Science fiction got it right

Last night I finished rereading a science fiction novel from the late 1960s, one that I first read when I was a boy, about twelve years old. The novel is oddly prophetic of some aspects of our current political situation.

I have always been a voracious reader. My mother used to say that she taught me how to read when I was four so she had time to do housework and other tasks instead of always reading to me. The public library was not far from our house; I could walk there and back without crossing any streets, which was a blessing, since I often read while walking home from the library. I regularly won the summer reading competitions sponsored by the library for children; some of my friends tried to keep up with me by checking out books and returning them unread, but my proximity to the library kept me ahead of their pace. By the time I was twelve, I had exhausted the children’s section of the library and was exploring the larger collection. My attention was drawn to a display of paperback science fiction novels. I met the great science fiction writers there: Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, and others. I also read books that had no hope of becoming classics. Three books in particular were favorites; in the last five years, I have managed to acquire copies of all three—one because it is back in print, one that I found in a used book sale, and one that my daughter the librarian tracked down for me even though I could not remember the name of the author or the title of the book.

Bug Jack Barron, by Norman Spinrad, is the book I finished last night—the one that is back in print. Frankly, I’m surprised that I was allowed to read that book at that age—my parents must have trusted the library staff; either the library staff trusted my parents to oversee my reading, or they did not know what some of their novels contained. Bug Jack Barron has pages that would make Henry Miller blush. (When I, as an adult, read Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, I wondered at first what the fuss was about, since I had read dirtier work in my younger and more impressionable years.) Because of those selections, I cannot recommend the book to most readers. Still, the plot and characters remained vivid in my mind over all these years, so the book contains some literary value.

Bug Jack Barron is copyright 1969, but it clearly was written a year or two earlier. It is set in a near future—no year is specified. Telephone communication largely includes video as well as audio material. Marijuana has been legalized and is commercially available. A third political party, the Social Justice Coalition, has formed out the Civil Rights Movement. Although the SJC has elected some African Americans to state offices and into Congress, it has not resolved the larger racial inequalities in American society.

The title character, Jack Barron, is a television personality. He has a call-in show: viewers call to “bug” him with their problems, and he uses his prominence and celebrity to help solve those problems. At this time, the Democratic Party has a stranglehold on Congress and the White House. At one point, Barron comments on that fact that, over the course of many years, the Republicans had nominated only two men capable of claiming the presidency: Eisenhower and Reagan. But now a coalition of SJC and Republican leaders wants to nominate Jack Barron, knowing that his television personality is popular enough to defeat any likely Democratic candidate.

The bulk of the story revolves around a multi-billionaire whose medical researchers are unlocking the secrets of human immortality; much of his funding comes from people whose bodies are frozen at death and stored until their fatal conditions can be medically cured in the future. All of Spinrad’s characters have a deep fear, even revulsion, toward death; no mention of religious hope or comfort ever appears in the novel.

The most interesting aspect of the novel, though, is Barron’s realization that he can control his opponents through his television show, editing what they say to show them at their worst while enhancing his heroic stance. On his own, Barron has discovered what we now call “fake news,” and with that tool he plans to seize and hold power. I wonder how Mr. Spinard is reacting to our politics of 2020. J.

John Lennon (1940-1980)

John Lennon was born eighty years ago today—October 9, 1940.

Without John Lennon, there would have been no Beatles. Surely some other group or individual would have filled the gap that the Beatles occupied, but their artistry and creativity would have been different. As a result, the 1960s and history since that time would also have been different.

When Paul McCartney met John Lennon in 1956, John was leading a skiffle group called the Quarrymen. (Skiffle is a British folk music, not unlike some of the Appalachian and Ozark folk music still performed today in the United States.) Paul and John established a musical partnership, that was soon joined by George Harrison. Other members came and went, and various names were used by the group. The Beatles did not approach the peak of success, though, until Ringo Starr became the regular drummer of the group in 1962.

In their early years, the Beatles performed many rock-and-roll hits from the United States, from black performers as well as white performers. They paid as much attention to B-side songs as to the promoted hits. They also wrote their own songs and performed them. An early Beatles hit, “Please Please me,” reveals both the word-play for which John became famous and the innovate harmonies that helped the Beatles to stand out from the crowd of early Sixties musicians. While Paul is sometimes considered the more musical of the pair, comparing Paul’s “And I Love Her” to John’s “If I Fell” (both from the album and movie Hard Day’s Night) reveals that they had equal and complementary talents. When the Beatles stopped touring and became a studio band, John was able to direct his word-play into more complex songs such as “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and, “I Am the Walrus.” But his musical abilities were also evident in songs such as “All You Need is Love,” which sounds like a simple rock anthem but has a complicated rhythmic structure which, every so often, drops half a beat.

John had a troubled childhood. Both his parents were absent, and John was raised by an aunt; his mother, Julia, died while John was still a child. (Oddly, Paul’s mother Mary also died while Paul was young.) John was perpetually contemptuous of authority and found it hard to maintain stable relationships. He was the first of the Beatles to marry; also the first to divorce and remarry. He was as absent from his sons’ lives as his father had been absent from his. John admitted that his promotion of love and peace for the world did not match the life he was living. John also experimented with a number of mind-altering substances, drawing his fellow Beatles and many other people into the drug culture of the later Sixties. He was briefly interested in Transcendental Meditation, a version of the Hindu religion promoted by a yogi who became very famous and wealthy as a result of his teaching. As the members of the Beatles sought meaning for their lives in various forms and aspects, the group fractured. John’s solo career was noted especially for the anti-war anthem “Give Peace a Chance” and the ballad “Imagine,” both of which are frequently quoted in contemporary conversations about life, politics, religion, and idealism.

John retired from the musical scene for several years, then began a comeback with new music in 1980. In December of that year, he was shot and killed by a deranged fan. As the Beatle martyr, John’s image and reputation became even more strongly associated with the values of peace and love. The Beatles remain cultural icons today, not only as representatives of the Sixties but as creators of music that continues to entertain, having passed the test of time. In the decades since the Beatles, many performers have enjoyed successful careers, but no one has shaped and defined music and culture as much as the Beatles did in their time. J.

A brief and pointless observation

One night last week I wanted to fill an hour with mindless entertainment and scanned the DVDs on the shelf for something that would be less than a feature-length movie but more than a half-hour episode. (Yes, I could have watched two half-hour episodes, but never mind about that.) On a whim, I grabbed my set of Van Dyke & Company DVDs and selected episode six. If anything brought about that particular choice (aside from ethanol-induced randomness), it was the Justin Timberlake song “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” that I have heard too many times on the radio in recent days.

Let me explain. For reasons that elude my thinking even on ethanol-clear days, Justin Timberlake chose to record and release a song that strongly resembles the disco anthems of the mid-1970s. Van Dyke & Company was recorded and broadcast in 1976 and 1977. Being a variety show, it had musical guests, and some of those musical guests performed disco music. Trying to understand why anyone would want to revive said music, I chose an episode that features a performance of one of the original perpetrators of disco music—namely, KC and the Sunshine Band.

Van Dyke & Company was more than just another variety show. Seventies television was crowded with variety shows—some of them great, including Carol Burnett’s shows, but many of them average to poor. Dick Van Dyke was already a very popular entertainer; he had hosted his own situation comedy (sitcom) and had appeared in classic movies such as Mary Poppins. Everybody knew Dick Van Dyke. Rather than create just another variety show, Van Dyke chose to risk a parody of variety shows. Several running jokes fed subtle humor into Van Dyke & Company. For example, Dick Van Dyke presented himself as a star who was completely in control of his own show, yet he continually found himself forced to change his plans by the producers of that show. (One of those producers, also a writer of the show, was the comic genius Bob Einstein, who also played his character Super Dave Osbourne in two of the episodes of Van Dyke & Company). In episode six, Dick Van Dyke complains to the studio audience and viewers about a letter received by the show claiming that he only provided space to popular music performers to enhance the show’s ratings. Van Dyke emphasized that he personally chose the music performers and was close friends to all of them; he then completely garbled the name of KC and the Sunshine Band, leading to corrections from off-stage by Bob Einstein. Later in the show, Van Dyke complained that the producers had promised KC and the Sunshine Band two musical segments; Van Dyke went on to say that he was not consulted about that promise and that he demanded the second musical segment for his own song. As he began his song, his seat was wheeled off-stage and a curtain lifted to reveal KC and the Sunshine Band, who proceeded to perform their second song—a disco anthem which repeatedly informed the hearer, “That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.”

Andy Kaufman appeared on most of the twelve episodes of Van Dyke & Company. Any fan of Andy Kaufman should own the recordings of this show, since they include Andy Kaufman performing before audiences who did not yet know what to expect from his act. In this sixth episode, Andy appeared as a cowboy. Dick Van Dyke had already selected four volunteers from the audience before Andy appeared. When he came on stage, Andy started a record and convincingly lip-synced the performer on the record, who was leading four children in singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Part of the joke was that the four volunteers apparently had no indication, when they were chosen from the audience, that they would be expected to lip-sync parts of a song. Andy was able to appear totally in control of the act, to the point of pushing his four volunteers into place and backstage as they performed for the audience in the studio and at home.

Unintended (I think) additional humor contained in this episode lies in the fact that KC and the Sunshine Band were also lip-syncing their two songs, but Andy’s lip-syncing talents completely blew them out of the water. Especially notable are KC’s hands on the keyboards—he appears to be striking the same chord repeatedly throughout the entire song without any change in hand position. (Given the lyrics of the songs, it’s entirely possible that they also involved only one chord.) Andy’s lip-syncing as a joke contrasted with KC’s lip-syncing as a serious attempt to entertain made this episode of Van Dyke & Company even more amusingly surreal than the writers and performers had intended.

Viewing this episode did not help me to ascertain why Justin Timberlake would care to revive a style of music that quickly became obsolete and deserves to remain forgotten. This noon in the car I heard once again his rendition of “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” and I thought I could hear one of the background singers slipping into “That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.” J.

The oxymoron of subatomic particles

Science, like money, is a human invention that is very useful when used properly and very dangerous when misused. Both money and science can be very useful; on the other hand, a lack of either can be very problematic. Neither science nor money has the strength and significance to be the foundation of a person’s life. A human life based only on science, like a human life based only on money, is sadly crippled and unable to handle the crises that can strike a life emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

One of the strengths of science is also one of its weakness: science continually changes. The more effort people put into studying the world, observing the world, experimenting with things in the world, and making predictions based on those experiments and observations, the more likely it becomes that new theories will shape science and direct scientific inquiry on paths that, until that time, were unexpected.

Science was practiced in ancient Egypt, Babylon, India, and China, developing differently in different places. Western science (which drew upon scientific observations and theories from Egypt, Babylon, and India) began roughly twenty-four centuries ago with the philosophers of ancient Greece. Among their efforts was an attempt to determine the basic building blocks of the physical, or observable, world. One early philosopher suggested that everything material is made of water—a reasonable guess, since water can assume so many forms, from ice and snow to liquid water to vapor. Others suggested different basic materials rather than water. Pythagoras and his followers proposed that everything observable consists of numbers. Greek philosophers tended to seek internally consistent explanations of the world, even when those explanations seemed contrary to observation. One group, for example, insisted that motion is logically impossible and is only an illusion—that the true universe is stable and unchanging. Until the invention of calculus many centuries later, scientists and philosophers were not equipped to refute the logic that suggested that motion cannot happen in the world.

A basic teaching of western science since Greek times has been the assumption that all physical items consist of tiny unbreakable pieces. These were named “atoms” from the Greek word for “unbreakable.” For many centuries, most western scientists considered four elements to be represented among the atoms: water, earth, air, and fire. Alchemy—the predecessor to modern chemistry—observed and experimented with physical items with the assumption that all such items consist of tiny unbreakable pieces of water, earth, air, and fire. Modern western science would never have developed without the alchemists of medieval Europe. Far from living in “the dark ages,” the medieval alchemists were at the forefront of science, culture, and civilization.

Chemists eventually demonstrated the existence of far more than four elements—for example, that water is not a basic building block, but water can be divided into hydrogen and oxygen. As they continued to experiment and observe, chemists developed a series of mathematical relationships among the elements, re-suggesting the possibility that number is the most fundamental building block of the universe. Modern physics grew out of modern chemistry; roughly one hundred years ago, western scientists began to find particles that seemed to be building blocks even of atoms.

Understand that subatomic particles are an oxymoron. Atoms are supposed to be unbreakable—the word “atom” was created to communicate that important idea. Finding that atoms contained protons, neutrons, and electrons changed the rules of science; evidence of quarks and other subatomic particles continued the process of demonstrating that atoms, though important, are among the worst-named ideas in all of science.

Huge powerful machines have been built to study the tiny pieces of atoms. Smashing atoms to observe their particles has been compared to smashing an old-fashioned watch to try to guess how it functions. One scientist, Leon Lederer, joked that God “seems to be making it up as we go along,” since every layer of discoveries suggests a new layer of tiny pieces even smaller than those already demonstrated.

Scientists continue to study the world, to try to understand how things work. They observe and experiment, not only with subatomic particles, but with viruses and other disease-causing agents, medicines, genetics, and the climate of the planet. Sometimes most scientists agree with each other about how things work; other times their research seems to contradict the research of their peers. We are all familiar with the constant revision of nutritional studies—first eggs are good for us, then they are bad for us, then they are good for us again. The old tradition of individual scientists plugging away in their laboratories to manage great discoveries has long been supplanted by teams of scientists funded by government grants and by corporate investments. Political agendas and the hope to generate a financial profit inevitably shape the work of today’s scientists. Their work is important and should not be curtailed; but every scientific discovery must also be accepted with the proverbial grain of salt. That salt is as important an ingredient as any other contribution to scientific investigation. J.

The Beatles

In April 1973, Apple Records released two double albums (eight sides in all) containing fifty-four songs that had been recorded and released by the Beatles between 1962 and 1970. Officially named The Beatles 1962-1966 and The Beatles 1967-1970, the recordings quickly became known as “The Red Album” and “The Blue Album” because of the color of the album covers. (A double album of new material from the Beatles, released in November 1968, had been named The Beatles but is usually called “The White Album.”)

Other compilations of Beatle music had been released before 1973 and have been released since 1973, but for many Beatles fans the Red Album and Blue Album are the definitive collection of Beatle songs. Fans can easily debate the selections. I, for example, would have included “If I Fell,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Got To Get You Into My Life,” “Here, There, and Everywhere,” “I Will,” and “Sexy Sadie,” among others.  With the coming and going of compact discs and the current availability of digital recordings, the red and blue albums are likely irrelevant to newer fans of the Beatles. But in the history of Beatle fandom, those albums have an important place.

A few days ago I tested my memory to see if I could recall all fifty-four songs included on the red and blue albums, as well as the order in which they appeared. Some sides I remembered easily; others were dimmer in my memory. Finally I had to pull them out of my collection and fill the gaps. (Yes, I still have my vinyl albums that I bought in the Seventies and Eighties.)  Interestingly (to me if to no one else), the songs I had forgotten were largely from the Rubber Soul and Magical Mystery Tour eras. “In My Life” and “Hello, Good-bye” are both songs that I like, but for some reason I had forgotten that they are included on the Red Album and the Blue Album, respectively.

Last year’s movie Yesterday imagined a world in which the Beatles had never existed and almost no one had ever heard their music. One man could remember and reproduce the songs of the Beatles, and he introduced them into the world. At first he found it difficult to get people to listen, but eventually the songs made a big impact. The first time I saw the movie, I didn’t like how the Beatle music was scrambled together, not showing the development of their musical styles and interests. But I then realized that younger Beatle fans know the music of the Beatles exactly in that fashion—all one package, without context of years and albums and formative influences. My children grew up hearing the Beatles music at home, and they probably remember some songs by album—Abbey Road, for example, or A Hard Day’s Night. But even for them, hearing “And I Love Her” side by side with “Oh, Darling” would probably not strike them as essentially different songs—just two of the many great songs written and recorded by the Beatles. J.

My acting career

My review last week of the musical Wicked has prompted memories of my own career on stage many years ago. The high school I attended put on a play every fall and a musical every spring; the productions approached a professional level and were popular in the community. My sophomore year I played in the orchestra for The Music Man. The next year I was back in the pit for Fiddler on the Roof. My senior year I finally found the courage to try out for a part on stage. That year the faculty chose to produce Hello, Dolly! and I was given the part of Horace Vandergelder (clear evidence that, even in high school, I was already recognized as a curmudgeon).

The high school had enough talented students interested in these productions that they were able to double-cast every major part. On Fridays and Sundays the main cast would have the major parts, while the “understudies” would perform smaller parts. On Saturdays (and for the school assembly promoting the production) the “understudies” performed the main roles while the main cast took the smaller parts. This meant that many students had to learn two characters for each production.

The Music Man portrays a traveling salesman who sells musical instruments for children, as well as uniforms and instruction books—in spite of the fact that he has no musical training. The town’s librarian, who also gives piano lessons, is the chief threat to his sales campaign. Being a comic musical, a romance develops between Professor Hill and librarian Marian Paroo. That year the school boasted a fine crop of actors and musicians, especially among the young men. The smaller parts for said young men were the school board, who begin the play bickering in public but become united when Professor Hill introduces them to barbershop quartet music. In the cast room after the production, and on other occasions out of the public eye, the two quartets would combine into a powerful octet, singing barbershop songs from the musical. I was one of the three trombonists in the orchestra (a far smaller number than the seventy-six trombones mentioned in the show). I also got to produce the blats of the tuba for the children’s band that appears in the finale of the show.

Fiddler on the Roof depicts a Jewish community in Russia during the nineteenth century. What a learning experience for white, Protestant, suburban kids, learning how to portray a vulnerable and persecuted community of outsiders. Although the script has comic moments, the tenor of the show is very serious. The cast became very close during the rehearsals and put on a powerful performance.

Hello, Dolly! is a comedy about a New York widow early in the twentieth century who also serves as a matchmaker. As the heart of the story, Dolly decides to choose a match for herself—a wealthy but dour merchant in the suburb of Yonkers. Several subplots become entangled in the story, including the merchant’s two assistants, a milliner and her assistant, the merchant’s niece and her prospective husband, and a famous restaurant in New York City. Those of us who had been involved in Music Man and Fiddler found Dolly to have less substance and life than the previous shows; I, for one, was rather glad when the curtain came down on Sunday afternoon. On the other hands, I became good friends with some of the sophomores who were getting their start in theater, which made rehearsals, performances, and cast parties a lot more fun.

I have not been able to return to acting since high school, although I have been an enthusiastic supporter of amateur community theater everywhere I have lived. I cannot count the number of live productions I have seen over the years. My family owns dozens of DVDs and VCR tapes of famous musicals. I understand that a number of people are not fond of productions in which the story is interrupted periodically by singing and dancing, but I agree with a friend of mine who wrote a song, “Life Should Be More Like a Musical.” J.

Review: Wicked

SPOILER ALERT: This review contains information about the plot of the musical Wicked. If you have not seen this musical and are hoping to see it in the future, read no further. This is your only warning.

Earlier this week I promised a review of Wicked, the very successful musical that opened on Broadway in October 2003 and now has a traveling company that performed downtown for two-and-a-half weeks this month. The story, based on a book, gives an alternate view of The Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum in 1900 and made into a popular movie in 1939. Wicked focuses on the witches of the land of Oz: Elphaba, her sister Nessarose, and Galinda (Glinda), who are to become, respectively, the Wicked Witch of the West, the Wicked Witch of the East, and the Good Witch of the South. Beginning with the celebration after Dorothy has melted Elphaba, the musical looks back to the conception and birth of Elphaba, her college days (in which she meets Galinda), and her subsequent career.

The traveling production that I saw was impressive. The performers were all talented actors, singers, and dancers. The sets, costumes, and props were superb. The musicians did a fine job, and the production was well-received by the audience. From a technical viewpoint, the show was a rousing success, and if that were the purpose of this review, I would give Wicked the highest marks.

On the other hand, the script and story of Wicked are heavy-handed and disappointing. In fact, I have not been so repelled by a reboot of a familiar story since Star Trek came out in 2009. In both cases, the writers and directors did a fantastic job of conveying details from the original tale but failed to create a likeable story in their re-creation. The songs in Wicked are not memorable, and the story told by the production is disappointingly preachy.

To begin, Elphaba is green. Much of the story concerns diversity and self-acceptance, as Elphaba’s father and classmates are largely opposed to Elphaba because of the color of her skin. Her mother eats white berries during her second pregnancy to prevent a second green child; as a result, the mother is poisoned and dies in childbirth, and the daughter (Nessarose) is born with damaged legs. Elphaba blames herself for the tragedy. When the two sisters leave for college, they meet Galinda, who is portrayed as a dumb blonde, Homecoming Queen, feeling entitled to every privilege in the book. Galinda gives Elphaba the trademark black hat as a joke, but later befriends Elphaba as she learns to have compassion for those who are different.

Two love triangles develop at the college, involving the three future witches and male students Fiyero and Boq. Meanwhile, an unnecessary subplot is added as some malevolent power seeks to deny the animals in Oz the privilege of speech. (Once again, diversity and acceptance are hammered home as the themes of the musical.) Elphaba is excited to meet the Wizard of Oz, assuming that in the Emerald City she will finally be accepted, since everything there is green. But the Wizard is revealed to be the power depriving animals of speech, and so Elphaba becomes his enemy.

Elphaba’s magic is responsible for the winged monkeys, as she tried a levitating spell on one of them but somehow got the spell wrong. She and Fiyero free a lion cub that was being held at the school; somehow, in the second act, the lion has become an adult (the Cowardly Lion). Magic spells likewise turn Boq into the Tinman and Fiyero into the Scarecrow. Boq blames Elphaba for the transformation and is her outspoken opponent, but Fiyero remains faithful to Elphaba. Meanwhile, the Wizard campaigns against Elphaba, labeling her as wicked, and forcing her into hiding. Madame Morrible, once a teacher at the college the witches attended and now the Wizard’s press agent, summons the tornado that drops Dorothy’s house on Nessarose, attempting to draw Elphaba out of hiding. Here the witch’s shoes are explained: they were silver when her father gave them as a gift to Nessarose, but they turned to ruby slippers when Elphaba enchanted them, giving her sister the ability to walk. Elphaba is furious when Glinda gives the shoes to Dorothy, but (in one of the better lines of the play), Glinda tells Elphaba to “get over it; they’re just shoes.”

The idea that Elphaba could be melted with water is originally a joke started by her intolerant enemies. Near the end of the musical, Dorothy indeed throws a bucket of water on Elphaba, who appears to melt and disappear. But this is revealed to be a trick, allowing Elphaba to end her ordeal of being hunted by the Wizard and his minions. Fiyero (now the Scarecrow), is part of the trick; he and Elphaba escape together. Finally, it is revealed that the Wizard was actually Elphaba’s biological father, which explains her green skin and her magical powers.

I found the retelling of the Wizard of Oz to be sadly lacking in quality for several reasons. First, the appearance of the three friends to help Dorothy was totally undermined by their backstories as presented in Wicked. Second, changing the Wizard from a well-meaning humbug into a scheming evil dictator also disappoints. Galinda as a dumb blonde who learns acceptance of others is overplayed. And the attempts to change the Wicked Witch of the West into a likable character, although an interesting idea, is spoiled by heavy-handedness.

That said, if you want to see a powerful performance with superb effects (including an astounding animatronic dragon who hovers above the stage but has no connection to the plot) and join the many others who have viewed this spectacle, be sure to buy a ticket when Wicked comes to your area. If you are fond of the Baum book and of the Judy Garland movie, though, stay away from Wicked. J.

Remembering Woodstock

I was vaguely aware that some rock concert was happening fifty years ago. At the time I was young and I didn’t follow rock music. I knew what hippies were—I saw a carload of them one afternoon that summer. But the term Woodstock was not very meaningful to me while it was happening.

A little more than ten years after (Yes, I did that on purpose.), the college I was attending showed the Woodstock documentary on a Friday night. My friends and I attended, and we were won over to the Woodstock spirit. In fact, that same fall we dressed as hippies for the Homecoming bed races and won the top prize for our costumes (and second prize in the actual race). I went out and bought the three-disc concert album and came to know most of the songs by heart. When it was available, I bought the documentary on VHS. When I wore out the tapes from repeated viewing, I replaced them with the DVD set (which included Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and some other singers and groups that were omitted—at their own request—from the original movie). So of course I have watched the movie again this week, joined by my teenaged daughter, who has her own appreciation for hippies and Sixties culture. In fact, having watched Woodstock earlier in the week, we followed that last night by watching Hair, a movie made in 1979 that included the songs from the Sixties musical of the same name.

Observing and appreciating the culture does not include approval of all its mistakes. I still believe in marriage and faithfulness, in respect for authority, and in private property. I shower every day, and I just got a haircut this week. I have no illusions about the Age of Aquarius (and, by the way, most experts in the field say we are still in the Age of Pisces). But most of my favorite rock songs are from the Sixties. The Beatles were the best rock band ever, and Abbey Road is the best rock album ever recorded. I still ache when I think about the 1969 Chicago Cubs, how they stumbled out of first place as summer drew to a close, being overtaken by the Miracle Mets. (And this year’s version of the Cubs seem destined for the same disappointing results.)

I wouldn’t want to be seven years old again. But the summer I turned seven was full of amazing happenings that are worth remembering and celebrating. J.

Apollo 11

How are you celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11?

I have my CD player/alarm set to wake me up tomorrow at 6:30 with Frank Sinatra singing “Fly Me to the Moon.” I wasn’t sure until this afternoon that I owned that recording—I bought a Frank Sinatra CD years ago for “My Kind of Town” and I haven’t played any other tracks from it. But tomorrow will start with the right song for the day.

When I get dressed for work (Yes, I have to work tomorrow.), I will put on a crisp white shirt, black slacks, and a black tie. Instead of my usual one ballpoint pen I will put several pens in my pocket. If I cannot dress like an astronaut to celebrate, at least I can dress like an engineer from Mission Control, and that’s good enough for me.

I will fly the American flag outside my house tomorrow. We fly the flag on sad days like Memorial Day and September 11, so it feels good to fly the flag on the anniversary of a great and joyful American accomplishment.

When I am at work, if slow times come when no one needs my attention—and Saturdays frequently have such slow times—I will be reading First on the Moon, which is a book that Little, Brown rushed to publish a few months after the Apollo 11 mission. The writers probably spent time with the astronauts, flight crew, and the families of the astronauts before and after the mission, interviewing them. They may have even been with the families during the mission—they give detailed descriptions of what the wives were wearing and how they reacted to events during the mission. I’m pretty sure my parents got this book from the Book of the Month Club back in 1970.

CNN has made a documentary movie about Apollo 11 that they are showing again tomorrow night. They showed it a few days ago, and my family and I watched it and were recording it. But thunderstorms came through the neighborhood, and we lost the satellite signal near the end of the broadcast. So we will definitely try to record the movie again, and we might even watch it tomorrow night.

Are you planning on celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11? J.

Book review: The Saddler’s Legacy, by Rosslyn Elliott

For summer reading that is both pleasurable and thought-provoking, I recommend a series of books which I just finished reading: Rosslyn Elliott’s “The Saddler’s Legacy.” The three volumes are Fairer than Morning (copyright 2011), Sweeter than Birdsong (2012), and Lovelier than Daylight (2012), all published by Thomas Nelson. The titles and cover art suggest that the books are romances, and indeed Elliott uses the style of a romance novel to tell her stories. But all three are also historical fiction, carefully researched, filled with adventure, and relevant to contemporary issues. They are set in Westerville, Ohio, with occasional visits to larger American cities, and they describe events in three generations of the same family, the Hanbys.

Fairer than Morning begins in the summer of 1823. Ann Miller is being wooed by Eli Bowen, but she meets Will Hanby, a saddle-maker’s apprentice. The romance is predictable (as is the case for all three novels), but around that skeleton Elliott builds a tale of working conditions in the early nineteenth century and questions about the system of justice, both issues that still matter in the twenty-first century. Her characters are strong and complicated, not cardboard cutouts. Most of them are Christian, but Elliott is not preachy in her writing. As she tells her story, she allows readers to reach their own conclusions about what is happening.

My favorite of the three is the middle book, Sweeter than Birdsong. Kate Winter, a student at Otterbein College in 1855, is painfully shy. Ben Hanby is a musician at the college. Fate throws them together, as they become involved in the Underground Railroad, that network of safehouses that supported escaped African American slaves on their path to freedom. It seemed that I could relate to both Kate and Ben with their talents and with their challenges.

The final volume, Lovelier than Daylight, is set during the Westerville Whiskey War of 1875, a battle of prohibitionists against the saloon industry. Susanna Hanby is one of the prohibitionists; Johann Giere is the son and heir of a brewer. When Susanna’s sister Ruth disappears along with Ruth’s six children, it appears that Ruth’s alcoholic husband is somehow to blame. But Johann, an aspiring newspaper reporter, is best equipped among Susanna’s acquaintances to track down Ruth and the children. Elliott handles the questions of prohibition, social justice, and violence with clear insight into the complexity of human behavior, complexity which leads to no easy answers.

All three books are engaging. Elliott never becomes lost in the details. The research behind her writing provides everyday lifestyles as well as historic persons and events. The characters are strong enough to keep a reader’s interest. I bought my copies through amazon.com. J.