Wednesday, 29 February 2012

I'd Rather Play a Maid than Be a Maid

Dressed in a beautiful gown, her hair trimmed with gardenias, her face beaming, Hattie McDaniel arrived at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel on February 29, 1940 for the Twelfth Academy Awards.  That night she would make history by becoming the first black actress to receive an Oscar for a supporting role in the film "Gone with the Wind".  Ironically, she and her guest sat at a table for two, separated from the other guests due to their skin colour.  Nonetheless, Miss McDaniel was thrilled to be given the role and the award stating that she "would rather play a maid than be a maid".

Born in Kansas in 1895 to a Civil War veteran father and a gospel singer mother,  Hattie and her family moved to Colorado when she was young.  She attended elementary and high school there, but then left school to hone her skills as a singer, songwriter, actress and comedienne.  Hattie was the first black woman to sing on American Radio.  She and her brother participated in a minstrel show in the 1920's.  Hattie then moved to Hollywood  where she found work on The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour on radio.

Her film debut in "The Golden West" took place in 1932.  Starring in almost 40 films in the 1930's, Hattie almost always played a maid or a cook.  The N.A.A.C.P. criticized her for perpetuating black stereotypes even down to the "Negro dialect" that she used when she delivered her lines.  However, to her credit, Hattie usually turned these maids into "sassy, independent" characters. 

In 1939, the role of the lifetime presented itself to her when she auditioned for Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind".  Although the competition was almost as stiff for the "Mammy" (a former slave turned maid) role as for the "Scarlet O'Hara" (Southern debutante) role, Hattie still aced the audition, arriving in a proper maid's uniform and delivering flawless lines.  Everyone remembers the famous scene, now depicted on collective plates, of Mammy tightening Scarlet's girdle as the latter holds on to the bedpost.  Gone with the wind is the highest grossing movie of all time and won Oscars for best picture, director, screenplay, cinematography, art direction, film editing and best actress, among others.   

Hattie went on to make many other movies, but it was impossible to top "Gone with the Wind".  She remained friends with Clark Gable, who had played "Rhett Butler", and he attended parties at her house every year.  Although she was married four times, each union was shortlived and childless.  She passed away of breast cancer in 1952. 

Note:  I found an excellent poem on the Internet by poet Rita Dove.



HATTIE MCDANIEL ARRIVES AT THE COCONUT GROVE*


late, in aqua and ermine, gardenias
scaling her left sleeve in a spasm of scent,
her gloves white, her smile chastened, purse giddy
with stars and rhinestones clipped to her brilliantined hair,
on her free arm that fine Negro,
Mr. Wonderful Smith.

It's the day that isn't, February 29th,
at the end of the shortest month of the year—
and the [dullest] too, everywhere
except Hollywood, California
where the maid can wear mink and still be a maid,
bobbing her bandaged head and cursing
the white folks under her breath as she smiles
and shoos their silly daughters
in from the night dew…what can she be
thinking of, striding into the ballroom
where no black face has ever showed itself
except above a serving tray?

Hi-Hat Hattie, Mama Mac, Her Haughtiness,
The "little lady" from Showboat whose name
Bing forgot, Beulah & Bertha & Malena
& Carrie & Violet & Cynthia & Fidelia,
one half of the dark Barrymores—
dear Mammy, we can't help but hug you crawl into
your generous lap tease you
with such arch innuendo so we can feel that
much more wicked and youthful
and sleek but oh what

we forgot: the four husbands, the phantom
pregnancy, your famous parties, your celebrated
ice box cake. Your giggle above the red petticoat's rustle,
black girl and white girl walking hand in hand
down the railroad tracks
in Kansas city, six years old.
The man who advised you, now
that you were famous to 'begin eliminating"
your more common acquaintances
and your reply (catching him square
in the eye): "That's a good idea.
I'll start right now by eliminating you."
Is she or isn't she? Three million dishes,
a truckload of aprons and headrags later, and here
you are: poised, between husbands
and factions, no corset wide enough
to hold you in, your huge face a dark moon split
by that spontaneous smile – your trademark,
your curse. Not matter, Hattie: It's a long, beautiful walk
into that flower-smothered standing ovation,
so go on
and make them wait. 

Rita Dove

*First published in the New Yorker magazine on May 10, 2004.


Photo of Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in "Gone with the Wind" courtesy http://classicmoviestills.com.



Tuesday, 28 February 2012

If Saddlebags Could Talk

"[The circuit rider]  went through storms of wind, hail, snow, and rain; climbed hills and mountains, traversed valleys, plunged through swamps, swollen streams, lay out all night, wet, weary, and hungry, held his horse by the bridle all night, or tied him to a limb, slept with his saddle blanket for a bed, his saddle-bags for a pillow. Often he slept in dirty cabins, ate roasting ears for bread, drank butter-milk for coffee; took deer or bear meat, or wild turkey, for breakfast, dinner, and supper. This was old-fashioned Methodist preacher fare and fortune."*

John Wesley, the first circuit rider and the father of Methodism, was born in 1703 in England.  The son of a rector, he grew up in the Anglican church.  Attending Oxford University, John, his brother Charles and their friend George Whitefield, started the Holy Club, a Christian group.  John and George started preaching in Anglican churches, but were not well received given their message:  live your life according to the method laid down in the Bible.  They believed that the Holy Spirit converts souls to Christianity and that we should strive for Christian "perfection", keeping our hearts pure.  George was a dynamic preacher and when London's Anglican churches banned him, he held an open air service in the small town of Kingswood.  John followed suit and attracted an audience of 3000 on his second attempt. 

These open air services, or "field preaching" led to circuit riding.  John Wesley took his horse, loaded his saddlebags and set out for his charges.  Sometimes he faced angry mobs who tried to break up his meetings; sometimes he was stoned or beaten.  Yet the Holy Spirit filled him with a fire to spread God's word:  he was unstoppable.  He travelled England's countryside for forty years, covering a quarter of a million miles, preaching 42,000 sermons, giving away 30,000 pounds.  He also wrote 200 books and hundreds of hymns. 

On this day in 1784, John Wesley chartered the first Methodist church in the United States.  He had felt that after the American Revolution a decade before, English Anglicans had abandonned their American counterparts.  With his own brand of Christianity, he tried to fill that spiritual void.  He ordained Dr. Thomas Coke who went on to ordain Francis Asbury. 

The latter continued Wesley's tradition of circuit riding in America.  Circuit riders with small territories had three or four churches to visit, but riders with big circuits had to cover 300 miles.  They were poorly paid, persecuted, and had little time to rest; in fact, some had to read the Bible while on horseback to prepare their sermons.  Marriage was frowned upon for circuit riders and life on the road was lonely.  Half of them died before the age of 33 due to the harsh conditions and unrealistic expectations. 

Yet despite their struggles, circuit riders sparked a hunger for Christianity in America.  By 1800, tent revivals sprung up in the Appalachians, the first meeting being held in Kentucky and attracting 10,000 people.  These tent revivals led to more congregations forming which led to more churches being built.  The circuit riders gave a great contribution to Methodism and to Christianity in North America (Canada also had circuit riders).  And it all started with a young man named John Wesley.

*Source:  "Circuit Riders in Early American Methodism", Robert Simpson.



Drawing of John Wesley on horseback courtesy http://4.bp.blogspot.com.



Monday, 27 February 2012

Ontario's Train Stations

I remember visiting the Hamilton Train Station in the North end to pick up my grandparents on Christmas Eve.  It was a huge stone building with four columns like the Parthenon; inside were high ceilings and long wooden benches.  Built in a modern style, the station closed in recent years and now houses Liuna Gardens, a restaurant for wedding receptions.



Hamilton Railway Station photo courtesy www.thespec.com.






When we moved to Brantford, we invited a friend from Windsor who arrived on the train.  I was pleased to see that the city had preserved the original brown brick station complete with a large turret designed in the Gothic, Romanesque and Chateauesque styles. 






My Dad used to take the train to visit his uncle in Kirkton.  He and his Dad would stop at St. Mary's junction, a one storey stone building with gabled roofs, arched windows and doors.  Then they would head to a restaurant in the stone town, a rare occasion, where they would dine on liver and onions. 




Photo of St. Mary's Junction courtesy http://viastation1.jpg.



My Dad and my Grandad would start their journey at Toronto's Union Station, a majestic building with a row of columns at the front, constructed in the beaux arts classicism style.




Photo of Toronto's Union Station courtesy http://planetware.com.



When I visited Goderich in the summers as a child, I got to take a peek at its train station, a red brick building with a large turret.







We drove by the Kingston train station when we went to the Thousand Islands in 1997; it is a beautiful two storey building with a mansard roof.





Photo of Kingston Train Station courtesy http://farm1.staticflickr.com.



When we visited Westfield Heritage Village near Rockton, we took a peek at the Jerseyville train station, a quaint wooden structure that was used to film the 1980's TV production of "Anne of Green Gables".





Train stations are often beautiful structures and I am pleased to see that many of the Ontario buildings have been preserved.   













Sunday, 26 February 2012

I Walk the Line

According to Wikipedia, Johnny Cash was a "troubled, but devout Christian".  Although his song "I Walk the Line" refers to his attempts to stay faithful to his first wife, Vivian Liberto, while he was on the road, you could say that he "walked the line" between darkness and light.  Raised in a Christian home, Cash was always a believer, but he battled addictions to drugs and alcohol that would haunt him for much of his life.  But what I believe appealed to the general public was how real Johnny Cash was.  He showed a rare and refreshing humility.

Johnny Cash was born on this day in 1932 in Arkansas, the fourth child of seven.  His father was a cotton farmer and his mother, a homemaker.  Growing up during the Great Depression, the family struggled financially especially when their farm was flooded not once but twice leading Johnny to write "Five Feet High and Rising".  Close to his older brother Jack, Johnny was devastated when his brother was almost cut in two by a saw while working at the local mill.  Within a week, Jack passed away and Johnny always felt guilty that he had not been present to help him, but was off fishing that day instead.  One outlet for Johnny was music:  he played guitar and wrote songs at an early age. 

By 1950, he joined the Army and was assigned to an American base in Germany.  He had met a girl named Vivian Liberto three weeks before he deployed and during his time abroad, the couple exchanged many love letters.  Returning to the United States in 1954, Johnny and Vivian married.  Within a short time, they started a family:  Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara.  Johnny took a job selling appliances while he studied radio announcing. 

He got up the courage to audition at Sun Records, but his gospel sound was originally turned down.  He returned to play a rockabilly song and this time was given a contract.  In 1956, Johnny got to jam in an impromptu session with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.

By the early 1960's, Johnny started touring with the Carter Family, including June, and her two sisters.  Johnny had given into temptation and had carried on affairs by this point in his marriage.  He found himself strongly attracted to June.  His years on the road had taken their toll, evident in songs like "So Doggone Lonesome". 

He turned to alcohol to relieve the loneliness, evident in one song he wrote called "Kneeling Drunkard's Plea".  Because of the pressures of performing and having to stay awake for long hours, Johnny also found himself addicted to barbituates.  Due to drug possession, he did spend the night in jail on a couple of occasions, although not in Folsom Prison.  The song "Folsom Prison Blues", one of his signature songs, was based on the movie "Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison", which he watched while he was in the Army in 1951.  Johnny felt compassion for prisoners and later held free concerts in American prisons.

The singer found refuge in his faith in God, evident in the fact that he liked to sing many Christian songs, some written by him, some by others, like:  "Agony in Gethsemane", "Choosing of the Twelve Disciples" and "Crucifixion".

Johnny and Vivian divorced in 1966 and Johnny started dating June Carter.  June, with the help of her parents, helped Johnny become sober, staying with him at his mansion for a month straight.  In London, Ontario, in 1968, Johnny Cash proposed to June Carter and she said "Yes".  They were married later that year in Kentucky and two years later June gave birth to a boy, John Carter Cash.

Johnny went on to record more songs, including many Christian ones.  He recorded the new King James version of the New Testament.  Always referred to as the "Man in Black", Johnny wrote a song called "Man in White" about Jesus.  He also performed and recorded with his wife; they co-wrote the song "Ring of Fire".

Johnny and June's marriage would be a lasting one.  June passed away first followed by Johnny in 2003.  A memorial headstone for the couple has the inscription:  "I Walk the Line". 



Photo of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash courtesy http://upload.wikimedia.org/.



Saturday, 25 February 2012

Exercise Gives You Energy

I joined a fitness club two years ago and I have never regretted the decision.  Ironically, exercise gives me more, not less energy.  I used to exercise first thing in the morning and it would give me the energy to make the long drive to Brampton to visit my sister when she was in the hospital.  Exercise not only gives you physical energy but mental energy as well.  If I have cobwebs in my brain, a turn on the elliptical machine can clean them right out.  I find that I often get good ideas when I am exercising.  The circulation of the blood leads to the awakening of the mind.  When I get off the elliptical machine, I often have my most lucid moments.  No matter how badly I feel when I arrive at the gym, I always feel better once I leave.  If I push myself hard enough, I get a natural high.  And the older you get, the more you need exercise.  Your metabolism slows down, your bones lose density, your muscles shrink, your stress increases.  Working out can control all of these things.  Thank you, McFit!







Friday, 24 February 2012

Frozen Falls

On February 24, 1888, a local newspaper reported that 20,000 people had tobogganed on a natural ice bridge at Niagara Falls that day.  In fact, people littered the Niagara Gorge's frozen banks like ants on an anthill.  Tourists visited shanties on the ice where they purchased liquor, photographs or curiosities.  One winter, back in 1848, Niagara Falls residents woke up to silence, wondering what had happened to the roar of the falls:  the chute had frozen in mid-air, due to an ice jam on the river, turning it into a giant wall of icicles.  The chute would freeze in later winters as well including:  1902, 1909, 1911, 1936 , 1938 and 1949.  The ice bridge continued to be a source of entertainment for Niagara Falls tourists until 1912 when the ice bridge collapsed and some people fell into the river, resulting in three drowning deaths.  From that year on, crossing the ice bridge became illegal.  Not every year saw the formation of the ice bridge, but it was so thick in 1938 that it caused the collapse of the Honeymoon Bridge.  Some years authorities used dynamite to break up that ice bridge when it became too thick.  The last ice bridge formed in 1954.  Ten years later, authorities started putting an ice boom across the river at Lake Erie to prevent the formation of an ice bridge on the Niagara Gorge.






Photo of frozen Niagara Gorge circa 1902 courtesy http://1.bp.blogspot.com.







Thursday, 23 February 2012

Picture a Tree

Barbara Reid visited Brantford Christian School today as part of their Book Fair.  As a volunteer at the book table, I got to listen in on her presentation to the students.  And what a presentation it was!  Barbara started by giving the kids some back ground on her various books including Two by Two (about Noah's Ark), The Subway Mouse (she lives on the Danforth in Toronto, just above the subway), The Party (about her two little girls going to a birthday party), The Gift (about a lady travelling the globe looking for the perfect present), Have You Seen Birds?,  Fox Walked Alone, Read Me a Book, Sing a Song of Mother Goose and Perfect Snow (her girls building a snow fort at school).

She told us that designing a picture for a book using plasticine was like making a pizza.  As a chef begins with a crust, she begins with a piece of cardboard.  Then bit by bit she adds different colours of plasticine just as a chef adds the toppings.  She explained how she used certain instruments to show texture in her pictures like the end of a paintbrush to poke holes in the moon or the tip of a pencil to make a hole in a cow's ear. 





Photo courtesy www.mommykatandkids.com.


Barbara spent a lot of time discussing her inspiration for her newest book, Picture a Tree.  For instance, she has a dog named Ruby that she walks each day and she notices the trees as she strolls.  Here are some of her observations.  For instance, an early picture contrasts a black tree against a winter-white sky.  Another picture shows how a cloud behind a tree can make it look like it has hair.  The author features a tree-lined street that looks like an archway, using brilliant colours to form the old Toronto houses.  A busy high rise apartment building serves as the backdrop for a large tree which provides a bird's eye view of the goings-on of the tenants (the tree has a busy beehive to mimic the lady in the window who is multitasking).  "Some trees are sun umbrellas" says the caption above a busy street scene on the Danforth showing kids eating ice cream on a sweltering summer day.  Barbara shows the different generations as she contrasts an old twisted tree with a grandfather examining it and a baby tree that is just starting to sprout beside an infant in his bouncy chair  Fall foliage in full bloom is what the author calls "a wild goodbye party".  Snowcovered trees mimick children in snowsuits.  White blossoms signal spring.  The final scene shows her dog, Ruby, to whom the book is dedicated.





Photo courtesy www.2.bp.blogspot.com.


I rushed to Lynden Park Mall and bought the last copy of Picture a Tree in town and then had it autographed by the author.  The next time you visit a bookstore or library, pick up a Barbara Reid book.  They are amazing!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Just As I Am

It is estimated that he brought more than 3.2 million people to Christ.  He was the spiritual advisor to every American President from Truman to Bush.  He has visited at least 185 countries in his lifetime. He has written 29 books and is approaching his 95th birthday.  His name is Billy Graham.

Although he is known worldwide today, Billy Graham had humble roots.  He was born on November 7, 1918, the son of a North Carolina dairy farmer.  He converted to Christianity at a revival meeting back in 1934.  He attended Florida Bible Institute where he would paddle a canoe up the Hillsborough River, p[reaching to the birds, alligators and cypress stumps.  Graduating in 1940, he then attended Wheaton college in Illinois, obtaining an anthropology degree three years later. 

In 1943, Billy married Ruth Bell and they resided in a log cabin in North Carolina designed by his bride.  He was ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention and started preaching.  However, Billy Graham did not achieve national recognition until 1949 when he conducted revival meetings in tents in Los Angeles.  Billy delivered sermons on the radio and on TV.  The evangelical caught the eye of William Randolph Hearst, a news mogul who promoted the pastor in his newspapers.  By 1954, Billy Graham graced the cover of Time magazine. 

While busy at work, he also made time for family as he and his wife had five children.  With fame, came certain dangers.  In his everyday routine, Billy always made it a point of never being alone with a woman other than his wife, even leaving an elevator that carried just one woman, so as not to be accused of inappropriate behaviour.  This came to be known as the Billy Graham Rule.

By the 1950's, Billy started holding crusades in parks, theatres and other large venues. In 1964, he filled a pavilion at the World's Fair in New York City.  Preaching the gospel, he would surround himself with a choir of up to 5000 members.  As the choir sang "Just As I Am", the pastor would hold an altar call, asking people to come to the front and give their lives to Christ.  Billy Graham was the first big name evangelist to go behind the Iron Curtain, risking the wrath of the Communist leaders.  At one such crusade in Moscow in 1992, a quarter of the audience (155,000 people) responded to his altar call.

Yes, Billy Graham has brought millions of people to Christ through word of mouth, through the media, through the 29 books he has written, and through his crusades.  Everyone knows his name.  However, who brought Billy Graham to Christ?  A farm worker named Albert McMakin.  One person can make a big difference.  

Note:  Billy Graham has left a legacy for his 5 children, 19 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren. His son Franklin, also a minister, runs Samaritan's Purse which oversees Operation Christmas Child, among other things. His grandson, Tullian Tchividjian, is the senior pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida.



Photo courtesy http://upload.wikimedia.org.



Tuesday, 21 February 2012

La Gazzella Negra

It was the summer of 1960 in Rome, Italy.  At the Stadio Olimpico, the thermometre had reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit as 80,000 spectators waited anxiously for the race to start.  Eight women took their mark at the start line for the 100 metre dash.  The gun popped and the women took flight.  The American pulled ahead and blazed to the finish in 11 seconds flat, a world record if not for the wind at her back.  For the second race, the American took her place once again on the track.  The spectators watched in anticipation for the 200 metre race.  Once again, the American passed everyone, crossing the finish line in 23.2 seconds and breaking the Olympic record.  A few days later, the American, Wilma Rudolph, along with her 3 teammates, lined up for the 4 by 100 metre relay.  Baton in hand, the women who would run the first leg of the race put their feet into the blocks.  The gun went off and the women burst out of the blocks.  One by one, the American women blazed down the track, winning the race in 44.5 seconds and setting a world record.  Wilma Rudolph, watched the American flag raise and listened to the Star Spangled Banner 3 times in Stadio Olimpico that summer.  The Italians nicknamed her "La Gazzella Negra", the black gazzelle. 

What makes Wilma Rudolph's story even more remarkable is her childhood.  Raised by a railroad porter father and a maid mother, she was the 20th of 22 children.  Because the family was poor, the mother often made her daughters' dresses out of flour sacks.  Only 4.5 pounds at birth, Wilma seemed to get every disease, including scarlet fever and polio.  Being black, her parents could not take her to the white hospital to be treated and her mother often had to care for her on her own.  After her bout with polio, doctors told Mrs. Rudolph that Wilma would never walk again.  Wilma wore a leg brace from age 6 to 9.  Her mother refused to accept this news and took Wilma to a black hospital in Nashville.  Wilima wore a leg brace from ages 6 to 9.  Then for two years, her mother took her twice a week to the Nashville hospital for physiotherapy.  Mrs. Rudolph and her other children also gave Wilma exercices at home to restore her crippled leg.  At 12, Wilma started walking on her own, her leg healed.  In junior high, she joined her school basketball team, but the coach did not let her play for three years.  By high school, she became a starting guard, setting state records and leading them to a state championship.  Wilma caught the eye of the Tennessee State track and field coach who offered her a full track scholarship. 

After the 1960 Summer Olympics, Wilma flew home from Rome where a parade awaited her in Clarksville.  She insisted that it be racially integrated, the first such event ever held in her hometown.  She retired from track in 1962, studied at university and then took a job as a teacher at her alma mater.



Wilma Rudolph crossing finish line of women's relay at Stadio Olimpico in Rome in 1960 courtesy http://graphics8.nytimes.com.



  







 

Monday, 20 February 2012

Paricutin

Mexican farmer Dioniso Pulido was readying his fields for spring when he heard a thundering noise in his cornfield on February 20, 1943.  Right before his very eyes, a fissure 150 feet in length appeared in the earth of his cornfield and his nose detected the smell of rotten eggs.  Then a cone started to form out of the fissure, growing to a couple of metres high and spouting smoke.  By the following day, the hill had grown to 30 feet and the hole at the top was hurling out rocks.  Within a week, the mountain was five stories high, still spouting lava.  Mini eruptions punctuated the formation of the cone.  Within a year, the  mountain reached 336 metres high.  It had experienced a major eruption, burying the nearby towns of Paricutin and San Juan Parangaricutiro.  It was now 424 metres high, visible from quite a distance.  The volcano was named Paricutin after one of the towns it buried.  Twentieth Century Fox made a film about the volcano called "Captain from Castile" which premiered in 1947.  But it wasn't finished its business:  in 1949, the locals experienced its worst eruption yet, as lava covered 12 square miles and ashes reached as far as Mexico City, 200 kilometres away.  Almost 1000 Mexicans perished.  In 1952, almost as suddenly as it became active, the volcano lay dormant; it is considered extinct now, never to erupt again.  Paricutin is one of only a few volcanoes whose birth was witnessed by humans.  It is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.



Postcard of Paricutin circa 1940's courtesy http://ecx.images-amazon.com.



Sunday, 19 February 2012

Oil Springs

In the summer of 1998, before we had children, we decided to take a day trip with my family to Oil Springs, Ontario.  We piled into my parents powder blue Tempo, my Mom, Dad, brother Bill, husband Rob and myself.  Shoulder to shoulder, we held our breath as we drove slowly down the road, Rob and Bill complaining about the boring trip to come as I sat between them. 

Across the Southwestern Ontario's flat land rolled the Tempo on the hot sunny day.  We finally arrived at our destination, a ghost town.  Hundreds of holes littered the ground.  Primitive oil rigs spotted the landscape.  We got out of the car, stretched our legs, and headed into the Oil Springs Museum.  Rob and Bill snickered at the primitive artifacts, drilling equipment and model oil rig.  They were still laughing when we entered a small room with chairs to watch a film about the history of the oil industry.  I thought I might have to sit between them to keep them under control.   

During the film we learned that Oil Springs is home to the world's first commercial oil well, dug by James Williams in 1858.  For a couple of years, the output was good, but in 1860 Mr. Williams abandoned the well and returned to Hamilton.  Nearby Oil Creek in Enniskillen County is home to Canada's first oil gusher, which Hugh Nixon Shaw hit on February 19, 1862.  For several weeks the gusher threw oil up to the tops of the trees, at the rate of 2000 barrels a day.  The nearby village of Petrolia also got in on the act, drilling holes to find the black gold.  By 1870, there were a hundred refineries in the area.

We also learned that Oil Springs, a former boomtown of 3000 people, boasted a Methodist Church (two turrets), a school, a community hall, a hotel (Oxford House), a post office and several general stores.  People were transported by horse-drawn busses on streets with gas-lit lamps, even before they had them in Europe.  Entrepreneurs flocked to the town to get a taste of the black gold. 

After the movie, Rob and Bill were starting to realize the importance of Oil Springs in our Canadian history.  But what really hit home was when our tour guide told us the name of one of the prominent oil families in Oil Springs' heyday -- the Ewings!  The Ewing's were the family from the 1970's and 1980's TV hit "Dallas".  The producers of the show must have done their research thoroughly.  Rob really perked up when he heard that news.  Well, I guess it wasn't a wasted trip afterall.



Photo of Oil Springs circa 1867 courtesy www.lclmg.org.



Saturday, 18 February 2012

Letters to Juliet

In "Letters to Juliet", Sophie, a fact checker with The New Yorker, flies to Verona, Italy with her fiance, Victor.  While chef Victor checks out the Italian cuisine for his American restaurant, Sophie spends her time sightseeing.  On a stroll to Shakespeare's Juliet House in a courtyard, she finds a wall with a loose brick where visitors leave letters to Juliet with questions about love. 

One of the letters, written in 1957 by Claire Smith from Britain, has remained unanswered.  Sophie takes it back to her hotel and carefully pens a response to Claire.  It turns out that the Englishwoman lived in Verona as a student back in the fifties and met a young man named Lorenzo Bartolini; they fell in love, but then parted ways when she returned to England.  Both married other people, had children, watched their families grow up, and then their spouses died.  Moved by the letter, Sophie invited Claire to come back to Verona.

In the meantime, Sophie researched the history of the wall of letters and found out that it dated back to the 1930's.  Originally, a male groundskeeper took it upon himself to answer each letter.  However, as the letters started arriving by the truckload, more letter-writers were needed.  The "Club di Giuletta" formed, composed of several women, all writing answers to the love lorn.

Back at the hotel, Sophie met the elderly Claire who arrived from Britain along with your grandson, Charlie.  Claire suggested that the two women search for her beau Lorenzo and so they opened the phone book and to their dismay found that there were several Bartolini's in Verona.  By process of elimination, they narrowed down the list.  One by one, they tracked down each Lorenzo and one by one they were disappointed to find out they had the wrong man. 

While travelling through the vineyards of Verona, Sophie strikes up her own romance with Charlie, although the latter is not so eager to find Lorenzo, worried that his grandma might be disappointed.  The trio is about to give up their search when Sophie suggests they have a glass of wine at a vineyard they pass.  All of a sudden she spots a young man who looks exactly like Lorenzo Bartolini:  he is the grandson of the long lost beau. 

Before you know it, Claire and Lorenzo are reunited and pick up where they left off in 1957.  Sophie's work is complete and she returns to New York with her fiance.  However, she still wonders about Charlie back in Britain.  A few weeks later, she is invited to Claire and Lorenzo's wedding.  Breaking up with her fiance, she flies to Italy to declare her love for Charlie.  At the nuptials, however, Charlie is there with a woman named Patricia, whom Sophie believes to be his ex-girlfriend.  Sophie runs off and Charlie follows.  Standing on a Romeo-and-Juliet-like balcony, Sophie listens while Charlie tells her that he loves her down below, explaining that Patricia is really his cousin.  Charlie climbs the balcony on a vine and they live happily ever after.

Here is a footnote to the Letters to Juliet plot, a case of life mirroring art.  Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Claire Smith, also met and fell in love with an Italian man decades ago.  His name was Franco Nero and they met on the Warner Brothers' set of "Camelot" in 1966.  They even had a son together, but parted ways.  Forty years later, Claire and Franco got married.  Franco plays Lorenzo Bartolini in "Letters to Juliet".



Photo courtesy http://images2.fanpop.com.



Friday, 17 February 2012

The Jonasson's

My father-in-law, Albert Jonasson, was born in Wunstorf, a small village of 7,000 inhabitants near Hannover, Germany.  His grandfather emigrated from Sweden just before German unification in 1870.  His grandmother worked as a domestic in Hanover where they met.  They married, settled in Loccum, and had five children including Karl, Albert's father.  Karl was drafted into the Army in 1914, photographed with the trademark pickelhaube on his head.  Although he served as a runner on the frontlines in France, he never was injured.  He was, however, taken prisoner of war by the British at the tail end of the war in September of 1918 and held for a year. 

Upon returning to Germany in 1919, he proposed to his girlfriend, Wilhelmina.  They married on April 5, 1920.  The following year, they had their first son, Karl-Heinz.  The early period of their marriage was tough:  the first year, they didn't even have an apartment and lived in two separate residences; later, they found an available apartment, but with limited furnishings.  Germany was financially strained, paying reparations to the other European countries, and its money was hugely devalued.  Karl found steady work on the railroad, first as fireman, later as a locomotive engineer. 

In time, their brood grew:  Robert arrived in 1923, Werner in 1926, Albert in 1932 and Horst in 1936.  They were largely self-sufficient, growing vegetables in their backyard garden, raising animals in an annex attached to the house.  At the end of the 1930's war came to Wunstorf.  Every family in every house on every street lost someone and the Jonasson's were no different.  Karl-Heinz was drafted and sent to the Russian Front.  Robert also fought on the Eastern Front, and went missing in action in Hungary in 1944.  Werner trained as a soldier in Denmark, but never saw action.  Fortunately, Albert and Horst were too young to be drafted.  In the waning days of the war, in May of 1945, Karl-Heinz walked, biked and begged a ride home from the Eastern Front to Wunstorf, a distance of 1000 kilometres. 

Postwar Germany found itself again in a recession.  Thankfully, Wunstorf missed the bombing that large cities like Berlin, Cologne and Dresden experienced.  However, jobs were scarce and the deutschmark was devalued.  With the currency reform in 1948, the economy slowly improved in Germany.  However, recovery wasn't fast enough for the Jonasson brothers.  While Horst chose to stay with their parents to help care for them in their old age, Werner immigrated to Canada in 1953. 

The following year, Karl Heinz and Albert boarded the Seven Seas in Bremerhaven, after buying tickets at $145 each, and headed across the Atlantic as well.  On the one-class ship, the Jonasson brothers watched the World Cup of Soccer on TV, celebrating Germany's victory over Hungary.  Off the coast of Newfoundland, they saw huge icebergs.  In Quebec City, an official asked Albert "Got a passport?", confusing the German who didn't recognize the slang.  They boarded a steam locomotive, headed through Quebec and Ontario, disembarking at Hamilton.  The new Canadians stayed on Ford Street for a short time, later moving to a house on Liberty Street on the day Hurricane Hazel hit.  What an introduction to their new country!


Photo of Wunstorf, Germany courtesy http://upload.wikimedia.org.



Thursday, 16 February 2012

If I Had My Life to Live Over

Interviews with the elderly and the terminally ill do not report that people have regret for the things they have done but rather people talk about the things they regret not having done.

I'd dare to make more mistakes next time.
I'd relax.  I'd limber up.
I would be sillier than I have been this trip.
I would take fewer things seriously.
I would take more chances.
I would take more trips.
I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.
I would eat more ice cream and less beans.
I would perhaps have more actual troubles but I'd have fewer imaginary ones.
You see, I'm one of those people who live sensibly and sanely hour after hour, day after day.
Oh, I've had my moments and if I had it to do over again, I'd have more of them.  In fact, I'd try to have nothing else.  Just moments.
One after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day.

I've been one of those people who never go anywerhe without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat and a parachute.
If I had it to do again, I would travel lighter next time.

If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall.
I would go to more dances.
I would ride more merry-go-rounds.
I would pick more daisies.

Nadine Star (age 85)

"If I Had My Life to Live Over", Chicken Soup for the Soul, 1993.



Photo courtesy http://image.shutterstock.com.



Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Silly Katze, Tricks are for Kids!

Remember the Trix cereal commercial from the 1970's in which a rabbit tries to steal Trix cereal from kids, and each time they respond with "Silly Rabbit, Trix are for kids!"?  Well, every time our cat Midnight performs a trick, I say "Silly Katze, tricks are for kids!" 

Midnight is a constant source of entertainment.  Like a dog, she plays fetch with her little red ball.  We throw it, she retrieves it and brings it back to us in her mouth.  She loves to chase her "mousey toy" as Jacqueline calls it.  When she gets it, she always hides it somewhere, sometimes not to be found for several days.  It is true what they say about cats being curious; Midnight is curious about whatever we have at the moment.  If we are eating, she smells our food.  If Rob is showering, she's peeking her head in the shower, even if she gets wet.  If Jacqueline is reading a book, she sniffs at the edges of the pages.  "Curiousity killed the cat" is not just a wives' tale.

One of the cutest things that Midnight does takes place at the breakfast table.  Rob, who likes to sleep in, is almost always the last one to wake up.  Thomas Jacqueline and I are seated at the table and Midnight jumps up into Rob's empty chair.  She knows that she's not allowed on the table so instead she tries to steal something off of the table, namely Rob's spoon.  First a furry head with little ears appears.  Then a black paw appears, inching the spoon closer to the edge of the table.  Then the other paw appears.  Then, we hear a clunk as the spoon falls to the floor.  Her work is done.

Yes, not all tricks are reserved for dogs or rabbits.  Cats have a few tricks up their sleeves.  I look forward to tomorrow morning when I hear the spoon clang on the floor and say:  "Silly Katze, tricks are for kids!"



Photo courtesy http://cdn.buzznet.com.



Tuesday, 14 February 2012

St. Valentine

The Legend of St. Valentine

St. Valentine, or Valentinus as he was known in Roman times, was an early Christian in Umbria, Italy.  While under house arrest for his beliefs, he met and befriended his jailer, Judge Asterius.  Valentinus shared his faith in God and in Jesus Christ with the judge whereupon the latter asked him to heal his blind daughter.  Valentinus laid hands on the girl and her sight was restored.  Judge Asterius, who had promised Valentinus that he would do anything he wished if he healed his daughter, broke the idols he worshipped, fasted for three days and then was baptized along with 40 other Romans.  Valentinus was later released, only to be jailed again for his beliefs, this time being sent to Emperor Claudius.  The ruler liked Valentinus until the latter started discussing his Christian faith whereupon Claudius told him to renounce Jesus or be executed.  Valentinus refused, was beaten and executed on February 14, 269.  Apparently, he left a note for the jailer's daughter signed "From Your Valentine".  In 496, Pope Gelasius set aside February 14 to honour Saint Valentine.



Photo courtesy http://i3squidoocdn.com.



Monday, 13 February 2012

Florence on the Elbe

It was on this day in 1945 that the city of Dresden was fire bombed, leaving approximately 25,000 Germans dead and an 800 year old city in ruins.  Once called the "Florence on the Elbe", the capital of Saxony dates back to 1216.  Situated on a direct path between Paris and Moscow, Napoleon used it for his base of operations in 1806 in France's victorious campaign against Prussia.  In 1839 Europe's first long distance railroad came to Dresden, filling its cobblestone streets with people.  By the early 1900's, its citizens could stroll across the Elbe on the magnificent Augustus Bridge. 

Painters flocked there like Caspar David Friedrich, painting scenes on the banks of the Elbe, the steeples of the Frauenkirche in the background.  Musicians were inspired by the city's cultural centre including Richard Wagner.  Architects were also drawn to the city as Dresden's skyline grew with beautiful structures like the Frauenkirche (church), Zwinger Palace, Moritzburg Castle, and the Grunes Gewolbe (the "Green Vault" is an art museum which contains the largest collection of treasures in Europe).  Dresden became known for art treasures like the Sistine Madonna.  Sadly, many of these cultural buildings were turned into rubble on three consecutive nights in February of 1945.

However, within the past 25 years, especially since the fall of Communism, the Florence of the Elbe has experienced a rebirth.  Many cultural landmarks have been rebuilt including the Zwinger Palace, the Semperoper (opera house) and the Frauenkirche.  Now tourists flock to Dresden, beautiful once again.


Image of Dresden in 1890's courtesy http://upload.wikimedia.org.












Photo of Dresden after carpet bombing of February 13, 14 & 15, 1945, courtesy http://upload.wikimedia.org.






Sunday, 12 February 2012

Abraham Lincoln Didn't Quit

In honour of Abraham Lincoln's birthday, I have reprinted an excerpt from Chicken Soup for the Soul.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN DIDN'T QUIT

Probably the greatest example of persistence is Abraham Lincoln.  If you want to learn about somebody who didn't quit, look no further...Here is a sketch of Lincoln's road to the White House:

1816  His family was forced out of their home.  He had to work to support them.

1818  His mother died.

1831  Failed in business.

1832  Ran for state legislature -- lost.

1832  Also lost his job --- wanted to go to law school but couldn't get in.

1833  Borrowed some money from a friend to begin a business and by the end of the year he was bankrupt.  He spent the next 17 years of his life paying off this debt.

1834  Ran for state legislature again -- won.

1835  Was engaged to be married, sweetheart died and his heart was broken.

1836  Had a total nervous breakdown and was in bed for six months.

1838  Sought to become speaker of the state legislature -- defeated.

1840  Sought to become elector -- defeated.

1843  Ran for congress -- lost.

1846  Ran for Congress again -- this time he won -- went to Washington and did a good job.

1848  Ran for re-election to Congress -- lost.

1849  Sought the job of land officer in his home state -- rejected.

1854  Ran for Senate of the United States -- lost.

1856  Sought the Vice-Presidential nomination at his party's national convention -- got less than 100 votes.

1858  Ran for U.S. Senate again -- again he lost.

1860  Elected sixteenth president of the United States.

Source Unknown, Chicken Soup for the Soul, 1993.

Never give up -- success could be just around the corner.


Portrait of a young Abraham Lincoln courtesy http://upload.wikimedia.org.



Saturday, 11 February 2012

Thomas Edison: A Canadian Connection

Today is National Inventor's Day in the United States in honour of Thomas Edison, born on this day in 1847, who claimed over 1000 patents.  Although the inventor was born in Ohio, raised in Michigan and did most of his work in New Jersey, he has Canadian roots.  The Edison's hailed from Holland, sailing to the new World in the 1700's.  Thomas Edison's great-grandfather, also Thomas, living in New Jersey, sided against the British in the Revolutionary War.  Ironically, Thomas' grandfather, John, sided with the British and fled to Canada where he was granted land as a United Empire Loyalist in Nova Scotia.  This is where Thomas' father Samuel was born.  Then John and his children moved to Vienna, Ontario on the North shore of Lake Erie.  Samuel became a Captain in William Lyon Mackenzie's insurgents, leading the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837.  On the losing side, Samuel and his wife fled across Lake Erie, settling on the south side at Milan, Ohio.  It was here that Thomas Alva Edison was born ten years later.  Thomas would visit his grandparents in Vienna, Ontario.  He also held a telegraph operator job with the Grand Trunk Railway at the Stratford, Ontario junction for awhile.  His grandfather would remain a Canadian until his death.  If you want to learn more, visit the Edison Homestead, now a museum, in Vienna, Ontario. 




Photo courtesy http://farm5.staticclickr.com.



Friday, 10 February 2012

The Tipping Point

"In sociology, a tipping point is the event of a previously rare phenomenon becoming rapidly and dramatically more common. The phrase was coined in its sociological use by Morton Grodzins, by analogy with the fact in physics that adding a small amount of weight to a balanced object can cause it to suddenly and completely topple." (www.enwikipedia.org)

How did silversmith Paul Revere's cry "The British are coming!" rally the local untrained militia to fight a highly trained British Army in Lexington, Massachussetts?  Why did New York's long running crime wave seemingly topple overnight by the early 1990's?  How did the TV show Sesame Street go from being a possible washout to a program watched by generations of children?  Why did the novel Secrets of the Divine Ya-Ya Sisterhood sell at a snail's pace and then become a bestseller overnight?

 

Drawing courtesy http://wordpress.com.



These are questions that author Malcolm Gladwell tackles in his book The Tipping Point:  How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.  Mr. Gladwell talks about epidemics and how they evolve.  For an epidemic to happen, three players are required:  connectors, mavens and salesmen. 

Connectors are people that bring the world together.  He says that Paul Revere, the man who made the famous midnight ride on horseback from Boston to Lexington, Massuchessetts to alert the local militia that "The British are coming!" which sparked the American Revolution, was a connector.  By the time the British marched to Lexington the next morning, they met with fierce resistance.  If someone less gregarious had made the trip, he might not have rallied the troops so effectively. 

Mavens are "information specialists", according to Malcolm Gladwell, who not only like to accumulate information, but to share it as well.  A maven, for instance, not only knows that Sunlight Laundry Detergent is on sale at the grocery store this week, but he tells everyone he meets as well, not to benefit himself, but simply to help someone else save money.

Salesmen are the "persuaders" who persuade people to buy a certain product or back a certain idea.  They are the ones that twist your arm, sometimes in a subtle manner.  For example, during the 1984 Presidential Campaign, a Syruse University pyschologist ran a study in which the participants were asked to rate the facial expressions of the three nightly newscasters, ABC's Peter Jennings, NBC's Tom Brokaw and CBS's Dan Rather.  While the participants rated Brokaw and Rather as having almost equal expressions regardless of which candidate they were talking about, they found that Jennings smiled much more when he discussed Ronald Reagan than Walter Mondale.  Later the psychologists and his study helpers called people in various American cities and asked them for whom they voted and which news program they watched.  In the majority of cases, those Americans who watched ABC news voted for Ronald Reagan whereas those who watched either NBC or CBS, were less likely to do so.  Whether consciously or not, Peter Jennings was a salesmen.



According to Gladwell, another component of creating an epidemic is the "stickiness factor".  How do you make your product or your idea stick?  Apparently, in the late 1960's a television producer named Joan Ganz Cooney wanted to start an "educational epidemic".  She wanted to promote early literacy by exposing preschoolers to an educational TV show named Sesame Street.  Although the show had a good premise, the producers wanted to make sure it resounded with the kids.  They travelled to Philadelphia in July of 1969 and tested it out in 60 homes with preschoolers.  They were shocked to discover that the children were more attentive to the fantasy characters than the real characters.  "That's when Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch and Snuffleupagus were born."  They successfully blended the "monsters" with the humans.  Philadelphia was the "tipping point" for Sesame Street.



Photo courtesy http://images.wikia.com.





The last factor to creat an epidemic according to Gladwell is the "Power of Context".  In real estate, you would say "Location! Location! Location!".  It is better to own a bad house in a good neighbourhood than a good house in a bad neighbourhood.  Malcolm gave the example of New York City's drastic transformation in the early 1990's from a crime-ridden metropolis to a relatively safe city to which tourists flocked by the thousands.  Although some point out that it was Mayor Rudolph Guiliani's crackdown on crime that cleaned up the city's street, Malcolm maintains that the turnaround started even before Guiliani's election in 1994.

In 1990 city officials focussed on the New York City subway.  Previously run by gangs and thugs, the subway was a rat hole, its tracks covered with trash, its cars painted with graffiti.  One by one, city workers reclaimed the cars, painting over the graffiti.  And one by one, subway workers started having fare busters arrested (many subway riders slipped through broken turnstiles and therefore didn't pay).  Often when the fare busters were arrested, the police often found other "toys" on the criminals like knives or guns.  They were locked up for much bigger crimes.  Something seemingly "small" like getting rid of graffiti ended up fighting something much bigger like hard crime.



Photo of New York City subway car circa 1973 courtesy http://static8.businessinsider.com.





Mr. Gladwell also points out the success of the novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood as an example of an epidemic.  Written by Rebecca Wells, the novel received lukewarm reviews when it first came out in 1996; in fact, the author only had 7 people show up for her first reading in Connecticut.  The hardcover edition did sell a respectable 15,000 copies, but it was far from an epidemic.  Wells says that the turning point came when she started holding readings in Northern California and got audiences of 700 or 800 people.  It was also in California that Divine Secrets first appeared on a bestseller list (Northern California Independant Booksellers List).  Why California and not Connecticut?  Apparently, San Francisco is a hot bed for book clubs.  Ms. Wells' book was a book club book, the type that invited in depth conversations.  Therefore, bookclubbers were buying her book for themselves, for fellow members, for family and for friends.  San Francisco was the tipping point for Rebecca Wells' novel.  By 1998, Divine Secrets had gone through 48 printings and sold 2.5 million copies and was sitting at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List.

Whether you agree with him or not, Malcolm Gladwell's book makes for an interesting read.  Take a moment to ponder how little things can make a big difference.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

London

London

Robert Leighton

To live in London was my young wood-dream,—
London, where all the books come from, the lode
That draws into its centre from all points
The bright steel of the world; where Shakspeare wrote,
And Eastcheap is, with all its memories
Of gossip Quickly, Falstaff, and Prince Hal;
Where are the very stones that Milton trod,
And Johnson, Garrick, Goldsmith, and the rest;
Where even now our Dickens builds a shrine
That pilgrims through all time will come to see,—
London! whose street names breathe such home to all:
Cheapside, the Strand, Fleet Street, and Ludgate Hill,
Each name a very story in itself.
To live in London!—London, the buskined stage
Of history, the archive of the past,—
The heart, the centre of the living world!
Wake, dreamer, to your village and your work.

Source:  www.poetryatlas.com





Photo of Fleet Street in the late 1800's and current day courtesy http://charlesdickenspage.com.





Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Erin Brockovich: Beauty Queen Turned Environmental Activist

Annabelle Daniels: 74-454-9346. 10 years old, 11 in May. Lived on the plume since birth. Wanted to be a synchronized swimmer so she spent every minute she could in the PG&E pool. She had a tumor in her brain stem detected last November, an operation on Thanksgiving, shrunk it with radiation after that. Her parents are Ted & Rita. Ted's got Crohn's disease, Rita has chronic headaches, and nausea, and underwent a hysterectomy last fall. Ted grew up in Hinkley. His brother Robbie, and his wife May and their five children: Robbie Jr, Martha, Ed, Rose & Peter also lived on the plume. Their number is 454-9554, you want their diseases?

("Erin Brockovich", 2000)

Gifted with a photographic memory, endless energy and a passion for justice, Erin Brockovich spearheaded an environmental case against Pacific Gas and Electric Company and won a record $333 million for its 600 victims.  Now she heads up her own company as an environmental activist, receiving thousands of advice-seeking letters, each of which she answers personally.

Born in Kansas in 1960, Erin Pattee was the daughter of an engineer father and a journalist mother.  As a young adult she held various jobs including one at K-Mart, but all were unfulfilling.  She studied electrical engineering at university.  Moving to California in 1982, she entered a Miss Pacific Coast beauty contest and won first prize.  She married, had two children and divorced.  Then she remarried, had a third child, and divorced again. 

As a divorcee with three children she found herself unemployed and in financial straits living in the San Fernando Valley.  She was seriously hurt in a car accident and hired lawyer Ed Masry to take her case.  Unfortunately, Erin Brockovich lost the case but she gained a job at Mr. Masry's law firm as a file clerk.  It was at Masry that she stumbled upon an environmental case involving possibly tainted drinking water due to an ongoing contamination (30 years) from a local company in the town of Hinkley, California.  Disappearing for a few days, Erin hopped in her car, drove through the valley, and hunted down the alleged victims of the case.  One by one, she got to know their stories.  One by one, she started to form a bond with the families.  One by one, she gained their trust. 

Upon returning to the law firm, Ed wanted to fire her, thinking that she was playing hookey.  However, once he heard how much time and energy she had put into the Hinkley case, he let her stay.  Within no time, the Hinkley case became Erin's "raison d'etre"; after searching all of her life for a purpose, she had found one.  With her baby on her hip, and her two other children in toe, she would visit the local water company, request their records, and photocopy the necessary documents to prove their case.

Initially , PG & E tried to settle out of court with Masry and Erin, offering a pittance of a settlement. In the meeting, one of the PG & E company lawyers questioned Erin who asked her if she enjoyed the glass of water that she was drinking saying: "We had that water brought in specially for you folks. It's from a well in Hinkley". The woman, with a cold stare, declared the meeting to be over. 

In time, Ed Masry brought another law firm into the picture to make their case against Pacific Gas and Electric that much stronger.  One of the lawyers looked down her nose at Erin, knowing that she had no legal training or education.  Never one to bite her tongue, Ms. Brockovich set her straight by rhyming off facts, figures, names and dates about the case that might only be found in a computer data bank.  And it was her gift for details along with her passion that won them the case.

Note:  In 2000, Erin Brockovich's story was made into a movie starring Julia Roberts.  Ms. Brockovich has written a book titled Take it from Me:  Life's a Struggle But You Can Win which hit the bestseller list.



Photo courtesy www.lawyersandsettlements.com.



  

Monday, 6 February 2012

A Mouthful of Marbles vs. An Earful of Beethoven

A mouthful of marbles and smoking cigarettes, unorthodox remedies recommended by his former speech therapists, did nothing to help future king "Bertie" to break his stuttering habit.  It took an Australian would-be actor who had treated shell-shocked World War I vets to cure the monarch of his speech impediment.  Back in 1925 at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium, Bertie was asked to make a speech which had disastrous results.  The following year, Bertie heard about the speech therapist, Lionel Logue, and after some persuasion from his wife, he made an appointment with him.  Mr. Logue bet the future king that he could get him to read the Shakespeare soliloquy "To be or not to be" without stuttering.  Then he gave Bertie a pair of headphones, played loudly a piece of classical music on the gramophone, and had him recite a perfect soliloquy.  However, when Bertie took the headphones off, he continued to stutter. 

Through muscle relaxation, breathing techniques and vocal exercises, Lionel started to treat Bertie on a regular basis.  Mr. Logue probed Bertie about his childhood, knowing that speech impediments usually started early:  he found out that Bertie was left-handed and was forced to write with the right hand; he was knock-kneed and had to wear corrective metal braces; one of his nannies had withheld food from him; and his brother John had died quite young.  All of these factors could have contributed to his lack of confidence and his speech impediment.  Through it all, Bertie's dedicated wife, the future queen mother, was by his side, encouraging him.

In the meantime, in 1936, Bertie's brother King Edward VIII abdicated the throne after only a year to marry divorcee Wallis Simpson.  Bertie was reluctantly thrust into the limelight when he was crowned King George VI later that year.  He summoned Lionel Logue to Buckingham Palace where they worked on a speech to be delivered right after the outbreak of World War II.  The king, while looking at Logue, spoke into a microphone and his words were transmitted by radio to his public.  Logue would mark certain parts of the speech where he thought the king might stutter; if you listen to a recording of the delivery you can hear the monarch pause many times, likely trying to summon up the courage to continue.  By this time, King George and Lionel Logue had become good friends.  The Australian was present for all of the king's speeches during World War II.  Just as President Roosevelt's fireside chats on American radio helped calm the fears of the public, so too did King George's speeches on British radio. 

Mr. Logue's successful treatment of Bertie's stutter instilled him with much needed confidence at a crucial time in history; he encouraged Bertie, telling him that he could easily fill the role of king, if his brother abdicated.  Some go so far as to claim that Mr. Logue saved the Monarchy, given that he equipped King George for the role of a leader and given that his brother King Edward VIII was sympathetic to the Nazis and might have led Britain down a different path if he had remained in power.  Lionel Logue received a medal for his service to the king and the two men remained friends until King George's death on February 6, 1952.



Photo of King George delivering his speech on September 4, 1939, courtesy http://static.guim.co.uk.



Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Help

I just finished reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett.  It is her first novel and yet it climbed to Number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list last year.  Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, the novel is based on a young journalism major named Eugenia (Skeeter) Phelan who has just returned from university and is looking for a purpose.  She comes up with the idea to write a book called The Help about the relationship between black maids and the white families for whom they work in the Deep South. 

Skeeter is pleased to gain the trust of two maids, Aibileen and Minny, who pour out their life stories.  It turns out that Aibileen, normally a passive woman who bites her tongue, is also a writer who pens her prayers every evening.  Minny, however, is the type who has always spoken her mind, which has led to her losing many a job.  Both women give Skeeter much to write about.  However, Skeeter has to work much harder to gain the trust of the other ten maids, as her New York publisher has requested the opinions of twelve maids in total.

While she is gaining the trust of the maids, she is losing the trust of her white socialite friends.  A humourous scene ensues where one friend named Hilly Holbrook has requested that Skeeter type a request that everyone send her their old coats to be donated to charity.  Skeeter obliges but deliberately types "commodes" rather than coats in the message, and Hilly's lawn ends up littered with toilets.

As tensions between blacks and whites mount in Jackson, Mississippi (Medgar Evers, an NAACP field secretary, is shot and killed in his own driveway) more black maids start to speak out.  One constant struggle for the maids is how to balance work life and home life.  Yule May longs to send her two sons to college, but is short $75.  She begs her employer to lend her the money, but she turns her down, saying that charity begins at home.  Minny spends her days toilet training Mae Mobley, the young daughter of her employer and the seventeenth white child she has raised, while her own children fend for themselves at home.  In the meantime, Skeeter wonders what happened to her family's maid, Constantine, the woman who largely raised her, who mysteriously moved away while Skeeter was at college.  Her mother is not forthcoming with an answer; she is more concerned about her socialite daughter finding a husband. 

The history is fascinating in this Southern tale.  It is a sad commentary on not only how whites treated blacks in the Deep South in the 1960's, but how women treated other women, since the black maids took most of their direction (and abuse) from white housewives.  Kathryn Stockett effectively paints a picture of the Deep South.  One scene stands out where Skeeter is talking with her boyfriend in a gazebo on a cotton plantation; you can just imagine you are there.  If you like American history, The Help is the book for you.


Photo courtesy www.entertainmentwallpaper.com.



Saturday, 4 February 2012

Tak Ta Tum

TA
A slang word for Thanks.

The word is a result of the heavy Danish influence on the English language. Most people do not realize that the English language roots are really Danish or Jutland. Equiped with this knowledge this word is easy to decipher.

The Danish word for Thanks is tak. In Scotland and upper England it was common to drop the k at the end because of the way words were pronounced during the time of old English and Middle English. Hence the slang word "Ta" which should actually be pronounced "TA-k" but over time became "Ta" is really Tak meaning "Thanks".




Never teach your baby or toddler to say "ta" instead of "please" or "thank you".  You will regret it!  When my son Thomas was little, we taught him to say "ta", eventhough he was spoke clearly and likely could have handled "please" or "thank you".  He became really good at it.  Slowly, the "ta" was corrupted to "tum".  I waited too long to teach him the real words.  And then when it was time to learn the proper terms, Thomas resisted.  He cried and cried when he didn't get something because he said "tum" rather than "please".  It took us months before we got the word "ta" or "tum" out of his vocabulary.  Unfortunately, by this point, his sister Jacqueline started using "ta".  Once again, we had a hard time weaning "ta" from her vocabulary.  Finally, we had two "ta"-free children.  However, the disease was infectious:  now I couldn't stop using "ta" since I had used it for so many years.  The word would just slip out unintentionally.  Now Jacqueline is 8 years old and every so often that dreaded word still escapes from my lips.  So, if you find yourself teaching your child "ta", think again.  You don't want the dreaded "ta" disease!