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Friday, April 29, 2016

Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, Gullah and Mitchelville

Uncle Remus

Uncle Remus is the singer and "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah" is the song that won the 1947 Academy Award for Best Song.

If you remember the Disney movie, Song of the South, which featured Uncle Remus and that song, then you are old. If you don't, there is a reason why and I'll tell you about that... and Gullah and Mitchelville.

Uncle Remus is the fictional, kindly old former slave who serves as story teller of African-American folk tales compiled and adapted by Joel Chandler Harris. He wrote seven Uncle Remus books, his first in 1881. The story setting is shortly after the Civil War when slavery had just been abolished.

Song of the South was Disney's first movie that mixed animation with real actors. The tales Uncle Remus relates, with the help of Disney animation, are familiar.

But the reason many have never seen the movie is that it has never been re-released for today's audiences. The stories were presented in a manner that was consistent with segregation of the day, but as America began waking to this prejudice in the mid-20th century, the dialect, the Uncle Remus persona and other stereotypes evident in the movie were demeaning and patronizing to African-Americans.

Jackie Robinson didn't break the color barrier in major league baseball until 1947 and there were still, across much of the old south and sometimes elsewhere, "white" and "colored" bathrooms and drinking fountains, segregated schools, movie theaters, restaurants, hotels. buses and other things. The stories' context is set on a former slave-owning plantation and plays out in the prejudicial world of "then" at a time when radical change was in the offing.

The Uncle Remus character though, is Gullah, those folks say. And the tales are proudly claimed  for their charm and history despite the juxtaposition of then and now. The Gullah folk of today are the descendants of enslaved Africans and some Portuguese who were thrown together by slave traders in the  Lowcountry coastal regions of the United States, from southeast North Carolina to northeast Florida. The created their own common language from English... a clipped, stylized version where verbs have only one tense and unneeded letters are simply dropped. A few of their cultural expressions sound like this: "Ebry shut eye ain't sleep" and "Dog got four foot, but can't walk but one road."   Any guesses of their meanings?

On Hilton Head island, the Gullah had the first American opportunity to form a town, Mitchelville (yes, it is spelled correctly) in 1862 and elect their own officials. It was named for Union general, Ormsby M. Mitchell who defeated a Confederate attempt to take the island. The Union army supplied material and built small (18x30 feet), framed houses for as many as 3,000 escaped and soon to be freed slaves. Mitchelville lasted until about 1870 when the call of jobs and life elsewhere made the community less relevant.  

B'rer Fox
Gullah tradition still embraces those tales, our 70-year-old Gullah tour guide, Melvin, told us. Melvin is a direct descendant of those former slaves and he recently took us on a two-hour show-and-tell extravaganza of Gullah history and culture on Hilton Head Island.

The tales, you ask. Ever hear of Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear? Those are  three of Joel Chandler Harris's leading characters and their antics spin the tale. They entertain and educate, like Aesop's Fables, with a lesson or moral.

B'rer Rabbit
The stories are written in a dialect devised by Harris to represent deep south Gullah. And for the movie and books, it works. At the time of Harris' publications, his work was praised for its ability to capture plantation negro dialect.

It's amazing what you learn when you pay attention. Did you know that 170,000 African-Americans served in the Union Army and 20,000 in the Union Navy during the American Civil War?

Monday, April 18, 2016

Is it time yet?

Our sun will burn itself out in the next 5 billion years or so, say astronomers, and it will get very, very cold. That will mean Burlington Coat Factory will have the greatest going-out-of-business sale ever!

Of course, we humans may have exited the scene years earlier. There will be warnings signs of the apocalypse (like this one maybe) many believe. Oh, and the usual plagues, famine, earthquakes, lakes of fire, etc. But if human nature is to be believed, there are subtle signs we are loosing it, if you pay attention.

  • This Hermes Birkin handbag just sold for $298,000, and worth every penny, say those who know handbags. It is a fire-engine red crocodile bag with diamond hardware so what's not to love? A dirt-cheap Hermes Birkin goes for just $10,000 or so but really, doesn't your loved one deserve the best or are you a cheapskate?

So is this a sign we are going crazy or what?

  • The NBA will put ads on player jerseys next year so we can watch basketball and have a yen for antacid tablets almost at the same time.
  • A recent study showed a fall-off of belief in God but conversely, more of us now believe in an afterlife. So where will we go? As for me, I'll pick Cleveland. I've heard nice things about it. W.C. Fields picked anyplace else. The epitaph on his tombstone read, "I'd rather be here than in Philadelphia."
  • Ethan  Couch, the then-16-year-old kid who killed four people while drinking and driving, was given only10 years probation in juvenile court, on four counts of intoxication manslaughter and for recklessly driving drunk. He was illegally driving on a restricted license and speeding, lost control, plowed into a group of people standing near a disabled SUV and struck the vehicle. Four people were killed in the collision; two passengers in Couch's truck suffered serious bodily injury and a total of nine people were injured.

The gist of the court case was that Couch was so rich and spoiled that he didn't know better. Then, when he skipped probation, fled to Mexico and had to be tracked down--at our expense, the judge slapped 180-days in jail on him for each of the four people he killed.

Some insist angrily, "That will show him!" However, I'm sure all those with less money and affluence... and kinder hearts, totally understand are hoping and praying that he learned his lesson.

But the scales of justice do tend to balance.
  • A Canadian was stopped at the border as he tried to smuggle 51 live turtles hidden in his trousers while crossing from the  U.S back into Canada. He was given five years in prison for his heinous crime. At his sentencing he thanked Federal agents for ending "the darkness of my greed and ignorance." (FYI: He had 41 turtles strapped to his legs and 10 hiding between his legs. I'd have loved to watch him walk.)
  • A giant galaxy orbiting our own just appeared out of nowhere. Surprised scientists say it is so large that it dwarfs our Milky Way galaxy. I guess we don't know everything, do we?
Giant Galaxy-not to scale

So when your spouse tells you she went shopping and saved $200, don't believe her for a second. But that global warming thing... believe.

Friday, April 8, 2016



 Who doesn't like crossword puzzles?  (Ok, but maybe not you.) The big thing is that I do. So this is all about me.
Every blogger likes to think that his/her words are not only golden but fascinating and far-sighted. Surprisingly, sometimes they are. This is 'kind of' one of those.
Word Play is a short story I wrote about six-years ago. I liked it because it is poignant and it came together well. It has appeared in Every Day Fiction, a site that runs a new short story--less than 1,000 words--every day. To get to the real gist of this post, you have to read Word Play (below) or you'll miss the irony... but that's okay because it's a good story.
Seventeen across: ‘Wish it done.’ Four letters.
Twenty-three down: ‘Baa baa mama.’ Three letters.
Rob was always anxious for The Sunday Times because it was the best crossword of the week. It kept him hummingly busy most of the morning… and he usually finished it. This, however, was not one of those days.
“Damn! What is ‘Carpenter’s key?’ I should know that.
Good time to grab a coffee, he thought as he stretched like a hibernating grizzly just waking.
He smiled with smug confidence. This was war: his intelligence and worldly knowledge vs. the cunningly sly and diabolical Sunday crossword.
“Bring it on, baby. When I fill in that last square, I am king of the forty-two across: Celestial orb… World. Where is the Titanic when I need her?”
The self-appreciating silliness was interrupted by his cell’s “Macho Man” ring tone.
“Hi hon…
“Yeah, workin’ the puzzle…
“No. Haven’t cracked it yet, but I will.
“What?  You are done already? No way. Did you use the dictionary?
“OK. Sorry. I know better. Hey, don’t be mad now. I was just kidding.
“You’re not coming over? Why not? We always go for brunch on Sunday. Since when is a sale more important than me?  Honest, Steff… sometimes I feel you don’t love me as much as you love a good bargain.”
Feelings hurt, Rob sat brooding for a minute. And to add insult to injury, he had to admit, she did the puzzle and he was stuck. The Sunday crossword was their ritual weekly competition.
With new fervor, he picked up his paper and pen, determined he would ‘break through.’ But when he looked at his progress, he could only shake his head at the ink-smeared corrections.
Rob was one of those addicts who always did the puzzle with his silver Cross pen that Steff had given him two birthdays ago. It was simply inscribed, “23 down,” cryptically referring to their little secret that time in the elevator.
     He scratched his golden’s ears as she doggedly backed against his leg begging for more.
“Rob loves Steff, Tessie. Does Steff love Rob?
Tess looked back over her shoulder with soulful eyes as if to ask, you’re not done scratching yet, are you?
“I know you know Tess… you just won’t tell me.”
Sixty-four down: ‘Mother of Jesus.’ Oh, missed this one…a gimmie, he thought. Mary.
The crossword’s theme was ‘Happy Daze’ (spelled D-A-Z-E). He hadn’t figured that out yet but he knew the shaded squares were supposed to say something important when filled.  All he could think of was ‘The Fonz’ and it clouded his mind to the obvious.
“Hi honey,” she greeted, using her key to let herself in.
“Steff! I didn’t think you were coming today. What about the big sale? Aren’t you afraid you will miss a bargain?” he asked sarcastically.
“Don’t think it wasn’t a tough decision but I figured you might need my help with the puzzle.”
“That’s right. Rub it in. This is the first time you beat me in five weeks. Gloat, gloat, gloat.”
Steff smiled, filled her coffee cup, and kicked off her shoes as she curled into her favorite chair with the rest of the paper. Rob liked the look a lot and for a moment, thought “The hell with the crossword puzzle.”
Steff broke the mood. “Go ahead. Finish if you can. I’ll just read The Times…and if you still aren’t done, I’ll read tomorrow’s paper too when it comes.”
“Very funny.”
110 across: ‘Hood, affectionately.’ Three letters.
125 across: ‘Hospital infection.’ Five letters. “Hmm… “
“Wait. I may have it!
“Wish it done: Will, of course.
“Baa baa mama: Ewe.
“Mother of Jesus: Mary.”
“Hospital infection” Staph… Steff?”
Suddenly, he stopped, startled and somewhat shaken by his revelation. Calming himself, he grabbed his puzzle and tried to act casual as he walked toward Steff.
“I got it,” he beamed. “Solved the damn thing.”
“Yeah? So what is ‘Carpenter’s key,’ Mr. Smarts?
“That would be my brother, Chuck.”
“Oh? Why Chuck?”
“Because he would be my best man…
“And yes. Yes! YES! I will marry you,” he said as he tenderly lifted her from the chair and danced around the room, almost snapping her head back as they kissed again and again. “I feel like 9 across: One of the 7 dwarfs.
'You mean Dopey?"
"Uh, I was thinking of another one." 
After all the kissey-face smooching, hugging and crying had taken its course, Rob asked her how she ever pulled it off.
“I have a friend who knows the puzzle editor. He agreed it would be a wonderful trick…and make a great puzzle. Lots of human interest.”
“And I did make my sale,” she added as she pulled a little blue box from behind her back.
 “This is for you, my love.”
The tiny inscription inside the ring read, “Second best crossword puzzle solver.  First best fiancé.” 
"Bravo! Great story Jerry."
 Blush, blush. "Oh, thanks. And here's why I asked you to read it:
Visited my son a few days ago as he was finishing the daily crossword puzzle, Merger Bid, below. He told me it reminded him of my story (above). SPOILER ALERT: All the answers are correct.

See, I told you... fascinating and far sighted. But mine had a back story that could make a sentimental blogger sob... sniff, sniff.
So two men are doing a crossword puzzle.
The first man frowns and says, "The clue is Old MacDonald had one... four letters"
The second man thinks for a moment... " Farm! The answer is farm."
"How do you spell it?" the first guy asks.
"I'm not sure" says the friend. I think it's E I E I O"

Monday, April 4, 2016


"Listen... that bird seems to be calling my name," thought Caw.

It was almost as if a crow can know you personally... because it can. How smart are crows? Scary smart actually.

On one hand, crows can remember your face. They can mimic human voices. They are terrific problem solvers. They can conspire with one another. They have a memory and know how to use it. They use tools. They plan. They problem solve. They have adaptive behavior. They can like you or not. They bring gifts to those who treat them special.

On the other hand, they are raucous, bothersome, revenge-seeking trouble-makers. But mostly, that's because you don't get to know them or care to love them like this eight-year-old Seattle girl.

She has befriended a group of crows in her neighborhood by putting food out for them. When she was four, it was accidentally dropping a chicken nugget when getting out of the car or part of a sloppily eaten sandwich. The birds knew a good thing when they saw it and started 'hanging' with her primarily because she was sloppy.

Then it became purposeful, sharing a part of her school lunch as she walked to her bus. Soon it became more deliberate with feedings of peanuts, dog food or bits of bread every morning by the bird feeder as they watched from surrounding wires or trees. When finished, she called to them and they came.

She proved worthy of their attention. To show their appreciation, the crows started bringing gifts... trinkets, an earring, a smooth rock, a hinge--anything shiny and small enough for them to carry and some icky stuff too--a frog's leg or a dead bird, but it meant something nice.

This has been going on for four years and her gifts have multiplied. She has hundreds of small 'gifts' all saved and categorized. This is just a small sample of crow appreciation.

Once when mom was taking one of her many bird photos, she lost the lens cap to her camera. Next day, a bird flew it home, sitting the cap on a flat section of their feeder.

In captivity, crows have been known to get an out-of-reach treat deeper in a glass by laboriously bringing water to fill the glass and float the treat within reach. They can bend a small wire into a hook to bring a larger piece of bread home. In their real world they know how to time traffic so they can drop nuts in front of oncoming tires to crush the shell or place hard shells directly under the time of the cars stopped for the light. They have adapted to us better than we have adapted to them.

They can remember your face and your car. As you may suspect, this can work for you or against you. If you are perceived as a threat, watch out. Crows have been known to fly beside the windows of your car and recognize you as the driver or realize that it is someone else and fly off, for better or worse.

One bird expert, Kevin McGowan, talks about what he calls crow 'family values.' "when we hear them cawing—they’re communicating to each other—often helping save one another from danger, an owl for instance. And they’ve been observed feeding injured adult crows in their family. “They have great family values,” McGowan says. “They do neighborhood watch. They help each other out. They are everything almost that you would want from a moral animal as we see it. They really do pay attention to the threats that are occurring to other crows. They are very interested in working together to make the world a safer place for other crows. It’s kind of just the way they are.”

And yes, magpies Heckle and Jeckle of old cartoon fame are of the crow family.