Sunday, November 17, 2019

Remembering Irv Noren

I was sorry to hear about the passing of Irv Noren, a fine hitting outfielder who achieved most of his fame with the fabled Yankees of the 1950s, as a fill-in successor to the just-retired Joe DiMaggio, when the truly-anointed successor, Mickey Mantle, still suffered from an injury in the 1951 World Series (getting out of Joe D's way on a ball hit by Willie Mays). The Yankees of that era often picked up key pieces of their teams from the less successful American League teams, in this case, Noren came from the hapless Washington Senators of the early 50s.
Noren had played pro basketball in the 1940s alongside Jackie Robinson on an integrated team before Jackie's Dodger historic stint began. Noren had a great rookie season with the Senators in 1950 (with 160 hits, 10 triples, 14 home runs, 98 runs batted in, and a .295 average; he hit .319 for Yankees, and made the All-Star team in 1954). His salary for the Yanks in 1952 was a meager $19,000, and the stingy Yanks first offered him a $2000 raise. But he went on to be part of three Yankees championship teams, and a third-base coach on two championship Oakland A's teams in the 70s. Noren's career as a player in the majors spanned eleven seasons and six teams and he played all outfield positions and first base, and he had a respectable lifetime batting average of .275. Irv Noren was a modest yet talented utility player who journeyed after his time as a key piece of a legendary franchise.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

P.S. A Footnote to History: Motown Revived

P.S.   It is great for fans of all teams to see two pitching masterpieces in a row from Sanchez and Scherzer against a usually powerful Cardinal lineup. The Nats threw in some clutch hitting by Adam Eaton for good measure. The Sanchez and Scherzer back to back hitless pitching was only the second time in MLB postseason history that teammates pitched at least five hitless innings in consecutive games during a league championship series. The first to do the feat, were the self-same Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer, as Detroit Tiger pitchers, during games 1 and 2 of the American League championship series in 2013. The Nats remake a almost perfect Motown beat.
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Saturday, October 12, 2019


Washington sports teams are often the underdog in big games, and generally not as well supported as teams from other places. This is due in part to the DC population that is transitory; we have many people who come to DC from other places for a relatively short time, who naturally tend to root for their childhood favorites--their home teams. Thus, we often host games at which half the fans are in uniform or rooting for the visiting teams--so there is frequently not the home field advantage that other teams have.
But a couple of our teams have learned or are learning to deal with it, and showing heart and soul, and building more of a loyal independent fan base. The Caps, the Mystics, and the Nats are climbing out of their state of "underdogness," and winning big games, showing a level of durability, spirit, and resilience to rise above it, and win some key playoff games on the road and at home. They are rising to a level of mastery and a positive, never-give-up spirit, that is fun to watch and inspiring at the same time. In just two days, the Mystics came back to win a first WNBA title, and Nats opened a series in St. Louis with a Sanchez/Doolittle 2 to 0, one-hit gem.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Forces of Nature At Play

When all else fails, gather and bring some forces of nature into the playoff game, and you have a good chance for success. The Nats, after a frustrating 10 to 4 loss at home to the Dodgers, turned to true natural sources to tie the series 2 to 2 and take it back to LA for a winner take all game.
The Nats worked a misty rain to fall more heavily in the Dodgers half of their innings, so the Dodger batters had less chance of seeing and timing Max Scherzer's sliders and fastballs. But the rain never fell so heavily to cause a delay or to cause a tarpolin to be brought onto the field of play.
When then was not enough, the winds were brought in to make catch able well-hit Dodger baseballs that were stopped just short of the fences. And then there were the true forces of nature--Max Scherzer, and Ryan Zimmerman--experienced and competitive enough to make the difference against the less motivated and less focused Dodgers. While a little wet and chilly, this baseball night was made for the Nat fans and for witnessing the acts and actors of nature at work.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Just another great day in the August summer...

We may not have been part of a later-day Woodstock nation, but we were several hundred thousand strong at the Library of Congress' National Book Festival--
We headed on down to DC Convention center;
To join in a literary, spoken-word band,
And we camped out on the poetry and prose laden land,
Getting our souls free.
From a 600 BC Odyssey we traveled back to today
And felt stardust,
We were golden
And we got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.
Just another great day in the August summer.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Sunset, Creativity, Friendship, and Jazz

I admit it. I caught the live outdoor music bug, at least for a time.
It was my third visit to Wolf Trap for live music in five or six days. But who’s counting? This time, it was time to hear some visionary jazz with recently-acclaimed and gifted saxophonist, Kamasi Washington, much acclaimed after his work with rapper Kendrick Lamar; and the legendary, jazz-fusion keyboard visionary, and ambassador of jazzian good-will, Herbie Hancock.
Kamasi and his group opened the show and worked together flawlessly and produced modern works of art that led to many standing ovations. The ensemble is a family and neighborly affair with father, Rickey, a talented and experienced woodwind musician in his own right, and boyhood friends. As sunset fell on the park, it was so natural that they connected with each other and with the audience, leading to an outpouring of joy and standing ovations. It was innovative jazz the way it was meant to be.
After a relatively long intermission, Herbie Hancock and his group came on. From the start, they were the more experimental and had more difficulty connecting to each other and to the audience. Herbie Hancock is truly a gifted artist and he remains one, but coming on late with a somewhat impatient crowd did not help, and many in the crowd uncharacteristically started to walk out. It was hard to match the earlier warm links of Kamasi and grou[, and Herbie and his group seemed to be just getting to know each other by contrast. Herbie commented that “tonight you will hear things never heard or played before,” and tonight it just did not fully work. Overall, it was great to once again hear live music under the cool nighttime sky and to enjoy the creativity of gifted players at work and at play, especially when they succeed, but even when they do not quite bring it home.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Summer Chestnuts Roasting In An Open Park

The magnetic pull of live music once again drew me back to Wolf Trap National Park on another beautiful summer evening (second concert in three nights). It was back to the pleasantly wooded shed to bathe in the oh-so-clear and floating sounds of the National Symphony, playing effortlessly the lyrical Tchaikovsky‘s Violin Concerto, and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – – both chestnuts of the world of classical music. In a pre-concert dialogue with NPR’s Rich Kleinfelt, I learned that both pieces, while so widely accepted now, were very poorly received in their first performances and caused serious emotional setbacks to their sensitive composers.
Tchaikovsky‘s Violin Concerto was considered unplayable at its completion (because of its many double stops, trills, leaps, and bounds into somewhat dissonant notes for its time), and was very poorly received at its debut in Vienna in 1881. Tchaikovsky apparently never forgot that chilly reception and could recite by heart the full review of one severe critic who commented that the work “gave out a bad smell.” By contrast, on this night at Wolf Trap, the piece was eminently playable, and effortlessly mastered by the orchestra (its musical director, Gianandrea Noseda, in his first Wolf Trap performance) and the soloist, violin virtuoso Ning Feng, playing a 1721 Stradivari violin.
Beethoven’s Fifth premiered in a poorly organized and somewhat under-rehearsed and overlong concert of Beethoven’s pieces, played in a cold and uncomfortable hall in Vienna in 1808, with Beethoven conducting the orchestra himself. The reaction and the reviews were very negative that night, at a time when Beethoven was fighting growing deafness, and the reception that night was a setback for the emotional Beethoven. Beethoven’s Fifth starts quickly with those memorable four notes (three short and a longer one, a kind of “knocking at fate’s door”), which are repeated throughout the piece in various ways. Those four notes became associated with British resistance in World War II and symbolized “V” for Victory. Later, the notes ironically influenced the beginning of John Fogerty’s rock classic “Proud Mary.”
On this night, I remembered my deep connection to those four notes, because, in my childhood, I wanted to explore the world by becoming a radio amateur operator (a pre-Internet way to interact with people throughout the world). To be a radio amateur, I needed to master the seemingly impenetrable Morse Code. The four key notes of the Fifth, which are “V” in Morse Code, were relatively easy to master, and gave me the confidence that I could learn the rest of the letters. This forgotten connection to Beethoven and learning, filled the night air with a sense of joy that Beethoven, unfortunately, could not experience at the debut. I was also joyful at the large (full-house) crowd filling Wolf Trap for the National Symphony, at a time some symphony orchestras are sadly struggling.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

A Night for Music with Family and Friends

A couple of family members and I recently spent a pleasantly-weathered summer evening at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts listening to gifted singer-songwriter Amos Lee and his band, including my talented guitarist cousin, Ryan Hommel. The band was versatile, creative, and utterly tight, and the songs and vocals wandered enthusiastically through the American soundscape of folk, funk, rock, and rural and citified blues. Amos' vocal range and easy-going story-telling was expansive, building the audience into a crescendoing chorus of cheers and enthusiasm.
We were able to wander backstage to meet my cousin and catch up on his and other band members' touring experiences. We also talked with Amos as he chatted warmly about his challenging times of teaching second grade in Philly, and he offered many suggestions for education reform along the way. I shared my memories of last seeing Amos on his first national tour with Bob Dylan. A perfect night of sharing music, warm memories, and education reform with family and new found friends.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

It's A Mad, Mad World...And Now For Something Completely Different and Over The Top—An Overlong Tribute To Mad Magazine—You May Want To Stop Reading Now—So Please Be Forewarned—This May Be Injurious To Your State Of Mind.

Every great civilization needs a sense of humor. It cannot take itself too seriously; it needs to be able to withstand self-deprecating humor, parody, and irreverence. For more than sixty-five years (from 1952, to be more exact) we have had Mad Magazine, and “its usual gang of idiots,” and those it influenced or its direct or indirect descendants—Tom Lehrer, Steve Allen, Jean Shepard, Lenny Bruce, Jack Paar, Bob and Ray, Ernie Kovacs, Stan Freberg, The Realist, National Lampoon, Firesign Theatre, SNL, the Simpsons, Monty Python, Dave Letterman, Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, Mrs Maisel, and so many others.
Mad kept us honest and gave us perspective, and allowed us to be “in on the joke.” But now Mad Magazine, owned ironically by WarnerMedia, as acquired by AT&T, is about to cease print publication and go on re-runs.
Mad Magazine has taught many to read and helped bring up many generations, and taught individuals to see the ironies in daily life, and to deal with them. It taught many how to be skeptical and inquisitive, and to be good doctors, lawyers, and a good every other occupation. It spawned many great illustrators and graphic novelists. It gave hope to those who did not fully "fit in"; it opened eyes and minds to multiple views of the same idea; and invigorated multiple life styles and life choices.
By satirizing the way things are and were, Mad taught many the way things should be, an idealism that persists, and is as American as Mad is. By looking at the worst of what is, or at the underside, somehow you always knew that things can and should get better, and 'What me worry' became yes, maybe you should be concerned, but that even the worrisome could be fun, and that there was hope. The every-person character of the gap-toothed Alfred E. Neuman gave us comfort and hope no matter who we were and how we looked.
Readers of a New York Times article about Mad recently eulogized Mad in the following manner:
“It helped teach me to think critically. It demonstrated how to analyze an issue and learn how to challenge the merits of the issue.”
“As a female, I went over to the neighbor boy's house to read the magazine because it was not for girls so my family thought! Little did my family know how much this magazine shaped my thinking through humor. It taught me well and I still use humor to explain the [sometime] absurdity of American [life].”
“The writers revealed how to see the other side of an issue and question the motives in almost every element of American life: art, politics, culture, film etc....”
“The world is unfair, exploitative and brutal and we’re all going to die and the grown-ups have been secretly having sex the whole time [and enjoying life]. You feel ripped off. You feel lied to. But then there is Mad."
“The truth is always told in jest. Mad Magazine was a volume of truth in a world of spin.”
“It was an alternative way of processing the conventional wisdom of the world at large.”
Efforts at humor such as Mad are a national treasure, and should be preserved and guarded as a national utility. But since humor is purely a state and local matter, I do not expect a Department of United Humor, and Analytical and Critical Thinking (or DUH-ACT) any time soon. But I am an optimist and believe in our American system of checks and balances, free speech, and democracy, and I know that the spirit and lessons of Mad Magazine will live on in some form whether it be in a magazine, a CD, or in the ever streaming mind.
I was not even an avid reader of Mad Magazine (maybe if I was, it would have a brighter future), but friends would often share it, and it was good to know it existed, and I am sad to see it go—for now, at least. But its sense of humor, its contributions to the lives of many, and its hope for the future lives on.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The 50th Commemoration of a Miracle: Blimey its Baseball Take 2

Blimey, it's baseball--Take Two: While it was a banner day for baseball in London Stadium yesterday (and once again today), yesterday was also the day NYC commemorated the 50th anniversary of a true baseball miracle--the Amazing '69 Mets taking on all odds to beat the heavily-favored Orioles.
After a divisive set of events in the rebellious 60's (losing some of our greatest heroes to violent backlash), an unlikely band of rag-tag, unevenly talented, but high-spirited athletes representing a split-riden Gothamtown, swept to a unlikely five-game World Series victory. The "gotta to believe" heroes, aligned with a launch to and walk on the moon rallied a city and much of our country to believe in itself once again.
Maybe, one day we will have a true world series that will rally and unite the world.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

It's a big day for America's Pastime:

 London Calling, and the Clash is between the Yankees v. the Red Sox--the Play's the Thing.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

And the Jazz Played On

DC gave a jazz party at the waterside Wharf as part of its 15th Annual DC Jazz Festival. The many jazz performances were mostly free, and free-form, and they gently lifted the spirits of a crowd of happy people of all ages, as the nearby waves deftly lapped the shore.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

A Lesson for the Ages

Who said “there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues”? Take five very gifted middle and high school students (and their teacher) from the Baltimore School for the Arts who play brass, wind, percussion and stringed musical instruments; stir in a gifted jazz instructor, Dr. J.B. Dyer, who can make the complexities of jazz simple; and toss in, Sean Jones, an off-the-charts trumpet player who trades notes with the greats, yet wanted to give back to teaching music education; and you are part of a joyful and soulful explosion of risk-taking, spontaneity, individuality, collaboration, teamwork, trust, and freedom that exemplify the American spirit and the principles of leadership at its finest. That this demonstration was held on the 75th Anniversary of D-Day made it even more fitting.
In a crowded assembly hall at the U.S. Department of Education (in collaboration with the Herbie Hancock Music Institute), history was made and remade. If you ever doubted that students of all ages can learn, that good teachers can teach even the most difficult of subjects, and that people of all views can get engaged and come out of their comfort zones to collaborate for a greater good, your doubts were put to rest in ninety short and shining minutes. The power of music, the power of teaching and learning, the power of being open to new views and ideas, the power of taking risks and learning from the mistakes that might come, all came together through the sounds and the silence of a diverse team of gifted yet humble student musicians and teachers. This was truly a lesson for the ages.