Archive for November, 2014

A Day at the Vera Lewis QH Breeding Farm in Donley County

   The top stallion on the farm now is Goldfingers, whose titles include AQHA Champion; National High Point Steer-roping Stallion; World’s Champion Heeling Horse; and High Point Halter Stallion of Nebraska in 1976.  He has serviced 80 mares this year on the Lewis farm.

The top stallion on the Lewis farm in the mid-1970’s was Goldfingers, whose titles included AQHA Champion; National High Point Steer-roping Stallion; World’s Champion Heeling Horse; and High Point Halter Stallion of Nebraska in 1976. He serviced 80 mares in 1977 on the Lewis farm.

© 2014 Photo and Article By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READER: This article was published in the summer of 1977 in the Clarendon Press, a small weekly newspaper in Clarendon, Texas, a small town in the Texas Panhandle. That was my first news-reporting job, and it was brief because I was not really prepared adequately for the responsibility, minimal though it was. The periodical’s name was changed to The Clarendon Enterprise soon after I left because orders for books intended for the Clarendon Press (in England) too often were received there. The town of Clarendon was friendly and pretty, and the air was sweet, which makes me regret that I had not done a better job and stayed there. I am leaving the verb tense and other time-related elements as they were in the original article, because to change them would be too confusing. Just make believe you have just arrived in a time machine. — BL

“You better grab the twitch, Jimmy. She ain’t gonna like this,” said Burl Hollar, 32, as he plugged a shearing machine cord into an electrical outlet.

The sorrel yearling filly tossed her head nervously as 19-year-old Jimmy Stewart brought two small steel rods, connected together like a pair of pliers, up toward the yearling’s head.  He patted her nose briefly and then clamped the rods around her nostrils. Hollar stuffed a cotton tassel into her ear and started trimming the hair growth within the ear of the young horse.  After finishing both ears, Hollar trimmed and curried the mane.

“She’s never had this done to her before,” Hollar explained. “That’s why we had to use the twitch. After she gets used to the shears, we won’t need the twitch anymore. I put the pompon into her ear to prevent hairs from falling inside and starting an infection.”

When the haircut was completed, Stewart led the prancing yearling into a sandy pen within the breeding barn, tied her halter to the back wall and then turned a hose on her at slow speed. The filly obviously wasn’t used to water either.  She tensed her muscles, flared her nostrils, whinnied and stomped about as much as the short halter’s length would allow.  As her hide wetted, gleaming highlights gave depth to her musculature.  Her eyes were at their widest, and short wheezing noises came from her flaring nostrils.  All the vitality of Nature seemed concentrated in that one being.

“This is her first bath, too,” Hollar said. “We’re getting these yearlings ready for a sale in Ruidosa Downs this coming Labor Day.”

Burl Hollar is the stallion manager and resident trainer on Vera Lewis’s 160-acre horse breeding farm in Ashtola.  He’s the archetypal trainer: tall, lanky, affable and patient.  He wears high-topped boots with his jeans stuffed into them and a red baseball cap while working.

Hollar loves horses enough to take exception to any suggestion that horses are less intelligent than cows.  “I guess what they mean by that is that a cow wouldn’t damage itself like a horse will,” Hollar said. “A horse will run straight into a fence. “Still, you can’t train a cow to cut out calves — or colts. You can train a horse to do a lot of things, and then he’ll seem pretty intelligent to you. It’s all in the training.

“Of course, I’ll get mad at them, and then I’ll call them the dumbest creatures alive. But usually, when they do something that makes you mad it will all be because of something you did that was wrong in the first place.

“Horses have personalities just as people do. That’s why you can’t say it takes such-and-such a time to train a horse. They’re just like children. If they’ve been trained to do something and they don’t do it right and you spank them, they’ll know why you hit them. “But if they don’t know what they should have done and you spank them, then they won’t know what the spanking’s for.”

He held up his right forefinger, which was swollen.  “A mare kicked me there,” he said, “and I was mad, but later I realized that it was all due to something I had done wrong, not the horse.”

Besides being stallion manager and resident trainer, Burl Hollar also functions as medic.  He filled two hypodermic needles with a sulfa drug and gave one to his visitor to hold, saying with a grin, “If you stick around here long enough we’ll put you to work.” Then he walked over to a chute where a four-month-old colt stood with flies about its eyes and a thin line of foam along its lips.  Hollar injected the sulfa into the colt’s neck and rump and set it loose.

“Distemper in a colt is just like the cold or flu in a human baby,” Hollar said. “The sulfa will help him get through it.”

Stitched into the front of Burl Hollar’s cap was a patch with the words: You can believe in Sonoita Blue, AQHA Champion.  Sonoita Blue had served as a stud on the Lewis farm for four years before he died last year after eating a rare poison weed.  He was seven years old at his death.

The top stallion on the farm now is Goldfingers, whose titles include AQHA Champion; National High Point Steer-roping Stallion; World’s Champion Heeling Horse; and High Point Halter Stallion of Nebraska in 1976.  He has serviced 80 mares this year on the Lewis farm.

“Mrs. Lewis keeps one to two stallions here,” said Bob Boston, general manager of the farm. “She has about thirty brood mares of her own, and about four years ago we started accepting mares from other places for breeding. We get mares from as far away as Maryland. Last year we had one from Florida.

“Most breeding takes place around the first of February because the gestation period is eleven months and all the registering of new colts is done in January,” Boston said. “But we get stragglers in until mid-July. Most people quit breeding their horses by the first of July.”

According to Burl Hollar, however, it “just ain’t natural” to breed horses in the late winter.  “The mares aren’t settled yet,” he said. “From April to July is when the mares are more settled.” Hollar said that determining when a mare is in heat is probably the hardest part of his job.  “Every once in a while you’ll get one in ‘silent heat’,” he said, “some are so quiet about it.. And some might stay in heat for as long as ninety days after they’ve been bred.”

“Ordinarily,” said Bob Boston, “it takes twenty days to breed a mare and another forty days to tell if she’s pregnant. We don’t like to keep them in these stables and corrals any longer than we have to because it wears a horse down to be out of pasture too long.” In one of the stables a yearling filly whinnied excitedly, bucked and rammed against the gate as she watched another yearling being led out of the stable yard by Jimmy Stewart.  Shortly, however, Stewart returned and took the excited filly out, too.

“Jimmy’s taking them to the hotwalker,” Hollar explained. Around one corner of the barn under some shade trees stood a large metal-and-rope contraption that resembled a merry-go-round.  In the center of the “merry-go-round” — or “hotwalker”, — as Hollar termed it, stood Stewart.  Around him trotted four yearlings.

“They use hotwalkers at race tracks to cool horses down after a race,” Hollar said. “Here we use it as an exerciser. That’s all that filly was making the ruckus about. She just had excess energy and wanted to get out and play.”

A young horse’s way of saying, “Let’s go out and play!” certainly differs from a pup’s scratching on the screen door.  And giving a filly a bath seems in no way to compare with dunking a kitten in the tub.  Yet it’s all a matter of magnitude.  A full grown stallion pawing at the ground and letting out a hearty whinny is a good antidote for a man who, used to manipulating pups and kittens, has come to assume he can easily master the entire animal kingdom.

— Clarendon Press, Summer 1977

Finis

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Thanksgiving

©  2014 By Bob Litton

Some things you’re better off not looking at too closely. One of them is Thanksgiving.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re Christian, Jew, Muslim, or pagan. How can you count your “blessings” without their being contrasted with somebody else’s “lacks”? If you are blessed, are they therefore condemned?

How can we keep from choking on our turkey when we know people are starving here and across the world? Still, it is not, strictly speaking, our fault. We have tried to get food to war-torn areas as well as to places where natural disasters have rendered people homeless and even isolated. Even to share our “bounty” has sometimes become such a problem as to require diplomats, as was the case in Cambodia in 1979, when I published the original version of this essay.

And yet I wouldn’t have Thanksgiving not be. It has always been my favorite holiday — based on a religious origin yet not as heavily saccharine as Christmas, nor as ridiculously extended.

Many of us will be taking off to distant places (if we can afford the gasoline or plane tickets) in order to spend a few days with our relatives, whom we may not have seen for a year or more.

We’ll all disappear into warm houses and have a cordial meal. We’ll look at photos and watch three or four football games. If we’re wise and not too lazy, though, we’ll walk a few times around the park to aid digestion before we bury ourselves in those easy chairs.

That’s what I like about Thanksgiving, getting all muffled up with only the face exposed to get a red nose from the frosty air. It will be dusk, with just enough daylight to create an orange-red horizon as though there were a forest fire going on over the nearby hill.

The trees, without a single leaf left, will lose their definition as we observe them from trunks to twigs, and they become a mousy gray mass at the top, where they meet the golden and purple sky.

All the field of grass will be brown and quiet, not a breath of breeze to disturb it. But no, a rabbit just jumped out of a clump of bushes we were passing and darted in a triangular pattern into another hedge.

Down the road a ways, some little boys will be playing football in the park, in their imaginations identifying with their NFL heroes of the time. As they fall and roll they collect bits of the brown grass and dead leaves on their coats and stocking caps.

The next day we can return to the concerns of Iraq and our own stumbling democratic discourse. Just for this day it is better to forget it all and to lose one’s self in a revery of the scene of frost and trees and boys playing. That’s what I can be thankful for.

Finis

NOTE: Due to historical changes since this essay’s first version was published in the Monahans News (Nov. 22, 1979), I have altered its content so much as to render it almost a different writing.
— BL

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Editor Versus Dogs

© 2014 By Bob Litton. All Rights reserved.

NOTE TO READERS: In 1981, while I was the editor of the Monahans News, I  bought a small bungalow, and I was very proud of my three fruit trees, three grape vines, two non-bearing mulberry trees and manicured lawn. However, one of my neighbors had a dog which he allowed to run loose part of each day, and that animal loved to come over to my front lawn and drop his waste products on my St. Augustine grass.
    At a county commissioners court meeting during that time, the animal control warden’s problems with stray dogs and their owners was on the agenda.
    Those two elements combined led me to write a column critical of inconsiderate dog owners who allowed their animals to run loose, chase joggers and mess up people’s properties. Our local veterinarian came to the dogs’ defense, and a brief, friendly debate developed between him and me. The two columns reprinted below depict the essence of our disagreement. I concede that I was a bit harsh in my first commentary and should have acknowledged more of the benefits of pet ownership, especially for the elderly and the mentally disturbed; but I still hold to my tenet that no animals should be allowed to roam alone throughout a neighborhood.
    I live in a well-regulated apartment complex now, so the only dog problem I encounter is one small dog across the courtyard who hates to be alone outside so much he barks the whole hour or so he has to endure it.
    Sure hope there are no dogs in heaven (at least not of the barking, biting or messy varieties), which for certain is my next stop. 
— BL
Monahans (TX) Mayor Richard Hoyer presents News Editor Bob Litton a metal sign in recognition of Litton's columns castigating owners of stray dogs.

Monahans (TX) Mayor Richard Hoyer presents News Editor Bob Litton a metal sign in recognition of Litton’s columns castigating owners of stray dogs.

A dog is a dog is a dog

The Ward County commissioners commended County Animal Warden John Tackett Monday for picking up the strays in the county. Then, Commissioner J.H. Raglin, who is Tackett’s direct supervisor, brought up a problem the animal warden is encountering — vandalism.

Some people are stealing and damaging the traps which Tackett uses to capture animals that won’t respond to whistling. Raglin, naturally enough, believes the vandals are the dogs’ owners, resentful of the county’s enforcement of the animal control ordinance. “We’ve got to tell these people that John is just doing what state law requires him to do and that they are destroying county property when they damage those traps,” Raglin told me, “but we don’t want to perturb them too much because then they’ll just do more damage.  It doesn’t matter if a dog’s got nine tags on him, when we pick him up it’s because somebody has complained about him…because he is disturbing somebody.”

“I don’t think you ought to soft-peddle it, J.H.,” I replied. “You shouldn’t have to refer to any state law. If their dog is running loose and bothering the neighbors, that’s enough justification in itself.”

I must admit to a little bias here, since I’m neither a dog-owner nor a dog-fancier.  Everybody, I suppose, should have the right to keep one of the little curs around the house to scare away burglars.  I just don’t believe they should let their animals loose on the street where the beasts can attack mailmen, joggers, bicyclists, and just plain strollers. I’ve seen them roaming in packs around Monahans.  They drag ant-infested hunks of bone into people’s yards and, lying spread on their bellies under a shade tree, they gnaw away at the bone.

Then it’s time for Nature’s other call.  How they love a nicely manicured lawn of St. Augustine for their deposits! Some dogs — a very small minority — are at least useful for something.  There are dogs that lead the blind, dogs that pull sleds, dogs that sniff out dope and time-bombs.  I salute such animals which at least partly justify their existence and earn their keep. The greater number, however, are useless except as symbols of conspicuous consumption.  They leave residues of hair and fleas on couches and carpets; they chew up electrical wiring and furniture, and they eat up a good share of the family’s income.  But worst of all, as far as the neighbors are concerned, they howl and bark.

A dog — if a person insists on having one — belongs in a fenced-in yard.  His water needs to be kept full and fresh.  He needs some kind of shade.  And his messes need to be constantly and hygienically removed. Never should he be out roaming the public thoroughfares.

— The Monahans News, August 13, 1981

“Pets are wonderful”?

Local veterinarian Dr. Bryan Stuckey stopped me on my way to lunch the other day and gave me two recent issues of Veterinary Economics.

“Bob, would you read the articles I’ve marked in these magazines?” he asked.

I opened one issue to see what they were about: “Pets are wonderful…Communicating the Rewards of Pet Ownership”, it read.  I smiled, surmising that this was Dr. Stuckey’s way of responding to my recent harangue against yard-polluting dogs.  “Okay, I’ll read ’em,” I said.

And I was true to my word.  But I believe Bryan did his side of the issue a wrong turn by showing one of the magazines to me, because, instead of refuting my points, it simply turned me off by attacking the media.  One sentence in the article, for instance, goes as follows (and Dr. Stuckey had highlighted it with a yellow marker): “Unfortunately, little has been done about an almost conspiratorial tendency for the consumer media to emphasize the negative aspects of pet ownership.”

It appears that back in 1975 the editorial panel of Veterinary Economics had written an “Open Letter” to Time magazine as a rebuttal to a series of articles Time had published about pets and pet-owners.  Because Time didn’t publish the letter, the panel concluded that the magazine was conspiring against the pro-pet crowd.  “By not using it, Time’s editors demonstrated their belief in a philosophy which places reader-attracting sensationalism above accuracy.” It perhaps never occurred to them that the letter may have been lost in the mail or among the in-baskets at Time.  No, it had to be a conspiracy.

But the central point of the article was only indirectly related to the media.  The big subject was “PAW”—Pets Are Wonderful.  (Get it?)  PAW is a full-fledged publicity campaign under the sponsorship of Pet Food Institute to put before the public the positive aspects of responsible pet ownership.

In this particular article, the editorial panel of Veterinary Economics was applauding the idea of PAW.  However, they also were lamenting the fact that the major veterinary associations had not been asked to join with the pet food industry in the campaign against the negative image of pet-ownership perpetrated by us mean ol’ journalists.  The panel, in a rather murky sentence, takes note of the fact that the “…ultimate aim (of PAW) is the expansion of the pet food market.”  They add, however: “That should not deter us, because of the obvious public education opportunities which will be provided as well as possible expansion of the veterinary market.”

In the other issue, the proffered article was titled “Pet-Owners Happier, Healthier.”  If Dr. Stuckey had given me this issue by itself, his side would have been better served because it is a more pointed and concise counterpoise to my editorial. The article points to evidence that pets are especially important to many people during periods of sadness or loneliness.  Dr. Boris Levinson, a clinical psychologist, offers a possible explanation: “Many of today’s anxieties are caused by our alienation from nature in our daily lives.  A pet revives our sense of kinship with nature.”

Other positive aspects of pet-ownership mentioned in the article are: (1) walking a pet also exercises the pet-owner; (2) caring for a pet reduces the impulse to feel sorry for one’s self; and (3) if you own a pet, you are statistically likely to live longer, get sick less often and more likely to have a milder ailment than someone who does not own a pet. I don’t have any quarrel with those points.  I just think they do not refute my own argument that pets do not belong on the public thoroughfares unless they are under the control (via a leash) of their owners.  Nor should they be allowed to bark and whine at any hour of the day or night.  Nor should they be allowed to go into a neighbor’s yard and leave smelly reminders of their visit.

For certain, it’s not the animal’s fault if it goes around biting people or messing up lawns.  It’s just following natural principles.  Rather, the fault lies with pet-owners who are inconsiderate of their neighbors by letting their dogs run around loose.

I hope Dr. Stuckey doesn’t take this personally.  He’s a decent fellow who has done a lot of good things for this community.  I appreciate his showing me those articles primarily because his having done so indicates an all-too-rare willingness to enter into dialogues rather than just go off in a huff.

Thank you, Dr. Stuckey.

— The Monahans News, August 27, 1981

NOTE TO NON-WORD-PRESS BLOGGING READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to hear any helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page (see button above the title of this post). Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it.
Thank you for reading.
BL 

Favorite Photos — Album I

Old Masonic Lodge on Hwy 67 somewhere between Brownwood and Dallas

© 2014 Photos and Text By Bob Litton. All rights reserved.

During my first few years as editor of the Monahans News I would return to my hometown of Dallas about three times a year taking the US67 route. That way is more dangerous, in a sense, than is the I20 route because it is (or was during the 1980s anyway) a two-lane highway and I too frequently found myself caught in an unorganized “caravan” of vehicles; at such times, passing three or four other vehicles by going into the oncoming traffic’s lane is a dare-devil’s game. However, on the positive side, US67 is much more scenic and — except for the occasional “caravan” — more relaxing.

It was while I was headed to Dallas one day that I noticed the “ghost Masonic lodge” above, somewhere between Brownwood and Weatherford. It must have been the time of my high school class reunion because I had the newspaper’s camera with me and there was no other reason for me to be toting it to Dallas. I am always attracted to objects (and people, too) who are not beautiful in the conventional sense but are uniquely odd. Here was this old general store-like structure that looked like it was probably dangerous to enter and yet with the Masonic emblem still dangling from a post. I just had to capture that image for myself and for posterity. I have not driven on US67 again in more than twenty years, so I have no idea if that “ghost lodge” is still standing.

Collapsing structure south side of Hwy 80 just east of Barstow

An even odder structure captivated me a year or so later — this old prairie shack on the south side of TX80 a few miles east of Barstow in western Ward County, Texas. A local ranch foreman informed me recently that such little one-room shacks are  (or were) used as resting spots by cowboys settling in to rest a bit off their horses or as shelter from storms. But, as you can see, what makes this particular shack uniquely interesting is that it has become severely weathered and warped and pushed almost to the ground by West Texas winds. I frequently passed it during my years at the Monahans News when I traveled to Barstow to gather news. Eventually, of course, I saw as I drove by that it had finally collapsed.

Children in the Rain

Not all my interest resides solely in empty, weather-beaten buildings, however; I do have a place in my mind’s pleasure palace for people, both young an old. One part of my job at the Monahans News was to go out with the camera and try to find appropriate images that told a story whenever there was a change in the weather. Too often we had to rely on scenes of vehicle tires splashing through rain puddles or sliding on black ice. One day, however, I was much rewarded with a unique scene — the brother and sister above illustrating the fun a good rain can be. Oh! How that image arouses memories within me of my own childhood joy of building little mud dams by the curbside to divert a small stream of rainwater!

Shine Wilcox & Joe Brandenburg in Eleanor Eudady's Store 1981

But, we old folks can have our charming moments, too. Above is a couple of old timers who resided in Grandfalls, Texas, about 19 miles due south of Monahans, during the oil boom years of the 1930s. This photo was taken during one of my trips to Grandfalls for news-gathering and to collect tall tales for one of my columns, the heading of which was “Out in the county”. The fellow on the left is Shine Wilcox, and his companion (to your right) is Joe Brandenburg as they appeared in 1981. They are sitting and gossiping like a couple of cracker barrel philosophers in the grocery store owned by Eleanor Eudaly, Shine’s long-time girlfriend. A friend had informed me that Shine was unique in that he had a deep-well fund of local lore in his memory, and that every time he told a story the account was exactly as he had told it on previous occasions: My friend averred that such is not the case with most people. I asked Shine to give me some juicy anecdotes with which I might make my column bristle. His answer: “Nope! Can’t do that. Too many of those people are still alive.”

I will have a few more photographs to present for your entertainment (I hope) in the near future. For now — in case I do not publish anything between now and the approaching holiday — Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Review of Bob’s CD

Geoffrey Chaucer

Chaucer on way to Canterbury
Image © 2014 By University of South Florida
Used By Permission

Text © 2014 By Bob Litton

Back in 2010, I spent several months in library archives searching microfilm reels for articles and columns I had written during my twenty-year career as a reporter and editor of community newspapers. I copied, edited, and “burned” (i.e., printed) two hundred of the ones I considered still relevant or at least interesting, on a CD-ROM.

Initially, I had planned to sell the CD’s through local stores. However, the proprietors of those stores balked at the idea of selling a “book” that people could read only on a computer’s monitor. So, after “salting” my CD in the local library and in the archive centers of the four counties where I had worked as editor/reporter, I gave away the forty-plus remainder to friends and anyone else who might be interested in reading them. Since originating this blog two years ago, I have published a bunch of the columns from that CD on my blog, usually at those times when my well of topic ideas was practically dry.

On the CD, I also included a preface and an introduction–the latter imaginatively composed by one of my favorite people, Geoffrey Chaucer. This morning, nostalgia impelled me to pull up that introduction and re-read it for the twentieth time. Then the notion occurred to me of publishing it on my blog; for, to me, it is hilarious both because of its setting and because of its ultimate conceitedness.

Please read Chaucer’s praise of my writings…and, hopefully, have a good laugh.

— BL

* * * * * *

 Introduction

By Seynt Thomas of Kent!  What hath awaked me fro myn slepe depe?

Lo, this lode of papers som persoun dumped on myn bony breast and eke a letre wryten in spelynges moste straunge.  Lat me se what the sentence of hyt myght be.

“Dere Sir Chaucer,” the letre ginnes, “wold thou tak som of thyn restyng tyme to rede tho werks by an eld gentil wight who liste us to publysh hyt.  He wrote so muchel, and we han tyme so lyte.  But thou hast ben ther mikel tyme on thyn bak withinne that cold crypt; so, mikle bored must thou be.  Ples into tho pages loke and telle us what thou se.  But mak, in any cas, a good repourt, that we can hyt sellen.”

((A FEW DAYS LATER))

Pardee!  But this wast labour ageyn myn greyn!  Natheless, there ys humour and sharpness, too.  Thys elder wight whome som clepeth “Bob” and others “Robert”, wast born to wryt and drawe.  In myn minde, y kan se the persounes and places he descryves.  Noon other wordes neden he!  And the variaunce of his topics the world myght belt.

Som of cours y ne wiste: what, by Seynt James, ys “Little League”?  This bok nedeth a “glossary” lyk the pryntours pressen on me.  Heh, heh, how lykest thou tho lyte pun?     Ywis, what he seys in ther ys wel thoght and expres.  For, to tellen soth, boys sholde ne be forced to compete in games ahed of kyndely tyme.

This Bob eke a repourter wast and lerned mikel about gres rote democracie, which he preysed and fostred and defended even somtymes ageyn folke who claimed hyt was theirs to chaunge in yvel ways.

Her, another enditing tells of doctors’ greed, and how they squeezed the utmoste pence from tho who were sik yit had lyte of money to pay for tho care.  All this he puts in forme muchel straunge, as of a government meting where a fysiciens’ spokesman spekest in sophistryes and the doctours’ are purtreyed as cutte-purses, and cutte-pursing as an industrie out of honde.  O, hyt is a werk that wold warm myn herte…had I still oon…for I love satyre and the humouryst’s art.

So, selle this bok, boksellers alle, forwhy hyt be wryten by the best writer in the Englysh tongue since…since…why, since me!

— Geoffrey Chaucer

“You well know that all women by nature desire six things as well as I do; they would have their husbands brave and wise and rich, and generous too, and obedient to their wives, and lively in bed.”
—Excerpt from the merchant’s wife’s comments to the horny monk in “The Shipman’s Tale”, Canterbury Tales.

Finis

Celebrating Anniversary of Amira’s HGT Win

© 2014 By Bob Litton: All rights Reserved

NOTE TO READERS: Last June, I published my first essay on Amira Willighagen. Those who have not read that one might benefit from perusing it before proceeding to read this one, probably my last. You can find that review via this URL: https://boblitton.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/a-shout-out-for-amira/  [Dear Readers: I published the post below earlier than I should have: Amira’s HGT win anniversary isn’t until December 28. After I wrote this piece, I just became too eager to release it to Cyberworld. I have some more Amira commentary scheduled for release early Sunday morning (Dec. 28), so please check that out also. —BL]

Above all the sad and crazy events I read about every day there arose in my view last May the brightest, most cheerful star ever to appear in my personal heaven: Amira Willighagen, the Dutch girl who won the Holland’s Got Talent contest in December 2013. (I discovered her serendipitously on YouTube while searching for a song sung by somebody else.) Amira was nine-years-old at the time she auditioned on October 26, and the three judges anticipated that her song selection would be a children’s favorite, but they were surprised…nay, astounded…when she sang one of Puccini’s arias with a voice that sounded as though it were coming from the throat of a diva at least twice her age. A few months later, Amira told an interviewer that her uniquely mature sound was produced by using not merely her throat but also her stomach to sing. (Somebody clue me in here. As I will relate in subsequent paragraphs, Amira is a talented jester as well as a talented singer. My question is, is she joking about this “stomach” business?)

Since capturing the HGT trophy on December 28, 2013, Amira has entertained at concerts in various countries, including South Africa, Germany, Switzerland, the U.S., and Argentina; been given a special “master class” in London by her hero-conductor Andre Rieu; and performed during one of maestro Rieu’s outdoor concerts last July in Maastricht, Netherlands.

Also, last March Amira’s first CD was released (on her birthday). Initially, I did not intend to buy the CD because more than fifty percent of my enjoyment of Amira’s performances is derived from observing her extraordinary poise and openness to her audiences – her stage presence: I can only obtain that pleasure by watching her videos repeatedly on YouTube. HGT judge Dan Karety was absolutely correct: Amira is “a star who belongs onstage.”

After hearing it announced that she had won the HGT competition, Amira revealed for the first time her impish sense of humor by lying on the stage with her arms and legs pointed upward in mimicry of an animal playing dead. Later, while being interviewed by one TV host in Germany and by another in Argentina, she again revealed, more subtly, this aptitude for the comic. Her jesting humor became apparent when she responded to their questions.

The German lady asked what her future goal is, expecting Amira to say she wants to become a diva. However, Amira said she did not know how much longer she would continue singing, that she likes to do athletics, and eventually wants to work for McDonald’s. The host, taken slightly aback, said, “Touché!…There is plenty of time for you to decide that. I hope to see you performing at La Scala in Milan and at the Metropolitan in New York City.” (Good save!!!)

The Argentinian lady was not so fortunate. In Spanish, she thanked (“Gracias!”) Amira for appearing on her show and then asked Amira how to say that in Dutch. “Dank u vel” replied Amira with a slightly guttural enunciation. The host tried to say the same, and Amira repeated it even more gutturally – three more times! – almost as though she were spitting out sour milk! The poor woman tried to imitate Amira’s exaggerated expression with each repetition, until finally giving up and saying, “Okay!”, she let it drop. (I have to admit that episode was a bit rough on Amira’s part…but funny, too.)

Regarding the Maastricht concert, I really admired Amira’s onstage behavior, especially the way she curtsied in three directions during her curtain call. There were two aspects of the concert, however, which disappointed me: (1) they had costumed her in what was purportedly a medieval princess’ dress and bonnet; and (2) the acoustics were less than desirable due to the fact that it was an outdoor event. The latter problem, of course, could not be avoided, as far as I know. As for the dress, though, I think they would have done better to have donned her in the dress she wore while singing “Nessun Dorma” at the HGT finals, or even the simple outfit she wore at her audition in October 2013. (Like a Quaker or a Shaker, I always prefer the plain and simple over the fancy and gaudy.) None of the videos I watched after the “contest” ones were as good as those three, where the acoustics were superb, the cinematography commendable, and the dress modest. I will concede that the dropping of bits of blue and gold confetti all over Amira at the end of her audition, and after she was announced the winner in the finals, was an uncalled-for nuisance. Nor did I find that the simulated water waves during the “Nessun Dorma” performance added anything to its appeal.

Naturally, there have been some critics of Amira’s rise to operatic stardom. There is one mudslinging female blogger who says young girls should not try to sing opera, which, she claims, requires intimate knowledge of the languages and histories of the countries where the operas were composed. Others opine that heavy-duty aria-singing can damage a young person’s throat organs.

All this puts me in the unusual position of having to defend the singing of nonsense (which I have slammed in previous posts) and not paying attention to the nonsense. It reminds me of the remarks art historian Lord Kenneth Clark made during one episode of his BBC series Civilisation:

What on earth has given opera its prestige in western civilisation, a prestige that has outlasted so many different fashions and ways of thought? Why are people prepared to sit silently for three hours listening to a performance of which they do not understand a word and of which they very seldom know the plot? Why do quite small towns all over Germany and Italy still devote a large portion of their budgets to this irrational entertainment? Partly, of course, because it is a display of skill, like a football match. But chiefly, I think, because it is irrational. ‘What is too silly to be said may be sung’.*  Well, yes; but what is too subtle to be said, or too deeply felt, or too revealing or too mysterious— these things can also be sung and can only be sung.”

In the present instance, the criticism is really aimed at those who encourage a young girl to sing a song uttering the pleas of a young woman to her father and threatening to drown herself in a river if he does not grant her wish. Okay, it’s a tragic scene. Should children be exposed to such horrific words, either singing them or hearing them? Well, look at the folk tale of “Hansel and Gretel” and 19th century composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s derivative opera: parents abandoning their children in the forest to let them starve there, a witch fattening a boy for her supper, a girl pushing the witch into an oven. That story and many similarly rough tales we endured…need I say enjoyed…during our childhood. That much being given, what difference does it make what aria a young girl sings, as long as she sings it prettily. If the issue is the age appropriateness of a nine-year-old wanting to buy an engagement (or wedding?) ring, there are many occasions in all the arts where we are expected to suspend disbelief: Even I, at the age of twelve, eagerly used to sing the “Theme from High Noon” during music class talent exhibitions, and nobody ever commented to me on how absurd that was.

Finally, there is a pretense of “rivalry” which some people on the Internet have tried to foist on Amira and her American contemporary, Jackie Evancho, who won her own singing contest when she was only ten years old – four years before Amira. But these young ladies apparently are not jumping into that mud puddle. (Good for them!) Jackie gave Amira a “shout-out” on one of her Web sites, and Amira included Jackie among the persons she thanked on the booklet that accompanied her CD.

At nearly 75 years, I seriously doubt that I will be able to watch – much as I would like to – Amira’s progress into a potentially great operatic career. As Amira’s grandmother poignantly noted not long before dying, “She belongs to the world now.”  But I am content with what I have been able to see and hear thus far. And, on my blog’s stats page listing of “views” I see 21 “views” on the “Amira” post during last June and July. I hope at least one of those “views” was on the Willighagen family’s computer.

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* Lord Clark is quoting Pierre Beaumarchais (1732-1799), but I was unable to locate any record of the location or context of Beaumarchais’ comment. – BL

Finis

On Not Believing the Obvious and the Proven

© By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Isn’t it fun to chat and even pontificate about matters of which we are blissfully ignorant? And then, when responding to questions about details regarding the subject, to demur by pretending to modesty and declaring that we are not experts in that area? I suppose this mode of communication has been around longer even than I have…well, at least since Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels’ remark: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

But that and similar feints have become so common now that they have captured the media’s attention: They denote this evasive self-deprecation as a “meme”. That word–meme–is also new to me. (I swear, this world is changing too fast!) Here is a definition from Dictionary.com: “a cultural item in the form of an image, video, phrase, etc., that is spread via the Internet and often altered in a creative or humorous way.”

The Republicans love to indulge in memes; they find, as did Goebbels, that people’s attention spans are so short, their patience so tentative, and their intellects so shallow that they will be more readily swayed by brief “clips” and “slogans” than by sound reasoning. They have used the “I am not a scientist…” meme ad nauseam when discussing evolution and climate change during the 2014 mid-term election campaigns.

Practically all the media have pointed to this Republican habit. Last September 17, MSNBC reported: “Sen. Mark Rubio (R-Florida), for example, was asked how old he thinks the planet is. ‘I’m not a scientist, man,’ he replied. Gov. Rick Scott (R) was asked what he intended to do about the climate crisis threatening Florida. ‘I’m not a scientist,’ he responded. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was asked about the climate (change) deniers in his conference. ‘I’m not qualified to debate the science,’ he replied.” No, they do not want to debate evolution and climate change; they just want to retain that ol’ time ignorance that was so comfortable back in the Middle Ages. And they want to tear up the Earth for oil, coal and (in the Amazon) gold, at the behest of their billionaire supporters.

The depressing truth about the meme approach used by these political hucksters is that…it worked. The people…the American populace…my fellow citizens, or the majority of those who voted anyway, swallowed it. And now, not just they but the rest of us, here in the USA and around the world, must pay the price. For, you see, the International Panel on Climate Change released three reports between last March and October on the current condition of our planet and its prospects for the future if nothing is done to ameliorate the consequences of inaction. In spite of the detailed proofs of the already existing effects of global warming, as prepared by hundreds of scientists and reviewers, there are still a helluva lot of determined ostriches across our land and the rest of the world who are dooming us to an unbearable future. Here is one paragraph from the INCC’s third report press release:

“A total of 309 coordinating lead authors, lead authors, and review editors, representing 70 countries, were selected to produce the Working Group II report. They enlisted the help of 436 contributing authors; and a total of 1,729 expert and government reviewers provided comments on drafts of the report. For the Fifth Assessment Report as a whole, a total of 837 coordinating lead authors, lead authors, and review editors participated.”

There are several reasons Democrats have lost elections, especially for the presidency, which really is just a popularity contest dependent more upon the candidates’ barbers and haberdashers than their ideas. However, the only reason I think is pertinent here is that most of the Democratic presidential contenders were too intelligent for the average American. I am nearing my 75th year, so I can only trace this perception back to Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Al Gore and John Kerry. I believe the candidacies of these nominees were negatively affected by their being perceived as too intellectual. Particularly during John Kerry’s minutes at the debates, I thought too many of his responses–even though I understood them and agreed with them–were above many voters’ heads and were not concise enough. While it is true that Goebbels-style “memes” are toxic to democracy, it is also true that argument threads that extend too long are toxic for a political campaign. Nonetheless, those men stuck to their intellectual idealism, and I will continue to do the same.

When I initiated this blog, I resolved to avoid political commentary, and I hope I won’t break that resolution again. This is a time, however, that tries my soul.

Finis

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