American Tune-Up

Each of the fifty United States is represented by more than just a flag. America’s state symbols include animals, birds, trees, flowers, and songs. As a kid growing up in California I memorized these items, and years later I’ve still got them.  The “Golden State” has the Grizzly Bear, the Valley Quail, the Redwood, the Poppy, and “I Love You, California”.  Imagine my interest then, when Brooklyn Magazine took an updated stab at the state songs, publishing “The Musical Map of the United States”.

Image courtesy of Brooklyn Magazine, October 2016

Brooklyn Mag’s map is more than meets the eye (see here).  It’s not a collection of easy ditties you and I might come up with: Beach Boys for CA, John Denver for CO, Frank Sinatra for NY.  Instead, it’s a broad spectrum of lesser-known tunes, attached to the states by writers who chose them.  Read their stories and listen to their song choices.  It’s like 50+ blogs in one, plus a playlist if you want to shift the whole shebang to your smartphone.

Here’s a sampling of the Map’s creativity.  The writers chose Kenny Knight’s “America” for Colorado, a “dusty, country rock gem” with lyrics befitting its patriotic title (even if the song itself twangs along modestly).  For California, the writers needed two songs – Joni Mitchell’s “California”, and Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode”.  The former artist is Canadian; the latter raised in the gangland streets of Compton near Los Angeles.  You’ll find Mitchell’s folk music as appropriate as Dre’s rap for such a diverse state.

As I studied the Map, I realized each of us possesses our own musical geography, accumulating map dots as we move through life.  My own map began on the 8-track player of my father’s Cadillac in the 1960’s, crooning along with Perry Como as he claimed, “the bluest skies you’ve ever seen (are) in Seattle”.  By the 1970’s, I’d moved on to a hard-earned collection of 45-rpm records (“singles”), focusing on Top 40 bubble-gum one-hit wonders like Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died” and Terry Jack’s “Seasons in the Sun”.  Also in the 70’s – courtesy of my brother’s extensive LP collection (and a stereo capable of a sonic boom) – I mapped to all kinds of rock, including Emerson Lake, & Palmer, The Eagles, Elton John, and Linda Ronstadt.

By the 1980’s, I’d graduated to cassette tapes and the easy-listening music of John Denver, Olivia Newton-John, and Barry Manilow (to which some would say, two steps forward three steps back).  Later in the ’80’s, I embraced compact discs with a budding affection for country music (Alabama), continuing to this day (Thomas Rhett).

Throw in a handful of downloads from my kids (Katy Perry, Meghan Trainor), sprinkle the whole mess with classical symphonies and concertos – a carryover from childhood piano lessons – and you have my musical map.  I’ll bet yours is wildly different.

Even the world of sports has a musical map, as Steve Rushin wrote in an excellent piece in this week’s Sports Illustrated (“Cheer and Trebling”).  You can’t hear the whistling of “Sweet Georgia Brown” without thinking Harlem Globetrotters, just as you can’t make it through baseball’s seventh inning without singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”.  You won’t leave Yankee Stadium without Sinatra’s “New York, New York”, just as you won’t hear John Williams’ spectacular “Fanfare” without thinking Olympic Games.  Moments of silence at sporting events are literally reserved for the dearly departed.  Otherwise it’s all marching bands, pipe organs, and loudspeaker instrumentals.

My now-home state Colorado has a set of symbols like California.  The “Centennial State” has the Bighorn Sheep, the Lark Bunting, the Blue Spruce, the Columbine, and John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”.  But the song could just as easily be Katharine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful”, inspired by the Rocky Mountain peak I can see as I type.  The song could also be Kenny Knight’s “America”.

You listen.  You choose.  There are no right or wrong answers here.  Remember, even Google Maps gives you several options as you navigate your way.

Banner Birthday

I unfurled my American flag off the back deck of our house yesterday. It’s a prominent location for the Stars & Stripes, where people passing by on the adjacent street can’t miss it. Then again, we live in a quiet neighborhood so I’d be surprised if many took notice. I’d be even more surprised if they knew why I was flying the flag.  Perhaps you missed it too.  Yesterday was Flag Day.

To be brutally honest, I’m not sure why America has a Flag Day.  Oh sure, the history books tell us Flag Day commemorates the adoption of the U.S. flag, way back on June 14, 1777.  One could argue there’s no amount of honor and celebration large enough for our country’s heritage and freedom.  But Independence Day gets a whole lot more attention than Flag Day.  Ditto Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  At least those days are true “holidays” in the United States.

Flag Day was established in 1916, so what-do-ya-know that makes this year’s celebration the 100th anniversary.  I didn’t see any parades or fireworks to commemorate the centennial, did you?  Then again, I don’t think America fully embraces Flag Day.  If we adopted our flag in 1777, why did we need another 140 years to give it a “day”?  Flag Day isn’t even an official holiday in this country.  The President has the discretion to decide if it should be celebrated in a given year.  On that note, I don’t recall a proclamation from President Trump so maybe I should’ve kept my flag in the closet.

There’s further confusion about Flag Day.  Congress didn’t put the commemoration into “law” until 1949, thirty-three years after Woodrow Wilson established the day.  No states acknowledged Flag Day before 1937, when Pennsylvania became the first.  Other states – notably New York – decided it made better sense to put Flag Day on a weekend, as in the second weekend in June.  We can’t even agree on the date.

There’s history about Flag Day that precedes President Wilson, but it’s spotty.  The earliest reference is 1861, when a citizen of Hartford, CT suggested the idea and the city put together a celebration.  That didn’t take.  I885, Bernard Cigrand of Waubeka, WI began a prolonged push for a U.S. Flag Day.  After one local observance, he traveled around the country “promoting patriotism, respect for the flag, and the need for the annual observance”.  Thanks to Cigrand, Wilson established Flag Day thirty years later.  Cigrand is thus earned the title, “Father of Flag Day”.

Despite the facts, Flag Day still has me scratching my head.  The “National Flag Day Foundation” celebrates – like New York – on the second Sunday in June, yet the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House in Baltimore and the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia prefer June 14th (lending credence to “National Flag Week”).  Parades and festivities take place around the country, but the discretion seems to be with the states as much as the President.  Here in Colorado Springs, home of the Air Force Academy and several other military bases, Flag Day came and went without so much as a whisper.

Fifty other countries have a Flag Day so there is some legitimacy to the concept.  But in many cases, those countries celebrate their independence as well.  That makes a lot more sense to me.  The flag is a connotation for liberty, so why not go with one holiday instead of two?

I admire the homes with the permanent flagpoles in the front yard, their owners pridefully raising the Stars & Stripes day in and day out.  But Flag Day must be “just another day” to these people.  Fittingly, americanflags.com describes Flag Day as “consistently overlooked yet universally beloved”.  I’d agree with the first part of that statement.

With all due respect, I’ll continue to unfurl the Stars & Stripes on Flag Day, no matter how many people notice.  If for no other reason, to echo the words of one of our most revered presidents:

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

 

Perfunctory Perception

The Washington Post began a recent front-page article with the headline “Why President Trump is Probably Right…”, and I was immediately suspicious. The Times is an outwardly liberal rag. I can’t recall one article – let alone a headline – where they’ve waxed positive about the current administration. Curiosity piqued, I read Kristine Phillips’ well-written article and discovered it was not so much about President Trump himself as it was about the “first 100 days”.  You’re going to read a lot about that this weekend.  And history tells us one hundred days – no matter the successes and failures contained within – rarely define the legacy of a U.S. president.

We have Franklin D. Roosevelt (32nd U.S. President – 1933-1945) to thank for setting the bar of “first 100 days”.  Four months into his first term Roosevelt delivered a noteworthy “fireside chat” to the people, including a plan to pull the country out of the Great Depression.  Roosevelt also had a congressional majority squarely aligned with his administration.  As a result fifteen major bills were passed in his first hundred days, including the most critical; to stabilize the nation’s banking system.  It was a virtual sink-or-swim chapter in American history.

No president since the days of the Great Depression has faced a more daunting economic crisis, which is why none of their “first 100 days” measure up to Roosevelt’s.  Our last two presidents make for interesting examples.  George W. Bush entered his term intent on cutting taxes and reforming education, and he did sign the No Child Left Behind Act within the first year of his administration.  But more likely Bush will be remembered for the unforeseen events on and after September 11th, 2001.  Barack Obama sought economic stimulus by signing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in the first few months of his administration.  But more likely Obama will be remembered for the Affordable Care Act, signed towards the end of his first year.

Since Roosevelt’s administration, seven of nine presidents have been elected to a second term (not including Kennedy and Nixon).  Accordingly one hundred days is usually the prelude of an eight-year tenure, representing less than 3% of the total time frame.  I’d venture to say a president’s legacy is more the product of what happens during the other 97%.

To draw personal parallels, I thought about what it would be like to be judged as a son or a husband or a father; a student in school or a manager in the workplace – based on “first 100 days”.  No thanks; I can say with confidence I needed “the other 97%” to establish my legacy in each of those roles.

So where was President Trump “right”, according to The Washington Post?  The full headline read, “Why President Trump is probably right about the ‘ridiculous standard” of the first 100 days”.  Assuming two terms, Trump’s administration has another 2,820 days.  I’ll go with “probably right” too.  After 100 days, you’re still circling the ring trying to land a punch.  You’ve still got your fifteen rounds.

Again, the media will be all over this topic in the next couple of days so enjoy their rush to judgment.  The conservatives will make a best effort to spin Trump’s first 100 days positive; the liberals not so much.  The New York Times is quick to point out not one of Trump’s campaign-promised pieces of legislation has been passed, while The Hill prefers to recognize his “five key moments”.  Even Trump himself – who I voted for – recognizes the significance of perception.  One hundred days may be a perfunctory time frame but there’s no escaping the report cards.  Hence we have a bold tax plan – which could amount to Trump’s most defining legislation – released just days before the end of “the first 100”.

The most thought-provoking quote I found on this topic came from author Doris Kearns Goodwin.  “Less important than a scorecard of accomplishments,” she said, “is the leadership style demonstrated during the early days.”  In other words, our commander-in-chief himself – not just his policies – is a work-in-progress well beyond this weekend.  Keep your eye on the remaining 97%.

 

Happy Days Aren’t Here Again

Last week included a holiday and you probably didn’t know it. On March 20th the world celebrated “International Day of Happiness” for the fifth consecutive year. The United Nations adopted a resolution in 2012 to establish the holiday, seeking “a more holistic approach to development” and recognizing “the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal”.  Ladies and gentlemen, the UN is trying to bring more joy to the world.

 

 

 

 

I’ll admit, the first time I read about a holiday for happy I had to wonder what really goes on behind closed doors.  Maybe the UN reps spend their days on Facebook liking/loving posts like the rest of us.  Maybe they’re happy and they know it and clapping their hands.  Maybe they ask each other “aren’t you glad you use Dial and don’t you wish everyone did?” Then 0ne day someone decided a celebration of all that happiness was in order.

On the other hand, maybe the UN’s daily agenda is so depressing someone insisted 1 out of every 365 days should be set aside just to feel better. A don’t-worry-be-happy moment.

 

 

 

To go together with March 20th, the UN also publishes the “World Happiness Report” (WHR), an annual measure of happy in each of 155 countries.  The recipe: the combined measures of income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, freedom and trust (trust defined as absence of corruption in business and government).  The WHR then crunches the numbers and tells you how close you are to the happiest place on earth.

Again I had to ask myself – is the UN for real?  I mean, I’m usually as merry as the day is long, and I assumed the same was true of my fellow Americans.  “Not so fast”, says the WHR.

The 2017 top ten: 1) Norway, 2) Denmark, 3) Iceland, 4) Switzerland, 5) Finland, 6) Netherlands, 7) Canada, 8) New Zealand, 9) Australia, 10) Sweden.

Look at that list again.  See any patterns?  Five of the ten are the Nordic countries.  Another two are in close proximity.  Another two are side-by-side way down in the Southern Hemisphere.  And finally you have Canada (which feels like a party-crasher).  But the ingredients don’t lie – everything’s coming up roses in all ten.   The Nords, the Swiss, the Dutch, the Canucks, the Kiwis, and the Aussies are walking on sunshine.

If the happiness formula is to believed, Norway has it all figured out.  Consider the following excerpt from the WHR Executive Summary (p. 1): Norway moves to the top of the ranking despite weaker oil prices.  It is sometimes said that Norway achieves and maintains its high happiness not because of its oil wealth, but in spite of it.  By choosing to produce its oil slowly, and investing the proceeds for the future rather than spending them in the present, Norway has insulated itself from the boom and bust cycle of many other resource-rich economies.  To do this successfully requires high levels of mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity, and good governance, all factors that help to keep Norway and other top countries where they are in the happiness rankings.

And how about the Americans?  We come in at #14.  That’s happy-happy-joy-joy compared to most others, but consider this: we’ve never hit the top ten and we’ve been dropping since the first year the WHR was published.  The U.S. gets high marks for income and life expectancy but falls short in the other four categories.  To add an exclamation point: this year’s WHR includes a chapter by Jeffrey D. Sachs titled “Restoring American Happiness”.  As Sachs puts it:

The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach. The United States can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis— rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust—rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth, especially since the concrete proposals along these lines would exacerbate rather than ameliorate the deepening social crisis. (WHR, p. 179)

Take note, Washington D.C.

The World Happiness Report is a 5MB, 188 pg. report available here, if you want all the details on where everything’s coming up roses (or not so much).  For me, the message was clear enough from the top ten.  If Americans want to live happily ever after, we need to study our neighbors to the north (as do our counterparts in Europe) or delve deeper into life “down under”.  Extreme temperatures be damned, all of these people are as happy as clams (at high water) and whistling while they work.

Cheer up, Yanks; it’s not the end of the world (as perhaps it is in #155 Central African Republic).  At least the U.S. claims a spot in the top ten percent of the WHR.  That’s happy landings on my runway.

Patriot Games

Tomorrow a chessboard will be auctioned off in New York City, with an opening bid somewhere north of $75,000.  For that kind of money you’d picture a one-of-a-kind treasure beautifully crafted from the finest materials; perhaps inlaid with gold.  The chess pieces themselves would be intricately carved ivories or bronzes.  On the contrary, the auction block chessboard looks like most others: alternating light and dark wood squares with nondescript wooden pieces.  Not much to look at – unless you know its epic history.

70-allegory-1

In 1972, in what was later dubbed “Match of the Century”, American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky met in Reykjavik, Iceland to play a total of twenty-one games of chess over a three month period.  The match recognized history’s eleventh World Chess Champion, with Fischer emerging as the eventual winner.  With the title Fischer claimed a purse that in today’s dollars would be almost $1.5 million.  The chessboard in tomorrow’s auction was used in Fischer/Spassky games 7 through 21, replacing a stone board used for the earlier games.

The significance of the Fischer/Spassky match goes entirely beyond the crowning of another World Chess Champion.  In the 1970’s the United States and its NATO allies, and Russia (then the Communist-ruled U.S.S.R) and its Eastern Bloc allies, were in the throes of a “Cold War” that defined the post-World War II tension between dominant world powers.  The sociopolitical cultures of these “western” and “eastern” countries could not have been more different.  Thus the chess match was seen as an allegory; especially with Fischer – the first American to ever compete for the title, taking on Spassky – the current World Chess Champion and one of five consecutive Soviets to hold the trophy dating back to the 1940’s.  It was as if a feisty newcomer was speaking loudly for the first time.  As former world champion Garry Kasparov described the outcome, “… the lone American genius challenges the Soviet chess machine and defeats it.”

The Fischer/Spassky competition attracted more worldwide attention than any chess match before or since.  All twenty-one games were televised (though the third game had to be illustrated with move-by-move graphics since Fischer insisted on temporarily moving away from the cameras).  In the years following the match, “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess” became the best selling chess book ever published.  The opening scene of the James Bond film “From Russia With Love” depicted a chess match with moves patterned after Spassky’s .  Chess became supremely popular among American kids (maybe because Fischer was already playing in national championships at the age of fourteen).

70-allegory-2

I have a personal connection with the Fischer/Spassky match, as shown in the photo above.  I learned chess at an early age thanks to the determination of my grandfather.  He insisted on a game every time we were together, and most times he beat me.  Today I have one of his chess sets as a precious keepsake.  But my grandfather also urged me to participate in a school-wide chess tournament, and the trophy you see was the result.  From then on my grandfather teased me by saying he wouldn’t play anymore unless it was for the trophy.

Notice the date of the school tournament; inside the same year as the Fischer/Spassky match.  By wonderful coincidence I was competing at a time when chess was most prominent on the world stage.

My chess game never really matured from those grade school years – and Fischer and Spassky likewise descended into relative obscurity – but a marked impression was made by watching their 1972 match on television.  Now whenever I see a chessboard I’m reminded the game is not just kings and queens surrounded by their armies.  The successful bidder at tomorrow’s auction will hold an emblem of history – from a time when the world’s chess pieces were as divided as never before.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.