s “Big Sky Country” surge over and into our car cabin as we sped down the highway.

Suddenly a skin-crawling odor infested our space, like a detour into hell on earth. For the living creatures we soon encountered, it surely must be.

There on the right, we saw — acre after acre — hundreds of beef steer trapped in large pens. They all seemed just stuck, with nothing to graze upon but the muck — mired amid their own excrement — beneath their snouts, squishing between their hooves, splattering their hides, with meager hope of finding a few stray tufts of grass.

“It’s a corporate farm, for sure,” said Ann, who strives hard to be a vegetarian, precisely because of her moral and visceral revulsion at the act, the notion — and the massive, obscene business — of killing animals for human consumption, all too much of it, in mostly inhumane manners.

As she drove I looked on in increasing disgust and amazement. I never imagined the olfactory revulsion this experience triggered. (It strikes me that the adjective “olfactory” might be “Olefactory” in Spain, a play upon the bullfighter’s cry of “Ole!” shortly before he gores the bull — wedded to the function of a big meat-processing plant.)

The new book is called The Chain: Farm, Factory, and The Fate of our Food by Ted Genoways, from Harper/Collins. In ways it amounts to a historic updating of Upton Sinclair’s pioneering consciousness-raising investigative novel The Jungle, which exposed health violations and unsanitary practices in the American meatpacking industry during the early 20th century, based on an series Sinclair did for a socialist newspaper.

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The stench of the corporate factory we encountered should be little surprise when one reads how Genoways argues that the industrial system behind “little cans of Spam” is “inextricably linked to a variety of social problems: animal cruelty, water pollution, foodborne illness, worker exploitation, a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, government corruption and largely unchecked corporate power, “ writes reviewer Eric Schlosser.

“Once celebrated with some irony by Monty Python, ‘lovely spam, wonderful spam’ looms as a sinister force in The Chain, a hidden source of misery in the nation’s heartland.”1

So as we drove past the hoards of creatures crammed into those slovenly, infectious spaces, I thought of Henry David Thoreau’s famous quote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

It’s probably also true of such animals, although here they are somewhat free to express their desperation. Yet, after a point most probably stand silently waiting for their brutish destiny, emitting no more than heaving exhalations and, sometimes, an inconsequential snort, in mute resignation. Until the moment of truth.

In fact, Thoreau completed his thought with this sentence: “What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

CowsDavidWOliverThe quiet desperation of a beef factory farm. Courtesy kdur.org.

So we left the slaughter farm behind with relief from our senses, but not from our sense of guilt, which made my Ketchup-slathered meatloaf on the trip back a week later, slightly gruesome, in retrospect.

 

Which leads me to old memory of a trip headed East from Wyoming to Milwaukee. I was hitchhiking back home after having flown out to The Grand Tetons one August of 1974, I believe, for a mountain-climbing trip in our nation’s greatest range of Alpine mountains. Hitchhiking home helped to offset the cost of the airplane ticket.

Perhaps I was lucky to not befall any misfortune on such a long journey dependent on the kindness of strangers. Except for the one occasion when a fellow gave me a lift and drop me off somewhere in Southwest Minnesota on Interstate 90. I dropped my hulking backpack on the roadside dirt and stuck out my thumb.

After a while,  I stood there while hundreds of cars passed me, I felt a little forsaken, and lost, like befuddled Cary Grant, dropped off in the middle Indiana farm cornfields in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Grant has a strange-enough encounter when a crop-dusting plane tries to do him in.

My experience was somewhat more subtle. A while after being dropped off, I began to hear strange noises. Aural hallucinations in the wind I thought at first. But there they were: strangled cries, almost human but not really, inarticulate, but high-pitched and clearly anguished. I turned around and for the first time noticed a long large warehouse-type building on the prairie, down an incline a short distance away from the interstate.

Strangely, I could see no sign anywhere identifying what the building as. It still didn’t hit me what I was hearing. Then, a short while later, I saw a large semi-truck coming from the east, slowing down right in front of me, but headed in the wrong direction. Now as the truck pivoted on to the a dirt road just west of me and trundled down it, I saw the red letters painted across the side of the truck: “HORMEL Foods.”

In that instant, I shuddered and my blood nearly froze — I understood I was hearing the death cry of hogs inside the slaughterhouse I stood in front of , like a fool witness to a crime.

 

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I suspect there was an enclosed open space behind blank walls which allowed the pigs certain amount of freedom before their execution, thus the audible cries, unearthly yet as earthbound as any creature so fated. Now I wonder why I don’t recall smelling any stench. Perhaps the wind, blowing in the opposite direction, obscured it.

As Schlosser’s book review reports, Hormel has a major slaughterhouse in Austin, Minnesota.

So I looked on my road atlas, and after all these years, found the hellish spot where I had ignorantly stood: just outside Austin, Minnesota, right on Interstate 90, about 38 miles southwest of Rochester. Now it’s all the more incriminating that Hormel chose to not identify its slaughterhouse with any signage visible from the highway.

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I am not making this up. Here’s a map with the Hormel location. wikipedia.com

Aside from its various pork based products, Hormel is the maker of the lowly and highly questionable but amazingly long-lived meat product SPAM. According to the most recent information I could find, Hormel saw its corporate profits rise in 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/22/business/22hormel.html?_r=0 by 3.7% from the previous year, and they totalled $80.4 million in profit, over 2008’s $77 million bottom line clearance. The recession clearly forced millions of middle class consumers to cut back on eating out which helped kitchen-table food manufacturers like Hormel. 2

Genoway’s illustrated book offers ample evidence about the sort of massacres endured by those pathetic hogs in Minnesota and those stoic steer in Nebraska, how their hide and flesh are stripped and their entrails extracted from their fracturing skeletons.

There is no pretty way to put it, and that would only be evasive euphemism. This is why even though I have some chicken breasts in my freezer, I suspect I will move ever closer to vegetarianism, even though I still believe the vitamins and protein of meat is an important part of a healthy, balanced diet. But I rarely eat red or ground meats, and will strive to avoid especially mammal meat.

I will try not to judge others in their dietary choices although it is difficult not to feel certain pangs of regret and remorse for the type of diet that has led so many of Americans to obesity and to death, from coronary issues.

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And there is a more directly human issue haunting his book — “The poor treatment of slaughterhouse workers who lead impoverished lives.” Genoway tells us how “poor immigrant workers are treated only somewhat better than the hogs at a Hormel slaughterhouse.” Genoway depicts the lives of these workers “with great skill and compassion. Those who remain healthy are driven to cut meat at ever-increasing speeds; the injured are harassed, bullied and forced out of their jobs ‘I feel thrown away’ one worker says. ‘Like a piece of trash.’”

And of course, regarding Pres. Obama’s recent immigration reform executive action, many undocumented immigrant slaughterhouse workers live in fear, elected to report violations of the labor code. I’m also acutely attuned to a workplace menace the book reveals called ”progressive inflammatory neuropathy.” I suffer from an inflammatory neuropathy that is also an autoimmune, although thankfully mine — likely the result of an errant flu shot — is not progressive.

But the slaughterhouse workers’ disease include symptoms of quote pain, fatigue, headaches, nausea, numbness of limbs and partial paralysis. Investigators from the Mayo Clinic and the Minnesota Department of Health Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that, as Genoway explains, “Some one of the chain of command, someone at Hormel, had found a buyer in Korea were liquid pork brains are used as a thickener in stir-fry.

“To meet the overseas demand, workers use compressed air hoses to liquefy hot brains, standing at the ‘head table’ for eight hours or more each day, inhaling the fine pink mist. Once it seemed clear that inhaling dismissed could produce neurological damage in human beings, machines were shut off. But the workers affected by the new disease had to fight for medical benefits and some of those too sick to continue working got financial settlements only by threatening to sue.

Genoway explains: “After attorneys fees, each received $12,500, one-half year’s pay.’”

Schlosser notes that a book like The Chain “may induce smugness among lifelong vegetarians.” But he reports that migrant workers who harvest America’s freshest fruits and vegetables earn wages even lower than those of meatpacking workers, and also suffer debilitating injuries on the job.”

So again, it comes down to a brutish, inhumane profit-driven corporate culture of food gathering and processing. Schlosser also asserts that Genoway’s book “does a better job of portraying “the impact of the food-processing system on the people at the bottom, the destruction of rural communities and the backlash of racism” than does another fine book published this year, The Meat Racket by Christopher Leonard.

Of course, things are changing for the better. Implicit consciousness of the pervasive abuse of humane processing practices has even extended to mainstream supermarkets, where you can often find meat that’s labeled as humanely raised and processed. Alternative, health food stores such as Whole Foods and, in Milwaukee, the wonderful Outpost Food co-ops, have flourished in recent years as consumers become more aware of healthy eating and food production practices.

We even see now a paleolithic food diet movement, which essentially eschews the whole concept of farm-produced food of virtually all types, in favor of a diet of naturally-occurring foods that predate modern farming, or a so-called “hunter and gatherer’s” diet.

Schlosser concludes hopefully: “An outraged public, a refusal to ignore the exploitation of the poor, a willingness to confront powerful vested interests, a desire to expel the influence of money from politics – a movement characterized by all these things in force 100 years ago, (after Sinclair’s The Jungle appeared) and within a generation achieved its principal aims.

With more books like The Chain, more anger, knowledge and compassion, I see no reason that history can’t repeat itself.”

Perhaps the change begins with the choice we make in the food market, with what we choose to cook and place on our dinner plates. It’s a challenge that even braces against our cherished holiday of Thanksgiving this week. I suspect I will eat some of my sister’s succulent turkey, but after my long road trip, I am now chastened and wiser.

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1 Eric Schlosser, “What Goes In, What Comes Out,” a review of The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of our Food by Ted Genoways, The New York Times Book Review, November 23, 2014, 28

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/22/business/22hormel.html?_r=0

Photo of corporate beef farm courtesy of generationawakening.com

Photo of hog pens courtesy of planetoftheanimals.blogspot.com

Photo of hamburger courtesy of reformedmascot.blogspot.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

A weekend brimming with performing arts choices in Milwaukee

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Singer-songwriter-instrumentalist Claudia Schmidt will perform a benefit concert for the Urban Ecology Center Saturday. Courtesy triblocal.com

Hear  that?

No? Well, OK, there’s a major music buzz in my brain — a crosscurrent between the part that hears it and the part that decides where I’m going, to hear live music.

You see, the pressure began last Thursday when I missed some surely excellent live music, which I regret. I was feeling under the weather and little tapped out financially, after a two-week road trip to the West Coast and back.

So last Thursday offered both roots rock singer-songwriter par excellence James McMurtry and his band at Shank Hall, and the Wisconsin Conservatory faculty sextet We Six performing live the classic Blue Note album Speak No Evil by the great jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter — yep, both on Thursday night. I’ve seen McMurtry live and he’s a serious roots rock artist. Imaginative, melodically and harmonically startling modern jazz doesn’t get any better than Speak No Evil. 

But more to the point, this weekend offers another happy conundrum of sorts — at least three very compelling choices in Milwaukee, with two performances on Friday and two on Saturday.
They are, listed alphabetically:
The Atlantis Quartet,  The Jazz Estate, 2423 E. Murray Ave., 9:30 PM Friday — This Minneapolis-based group is accomplished and highly listenable, and splits the difference between a Pat Metheny-esque electric textural expansiveness and an acoustic, introspective, almost navel-gazing mood, perhaps epitomized by the title “Stargazer Shoegazer,” on their latest album Expansion. That’s meant as a characterization more than a criticism. The band can also blow fairly straight ahead.

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The Atlantis Quartet, from Minneapolis, visits Milwaukee Saturday. Courtesy jazzink. blogspot.com

“Br(OK)en genius,” produced and created by Christopher McIntyre. South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center, 901 15th Ave., South Milwaukee, via I-94 E/Interstate 41, 7:30 PM Friday and Saturday — McIntyre is a young, gifted and perhaps even visionary black man who is drawing naturally on his personal experience in the racially and sometimes culturally oppressive environment of Milwaukee (for young black men especially). But he’s striving to deliver a message of healing and hope. The interdisciplinary, multi-media stage event is “a prayer, a plea, a song,” that will include several spoken-word artists, a musical band, and McIntyre’s photography projected onto the stage in large form. If you want to get inside the head of a worthy young African-American male in contemporary Milwaukee — to understand his plights and challenges as well as his drive and vision — this is just the ticket. Here’s a WUWM interview with McIntyre about the project: http://wuwm.com/post/broken-genius-healing-milwaukee-through-art

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Several of the performers in “Br(OK)en Genius” show a little genius for publicity. facebook.com

Claudia Schmidt, Urban Ecology Center, 1500 E. Park Place, 7:30 PM Saturday — Schmidt is a vibrant singer-songwriter-guitarist-dulcimer player who brews stews of gospel, folk and jazz influences with a clarion voice and powerhouse passion. What she describes as her own “inner snark” might call her “Joni Mitchell on uppers.” This troubadour now resides on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, so we may hear “Wisconsin Country,” her uncanny evocation of a long drive through our state in bleak November, haunted by Native American ghosts. But drive on, she will. The former Milwaukee resident has a soft spot for some of our worthy institutions, such as the Urban Ecology Center, for whom this will be a benefit concert. The center works hard to advance ecological values within the city, most recently creating a natural prairie in a large area of property adjacent to the center, all situated right along the Milwaukee River, just south of Locust St.

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Claudia Schmidt playing her dulcimer. Courtesy galleryhip.com

A round-trip drive to the Pacific Ocean — Part 3: The SFJAZZ Collective remembers and creates like America could

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MacArthur fellowship-winning alto saxophonist-composer-arranger Miguel Zenon (foreground) lights the fire. Zenon is the only extant founding member of the 11-year-old SFJazz Collective. Courtesy all about Jazz.com

A Westerly Cultural Travel Journal — Part 3 (With a bit of overlap with Part 2, this concert review concludes this cultural travelogue)

SAN FRANCISCO — Saturday night we hooked up with my old compatriot from The Milwaukee Journal Divina Infusino, and her and longtime husband, ex-Milwaukeean Mark Schneider, for the ostensible raison d’être of our trip, the SFJAZZ Collective at SFJAZZ Center, the exquisite performance center that was built largely inspired by this group’s world-class talent and concept.

Infusino, who’s written for Rolling Stone, The Huffington Post and other publications, has broad musical tastes, as does her husband Mark (formerly of Dirty Jack’s Record Rack, a pioneering Brewtown record store), but both are rock-oriented. Yet both were deeply impressed by the jazz collective.

Our post-concert drinks conversation got around to Divina explaining how San Francisco’s politics “realizes socialistic values as a reality rather than simply an ideal,” something that the SFJAZZ Collective exemplifies on its own multi-cultural terms. In this collective once again jazz embodies an exemplary cultural template for our democratic way of life. A profound acknowledgment of talent meritocracy elevates their wedding to democracy, with high standards of processing and expression.

As current Down Beat cover subject Miguel Zenon explains on this video, “it’s really the different personalities of the band that is the essence of group, how different personalities, come from different places, and different ideas about what music should be come together to make the this music.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SS8pmw6sZHA

 

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The current edition of the SFJAZZ Collective includes (left to right), Edward Simon, piano; Matt Penman, bass, Obed Calvaire, drums; Warren Wolf, vibraphone; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Avishai Cohen, trumpet; David Sanchez, saxophones, and Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone. Courtesy sfjazz.com 

This video rehearsal of Henderson’s bossa nova tune “Recorda-Me” was played in another part of the SFJAZZ Center, The Joe Henderson Rehearsal Lab, named for the great saxophonist and composer who resided for decades in San Francisco. Henderson first became a pivotal figure — bridging modern post-bop and cutting-edge jazz. *

He then became a Grammy-winning jazz ambassador to wider audiences with a saxophone voice as warm and form-shaping as it was liberated. All those qualities permeated this band in the two nights.

My companion Ann was smitten by the “cute drummer” but also felt capitvated by the virtuosic flow of complex, commingling ideas and emotions, which they typically make palatable and inviting, rather than forbidding. That’s partly why there’s no group in music quite like this one — exemplifying undoctrinaire jazz repertory work while being, to a man, an original composer and arranger (by contrast, say, to The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra).

Young drummer Obed Calvaire was new to me, and a revelation, a near-effortless amalgam of Billy Higgins’ dance-ability and Tony Williams’ ripping explosiveness. And he revealed himself, on his own deeply moving composition “Absolving,” very much his own man. The limpid ballad was also as nakedly honest as Calvaire admitted writing it for the mother of his child as a musical request for forgiveness, which he explained in simple, direct words, as if she were standing right there in front of him.

The listener felt like he was eavesdropping and warmly welcome in the same moment. Here, Calvaire forsook the hard drumstick, echoing his plea in the muted, delicate touch of his mallets on the drum’s skin-like surface, and the cymbal’s sonic sheen. David Sanchez’s saxophone solo beckoned for the truth as it exists beyond subjective pain.

The group interpretations of Henderson — who often wrote with authoritative flair in Latin styles — and their original tunes revealed much more than their solo playing, which decidedly eschewed showboating. Some originals, like “Jet Rickshaw” carried a tricky sense of virtuosic momentum —  a high-speed rickshaw speed ride through Chinatown — and we heard just enough supple, bracing collective improvs.

But several other pieces on Saturday night (all superbly arranged by band members) seemed to gradually expand, with a commingling spaciousness, as if a sonic atmosphere had formulated over the stage with billowing textures and floating filigrees of melody. The band recorded all four nights of their Joe Henderson tribute project for an upcoming album. They’ve done similar recording projects for the last 11 years and their recording of Stevie Wonder’s music earned the Outstanding Jazz Recording of 2014 award, at the 45th annual NAACP Images Award Ceremony. Here’s a sample from that album: Wonder’s “Visions,” arranged by Stefon Harris, the group’s former vibist. You can hear his vibraphone rhythm in the arrangement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjDv0XD8ywM&list=PL86997F82404BF4DC&index=9  full cd coverA copy of the SFJAZZ Collective’s NAACP Image Award-winning “Songs of Stevie Wonder.” The Collective’s pianist Edward Simon spoke with me after the concert and kindly signed the CD. Front and back CD cover photos by Joe Goldberg. 

Zenon is a Guggenheim and MacArthur “genius” Fellow, several are bandleaders, and trombonist Robin Eubanks comes from one jazz’s most recognizable musical families. Zenon and Sanchez are from Puerto Rico,  trumpeter Avishai Cohen from Israel, pianist Edward Simon from Venezuela, bassist Matt Penman from New Zealand, and the others from around the United States.

What other group so absorbs its tradition’s greatest qualities and visions and meticulously transforms them into meaningful and nourishing music for today and tomorrow? The SFJAZZ Collective defines the terms and the fertile turf.

A round-trip drive from Milwaukee to the Pacific Ocean — a cultural travelogue part 2

IMG_0530 San Francisco from Telegraph Hill. Photo by Ann Peterson

All classes see each other constantly because they are very close. They communicate and mix with each other every day, they imitate and envy each other; that suggests a host of ideas, notions, and desires to people that they would not have had if ranks had been fixed and society immobile. Alexis de Tocqueville on “democratic, enlightened, and free centuries.” 1

 

A Westerly Cultural Travel Journal, Part 2

The state borderline into California brought us to a real-live obstacle — a checkpoint at the border manned with uniformed inspectors. We stopped and I rolled down the window and a man peered at us, his broad brimmed hat, sunglasses and a green uniform resembling “The Man with No Eyes” in Cool Hand Luke. He was inspecting for undesirable contraband. cool-hand-luke-3 “The Man with No Eyes” from “Cool Hand Luke.” Courtesy democraticunderground.com

“Do you have any animals or plants or fruit in the car with you?”  

I didn’t expect the question, so I turned to Ann warily and gulped. I looked back to the officer and said earnestly, “Well, um, we have some raisins in our trail mix.” A pregnant pause as he inspected the car. I held my breath.

He (seemed to) look at me again, and said, “That’s fine. You can proceed.”

When we slowly drove on, Ann fell into uncontrollable giggles over my guilty expression and my answer to the officer. I may be sophisticated about some things but I guess, like cherry tree-chopping George Washington, I cannot tell a lie (though I may have hedged on the truth occasionally).

High in the Sierra Nevada mountains the sun disappeared quickly so we tried to stop for dinner before pressing for the coast. We saw a sign for a place called “Rustic Kitchen” which sounded inviting, so we pulled off. We drove down a heavily wooded road not far from the highway, as dusk engulfed us in gray-black murkiness.

There it was. But as we drove up we noticed a handful of men in the restaurant. In the next instant, as several of them peered out at our car — all the lights went out inside.

“This isn’t a good sign,” said Ann, ever wary. Moments later, one of the men came out with a crooked smile on his face. “Just wondering if the restaurant’s open,” I said. “We came a long ways.”

“Nope. Funny thing but we just had a fire here recently so we’re closed temporarily. Sorry about that.”

He pointed yonder and told us of a couple of dining options down the highway. We drove away and agreed that it looked suspicious: the lights going out as we drove up, the man coming out to make sure we would not enter and see the goings-on inside.

The alpine evergreens stood, silhouetted against the last glimmer of sky light, like giant shrouds. Ann felt spooked and I flashed on David Lynch’s psychological thriller TV series Twin Peaks, set in rural Washington State. Did I hear slithering bass clarinet music following us? The restaurant scene may have been innocent, some guys playing a dollar-a-hand poker game. But what would ace detective Adrian Monk think? After all, he solves crime mysteries in San Francisco, just where we’re headed…”It’s a jungle out there.”

We actually reached “The City” in deep night, at the end of our third day of driving. We crossed the majestic, glimmering Oakland Bay Bridge and found our hotel without too much difficulty. Well, Ann may beg to differ — she was driving and I tried to navigate us through busy one-way and ultra-steep streets. You see, the third game of the World Series — Giants versus Royals — was happening the next night at AT&T Park, a short drive away from our hotel. Little did I know, booking the stay months earlier, we’d blow in amid “October Madness.”

We finally reached our destination: Encore Express Hotel, a.k.a. Music City Hotel, 1353 Bush St. Owned by a local rock musician, the hotel’s reputation and name derives from offering fully-equipped rehearsal spaces for local musicians to play in until 11 PM each night. We got a very reasonable rate considering this place brimmed with SF-style charm with original commissioned art throughout and musical instruments adorning the hallways and an actual trumpet hovering from the ceiling over each room entrance. We shared four bathrooms with other guest on our floor.

The Series-winning Giants crucially won all three of their home games while we were there, and the frenzied fan celebration spilled out like beer-foam lava all along, and into, bar-riddled Polk Street, right around the corner from our hotel. But the “music city hotel” has solid old brick construction and Giantmania didn’t disturb us in our room.

Speaking of “music city,” I imagine most people who’ve visited San Francisco have an indelible memory of the first encounter. Mine came flashing back, from the very early 1970s. My friends Frank Stemper, John Kurzawa and I inevitably visited Haight-Ashbury, which had just begun its slide into post-Summer of Love decrepitude, though it remains today.

69fillmorewest

The cover of The Grateful Dead’s new album “Workingman’s Dead” stood emblazoned atop the Fillmore West Auditorium, as a huge billboard. Where else but in San Francisco?

For two nights, we went to the legendary Fillmore, the multi-purpose basketball gym that was the nexus of the psychedelic San Francisco rock music scene. First we saw left-handed blues giant Albert King slinging his “flying V” guitar, with his honey-dripping-on-your-chin-stubble voice. The next night featured an early Southern redneck rock band called Black Oak Arkansas, fronted by a ratty-hired, white-trash Mick Jagger mimic named Jim Dandy, and an excellent blues-rock trio called Aum. Short-lived and undercredited, San Francisco-based Aum boasted distinctive vocal harmonies far from the same old-same old. Check out Aum’s album “Resurrection.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZhkQb9tU5E

As Aum played, we stood on the far right side near the front. A woman was standing next to us whom we’d barely noticed. Then, at one point a man emerged from behind stage and walked up to the woman, who was smoking a joint. The ‘fro hairdo and the mustachioed dark looks were unmistakable: Carlos Santana. The woman apparently knew Carlos and was soon sharing her joint with him, right next to us. At one point, Carlos threw his head back, eyes closed, approximating the ecstasy of unleashing one of his patented guitar sostenutos. The joint never quite got over to the gawking Milwaukeeans. Santana en el Fillmore The Santana band performing at Fillmore West ca. early ’70s. Note the basketball hoop in background at left, above guitarist Carlos Santana’s head. Courtesy nuevamusica clasica.blogspot.com

A short time later, Santana went onstage to jam a bit with Aum. At one point, Santana announced, “I’d like to introduce you to a brilliant young guitarist. Come on out, Neal!” A skinny little 16-year-old white guy with another fuzzy hairdo came on stage with a Gibson Les Paul and started some mighty impressive riffing. His name was Neil Schon and he would go on to play in Santana’s band and become the lead guitarist with Journey.

But back in 2014 SF, we set out for Fisherman’s Wharf Several times we reached the precipitous crest of several streets with about 45 degree descents. Ann’s heart jumped up in her throat and dribbled there madly like a Harlem Globetrotter basketball. (We remembered why Hitchcock filmed Vertigo in San Francisco)

Ah, but I had faith in my Corolla, and it took the downhills like an Olympian. Still, this geography must be murder for people driving stick shift.

The Wharf is a gargantuan python of hawking and buying humanity uncoiling along the city’s ocean shore. It’s jammed with street-strutting seagulls, who seem to own the place (humans just visit or rent space), kitschy and funky historical distractions, alluring art galleries, steaming seafood and street musicians including a one man band-singer-drummer recalling Isaac Hayes on uppers. We saw a smattering of homeless folk, and some fishing docks. Strangely fascinating, though more commercial than I would’ve hoped.

But this is a great destination city and this one of its most famous attractions. A whole gift shop is dedicated to mementos of Alcatraz Prison, on the infamous island in the San Francisco Bay, also known as “The Rock.” It was a federal prison from 1933 to 1966, prompted by the Depression era of gangsters and prohibition. Amid various grainy, glorified photos and sometimes bizarre mementos of surly Al Capone and other notorious inmates, I fell for a funky refrigerator magnet, depicting a couple of prisoners trying to escape.

IMG_0085[1]We also visited Telegraph Hill, the city’s trademark high point, with its sumptuous picture-postcard views of the city. Inside iconic Coit Tower, the first floor bears a mural from perhaps America’s most enlightened era — the post-Depression WPA, which gave artists of all media new work, and gave America a renewed sense of self-defined, multi-cultural identity.

Bernard Zakheim’s mural “Library” depicts fellow artist John Langley Howard crumpling a newspaper in his left hand as he reaches for a shelved copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital with his right. You see workers of all races shown as equals and the mural’s sometimes eccentric awkwardness gives it a class-free charm.

IMG_0530

 

SF view 2The misty aura of a moody afternoon in the Bay area hovers over beds of verdant beauty on Telegraph Hill. As a mysteriously sensual caller once requested of Dave Garver (Clint Eastwood), a disk jockey in nearby Carmel-by-the Sea: “Play ‘Misty’ for me.” Alcatraz Island is visible on the left, in the lower photo. Photos by Ann Peterson

Saturday night we hooked up with my old compatriot from The Milwaukee Journal,  Divina Infusino, and her longtime husband, ex-Milwaukeean Mark Schneider, for the ostensible raison d’être of our trip, the SFJAZZ Collective concerts at the SFJAZZ Center, the exquisite performance center built largely by inspiration from this group’s world-class talent and concept.

(Please see my full review of the SFJAZZ Collective’s Friday and Saturday concerts of originals and Joe Henderson music, which ends this travelogue, to be posted soon.)

Infusino, who’s written for Rolling Stone, The Huffington Post and other publications, has broad musical tastes, as does her husband Mark (formerly of Dirty Jack’s Record Rack, a pioneering Brewtown record store), but both are rock-oriented. Yet both were deeply impressed by the jazz collective.

Our post-concert drinks conversation got around to Divina explaining how San Francisco politics “realizes socialistic values as a reality rather than simply an ideal,” something that the SFJAZZ Collective exemplifies on its own multi-cultural terms. In this collective once again, jazz embodies a cultural template for our democratic way of life. A profound acknowledgment of talent meritocracy elevates their wedding to democracy, with high standards of processing and expression.**

The talk with Divina, the experience of “The City,” with its politically enlightened WPA murals and of that community’s extraordinary jazz collective led me to the Tocqueville quote that opens this part of the travelogue.

It struck me that the buzzing density of this compressed, yet ever-flowing city feeds the potency for a democratic environ that may well have evolved into viable socialist principles of shared struggle and growth, invention and potency — without betraying the American ideal of individual liberty. If anyone is an individual, it’s any given San Franciscan on the street, even if the saddest was a sunburned, probably homeless millennial, shuffling around near our hotel at 9 a.m. chugging a 36-oz. jug of beer. He stood uncertainly on the sodden side of bereft.

Perhaps inevitably, this fairly evolved city will betray signs of the messy democratic experiment, like America, where current polarization strains mightily for such closeness, likely a major reason for the sorry recent mid-term election results, reportedly the lowest voter turnout since 1942.

Finally, I must mention our trip to City Lights Book Store, which has morphed slowly over the years from a beatnik hole-in-the-wall, opened by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953, into a three-story mother lode of literary wealth, and a publishing press, with as densely packed and as meaty an inventory of books as I have ever seen. city lights 2 Kevernacular visits City Lights Bookstore. Photo by Ann Peterson

I easily could’ve bought the four or five books but I considered the overall expenses of my the trip. So I settled for only one, literary critic Raymond Williams’ Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, a sort of personalized, politically and culturally informed etymology of numerous significant words: from “aesthetic” and “alienation” to “welfare,” “Western,” and “work.” I also nabbed a fire engine-red City Lights T-shirt and a post card of one of the most incongruously delightful photos I’ve ever seen, of Virginia Military Institute students reading Beat poet Allen Ginsburg’s subversive masterwork “HOWL.” scan0416 Photo by Gordon Ball, copyright 1996 by Ball, and postcard copyright by City Lights

Perhaps the City Lights success story affirms a viable synthesis of capitalist and socialist business strategies.

***

One more day awaited before we headed back east. I’d always loved the long surf and cliff-filled drive up Highway 1 with my pals, back in 1970. So, on a sun-kissed morning Ann and I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge into enchanting Marin County.

bridge

 

coastThe Golden Gate Bridge on a sunny October day (above). Faithful travel partner and girlfriend Ann Peterson takes in the expansive romance of Highway 1, thirty-four years after I first did. Photos by KL

We wended our way through leafy hamlets that led to the great coastal highway, which deserves its top-of-the-list numbering, as if all of America’s potential laps up like the essence of natural resource, along the long and winding shore, right below our car wheels. We finally reached a small maritime museum that serves as headquarters for Point Reyes National Seashore, and its extraordinary peninsula — a half-hour drive away. This would be our final Westerly destination.

The thrusting geographic leg may extend further into the Pacific Ocean than any other point in the continental U.S. The remote shore locale is a playground of unfettered wildlife, at any given time: deer grazing nearby, elk herds at a fork in the road, seals on the rocky shore and California gray whales, beyond but often visible. After a few minutes of squinting into the ocean, I could’ve sworn I saw a gray whale break through the waves. But I didn’t swear to it. No doubt, however, about the gray whale skull mounted atop the dauntingly long staircase leading to the lighthouse. whale skull pont de Reyes A California gray whale skull (gulp) greets visitors at Pont de Reyes (upper photo). The actual lighthouse is situated down a 300-step flight of stairs (lower). Photos by Ann Peterson

The ancient Point Reyes lighthouse sits on a precarious tip of rock accessed by a 300-step descent, with breathtaking views down sheer cliffs to the roiling surf far below. The whole peninsula is windblown by a Poseidon with lungs the size of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and nearly as chilly. So leave your hats and your coiffure vanity behind. This bracingly beautiful westernmost point might have been the trip’s elemental high point.

***

On the long road back east, we stopped in Cozad, NE, home of The Robert Henri Museum, named for the founder of the famous American artist group “The Eight,” and a leading figure of the the “ash can” school of art. But the museum was closed for the season. Nevertheless it’s worth a visit.

Cozad was actually founded in 1873 by Henri’s father, a gambler and real estate developer. Henri was an insightful and sometimes provocative portrait artist, evidenced by this image of “Salome,” the disturbing biblical figure with a necrophiliac (or spiritual?) attraction to beheaded St. John the Baptist. Clearly Henri and other “ash can” artists like John Sloan and George Bellows broke far away from the era’s conservative American art academy, especially in their unprecedented depictions of gritty urban life and poverty. Henri also unleashed their clear impressionist influence to capture, with a swirling yet deftly poised brush, the still-brawny but penetrating vitality of post-industrial revolution America.

robert-henri-rough-sea-near-lobster-point-1903 Robert Henri, “Rough Sea Near Lobster Point,” 1903 Courtesy earlywonder. wordpress.com

As I noted in a review of superb show at the Milwaukee Art Museum (which included Henri) in 2005 titled “Masterpieces of American Art 1770-1920,” such early modernist works capture “a profound American pride in its own character, natural bounty and largely Christian grappling with the sublime — matters that increasingly would inspire boundless envy, emulation and resentment. How wisely we learn from such arts revelations remains an urgent contemporary question.” 2

Again, I thought of Tocqueville’s insight about cultural-political dynamics and American potential, both waiting and wasted.

We promised ourselves a saner drive home and spent a few leisurely days back in Boulder, shopping, hiking and seeing the new Bill Murray movie St. Vincent, a tear-jerker but quite worthwhile to see Murray as a misanthropic Vietnam Vet. Our host, Kris Verdin, led us on a long hike with her dog Ella — a high-spirited Labrador-Hungarian Vizsla mix — up into the mountains near her home. Despite the current disabling neurological condition in my arms and hands, I tried a few climbing moves up a mountain face we reached. I felt my upper limbs protesting and refusing to secure me, so I meekly reversed myself. Cripes minnie manure! trail Our Boulder host Kris Verdin’s irrepressible dog Ella (in the distant background on the trail) sometimes broke free to hurry our pace on a long hike up to the base of the Rocky Mountains. Photo by Ann Peterson

Back on the road, we began making good time again. In fact, “The Man” busted poor Ann with a speeding ticket for driving 87 in a 75 MPH zone, after my g-force-pushing transgressions on the way out. The patrolman had me roll down my passenger-side window and, slightly intoxicated, I almost blew it by responding with my impersonation of “The Dude” Lebowski, which had just been entertaining Ann.

Chastened, Ann slowed into the descending darkness of Wyoming, and worried about the deer crossing signs. Ten miles down the road our headlights illuminated an animal form…standing smack in the middle of the Interstate lane strip. It was a coyote, and Ann slowed down. The scruffy canine peered at us, then scampered away.

“Whew!” she exhaled.

“Don’t worry about a deer, with that encounter odds are you won’t even see a deer,” I reassured her. I was right. However, another five miles down the road another Wile E. Coyote made another heedless display of his furry fanny, in the same between-the-headlights spot. We just missed him and all I could think of was the famous cartoon character plastered on a road. coyote Long-suffering Wile E. Coyote in arguably the funniest cartoon series ever, “The Roadrunner.” Courtesy zocalopublicsquare.org.

Once I saw this video, I understood what our Wile might’ve been up to on the highway: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9ieb1Y1VCY

Our last big stop was Lincoln, Nebraska, again, but a tad more highbrow than King Kong Burgers. The Sheldon Museum of Art, on the University Of Nebraska campus, featured a permanent collection including strong works by Jackson Pollock and his under-appreciated spouse Lee Krasner, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Eakins, Mark Rothko, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, and others.

A painting by Rockwell Kent (renowned for his 1930 illustrations of Melville’s Moby-Dick which helped popularize the book for modern readers) Headlands, Monhegan Island (see below) reminded me how the craggy, ceaseless shore seemed to haunt us (or at least me) with its serene, raging and mysterious moods, like a siren-spirit following us everywhere in a cloud of briny surf. A current Sheldon exhibit explored the experience and sensibility of Nebraska. circle sculpture coast painting IMG_0749 The Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, Nebraska, offers a rich array of art, from classical to contemporary, including the welded steel sculpture by Michael Todd (upper image), the brooding shoreline by Rockwell Kent and Elizabeth Honor Dolan’s mixed-media maquette for the mural “Spirit of the Prairie” from the Nebraska Capitol Law Library, an intriguing and inspiring experiment in Americana. Photos by Ann Peterson and KL.

In that show, an 1930 experimental blend of oil pint, multiple paper layers and Masonite by Elizabeth Honor Dolan for a mural by “Spirit of the Prairie” at the Nebraska Capitol Law Library, depicts a bedraggled pioneer woman with infant in arm and faithful dog beside, which skirted Norman Rockwell sentiment with its daring stylistic ruggedness and the woman’s mute courage.

Outside, the bustling, friendly, red-emblazoned crowd and roaming bass band players defied the cold with sunny anticipation of the Nebraska Cornhuskers-Purdue Boilermakers football showdown later in perpetually sold out Memorial Stadium.

Ann and I began anticipating home. If the car courted internal chaos by the time we returned, the virtual kaleidoscope of memories, emotions and sensory impressions began settling into the places they would take in our cognitive and psychic history, and future.

The great American backbone rose behind us, its bristling glories, stories and mysteries intact.

________________

Editorial assistance by Ann Peterson, Kris Verdin, Edward Simon, Divina Infusino, Mark Schneider, Frank Stemper and John Kurzawa.

* The prototype for the SFJAZZ Collective is undoubtedly Joe Henderson’s 1966 Blue Note album Mode for Joe, a brilliant septet recording showcasing his originals and arranging, with a front line of Henderson’s sax, trumpet (Lee Morgan), trombone (Curtis Fuller), and vibes (Bobby Hutcherson). Hutcherson was also a founding member of the SFJAZZ Collective. The vibes are perhaps the band’s trademark instrumental component.

** The concept of socialism and capitalism as complementary or even symbiotic systems is discussed in an essay on the iconoclastic leftist writer Martin Sklar by James Livingston in the November 3, 2014 issue of The Nation, p. 27. Livingston argues that Sklar’s ideas are greatly under appreciated partly “because no one knows what to do with (their) revolutionary implications.” For example, after a certain point of production, capitalism has become superfluous as an inducement to work in production, Livingston writes.
Livingston also addresses the issue of how, in our capitalist-dominated system, socialism could be easily co-opted rather than become the proper corrective to capitalism’s excesses and ultimately needlessness to “economic necessity” — beyond profits that could not be “reinvested in productive ways.”

1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Ed. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, University of Chicago Press, 2000, 432

2  Kevin Lynch,  America’s Best: Show Spotlights Masterpieces from 1770 to 1920, The Capital Times, July 2001.

Outdoor photo of Fillmore Auditorium in 1970, courtesy wikipedia.

A round-trip drive across America’s mountainous backbone — a cultural travelogue


The panoramic, rugged and historically tragic Donner Pass in western Nevada, along today’s Interstate 80. Courtesy panoramia.com. *

 

A Westerly Cultural Travel Journal

If the Mississippi River is America’s main artery and lifeblood, I consider the plains and mountain states this country’s backbone. I say this as a lifelong Midwesterner, believing my native grounds as America’s heartland, as do many others. To complete the metaphor, perhaps the East is the nation’s august head and shoulders.

My traveling partner Ann Peterson and I set out in late October to traverse the vast, mighty backbone once, in a road odyssey from Milwaukee to San Francisco and back, which totaled close to 4,500 miles. Some friends had scoffed at us doing the car road trip.

We aimed to get to San Francisco in three days. Our first and most challenging goal was to drive from Milwaukee to Boulder — or 1,062 miles — in the first day. Our halfway-there host, my sister-in-law Kris Verdin, had written that it was “insane, but doable.” But the West Bend WI native hadn’t done that since she and her husband Jim had been young.

Ann and I are now in our early 60s. Packed up, we finally got past the freeway over-development in Wauwatosa and Brookfield that is further ravaging our state’s ecological balance and livability. Westbound and wide-open ahead, my 2010 Toyota Corolla growled as I gunned it. We were off.

It was Tuesday and we wanted to reach San Francisco by Thursday night, so we’d have time to decompress and be ready for Friday’s first of two consecutive nights of the all-star SFJAZZ Collective. They would perform the music of the great saxophonist-composer Joe Henderson and their own originals at the SFJAZZ Center, the only building in America designed specifically for jazz performances. The performances would be recorded for a future CD. (The band’s co-founder and lead alto sax player Miguel Zenon is the subject of the cover story of the latest Down Beat magazine.)

It would also my re-union with Divina Infusino, my former colleague at The Milwaukee Journal in the 1980s, when she covered rock and pop music and I covered various music and visual art, with a jazz specialty.

We ended up not exactly following the Trip-tik route that Ann had taken pains to gather and print out. Instead we forged through Southwest Wisconsin’s “God’s country,” which blazed with a fall color panorama, even a week or so past peak. We would soon encounter more spectacular mountainous contours, but there’s no greater undulating autumn beauty than in the sinuous hills of southeastern Wisconsin. The colors burn into the eyes, a kaleidoscope of crimson, gold and orange with wave-like, wind-swept textures. Even prodigal son Kareem Abdul-Jabbar marvels over Wisconsin’s fall beauty in the recent Zucker brothers TV commercial for Travel Wisconsin. “I can’t believe I ever left this place!” Jabbar exclaims, reprising his pilot role in the Zuckers’ hit movie Airplane! The all-time NBA scoring leader had also lobbied for the Bucks coaching position not long ago.

But we were leaving for two weeks and needed to make good time, to “ball the jack,” as Jack Kerouac once called it, but with a purpose (“No sooner were we out of town than Eddie started to ball that jack ninety miles an hour out of sheer exuberance.” –Jack Kerouac) 1. I also hit 90 miles an hour, but not until we reached the flatland straightaways of Nebraska, and my Corolla smoothly zoomed to 98 at one naughty spurt, which I hardly noticed till I glanced at the speedometer.

I wanted to reach Boulder by 2 a.m. (the hour of the body’s deepest sleep alpha waves) even though a detour and a slight disagreement on the route kept Ann and I from escaping Milwaukee by 9 a.m. So I was balling that jack out of sheer determination.

Iowa provided striking distractions at several of its Interstate rest stops, including Iowa sculptor Tom Stancliffe’s handsome, witty brushed stainless steel and bronze sculpture Harvest, columns arranged as a row crop (below). Among the depicted resources is a book, a reminder that this farming state is also home to the world-renowned Iowa Writer’s Workshop which has produced 17 Pulitzer Prize winners (most recently Paul Harding in 2010) and four recent U.S. Poets Laureate. 007 Ann Peterson posed with “”Harvest,” Tom Stancliffe’s 1999 sculptural rendering of Iowa’s important resources and icons, including corn, sunflowers, acorns, fish, hogs and books (detail below). It’s at the Cedar County Area Rest Stop and Welcome Center on I-80. Photo by Kevin Lynch 010 Photo by KL 014 Photo by Ann K. Peterson

At the top of the tower at left (above), Stancliffe interpreted in bronze Grant Wood’s famously bounteous 1930 oil paint landscape Stone City, Iowa (below, courtesy newyorkarts.net). Stone-City-Iowa-1930-Joslyn-Art-Museum-Omaha-NB At another point in Iowa we looked dumbfounded –at the longest truck rig I’ve ever seen, parked at a rest stop. The endlessly long white shape mystified us. Was it a portion for a gravity-defying Santiago Calatrava building? A wing for a giant stealth bomber? Further down the Interstate the wind blew the mystery away when — at another rest stop — we suddenly saw the identical form standing at proud, erect attention, seemingly scraping the sun. In a huge concrete and steel base stood a wind turbine propeller blade.

A gift of  the Mid-American Energy Company and Siemens Energy, the blade is 148 feet tall and weighs 23,098 lbs. 024 021Photos by KL

Such mechanisms, of course, are a key to the burgeoning renewable energy movement. And word has it, engineers are now working on creating turbines that are less hazardous to flying birds.

Yes, the trip had blown pretty cool since escaping Milwaukee. However at about 150 miles, I noticed a light on my dashboard signaling “MAINT REQD

“Oh shit!” I muttered. I had dutifully taken the car into the Toyota shop right before we left –the mechanic had pronounced it ready to roll to the coast and back. Ann proved the cooler head, figuring the signal had kicked in because I had passed the 3,000 mile mark since my last oil change. She assured me that Click and Clack of Car Talk on NPR say that you only need to change oil after about 5,000 miles. They are the Holy Trinity-minus-one of car advice, so I felt blessed by the cosmos.

Sure enough, when we reached Nebraska and night fell, a vast and vivid canopy of the night hovered overhead — “billions and billions and billions” of stars, as the late astronomer Carl Sagan might’ve put it. I was really glad that — after my last car was totaled by a hit-and-run driver — I bought a car with a sunroof. I got a little high on the real, infinite thing right over my head as Ann drove.

In Lincoln, Nebraska we stopped for hearty salads at Wendy’s and for a quicker peek at King Kong, a small regional burger-Phillie steak-gyro chain, across the road. Kong King Kong stands atop the sign for the fast food joint in Lincoln, NE named for him. The sign was too hot in contrast for this night photo to make out the words “KING KONG.” Photo by KL

The joint boasted a delightful King Kong motif, with hairy gorilla dolls hanging from the ceiling, and big, blazing posters from the original 1933 movie with Faye Wray and Robert Armstrong and, of course, Kong! King_Kong_1933_French_poster The French were very big on the original “King Kong,” as this inspired poster by a French artist indicates. Courtesy highlight Hollywood.com king-kong-2 Here’s Fay Wray, the “beauty (who) killed the beast.” Once, when I saw “King Kong” in a movie theater, Ms. Wray came on screen and a lecherous guy in front of me muttered to his companion, “What a dish.” Courtesy bobbyriverstv.blogspot.com

However, I was disappointed to find the burger shop didn’t have the original King Kong on constant replay on their TV screen. King-Kong-1933-king-kong-2814496-2400-1891Kong fends off the airplanes atop the Empire State building, as epic a battle as the movies has ever given us. Courtesy highlight Hollywood.com

(Instead they had the World Series on — we’d get plenty of World Series mania when we reached San Francisco) “I’ve been here for years and you’re the first person who has asked about the movie,” the Kong manager said. “Good idea. I’ll have to suggest that to the owner.”

I hope to return to King Kong someday and munch a Kong burger as fictional film-maker Carl Denham sagely intones to the mustachioed NYPD officer, “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty that killed the beast,” in glorious black and white. And yes, that Empire State Building death battle helped cement the East as  America’s head and shoulders.king_kong_1933_King_kong_11 With Kong’s blood streaming onto the Manhattan street, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong in tuxedo, left), delivers his famous closing lines to the original “King Kong” (“Oh no,…”) courtesy bobbyriverstv.blogspot.com

I did my best nasal impersonation of Denham’s closing lines for Ann and explained to her that my old Marquette High poster club buddies and I act out the complete death scene of Kong with full theatrics and sound effects. We would do a command performance the next time the three of us are together. Wisely, she’s not holding her breath.

My sister-in-law Kris called by cell shortly after we had left Lincoln, and estimated we’d get to her house in Boulder “by two-ish.” Her watch dog Ella would surely wake her, but that’s OK, Kris assured.

This only steeled my determination to get there earlier. We drove late into the night and what kept us awake was the CD player: Richard Thompson’s latest CD Acoustic Classics, the Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra’s Habitat, Wilhelm Kempff’s classic recordings of Beethoven’s “Pathetique,” “Moonlight,” “Waldstein” and “Apassionata” piano sonatas and country singer Patty Loveless’ Mountain Soul (my tastes are nothing if not eclectic). patty Patty Loveless’s rootsy bluegrass CD “Mountain Soul” courtesy of amazon.com

Then we settled in to listen to Lori Moore’s latest collection of short stories Bark on CD. The author reads the stories in her warm, breathy, slightly phlegmatic voice, with her New York accent still curving certain words despite several decades of living in the Midwest as, until recently, a chaired professor of creative writing at the UW-Madison. Moore’s tersely adroit reading of her own story helped us plow through the darkness.

The opening tale “Debarking” told about about Ira, a hapless divorced father of a teenage daughter sticking his toe into the dating scene after years of marriage. He falls for a divorcee named Zora who pierces his heart as surely as might Zorro (Moore never misses a chance for pointed, symbolic wordplay). But Zora’s emotional lance is actually embedded in her adolescent son Bruno, to quite Oedipal depths, and the lad treats Ira like a bothersome stray dog.

The story is set during the American bombing of Baghdad in the Iraq War. Ira and Zora begin a wobbly, sometimes tender interplay of emotional “debarking.” It doesn’t end well. Zora finally informs Ira she’s been on anti-depressants and really misses Bruno, who’s merely at school for the day.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said, though he wouldn’t. He backed out of her driveway…Was he too old fashioned?…He headed to a dank, noisy dive called Sparky’s where he went to just after Marilyn left him… All his tenpenny miseries and chicken-shit joys would lead him once again to Sparky’s. Those half-dozen times he had run into Marilyn…he had felt like a dog seeing his owner…But at Sparky’s he knew he was safe from unexpected encounters with Marilyn …

Ira ordered bourbon straight up. “He let the sharp buttery elixir of the bourbon warm his mouth then swallowed its neat, sweet heat …over and over, ordering drink after drink …until he was lit to the gills.”

Ira made a rambling toast: “Happy Easter…The dead shall rise, the dead are risen, the damages will be mitigated. The Messiah is back among us, squeezing the flesh…Okay, God looked away for a second to look at ‘I Love Lucy’ reruns, but he is back now…He, watching over Israel, slumbers not, nor sleeps.”

“Somebody slap that guy,” said the man in the blue shirt at the end. BarkHard-working nurse practitioner Ann slumbered however, there at the story’s end, the passenger seat tilted back, her head against the plush bed pillow she’d brought along.

I pressed ahead. I’ve never driven that late into the night — midnight, 1 a.m. — without fatiguing. I hung on hard to the wheel and kept leaning forward. It helped that the Corolla ran smoothly at 80 MPH-plus, so my body didn’t endure a shaking car but still felt its energy.

When we reached the Nebraska/Colorado border, night prevented the view I got last summer of the striking contrast in landscapes right there. You enter Colorado and the somewhat green expanses of Nebraska suddenly transform into desolate desert, with almost nothing but sand, sagebrush and tumbling tumbleweeds. Nebraska apparently cornered the market on viable farmland when their state border was demarcated in 1867, nine years before Colorado.

***

We finally reached Denver, then jumped on a northwest turnpike to Boulder. Scorning my trusty Rand McNally atlas, I went on my memory of Boulder from last summer when I drove out there for a Tedeschi-Trucks Band concert at the magnificent Red Rocks Ampitheater. So it took a bit more meandering but we finally found Snowmass Ct. and rang Kris Verdin’s doorbell at 1:45 a.m. mountain time. Milwaukee-to-Boulder in one day. We’d beaten Kris’s arrival estimation, which had also been our target time.

Sure enough, Ella the watch dog greeted us at the door with “ROWF! ROWF!” I asked Ella if I could quote her, and so I have. My trusty Corolla cooled its jets, with narry a blip on the trip (nor for the rest of Kevin and Ann’s Excellent Adventure). With Kris’s ready graciousness, we crashed quickly in her guest room.

The next morning she’d left for work, and the Verdins’ gleaming, high-tech coffee-maker threw a hissy fit (I failed to follow Kris’s directions). So we stopped at a Starbuck’s and hit the road as quickly as we could, again chasing the West’s golden sun which glared at us imperiously as it slowly settled, like a queen in gilded robes, onto her throne — the mighty mountains on the horizon.

We had the popular Road Food app, a guide to interesting restaurants on the American highway, but all it listed in Cheyenne, Wyoming, was a bison burger farm-restaurant that actually gives you a ride onto the ranch where you pick out a majestic creature to slaughter. They proceed to shoot, chop and grind your fresh burger. Such brutal, culinary intimacy appealed to neither of us.

So gas-stop locals recommended The Tortilla Factory, an unassuming Mexican joint with a backside parking lot entrance.  Swollen, steamy enchiladas and gloppy refried beans were just the ticket. With renewed gas exhaust — from within and without — we pressed ahead.

Here’s where the roads began to really cut into mountainsides, and creep steadily around their massive shoulders. As we climbed the steep highway we passed plenty of groaning, heaving semis. In my mid 20s to age 30, The Grand Tetons in northwest Wyoming were almost my yearly destination for mountain climbing. I had never visited southern Wyoming and now the trip along Interstate 80 proved how stunningly picturesque the state also is down here. The photos below only hint at their presence.

The massive craggy formations come alive with an almost breathing aura as the sun falls lower into the west and the shadows the rocks cast stretch, long and ominous. The combination of ripped-rock formations and lower vegetation-covered mountains made for a wonderful textural Yin-Yang. IMG_0495 IMG_0499 highway sky Wyoming on Interstate 80. Photos by KL

On increasingly steep and winding interstate stretches, we began seeing signs warning against trucks tipping over on treacherous turns and the emergency braking lanes for runaway trucks. Considering the intense pressure truckers feel to drive as far and as fast as possible, it’s hard to imagine hauling a loaded semi through many of these precipitous highway curves and drop-offs at speeds of up to 60 miles an hour, with the risk of a run-away rig hurtling much faster. IMG_0496 A trucker balls the jack through mountainous Wyoming highways. Photo by KL

But they do it, and at many stretches of our trip we saw more large trucks on the road than automobiles. It underscores how important it is for America to keep its infrastructure in tip-top shape, especially in today’s globally competitive world. highway-through-hell-3 The treacherous Highway 5 in B.C., also called the Coquihalla, has claimed many victims. Courtest driving. ca

That night we made it from Boulder to Salt Lake City and by then driver Ann was cross-eyed and gassed. I realized we had nearly 200 miles to our theoretical destination in Nevada, so we decided to call it a night. I asked a hostess at Olive Garden for directions to a nearby motel and she directed me to the downtown Main Street. We gamely followed her directions and found State Street, with the Utah state capital building visible at the far end.

However, at this end of the street things seemed hardly stately. It smelled like the city’s red-light district. We spied a few hookers tottering around on spike heels and scant clothing in the chilly night.

Ann shuddered as I slowly drove past motel after motel. How bad could it be? I wondered aloud. This is the home of the holy-roller Mormons! We finally pulled into one motel parking lot that seemed momentarily civil, and immediately several men opened motel doors to peer at us in unison, like an over-rehearsed scene in an X-rated movie. “CUT! One at a time, you idiots! Not so eager for the beaver!” the director with the hairy chest and gold chains would shout from his megaphone.

Suddenly I felt like a greasy pimp and Ann felt like Linda Lovelace — long before her hard-earned Deep Throat experience.

“Let’s get out of here,” she shivered, “This is really creepy!” We meandered through the night till we found a Motel 6 on the outskirts of town, and hard pillows never felt so good. At least they were clean, despite the cigarette burn hole in the bed spread. MOTEL 6 Suddenly a slightly tattered Motel 6 seemed like Nirvana. Courtesy blog.trekeffect.com.

After an omelette breakfast at a Denny’s teeming with policemen and guerrilla-garbed soldiers, we took aim for San Francisco. I hit my highest speed crossing the seemingly endless straightaway portion of US 80 that bisects the great Salt Lake Desert. But hey, world records for highest land speeds are regularly broken here on the salt flats.

The desert is an odd phenomenon: It’s a shallow lake 81 miles wide — over a bed of sand a thin layer of salt hovers, covered by a glaze of water. During Jedediah Smith’s 1826-7 expedition, Robert Evans died in this desert; and in the 1840s, westward emigrants used the Hastings Cutoff through endless the desert to reduce the distance to California. 2 Shadowing the ancient trail of explorers would lead us to a daunting historical discovery.

Past the salt lake, I grew curious about the river following the now-twisting highway. So we Googled it on Ann’s smart phone and discovered it was the Truckee River. We soon reached the cavernous Donner Pass (formerly the Truckee Pass, see photo at the top of this travelogue). I began reading a bit about the Donner Party, and again thanked the car gods for a trusty Toyota.

The Donner name hearkened to over a 150 years ago when people tried to traverse this brawny and unforgiving beauty before motor vehicles were invented.  The Donner Party were pioneers who set out for California in a wagon train, from Springfield, Illinois. The journey west usually took between five and six months, but the Donner Party fatefully followed the newly named Hastings Cutoff, which crossed Utah‘s Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert. The rugged terrain, and difficulties encountered while traveling along the Humboldt River in present-day Nevada, resulted in the loss of many cattle and wagons, and splits within the group.

By the beginning of November 1846 the emigrants had reached the Sierra Nevada. You can see by the panoramic view of present-day Donner Pass (see link at bottom of post), the sort of head-swelling natural beauty that filled their senses and lured them further — into equally treacherous terrain. They became trapped by an early, heavy snowfall near Truckee (now Donner) Lake, engulfed by mountains and brutal winds.   Pioneers Donner Pass An artist’s rendering of the The Donner Party’s hardships. Courtesy corvallistoday.com.

Their food supplies ran extremely low, and in mid-December some of the group set out on foot to obtain help. Delayed by a series of mishaps, they spent the winter of 1846–47 snowbound in the Sierra Nevada. Some of the immigrants resorted to cannibalism to survive, eating those who had succumbed to starvation and sickness. Here are entries from the diary kept by party member Patrick Breen:

“… Peggy very uneasy for fear we shall all perish with hunger we have but a little meat left & only part of 3 hides has to support Mrs. Reid she has nothing left but one hide…

— February 5, 1847

“… J Denton trying to borrow meat for Graves had none to give they have nothing but hides all are entirely out of meat but a little we have our hides are nearly all eat up but with Gods help spring will soon smile upon us”

— February 10, 1847

“… Mrs Graves refused to give Mrs Reid any hides, put Suitors pack hides on her shanty would not let her have them. says if I say it will thaw it then will not, she is a case”

— February 15, 1847

“… shot Towser today & dressed his flesh. Mrs Graves came here this morning to borrow meat dog or ox. they think I have meat to spare but I know to the Contrary they have plenty hides. I live principally on the same”

— February 23, 1847

“… The Donnos told the California folks that they commence to eat the dead people 4 days ago, if they did not succeed that day or the next in finding their cattle then under ten or twelve feet of snow…”

— February 26, 1847

Here’s an actual sample of Breen’s diary:

220px-PatrickBreenDiaryPage28  Page 28 from the diary of the Donner Party’s Patrick Breen, recording his observations in late February 1847, including “Mrs. Murphy said here yesterday that she thought she would commence on Milton and eat him. I don’t think she has done so yet; it is distressing.” (about 3/4ths of the way down the page) 

Rescuers from California attempted to reach the emigrants, but the first relief party did not arrive until the middle of February 1847, almost four months after the wagon train became trapped. Of the 87 members of the party, 48 survived to reach California. Historians have described the episode as one of the most spectacular tragedies in Californian history and in the record of western migration. 3

The tragedy is dramatized in a 2009 feature film and documented in a PBS American Experience episode, both titled “The Donner Party.”

End of Part 1. To Be Continued

_________________

*Here’s a panoramic view of Donner Pass: https://www.google.com/search?q=donner+pass+panoramic&espv=2&biw=1366&bih=593&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=RM9qVMilOISHyQSLloLAAQ&ved=0CAYQ_AUoAQ#facrc=_&imgdii=_&imgrc=PHhAWqZ5SMKTmM%253A%3Bc8C_euolF0Yw2M%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fstatic.panoramio.com%252Fphotos%252Flarge%252F75599886.jpg%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fkevernacular.com%252F%253Fp%253D4849%3B1024%3B512

1. Jack Kerouac, On The Road: The Original Scroll, 1957,  edited by Howard Cunnell, Viking, 2007, 123.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Salt_Lake_Desert

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donner_Party

Lorrie Moore’s Bark book cover, courtesy ofblogspot.com

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