Thankful Thursday XXXIII – Benevolent Celebrities

As many of you know, I also do a daily music blog. Recently while writing pieces I featured Janis Ian. Janis is a singer who had one big hit in the 1970s, “At Seventeen” and has periodically recorded since as well as written a few books. But an interesting sidebar to her story is that she also runs a charity called the Pearl Foundation that raises money for scholarship for adults returning to school. I think that’s pretty great and noble. To date, with her help it’s given out over a million dollars to help further the education of people who might not otherwise be able to go back to school to better their lives. The same week I looked at Farm Aid, a charity designed to help out struggling small family farmers around the country. It was started as a one-off rock concert in 1985 set up by John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and Neil Young. Little did they know back then that it would still be an ongoing event, and they’d all still be performing almost every year and the charity a round-the-calendar organization assisting farmers and lobbying for their interests. Again, a very worthy cause. So, this Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for celebrities who use their fame (and quite often money) to help others through such events and organizations.

There’s no shortage of them of course. Elton John has worked extensively for various organizations helping AIDS patients. Peter Gabriel brought Amnesty International onto the radar for millions of his fans by talking about them and having booths of theirs set up at his concerts. And of course, it’s by no means limited to the music world. Actor Gary Sinise became a hard-working advocate for disabled veterans after playing one in Forrest Gump and being contacted by many real-life people with stories like his fictitious Lt. Dan. Reese Witherspoon has been involved with a number of organizations promoting improving childrens’ lives in the Third World, helping battered women and encouraging reading. And the list goes on and on.

It’s often said we idolize our entertainers far too much. Perhaps true. Also true is that the bar keeps being lowered for what it takes to be considered a “star”. These days a “leaked” sex tape or filming yourself walking around dollar stores pointing out new items with a little bit of panache are sometimes all it takes. We can debate what this means for society in general, but while it is the case, I say more power to those who find that rising star and use the enormous pulpit they have to influence their fans and make the world a little better.

Thankful Thursday XXII – Trains… A Nature Lover’s Best Friend?

This “Thankful Thursday” is a Friday as it turns out. Either way, I’m thankful for trains.

Now as many of you know, I grew up like many little boys, living near a busy rail line, watching the big, colorful, loud trains rumble by with fascination. And of course, I had a model train set and my dad and I periodically worked away on a table in the “spare room,” putting together a layout that never really was fully realized. But we had fun together.

Later on, living not far outside Toronto, the easy and fast way into the downtown was by the GO Train, a commuter rail line that served the various suburbs and brought people downtown, right by the offices, Eaton Centre mall and the baseball stadium, and pretty much everything else in the city center. The commute was far less stressful than trying to drive through the gridlocked highways and was at times quite fun. A stretch of the run ran alongside the lake, atop the “bluffs”, affording great views of the lake below on one side, the glittering skyline on the other. I even took a longer train ride to visit a girlfriend on the East Coast in the ’80s…it took about two days to get there (compared to maybe half a day by plane, given the time in airports ) but it was fun. Sleeping in one of those little berths that fold up in the daytime, eating in the dining car… kind of a Canuck version of The City of New Orleans.

I still like watching trains go by, but I’m thankful for them for a bigger reason than that. I also love nature and am an environmentalist, and trains really help us preserve our natural resources and keep the environment clean. A hard thing to believe when you see clouds of black smoke puffing out of a diesel locomotive struggling to get going, but true nonetheless.

Trains burn a lot of diesel fuel, it’s true. But the important point is they burn a lot less fuel than trucks, let alone planes, do. It makes sense when you stop and look. A regular Class I (that is mainline, intercity) freight train usually has over 100 cars behind it. Coal hoppers, 80+ foot long auto racks carrying new cars and trucks, tankers, 50′ boxcars, flat cars stacked up with containers from overseas. And these days, they’re usually pulled by just two big locomotives. A tractor trailer, by comparison, obviously pulls just one “freight car”, usually 53′ in length behind it. Ergo, each big freight train is equivalent to over a hundred trucks. And there is their greatness. Not only do they keep our already over-crowded highways less congested, making all our drives a bit quicker and safer, they also do so using a lot less fossil fuel.

Now getting accurate figures for fuel use by either trucks or trains is notoriously difficult, and inexact. The weight of the load, whether they’re on a flat road or a grade, the temperature, all play into the equation. But in general, a Peterbilt 379, one of the most popular trucks of the past decade, gets about 4 mpg pulling a trailer, according to drivers themselves. A newer Peterbilt was recently tested at over 10 mpg – not bad at all as a minivan we had averaged only 15! – but that was under test conditions, barreling along by itself, without a payload to haul.

Compare that to a new locomotive. The SD70ace is perhaps the most ubiquitous locomotive this century. It packs 4300 horsepower, and can theoretically pull 200 loaded freight cars by itself … although rail crews point out, it would have a heck of a hard time getting going from a stop with that much behind it. Typically they pull about 50 to 60 cars (hence the multiple engines afront a long train.) And pulling a fully loaded coal train, engineers report they get about a third of a mile per gallon. 0.3 mpg! Not good… except when one considers that is doing what 130 trucks would be needed to do otherwise. On average, the U.S. government rate trains as the most efficient way of moving heavy loads… about seven times less fuel used per ton than trucks in fact, and an absurd 70 times better than planes.

So, next time you’re stuck in traffic, waiting to go and counting those Railboxes roll by, don’t be impatient. Be grateful. That train is making our air a little cleaner and our oil supply last a little longer.

Thankful Thursday XXXI – Talking About My Generation

This Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for my generation. Not the Who song – that was representative of the generation before me – but Gen X, as we’ve come to be known. Or more precisely, to be a part of it.

Of course, each generation probably thinks it’s the best. I, perhaps typical of this generation, don’t necessarily claim that ours was the best. But I’m glad I grew up when I did.

To me, my generation got the best of music, the best of TV and, more importantly, the best conditions to grow up in. Notice I don’t say “easiest” however. I love that I grew up listening to Top 40 radio on transistor radios in the ’70s that exposed me to a bit of everything ranging from Motown to country to early heavy metal to disco. Sure, we didn’t really see The Beatles in real time, but I heard them plenty on radio and courtesy my older brother. By the ’80s as adulthood came a-knockin’, college classes were bookended by a new music that was actually exciting. Young kids these days won’t know the High Fidelity-like experience of hanging out at a grubby, crowded record shop looking for import Depeche Mode singles and hearing the music snobs behind the counter going on about the Pixies and Marshall Crenshaw. We were a generation that wanted to change the world. Well, don’t they all, I suppose. But it seems to me that outside of the tail-end of the Baby Boom, young people before were too conventional to challenge the status quo. The youth of today want to change the world too, but I’m not sure that that extends too far beyond the right for young women to call themselves”men” and vice versa for most of them. Some of my happiest times were summers during my university years, working for a conservation agency, with dozens of similarly-involved people around my age. We sure knew how to party at night… but by day, we were all about working on environmental projects and educating people about the need for conservation. Whether it amounted to a lot or not, we were doing something that we felt was bigger than ourselves, that was going to make the world a better place.

Moreover, I think I’m lucky because I straddle the digital and analog age. I grew up spending lots of time in libraries. At school, at the city ones, looking through stacks of books, going through card catalogs to find a title. It seemed like there wasn’t a question that couldn’t be answered by the Encyclopedia Britannica, all fifteen feet of shelving of it. I took typing classes at school, banging away on old manual machines, periodically getting my hands dirty changing the ribbons. It was good experience. But thankfully I was just young enough to see the value of computers by some time in the ’90s, and pick up the skills I needed to write articles, fix photos, design posters or search the internet for wacky kitten videos quickly. My brother, about six years older than me, got through school long before “cyber” was a word and hates computers to this day. Our dad, bless him, tried hard to adapt, but never got beyond playing Solitaire or checking, with extreme difficulty, his e-mail on his laptop. My mom never even got that far along in the process. I feel lucky I am reasonably tech-savvy, but have the background in old, analog ways. I wonder if anyone under 18 today could find an answer any question about science, history or pretty much anything else besides BTS if Siri stopped answering or Google went on holiday.

We didn’t have it easy, but then again, it wasn’t a battle. My parents both were youth in Europe during WWII. That’s hardship and stress. We on the other hand, had to live with the sword of Reagan and Gorbachev’s missiles hanging over us, which was stressful but there was always food to be had, electricity for the lights and despite the fears, no big wars materialized to worry about. We were however, the first generation of “latchkey kids.” For the first time, most women were working and one-parent households were common, so I wasn’t unusual in often coming home to an empty house after school. Like so many others of my peers, that was OK. It gave us a bit of freedom to grow, and more importantly, let us learn real quickly how to make a dinner, or wash our clothes. We walked or rode our bikes to school…yes, yes, you know, in the snow, uphill both ways!… and had our own legs and our friends to rely on. We got part-time jobs as soon as we could to buy our own records and snacks and if we were real lucky and smooth, use the funds to go on dates with. It astonishes me to go by a neighborhood school these days and see cars backed up around the block waiting to get their ten and twelve year olds and drive them immediately home, where they will stay, playing video games, until it’s time to drive them back to class the next morning. Where will their sense of adventure or independence arise from? Will it ever arise, for that matter?

Well that’s my grumpy old, thankful rant for this day, now that we Gen X-ers are getting up there … tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” in case you’re keeping track. So how about you? Are you happy you were born when you were? What is your generation’s best feature? Whatever it is, I hope you’re thankful to be you.

Thankful Thursday XXX – Netflix Shows Nothing Came Easy To Forrest, Forrest Gump

This Thankful Thursday, which is to say “yesterday”, I thought of a show I saw on TV the night before that : The Movies That Made Us. It’s a semi-regular show made for Netflix that looks at how movies we loved came together… often not as easily as it might seem! This week I’d watched the one concerning Forrest Gump. I’ve seen several other instalments, including recently Pretty Woman and Dirty Dancing, all movies I like or love. They have movies chronicled that I don’t care for too, but it’s not as interesting watching what almost went wrong on a movie I wish had gone south, is it?

Dirty Dancing was a small budget feature that couldn’t find anyone interested in buying the script until a direct-to-video company that seemingly operated out of a small office bought it for a pittance. It didn’t go direct-to-video and made more money than pretty much everything else the company did combined. Pretty Woman‘s creators wanted Richard Gere to be the leading man all along, and got him, and Julia Roberts to be the heroine, the “hooker with a heart of gold.” Only at the time, Roberts was an almost-unknown quantity, a co-star of the B-movie Mystic Pizza and not much else, and Gere was holding out for a known superstar to drive people to the box office to see him. Once he was convinced Julia had screen appeal, it still took weeks to find the right fabric and right designer to assemble her style metamorphosis. Oh… and in the original script, Vivian, (Roberts) was a druggie prostitute who was left behind after her whirlwind week of the high life with him. Not exactly the romantic fairytale, “Cinderella” people dream about or pay money to see. Re-write!

Then there’s Forrest Gump – the all-American unlikely hero movie that was the third-biggest money maker ever for Hollywood at the time and took home a cart of Academy Awards big enough to carpet Alabama. It starred Tom Hanks, already a solid, A-list actor, and Sally Field, one of America’s sweethearts. Seemed like a can’t miss, right? Of course, it was far from it. The orignal novel which it was based on is vaguely similar in outline … to put it impolitely, “idiot savant stumbles onto great deeds accidently”. But the author’s Gump was rather a rude, unlikeable sod with a pet monkey. Hardly anyone to get the masses cheering on. So, new writers came in to revise his character and it got bought by a biggish studio. But people changed desks there and soon the studio was telling the director, Robert Zemeckis, to cut back, it was costing too much. They wanted no shrimp story in the movie – filming on a boat on water costs more than on land -, wanted no part of the Vietnam saga… costs money to ship people overseas and some of the shots might be expensive, and if he had to run across the country, couldn’t they shoot all the shots in an L.A. city park instead of all across the country? And don’t even get us started on the complications of superimposing Hanks into historical footage of JFK and so on. Thankfully, Zemeckis stood his ground and he and Hanks ended up pitching in some of their own cash to get it completed.

Now, the reason I’m telling you all this isn’t to make you turn on the TV or pitch myself for a Cinema 101 tutoring job. It is instead to point out that things that things that work out great and seem easy are actually quite problematic and often require many hurdles to be jumped. If it took Tom Hanks and Richard Gere so much to get their classics completed, why should we think it’s got to be a lot easier for any of us to see anything we care about through to completion?

Greatness of any sort requires a lot of work and patience… and a little luck. I’m thankful to Netflix and their series for reminding me that.

From Bugspray Pitch Man To Shaper Of Minds In 430 Pages Or Less

Good is good, bad is bad, black is black and white is white,

But the lines are not that clear to see, try as we might!

So people refuse the gray, and of the good lose sight…

And miss the ways grays bring light and do what is right!

With apologies to the late Theodor Geisel…my latest read is a bio of an American hero who’s fallen on hard-times, image-wise of late – that same Geisel, better known and loved as Dr. Seuss. Becoming Dr. Seuss, by Brian Jay Jones looks at him in detail, in the good, the bad and the ugly. Actually, like good journalists are often going to do, I daresay Jones does so in a manner that may end up annoying both the left-wing and right-wing segments of his readership. Based on his author photo, he’s young enough to be of the modern politically correct revisionist opinions of history, but he also is evidently full of respect for his subject’s better achievements. His well over 400 pages give us readers an ample understanding of the acclaimed children’s author, warts and all.

Geisel is beloved for creating children’s classics like The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat. But he didn’t start out trying to change the world – or how kids learned. He grew up in early-20th Century New England, the son of a German immigrant who was a successful brewer, the family running one of Massachusetts most popular beer companies. Which led to two pivotal events in his early life. First, when WWI happened, he felt the sting of discrimination and prejudice, as locals suddenly turned on anyone vaguely German, no matter how well-loved and respected they may have been until then. Secondly, prohibition shortly thereafter caused his family hardship and devestated his family business, embedding in him a deep resentment of government meddling and the sanctimonious types among us.

For a man so intrinsically tied into educating in our minds, Seuss wasn’t all that good a student, although he did earn a degree. He didn’t care much for studying and preferred doodling. This led to his first career, as a successful ad man, back when many newspaper and magazine ads were hand-drawn. At the height of the Great Depression, he got a contract from Flit, a bug-spray company, to do a dozen ads for them at $100 a pop – good money for the age, and for a young man with a new wife. Not very much changed for him, in fact, until WWII came along, and he was drafted… but sent to California to work on films for the troops working under the guidance of Frank Capra. There he began to really understand the power of his cartoons and effective wordplay. Eventually, as we know, he found his way into writing and illustrating children’s books, full of his interesting make-believe characters who seemed every bit as real as, if not more so, than many people, and his clever rhyming prose. Even though he and his first wife Helen never had children, he became more and more impassioned about them being the future and more and more convinced that the conventional reading material for kids turned them off reading rather than encouraged it. He particularly hated the drab, boring “Dick and Jane” readers that most schools used extensively in the junior grades, with their simple but boring as mud sentences like “See Dick run. See Spot. See Dick run with Spot.” It became his passion – obsession even – to write books kids would like to read, learn from and that at their best, make adults stop and think a little too. How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The Lorax. Horton Hears a Who. After a few semi-popular titles, he finally hit paydirt in the late-’50s with the Cat in the Hat (written with a highly restricted list of words the publisher felt kids could understand) , soon becoming one of America’s best-loved writers, going on to sell over 600 million copies of his 60 or so titles.

Ah yes, but there was the negative to him as well, as many are quick to point out. As most men from his age, he loved his cocktails and nearly chain-smoked, despite a few attempts to quit. Some of his early works depict what now seem like “racist” portrayals of people of foreign cultures and even use words like “Chinamen” which seem less than tactful these days. Jones rakes him over the coals for these offences, but does at least put it in context of the times he grew up in; when the “Orient” was exotic and strange and Black people at home were the subject of many jokes and now-offensive portrayals by Whites in blackface on stage were considered high comedy. He does point out that as time went on, Theodor’s sensibilites changed as well, and notes that while he seemed suspicious of his own German people after the war, he was horrified by the bombing of Japan and went out of his way to get to know Japanese people and befriend them.

Many of my happy memories as a very small child involve having Seuss books read to me. They made me laugh every time, and want to pick up books, want to read them myself. Christmas to this day isn’t really Christmas for this 50-something until I’ve seen the animated TV version of his Grinch. It’s not a far stretch to say that I might not have liked school nearly as much or have been writing books (albeit entirely less successful than Geisel’s) as an adult had I been restricted to the merry adventures of Dick and Jane as a small child. For that, Seuss/Geisel seemed a friend to me. And after 430 pages of his life in print, when we arrive at his passing in 1991, it seemed again like saying goodbye not just to a creative sort, but to someone very close.