Monthly Archives: January 2011

Kid Stuff: Peanuts

Charles Schulz created a group of characters that America has taken to heart. They're our kids now. Uploaded by

Charlie Brown will never get to kick that football. Lucy will always give out psychiatric help for five cents. Marcie will always call Peppermint Patty, “Sir.”

Charles Schulz has gone to his eternal reward, but his legacy is seen by millions of people each day. Peanuts never gets old, never goes out of date. Look at all the forgettable comic strips in your local paper, think of all that have come and gone, and Peanuts goes on.

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Peanuts doesn’t have the feeling of anarchy that infused Calvin and Hobbes, nor the daily dose of reality found in Dilbert. What it has is a sense of humanity, and a spirituality that resonates with its audience and which was intrinsic to Schulz’s own life.

Peanuts was created within a month of my own birthday. I won’t say how long ago that was, but Gutenberg had just invented the printing press. Now they say newspapers are a vanishing enterprise. Maybe so. But Peanuts will always be with us — as long as there’s a Great Pumpkin, or a pathetically bare Christmas tree .

(Originally posted April 12, 2009)

Music: Rhapsody in Blue


Rhapsody in Blue is one of the most distinctive and recognizable American jazz/classical classical/jazz concertos ever. Uploaded by

If we take jazz to mean a free-form improvisation on a theme, then Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin (Great American Things, February 24, 2010) should be classified as a classical work. And it is definitely in the symphonic tradition. Yet this piece stretched the normal perception, and blended jazz rhythms and progressions to create a kind of music that surprised and excited Americans when it debuted in 1924, promoted as a “jazz concerto.”

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From its opening clarinet glissando through many changing sections, Rhapsody in Blue is totally American in its feel and motifs. (Perhaps that’s why United Airlines used parts of it in its advertising some years ago.) The website Classical.Net says this about Gershwin’s masterpiece:

With his first major piece, Gershwin invented a unique symphonic idiom, to this day still argued over. Gershwin, of course, was not the first to blend jazz and classical music. One could make cases for Debussy, Scott Joplin, or Milhaud as important pioneers and, even better, as creators of masterworks which used jazz. All of them, however, had exploited jazz’s “chamber” qualities. From the Rhapsody’s opening clarinet wail, Gershwin created not symphonic jazz, but the Gershwin idiom: an outdoor, urban, big-hearted, super-Romantic, and thoroughly assured poetry.

Hear it all here, performed by the New York Philharmonic:

Americana: The Ford F-150


Ford has been selling its F-Series pickup trucks since 1948, and Americans have always loved them. Uploaded by

It came as a surprise to me to learn that the Ford F-150 pickup truck has been America’s best-selling vehicle a total of 24 years. And it came as an even bigger shock to learn that one of those years was 2010 – in the era of high gas prices, that’s a pretty remarkable feat. Ford sold more than 500,000 units last year. To put that in perspective, Chevy sold about 345,000 Silverados, and Dodge sold less than 200,000 Rams.

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Ford introduced its F-Series trucks back in 1948, with such exciting options as a passenger-side wiper, a passenger-side visor, and a windshield washer (operated by a foot pump). Ford is now on its twelfth generation F-150, and creature comforts are now promoted as fervently as payload and towing. Today’s pickup owner wants “seating comfort” and “acoustical quality.”

The respected car-buying website says in its review:

Originally conceived as a rugged, no-frills workhorse, the Ford F-150 has since morphed into a well-appointed ride. Versatility is the goal: This pickup truck can handle the needs of small businesses with the same aplomb it brings to a night on the town. And it isn’t just ranchers and contractors who cherish it: Anyone who needs to tow a boat, haul stuff or transport recreational cargo can take the F-150 to heart.

Actor: Al Pacino


Twenty years elapsed between Al Pacino's first Academy Award nomination (The Godfather) and his first Best Actor (Scent of a Woman). Uploaded by

Some actors get better with age. Witness a couple of men on this list, Tom Selleck (January 7, 2010) and Paul Newman (May 17, 2009). They were stars as younger men, but acquired a certain world-weariness that made their later characters memorable. I mention this to say that I can’t see that happening with Al Pacino. I don’t think he’s nearly as sharp as in his younger years. But those years, those characters, those performances were so wonderful, he definitely has earned his place as a Great American Thing.

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As an Italian-American from New York City, Pacino has had more than his share of gangster roles. And no one has ever done them better, and that’s a high compliment. But he’s also had movies where he’s been a policeman, detective, lawyer. Here’s a list of some of the excellent movies he’s made:

  • The Godfather (1972 – Nomination)
  • Serpico (1973 – Nomination)
  • The Godfather Part II (1974 – Nomination)
  • Dog Day Afternoon (1975 – Nomination)
  • …And Justice for All (1979 – Nomination)
  • Scarface (1983)
  • Dick Tracy (1990 – Nomination)
  • The Godfather Part III (1990 – Nomination)
  • Glengarry Glen Ross (1992 – Nomination)
  • Scent of a Woman (1992 – Academy Award)
  • Carlito’s Way (1993)
  • Donnie Brasco (1997)

In addition to these Academy Award nominations, Pacino has been honored many other times for his work. He has received three Golden Globe, two Emmy, and two Tony Awards. Entertainment Weekly named him the number 41 movie star of all time, and his performance in Dog Day Afternoon was voted by Premiere Magazine as the number 4 performance of all time, and his Sonny Corleone in Godfather Part II is number 20.

Americana: The Smithsonian Institution


Want to see the Wright Brothers' airplane? Julia Child's kitchen? Dorothy's ruby slippers? The Smithsonian is many museums in one, America all in one place. Uploaded by

If you like BIG museums, you’ll love the Smithsonian Institution. It’s composed of 19 museums and nine research centers. Oh, and the National Zoo.

Y0u probably know the Air and Space Museum. Maybe the American History Museum. But you probably didn’t know that the African Art Museum and the Postal Museum are part of the Smithsonian. If you’re like me, you didn’t even know they existed.

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More than 25 million people visit the Smithsonian annually, and what do they see? The Wright Brothers 1903 airplane. The original Star Spangled Banner. Julia Child’s kitchen. Dorothy’s ruby slippers. A total of 137 million items in all.

If you can get to D.C., save at least one day for the Smithsonian. Choose one of the popular museums and one of the obscure ones that covers a distinct area that interests you. Isn’t it comforting that someone thought of preserving and collecting all these amazing artifacts so they’ll be there for generations to come?

(Originally posted April 15, 2009)

Artist: Jackson Pollock


During his lifetime (and even now), the public and critics can't agree on Jackson Pollock's works. In 1949, Life magazine asked if he was America's greatest living artist. A few years later, Time magazine called him Jack the Dripper. Uploaded to Photobucket by technique 17.

Rarely has there been an artist as admired and simultaneously dismissed as Jackson Pollock. An abstract expressionist, Pollock famously put his large-scale canvases on the floor, and stylistically dripped or splattered paint to fulfill his vision. He’s sometimes called “Jack the Dripper,” but he was unapologetic about his technique. “On the floor I am more at ease,” he said. “I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.”

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Pollock’s work is often criticized by the public. “Anyone could drip paint or throw it on a canvas,” some would say. “That’s not art.” Even critics have found fault with Pollock’s work. One wrote that they were “mere unorganized explosions of random energy, and therefore, meaningless.” But the art world has always embraced Pollock, and you have to admire his creativity and the abstract beauty of his finished works. Famed art patron Peggy Guggenheim became one of his earliest supporters, and was instrumental in his acceptance and success.

Unfortunately, Pollock struggled with alcoholism, and died in an alcohol-related auto accident at only 44. Whatever you think of his technique, he’s been a major influence on a generation of artists both in the U.S. and Europe. Of his work, Pollock said, “When I’m painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It’s only after a get acquainted period that I see what I’ve been about. I’ve no fears about making changes for the painting has a life of its own.”

Americana: Rose Parade


Elaborate flower-covered floats and marching bands didn't enter the minds of parade organizers when the first Rose Parade was held back in 1890. Uploaded by

If you happened to have been in Pasadena in 1890 (Anyone? Anyone?), you could have been one of the 2,000 or so people who saw a number of horse-drawn carriages covered in flowers. No floats, no cars, no marching bands. But you’d have been a witness to the start one of America’s most-beloved New Year’s Day traditions. (Unless that happens to fall on Sunday, in which case it’s a day-after-New-Year’s-Day tradition.)

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If you’d been there on January 1, 2011, you’d have witnessed a much more elaborate spectacle. Beginning with the flyover of a B-2 Stealth Bomber, and grand marshal Paula Deen, y’all. You’d have witnessed 42 flower-covered floats, heard 22 marching bands, and prayed that none of the 22 equestrian units decided to lighten its load in front of you.

Of course, you didn’t have to go to Pasadena to see this spectacle. You could have been one of the millions who watched on ABC, NBC, Hallmark, HGTV, or Univision. Or been one of several hundred million people who tuned in live around the globe. The Rose Parade is truly a spectacle in all the good senses of that word — quite a difference from what the city fathers of Pasadena envisioned back in the late nineteenth century…