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Archive for the ‘Later twentieth century (1961-2000)’ Category

Let’s play a game.  What do the following phrases have in common?

It’s You Again
The Gospel According to Luke
I’m Your Man
Your Memory Wins Again
It Wasn’t His Child
Love, Me
Lighter Shade of Blue
Every Other Weekend
Matches
Rebecca Lynn
The Hole
If I Didn’t Have You
You Had Me From Hello
The Coast of Colorado
I Believe
Wish You Were Here
If a Man Could Live on Love Alone

If you don’t know, they’re all hit songs that reached the top (or close to the top) of the country music charts. And all of them were either written or co-written by Skip Ewing. Born in California on March 6, 1964, he began to develop his musical talents at an early age. An accomplished musician as a teenager, he set out to make music that meant something, to write songs that told a story. And based on the list above (only a partial list which includes numerous #1s and at least one “Song of the Year”), I’d say he did a pretty good job.

If you have any of his studio albums (I think I have them all, including his Christmas album), you’re awfully fortunate. If you don’t, go out and just read the lyrics to some of his songs, and you’ll quickly discover his remarkable talent as a writer. It’s an ability that other great talents have taken advantage of, from Sawyer Brown to Reba McEntire, from Randy Travis to Kenny Rogers.

I don’t listen to much country music anymore, but when I do, it’s usually Skip Ewing. If you can find any of his music, you owe it to yourself to buy it.  You won’t be sorry, because he’s one of the very best at his craft.

Happy Birthday, Skip Ewing!!

Recommended Viewing: Matches – Sung by Sammy Kershaw, but written by Skip Ewing. The video just makes a great song that much greater.

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We get our television programming from DirecTV, and our channel lineup doesn’t contain any of the standard movie channels (HBO, Cinemax, etc.), but it does have two channels wholly devoted to food – the Food Network and the Cooking Channel.  The Food Network used to show primarily cooking shows, where people demonstrated how to actually make something.  Nowadays, it’s slipped into more of a “lifestyles” channel, which means a little bit of cooking, and a bunch of advertising of local one-off restaurants.  The Cooking Channel seems to be more the place to go if you actually want to learn how to cook.  At least that’s the way it appears to me.

I’m sure some will argue that I have no idea what I’m talking about, which is probably true.  But outside of Alton Brown and Jamie Oliver, there’s not a ton of cooking shows I really enjoy, so I’m basing my opinions on a rather small sample size.  Anyways, arguing over channel content wasn’t the point of my typing.  Both channels, regardless of what they show you, owe a world of thanks to Julia Child.

It was her culinary skills, her humor, and her bravery that gave rise to the popularity of cooking shows in the first place, and made “channels specializing in food” possible.

In case you didn’t know, one of the first cooking demonstration shows ever was Child’s The French Chef.  It was filmed in black and white in a rather modest kitchen.  And from my perspective, the editing floor was remarkably clean, because it doesn’t appear that anything was cut from the show.  It resulted in what was truly a “reality” show, not the trash we pass off as reality today.

The French Chef, which was first broadcast on February 11, 1963, was full of real-life kitchen goof-ups.  Julia would sometimes forget her place in the recipe she was demonstrating.  She would sometimes mix ingredients in the wrong sequence.  Pans and utensils would, on occasion, be so elusive as to be invisible.  The end product would sometimes look a little strange and, on rare occasions, wound up being tossed in the trash.

And that’s what made the show so incredibly popular.  Through all the real-life “drama” in Julia’s kitchen, viewers learned the basic (and the not-so-basic) techniques to cooking food once thought only achievable by a master chef.  Of course, Julia herself was classically trained in the art of French cooking, but she worked hard to make difficult processes accessible to cooks of all levels.  And we learned that even great chefs get it wrong sometimes, which made us more likely to give it a go ourselves.

Julia herself became a celebrity.  Her lilting voice, that touch of comedian in her, and her adaptability to the changing conditions of the kitchen and a show that was filmed live without editing brought forth a charm that was addicting.  She brandished a cleaver and a mallet, and she talked about “courage of your convictions” as she flipped half a potato pancake on to the stove.  I don’t have a clue what she was like when the camera wasn’t rolling, but she was lovable when it was.

There have been hundred of cooks on television since, some of them really good.  I think of Justin Wilson (the cajun cook that I always thought was hilarious).  That guy Yan who did the show Yan Can Cook.  Of course, Emeril Lagasse.  The Galloping Gourmet and Mary Ann Esposito.  The list goes on and on.  Julia stands alone.

Recently, our local Public Television station dug into the archives and, for a few weeks at least, showed some of those original episodes.  My wife and I watched them, fascinated by how much television cooking has changed.  Yes, there are far fewer gaffes now.  The stars of the shows don’t make very many mistakes because those are edited out.  They don’t look off-set and they don’t drop their dishes.  But they’re not The French Chef, either.

A while back, when I talked about the movie Die Hard, I said that movie sequels aren’t usually as good as the original.  All those cooking shows we watch now?…they’re the sequels to Julia’s masterful original.

Bon Appetit!!

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This is one that I remember pretty well…

In May of 1991, Gang Lu received his Ph. D. from the University of Iowa.  On November 1, 1991, this young man was dead, along with five others.  Gang Lu, who studied physics and astronomy, was a pretty smart guy, but he was apparently pretty angry as well.

When Mr. Lu was awarded his doctorate, it did not come with special recognition.  The D.C. Spriestersbach Dissertation Prize was much coveted by Lu and, while the monetary prize it offered was modest, he believed it would smooth the path to a professor’s position at the University.  Instead, the prize went to Linhua Shan, at one time Lu’s college roommate, and Lu was not offered a job at Iowa, mostly due to the economics of the day.

His frustration and rage at his supposed rejection grew until it exploded.  On this morning in 1991, Gang Lu attended a physics department meeting and, shortly after it began, Lu took out a gun and shot four people dead.  Three of them were members of his dissertation committee (the ones that evaluated his doctoral thesis).  The fourth was Linhau Shan, the winner of the prize.  He left the building, walked to another, and killed Anne Cleary, an academic affairs officer.  Gang Lu had talked with her on numerous occasions about his failure to win an award for his work.  She died the next day.  He also shot a temp student in the office for good measure (who lived, but was left paralyzed), then shot himself.

I was in my final semester at Iowa State University, working (kind of) feverishly to finish my degree in Computer Science, and I was a member of the Computer Science Club.  We happened to be meeting that afternoon and I still can remember sitting with them and discussing the incident, trying to grasp what would make someone act in such a heinous manner.  As a club, we sent a card of condolence to Iowa City, and I seem to recall that we were sorry for the tragedy.

But looking back, it wasn’t a “tragedy” at all.  Yes, it was terribly sad, and a bunch of families were forever changed.  But Gang Lu’s actions were despicable…a horrific crime committed solely out of selfishness, greed, and envy.  The dissertation committee had to make a choice, and it didn’t go one man’s way.  So rather than accept the decision, that one man let his fury control his life…and his death…and the unwarranted deaths of others.

I still shake my head over this, 20-some years later.

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Tonight, the country is focused on the East Coast.  And that’s as it should be.  The storm that hit (and continues to pummel) has devastated parts of that region and left an incredible mess for lots of people to try and clean up.  Some of the images bring to mind the tsunami that struck Japan not quite two years ago.  So tonight, we’ll do a little bit of homage to the Big Apple.

Let’s talk about Ben Bailey and Cash Cab, since its home is New York City.

Now when you first think of game shows, your mind’s eye might conjure up images of a fancy set with a pretty hostess.    Maybe there’s a wheel that gets spun by some contestants, or maybe there are prizes on which people bid.  We might hear Johnny yell, “Come on down!!”  Or maybe it’s doors and deals that flash before you.  You can name that tune in just seven notes.  You want big bucks and no whammies.  You can be a millionaire.  What you see is a high-dollar production.

Cash Cab takes place in a taxi.  It’s a minivan taxi and its high-dollar production is limited to a series of small cameras placed throughout the taxi’s interior, a “video bonus” monitor, and a cool light panel mounted in the roof.

And game shows always have a host.  It’s usually a guy with a coat and tie.

Cash Cab has Ben Bailey.  Bailey, who was born on October 30, 1970, is a stand-up comedian turned game-show host extraordinaire.  He wears a shirt and jeans and looks to be the farthest thing from a traditional host.

Unsuspecting people climb into his cab, which then explodes with lights and music and Ben saying, “Welcome to the Cash Cab…it’s a game show that takes place right here in my taxi.”  The show is really just a very up-to-date (and very entertaining) version of Trivial Pursuit.  As contestants are driven to their destination, Ben asks trivia questions.  Every correct answer wins the group money.  Incorrect answers earn a strike.  If a question or two is particularly challenging, contestants can either phone a friend for help or use a “street shout-out”, where a person on the street has the ability to help.  But be careful!…three strikes and Ben pulls the cab over and kicks everybody to the curb.

There is also the fun “red-light challenge”.  If the Cash Cab reaches its destination, the contestants can either take their winnings or risk it all on a single double-or-nothing video bonus question.

The premise is simple, but it’s incredibly entertaining to watch.  Ben Bailey is charming, witty, and really gracious with the folks that get in his cab, expecting nothing more than a ride.

Cash Cab is a great trivia show built on a totally unsuspecting premise (a cab ride), and Ben Bailey is the perfect host.  Kudos to the Discovery Channel for running with the idea.

Happy Birthday, Ben Bailey!!

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It’s been a pretty quiet month, that’s for sure!  Well, not quiet in terms of everyday life, but certainly in terms of my presence on these pages.  I’ll aim to do a bit better going forward.

Let’s check back in with Dick Proenneke, because if anyone knew about quiet and solitude, it was Dick.   As you know, he had begun building his own cabin and carving out a “retirement” existence on the shores of Twin Lakes, south and west of Anchorage, Alaska.  The summer of 1968 was super-busy, as it was spent completing his new home.

And then it was done, but there was still work to do.  Other than the few basics that Babe Alsworth brought in by plane (flour, salt, eggs, etc.), Dick had to fend for himself.  So there was hunting and hiking and chopping firewood for the chim…

Hmmm…Proenneke’s finished cabin didn’t have a chimney.  And now it was September, and the brutal cold of winter wasn’t all that far away, particularly in Alaska.  But if we’ve learned anything about our retiree, it’s that he planned ahead.  Part of his summer chores included gathering a pile of bigger rocks from the nearby stream, and ordering some bags of concrete mix that Babe flew in with the T-Craft.

And on September 6, 1968, Dick Proenneke began building his chimney.  The first step was to cut a hole in the rear of the house.  It was a bit sad, he thought, to cut up what he had so carefully laid in, but warmth in frigid temperatures (that approached -50°) was paramount.  And once the hole was cut, he was committed to finish.

As you might expect, the job was done before the cold arrived, and when it was -45° outside, the inside of the cabin, with the help of the fireplace, stayed a relatively balmy 40°.

But don’t take my word for it.  If you haven’t already, go buy the videos (I hear rumor that a 3rd video is in the works) or read the book.  You’ll get the full scoop.

Recommended Reading:  One Man’s Wilderness

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We watched a comedian some time ago on television and he joked about his fear of bears.  Before his first visit to Alaska, he discussed his concerns with a friend.  His friend told him not to worry, because “the bear is more afraid of you than you are of it.”  The comedian responded by saying, “I’m pretty sure the bear is wrong.

And based on the tale that Richard Proenneke tells, I would have to agree with the comedian.

For Proenneke, July 2, 1969 was a day of celebration.  He had lost his axe the previous day, and that was a terrible loss.  He would write in his diary, “After all the miles we had traveled together, building everything, I hated the thought of losing it.  A man could no more afford to lose his axe out here than he could his wallet full of folding money in a strange city.”  All plans for the day were scrapped and the search was on.  He scoured the cabin, he retraced his steps over the last several days, which meant walking trails and digging through the brush.  His relentless search paid dividends, as he finally found the axe on the third search of his cabin.

As you may recall, Proenneke had come to Twin Lakes, Alaska the year before and carved out his own little existence, building his own cabin in the midst of fantastic surroundings and almost complete solitude.  Over time, he had augmented his in-ground cool-box with a stilted cache, where he put things out of the reach of the local wildlife, particularly bears, which rambled around his home in search of food.

Today he would see another bear, though not at all in the manner he desired.

Proenneke decided his celebration would be spent in the high country.  He left his camera and his rifle at home, not wanting the extra weight on what promised to be a day of strenuous exercise.  He paddled across the lake with just his binoculars and his sixty-power eyepiece and tripod.

He climbed up high, past the pesky insects, and watched bighorn sheep, moose, and even a brown bear with her cubs in the distance.  As the temperatures began to drop, he headed back down.  He had just broken out of the willows when he heard a crashing the trees to his right.

Richard turned, expecting to see a moose, but instead saw a huge brown bear charging at him just fifty feet away.  When yelling and waving his hands failed to stop the bear’s charge, he turned and fled, only to trip and fall on his back.  He penned in his diary, “…I started kicking at the great broad head as it burst through the willow leaves.  And then as he loomed over me, a strange thing happened.  The air whooshed out of him as he switched ends.  Off he went up the slope, bunching his huge bulk, climbing hard, and showering stones.  Not once did he look back.

Proenneke believed the bear, at the last moment, caught the strange scent of human.  The bear probably saw Proenneke’s movement from a distance and charged, thinking it was dinner.  Just in time, the bear relented and left.  Richard continued his trip home, unable to think of anything but those few deadly seconds, and unable to stop shaking.  From now on, his rifle would be an automatic accessory for travel.

When he finally went to bed, he wrote, “I lay awake for a long time.  My mind kept returning to the bear.

Recommended Reading:  One Man’s Wilderness

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“It was good to be back in the wilderness again, where everything seems at peace.  I was alone – just me and the animals.  It was a great feeling – free once more to plan and do as I pleased.  ‘Beyond’ was all around me.  My dream was a dream no longer.  I suppose I was here because this was something I had to do – not just dream about it but do it.  I suppose too I was here to test myself – not that I had never done it before, but this time it was to be a more thorough and lasting examination.  What was I capable of that I didn’t know yet?  Could I really enjoy my own company for an entire year? And was I equal to everything this wild land could throw at me?  I had seen its moods in late spring, summer, and early fall, but what about the winter?  Would I love the isolation then, with its bone-stabbing cold, its ghostly silence?  At age 51, I intended to find out.”

And with those words, I was introduced a couple of years ago to the world of Richard Proenneke (pronounced PREN-ick-ee).  Born in the southeast corner of Iowa in 1916, his greatest adventure wouldn’t begin for a half century.  He was (unlike me) very skilled with his hands.  His carpentry skills served him well in the Navy, and his ability as a mechanic and repairman made him the person people called when a fix was needed.  His skills were so in demand that, by the age of 51, he had socked enough money away to retire.

But his retirement would be very different than what many of us might imagine.

Dick Proenneke chucked civilization, with all its convenience and comfort, and headed for Twin Lakes, Alaska.  Located roughly 130 miles southwest of Anchorage, it may not seem at first blush to be “the middle of nowhere”, but it was.  There was no electricity, no running water, no gas lines, no grocery stores, and no neighbors (if you don’t count Spike Carrithers’ cabin situated on the upper lake).  There wasn’t even a road.  If anything or anybody got to Twin Lakes, it required walking over the mountains or an airplane with floats.  But this was the pristine setting Proenneke sought.

Proenneke first arrived in 1967, when he stayed long enough to cut down and trim the spruce trees he would use to build his cabin as well as select his cabin site.  He returned the following May to begin construction.  Not wanting to carry a bunch of luggage (remember, transportation was a tremendous issue), he brought only the most basic hand tools, and most of those without handles (for easier packing).  His first job was to fashion handles for the tools he would need.

And then he was ready.  Four days after his arrival, on May 25, 1968, Dick Proenneke made the first cuts in the first logs of what would eventually become his cabin.  Once completed, he would live in Alaska for more than a year, after which he returned home to visit family.  He would come back to his cabin in the spring of 1970 and would remain there, living mostly in complete solitude, until age and health issues forced him to leave in 1998, at the age of 82.  Proenneke has passed on, but the cabin remains, maintained with its owner’s care by the National Park Service.

One of the coolest things about Proenneke’s time in Alaska is that he filmed it and kept journals.  Those records have been turned into several videos and at least one book that chronicles his first year alone in the wilderness.  My wife got me the complete video set (and the book) this past Christmas and I’ve already watched the videos several times.  I found the book to be equally fascinating.  Public Television shows these videos on occasion, but it’s way better just to buy your own set.

For me, there’s something very intriguing about watching a man use his hands and his wits to solve a problem.  What makes it more compelling is the fact that this particular man did it in a place of such magnificent beauty, completely unaided by modern technology and helping hands.

Recommended Reading:  One Man’s Wilderness – A diary of Dick Proenneke’s first sixteen months in Alaska.

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