Saturday, July 4, 2020

Some thoughts on American Independence Day 2020

Flag of the 2nd Connecticut Regiment in the
Revolutionary War
Happy 4th of July.

To read American history is to be amazed this country ever got started at all. We like to sing the praises of the "Give me liberty or give me death" heroes, but there's a whole lot of evidence that we had a bit of luck. Heroes on our side, for sure. And a noble uphill climb. But no shortage of bungling on the part of the British, either.

Britain's thirteen colonies in America went to war to gain independence from Britain on April 19, 1775, when the British marched into Lexington and Concord and fired "the shot that was heard around the world."  The war came officially to a close with the Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783, just short of eight and a half years later. The First Continental Congress had organized to kvetch about the way British treated their subjects on the American Continent. They wanted equal rights as Englishmen. By the time of the Second Continental Congress, people were beginning to sense the Brits were not interested in what the complainers in the colonies were going on about, and already thinking of independence. Two months after the war started, in June of 1775,  the Congress asked George Washington to organize a continental army. It was clear this was going to be a long haul.

The American Continental Army was divided, for administrative purposes, into the Main Army and six regional departments: Eastern, Northern, Southern, Western, Highlands and Canadian.

Let me tell you about the Second Connecticut Regiment of the Continental Army.

The Second Connecticut Regiment was organized in the first four months of 1777 at Danbury and was made up of eight companies from Fairfield, Windham and Hartford counties (but not my own - Litchfield County).

It was assigned on April 3 of that year to the First Connecticut Brigade of the Highlands Department.
It was then reassigned to McDougall's Brigade two months later, on June 12.
It was then reassigned to the Second Connecticut Brigade three days later, on June 15.
It was then reassigned back to the First Connecticut Brigade one month later, on July 10.
It was then reassigned back to the Second Connecticut Brigade four months later on November 13.

In the following two years, it was first reorganized into nine companies, in July of 1779, then reassigned to the Continental Army on November 16 of that year and reassigned to the Highlands Department the following year, on November 27, 1780.

And that, meine Damen und Herren, is what's known as not having your shit together.

By 1781 Congress had gone bankrupt and could no longer pay the salaries of its soldiers. That didn't affect Commander Washington; he was working for free anyway, but it was a serious problem for the soldiers, most of whom were fighting for the money. A quarter of the army consisted of new Irish immigrants, and they carried with them resentments of British abuses in their home country, and welcomed the opportunity to go off and kill them some redcoats. Also in the army were some 6600 people of color who joined because they were promised, if they did, they would be released from slavery. That included as many as 20% of the Rhode Island Regiment - not because Rhode Island was a more enlightened place necessarily, but because it had the greatest number of slave traders at the time and thus more slaves to take advantage of.  For more on blacks in the Continental Army and the role Washington and other leaders played in the decision to enlist them, see here.  And here.

The third main group of this all-volunteer army consisted of German immigrants. Armies all over the world are made up of cannon-fodder types, and America was no different. If you've got poor people, you can always raise a volunteer army. Republicans of today should take note of the fact that the country came into being because an army consisting in large part of immigrants and people of color won its independence. And, to be fair, we should all take note of the fact that a good number of African slaves fought for the British as well. Seems they may have been less interested in building an independent America than in not being slaves anymore, for some reason. (That's sarcasm, in case you missed it.)

Because Congress was uncomfortable with the idea of a regular professional army, they had only short contracts and that meant there was a huge turnover, and Washington had his work cut out for him keeping it all together. He managed by some miracle to win several victories even after Congress had voted to cut funding for the army. (Sound familiar? OK, but this time they really had no choice.) Fortunately, the French were donating to the cause and shipped shoes and clothing over to take up some of the slack.

Actually, there were two military forces. In addition to the army, each colony provided a militia, also made up of volunteers. Not as reliable - there were lots of desertions - they complemented the army. And what would be the Second Amendment to the Constitution was intended to assure that these boys would have guns at the ready once the war was done and there would be no need for an American army anymore.

The Second Connecticut Regiment didn't make it all the way to the end of the war in September of 83. It was merged with the 9th Regiment on January 1 of 1781, and furloughed in June of 83, three months before war's end, and permanently disbanded two months after.

So why this focus on the Second Connecticut Regiment?

Because they have this snappy little march to be remembered by.

Or so I thought when I first started this little excursion. In time I discovered that the march was composed by David Wallace Reeves at some point in the middle of the 19th Century and the Second Connecticut Regiment in this case was a regiment of the Connecticut National Guard, if I am not mistaken.

No matter. It was a lot of fun catching up on my New England history. Got a lot of it back in the 1940s growing up in Connecticut. Nice to time travel back there, at least for a day.

And did you notice the "we" in the opening paragraph? I clearly identify with the American revolutionaries even though my ancestors at the time were either on the British side, or too busy harvesting potatoes in Lower Saxony in Germany to care all that much about what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic. Isn't it curious how identity happens?

One last observation. While I go back to my New England roots and consider how ready I am to call this "my" history, consider what this day means to the descendants of the African Americans I  referred to in passing. If you haven't heard this already, here's another perspective, one presented by the great-great-great (and maybe another great) grandchildren of Frederick Douglas.

photo credits

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Gaspar Noé's Love 3D

Since the United States seems to be the world center of pornography, according to The Road to Grace, a website keeping track of porn statistics, and porn sites receive more regular traffic than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined, I should perhaps not be surprised to discover that Netflix is now apparently offering porn among its regular movie listings. 

I sat down last night, scanned for new movies on Amazon Prime and Netflix and clicked on Love. Nice catchy title for a movie, don’t you think? Available on Netflix.
The film opens with a naked man and a naked woman lying on a bed masturbating each other. For real. Not a simulation. And we were off and running.

We soon learn that the man, Murphy, and the woman, Elektra, met in Paris, and are in a seriously dysfunctional relationship. He seeks sex where he can find it; she goads him on to explore ever new sexual adventures and then faults him when he follows her lead. He has the brain of a sexually immature teenager; she is probably best understood, simply, as a self-destructive neurotic. At some point they bring a 17-year-old neighbor, Omi, into their bed. In time, Murphy gets Omi pregnant, Elektra disappears, and the film consists of endless flashbacks of Murphy blaming Omi for his current miserable state and pining away for Elektra. At this point we learn that the entire story takes place on a single recent New Year's Day, and entirely in Murphy's mind. We also become aware that this is not a porn flick, if you define porn as having no purpose but to titilate, but a tale of two people you’d really have to work hard to like, a film made by someone who wants to make a movie about the emotional side of an essentially sexual relationship, and kind of succeeds. You kind of wish he'd chosen one that succeeds, not one that fails, to focus on.

What makes the film interesting is not only the discovery of the fact, in case you didn’t know this already, that endless images of people engaged in sex does not necessarily make what you’re watching porn, but also seeing how a filmmaker can play with your emotions. In this case, I’m talking about Argentine filmmaker Gaspar Noé and the emotions are annoyance which turns ultimately to pity. “Why do people make movies about such unsympathetic characters?” becomes “there but for the grace of God go I” as you watch the clueless shoot themselves in the foot.

Although new to Netflix, the film came out five years ago and was featured (in the “outsider” category) at Cannes, and has had time to get some pretty good reviews. One I recommend is by Simon Abrams on the Roger Ebert site if you’re still on the fence about wanting to see it. 

I reached a much simpler conclusion. It’s not as bad as you want to think it is. But don't watch it for the story; I can't see what satisfaction there is in watching clueless people behave badly. Watch it for the sex, if you like; it's quite erotic in parts. But be prepared to be struck with the awareness of how sex can just as often make you sad as it can make you happy.

photo credit

Tuesday, June 23, 2020


I was a lucky kid. I had an adoring grandmother and I came to understand a long time ago how important a role a grandmother can play in a kid’s life. I’m not talking just about the grandmas who end up raising their grandchildren because something happens to the parents. I’m talking about the grandmas (and this extends, in many cases, to grandpas, as well) who supplement the work of parents, leave the disciplining and training tasks of parenting to those in the middle generation and flood the kid with excessive love. I had one of those. 

Actually, I had two, both deserving of the title “grand,” one born in Canada, the other born in Germany. I loved my Canadian grandmother dearly, but she had five other grandchildren, including two she was raising in their mother’s absence, and had to portion out her time and attention accordingly. My German grandmother, in contrast, had become a single mother without resources in the First World War in the Weimar Republic, and had had to give my mother to her sister to raise, and never quite recovered from the guilt. As a result, when I came along she evidently decided God had given her a chance to make up for her sins by showering attention on her daughter’s first-born. I never had any doubt that I was special.

I had other advantages. I was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant in class-conscious New England at a time when WASPS still had a higher-class status, and our family fit into the pattern of a two-class family – working class for the parents, and middle class for the kids.

What came with schooling was not only the three Rs, but also the cultivation of tastes of the upwardly mobile. Art and music, familiarity with distant lands and cultures, and the ability to distinguish between those with talent and those without, and the difference between the cultivated and the profane. It didn’t take me long to realize that the grandmother, whom I adored, had tastes in art that I had come to describe as kitsch, and tastes in music I would, in great dismay, dismiss as schmalzy.
It would take many years before I was able to recognize the degree to which I had internalized a sense of shame at the ways of my working-class parents. I was both a snob and simultaneously a fish out of water at Middlebury College, even back then a school for the children of privilege. My social insecurity was total. I cheerfully went into the homes of my friends, but precious few got invited into mine. 

Now all these years – decades – later, I look back on my young years in astonishment at the power of the culture to inculcate such insecurity, and at how deep and how wide it went into the corners of our brain. There was a time when I was in graduate school at Stanford when I found myself among a group of people from backgrounds similar to mine. After a few glasses of wine, one by one we began to share some of our deepest secrets. We pretty much all believed that we had been admitted to Stanford by mistake. One day they would discover the error and we would be thrown out. We were working class kids taking up space reserved for our “betters.” 

Another experience sticks with me, the time when someone in class made some patronizing remark about the importance of not looking down on working-class people, and celebrating, as did the likes of Studs Terkel, the pride of coming from the working class. Bullshit, I said to myself. You know you're got a real working class kid when you spot somebody fighting like hell to get as far from his background as he possibly can.  That's not true, I've come to realize in time. Not everybody needs to work so hard to shed the shame that comes with social climbing.  In any case, you’ll find no tear of nostalgia in this eye for the good-old days of life among the working-class. I got out. I’m glad I did. I have no desire whatsoever to look back. 

Something happened the other day that took me by surprise. I found myself listening to something that I would have had no trouble labeling as schlock – or kitsch – not so long ago and being quite caught up by it. Not because I’ve suddenly developed a taste for schmalz, but because it brought my grandmother to mind. How she would have loved listening to this, I said to myself, and when one song finished, I immediately sought out another. 

If you’ll permit me, I’d like to wallow for a moment in the world of schmalz, a song or a story characterized by excessive sentimentality.  Or schlock, a close synonym, meaning, more specifically "Cheap goods.". Or kitsch, the word for tacky (non-discriminating) artwork. Or Schnulze, a tear-jerker film or a schmalzy story, lacking in subtlety. A family of words brought into English mostly via Yiddish, rather than from German directly. First the words themselves. Then some examples of what they refer to. 

I don’t know what it is about the “sh- sound” (written sch- in German, sh- when writing Yiddish words in the Latin alphabet), but it seems to carry with it a kind of humor, probably because of the Yiddish influence on the language. Yiddish has a huge vocabulary of sh-words, including schmalz

Some examples:  
shlemiel and shlimazel (“A shlemiel goes around spilling soup on people; a shlimazel is the loser he spills it on;” schmuck - (German= jewelry; decoration) - equivalent to English “dick,” meaning a jerk; shmegegge – nonsense; shlepp – to drag from place to place; schmutz (same as original German = dirt); shmeer (German schmieren = lubricate) - spread, as in cream cheese on a bagel; schmooze – to chat in a friendly (often with intent to persuade) manner; schvitz (German Schwitz) - sweat; schmatte – cleaning rag; schmalz - (German = lard; Yiddish = chicken (or goose) fat); shlock – inferior goods; shnoz - (German Schnauze=snout) - Yiddish – nose; Schnulze - (not Yiddish, as far as I know; German for a schmalzy (tearjerker) film or pop song) 
Großmutter (unlike most Germans, I never called her “Oma” but used the literal word for “grandmother”) loved a good Schnulze. Particularly one set in a German context, like The Student Prince and The Sound of Music. 

Here’s an example, the voice of Mario Lanza singing the Serenade from The Student Prince. I remember vividly the time I saw it in the Strand Theater in my hometown, with Großmutter, in 1954, the year it came out. One of those many experiences that imprinted a German sense of identity. 

What brought this all back was coming across a YouTube video of a kid singing the kind of schmalzy songs that first gave me an early sense of connection with Germany that would last a lifetime, music that I still associate with my grandmother. She died in 1970 not long after this kid had come to prominence. His name was Heintje – is Heintje – he is still alive. He’s actually Dutch, but made a big splash singing in Dutch, Afrikaans and German. 

Nothing is more quintessentially schmalzy than Heintje singing the song that made him famous – Mama. Großmutter must have loved him to pieces.  

Here are the words, with my English translation: 

Du wirst doch nicht um deinen jungen weinen
Bald wird das wieder uns vereinen
Ich werd es nie vergessen
Was ich an dir hab besessen
Das es auf Erden nur eine gibt
Die mich so heiß hat geliebt
Und bringt das schicksal uns nur kummer und schmerz
Dann denk ich oft daran es weint für mich immer
Mama dein herz
Don’t cry for your little boy 
We’ll soon be together again 
I will never forget what I had in you 
Something that exists only once in the world 
Somebody who loved me so dearly 
No matter what pain and sorrow fate may bring 
I think often on how your heart always cries for me. 

Heintje at 14 and
Heintje at 62 (photoshopped)
Classic, right?  All the characteristics of schmalz in spades. Sentimentality you can schmeer with a spoon. And if you want more, allow the YouTube video to turn over automatically to the next one, where he sings to his Oma, his grandmother, this time.

And here's another one, which I won't take time to translate. Just have a listen. Deine Liebe, Deine Treue (Your love, your loyalty).

And one more, "Ich sing ein Lied für Dich" (I sing a song for you) - a duet between the Heintje of 1969 and the Hein Simons of today - same guy, 48 years later . And how's that for schmalz!
Meanwhile, over in Southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland, we have the yodelers. Because yodeling is associated with mountain folk who raise cattle, it is the antithesis of sophistication – the other extreme of Mozart and the Viennese Opera House – music Sir Walter Scott is said to have labeled a “variation upon the tones of a jackass."*

Großmutter wasn’t much for Mozart or Brahms, who would become my favorite composers, but she loved her Johann Strauss. She couldn’t sit still whenever she heard “the Blue Danube Waltz” but had to get up and waltz around the room. And she would have loved the “Yodel Family” - a family from the Swiss Bernese Oberland who call themselves “the Oesch’s - die Dritten (“the thirds”) refers to the fact there are three generations of them: lead singer/yodeler Melanie, her brothers Mike and Kevin, her mother and her father on the Swiss accordion (the Schwyzerögeli). 

In the end, all those insecurities that plagued me as a youth, the ones that made me worry about whether I was associating with “the right kind” of people, whether I had the right kind of taste in music and art, and whether, if I showed a liking for bagpipes – or the accordion – Swiss or of any other sort – I didn’t deserve to call myself a real music lover as I would if my tastes went more for the cello or the harpsichord. 

I still roll my eyes over lyrics that include "from heaven above" or "blue skies" or "stars at night" and any mention of flowers and sunshine. Edelweiss does not bring me to tears. 

But I have discovered that I smile and feel kind of warm and cozy when I see a kid belting out a song about his mother. Maybe it's just a sentimentality that comes with old age. But I like to think of it as a recognition that I didn't come to a love of music through the high German culture of Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms, but through the low culture of the polka, of oompah music and of schmalz.  My German grandmother wasn't Marlene Dietrich. She was a music-loving Hausfrau. And that's my history. That's who I am. I live in a world of music, and the question of which door I came through is of no consequence anymore.

Throat singing from Mongolia?  Gregorian chant? Japanese enka? American Country and Western?  Yodel-lay-hi-hoo...

Bring it on. 

 *Tosches, Nick (5 August 2009). Country: The Twisted Roots Of Rock 'n' Roll. Da Capo Press., cited in the Wikipedia entry for “Yodeling.”