Great Movie #12 – Going in Style

Another in a series of overlooked movies…

12. Going in Style  Going in Style This understated 1979 comedy stars George Burns (then 83), Art Carney (then 61) and Lee Strasburg (then 78) as three senior citizens who, out of boredom and lack of money, decide to rob a bank.  Burns’ and Carney’s characters then take the cash to Las Vegas where they grow it at the craps table.  Great ensemble piece. “No tinhorn joint like this could ever hold me.” Watch the trailer.


Good Poem #22 – “The Parson’s Son” by Robert Service

Robert Service was a nineteenth-century Englishman who fell in love with the Yukon in its gold rush days and celebrated it in poetry.  Most famous are his “The Cremation of SamMcGee” and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”.  Here’s a lesser known poem, sentimental but heartfelt. Service’s poetry was successful in his time and widely recited, so he was accused of writing “popular” poetry and dismissed by many critics.  Still, he captures the sense of the time and place very well. One of  the things I like about Service’s poetry is that his rhymes are fun to recite.

“Money was just like dirt there, easy to get and to spend.
I was all caked in on a dance-hall jade, but she shook me in the end.”

The Parson’s Son

By Robert Service (1874 – 1958)

Robert Service

This is the song of the parson’s son, as he squats in his shack alone,
On the wild, weird nights, when the Northern Lights shoot up from the frozen zone,
And it’s sixty below, and couched in the snow the hungry huskies moan:

I’m one of the Arctic brotherhood, I’m an old-time pioneer.
I came with the first — O God! how I’ve cursed this Yukon — but still I’m here.
I’ve sweated athirst in its summer heat, I’ve frozen and starved in its cold;
I’ve followed my dreams by its thousand streams, I’ve toiled and moiled for its gold.

Look at my eyes — been snow-blind twice; look where my foot’s half gone;
And that gruesome scar on my left cheek, where the frost-fiend bit to the bone.
Each one a brand of this devil’s land, where I’ve played and I’ve lost the game,
A broken wreck with a craze for `hooch’, and never a cent to my name.

This mining is only a gamble; the worst is as good as the best;
I was in with the bunch and I might have come out right on top with the rest;
With Cormack, Ladue and Macdonald — O God! but it’s hell to think
Of the thousands and thousands I’ve squandered on cards and women and drink.

“In the early days we were just a few, and we hunted and fished around,
Nor dreamt by our lonely camp-fires of the wealth that lay under the ground.
We traded in skins and whiskey, and I’ve often slept under the shade
Of that lone birch tree on Bonanza, where the first big find was made.

We were just like a great big family, and every man had his squaw,
And we lived such a wild, free, fearless life beyond the pale of the law;
Till sudden there came a whisper, and it maddened us every man,
And I got in on Bonanza before the big rush began.

Oh, those Dawson days, and the sin and the blaze, and the town all open wide!
(If God made me in His likeness, sure He let the devil inside.)
But we all were mad, both the good and the bad, and as for the women, well —
No spot on the map in so short a space has hustled more souls to hell.

Money was just like dirt there, easy to get and to spend.
I was all caked in on a dance-hall jade, but she shook me in the end.
It put me queer, and for near a year I never drew sober breath,
Till I found myself in the bughouse ward with a claim staked out on death.

Twenty years in the Yukon, struggling along its creeks;
Roaming its giant valleys, scaling its god-like peaks;
Bathed in its fiery sunsets, fighting its fiendish cold —
Twenty years in the Yukon . . . twenty years — and I’m old.

Old and weak, but no matter, there’s `hooch’ in the bottle still.
I’ll hitch up the dogs to-morrow, and mush down the trail to Bill.
It’s so long dark, and I’m lonesome — I’ll just lay down on the bed;
To-morrow I’ll go . . . to-morrow . . . I guess I’ll play on the red.

. . . Come, Kit, your pony is saddled. I’m waiting, dear, in the court . . .
. . . Minnie, you devil, I’ll kill you if you skip with that flossy sport . . .
. . . How much does it go to the pan, Bill? . . . play up, School, and play the game . . .
. . . Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name . . .”

This was the song of the parson’s son, as he lay in his bunk alone,
Ere the fire went out and the cold crept in, and his blue lips ceased to moan,
And the hunger-maddened malamutes had torn him flesh from bone.

Good Song #7 – And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda

Bob Dylan says that a song is a dream and you try to make it come true.  Here’s another in a series of songs that dream up good stories –

“And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is s a different take on patriotism. It references Australia’s unofficial national anthem, “Waltzing Matilda”, to skewer flag-waving and jingoism. Written by Eric Bogle in 1971, it tells the story of a young Australian at the disastrous (for the Australians) Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey in World War I. The song resonates strongly in Australia where they still resent the misuse of and lack of concern for colonial troops by the British general staff. Thanks, Jack, for sending it to me.

“Waltzing” refers to traveling around as a “swagman”, an itinerant worker. “Matilda” refers to the swagman’s bundle of belongings.

“The young people ask, ‘What are they marching for?’
and I ask myself the same question.”

Here’s the Clancy Brothers’ version.


Good Poem #21 – Sparklers

Here’s a poetry extra for Independence Day: A Barbara Crooker poem that my friend Walt shared with me by way of Ted Kooser’s on-line series “American Life in Poetry” (,  The poem is from Crooker’s 2013 book “Gold” which, along with other books of her wonderful poetry, are readily available. Buy one.

By Barbara Crooker (1945 – )
barbara crooker
We’re writing our names with sizzles of light
to celebrate the fourth. I use the loops of cursive,
make a big B like the sloping hills on the west side
of the lake. The rest, little ar, one small b,
spit and fizz as they scratch the night. On the side
of the shack where we bought them, a handmade sign:
Trailer Full of Sparkles Ahead, and I imagine crazy
chrysanthemums, wheels of fire, glitter bouncing
off metal walls. Here, we keep tracing in tiny
pyrotechnics the letters we were given at birth,
branding them on the air. And though my mother’s
name has been erased now, I write it, too:
a big swooping I, a hissing s, an a that sighs
like her last breath, and then I ring
belle, belle, belle in the sulphuric smoky dark.


Great Movie #11 – Gettysburg

Another in a series of overlooked movies…


11. Gettysburg

On the anniversary of the July, 1863, battle, I  like to watch “Gettysburg”. It features a cast of thousands, including Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels, Sam Elliott and Martin Sheen.  The movie, which was adapted from Michael Shaara’s great book “The Killer Angels”, confines itself to the story of the three-day battle.  It takes cinematic liberties with facts but provides insight into the minds of the men who participated in this turning point of the Civil War.  Anyone interested in American history should watch it.

“General Pickett, you must see to your brigade.”
“General Lee, I have no brigade”.

Watch the trailer.

Reflections on China Trip – Volume 5: Yes, Virginia, There is a Shangri-La

Visit to Shangri-La. . .

Shangri-La’s first appearance was as a fictional paradise in James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon”, a novel that caught the world’s imagination in 1939.  (Hilton also wrote “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”, a much better book.)  Shangri-la was populated with monks, Himalayan beauties and citizens who live for hundreds of years in the mountain air; it was completely fictional.  Like “Catch-22”, the word has become so ubiquitous in English that we forget that it didn’t exist until an author invented it.

So, Shangri-La didn’t exist, or so I would have bet, but I was behind the times: There is in fact a Shangri-La.  It is a small (by Chinese standards) Chinese-Tibetan city located 10,000 feet up in the foothills of the Himalayas, in western Yunnan province.  I would have won my bet in 2001 because it was only in 2002 that the town of Zhongdian changed its name to Shangri-La to capitalize on all the visitors to China who wanted to visit that mountain paradise.  Now, thanks to the genius of modern marketing and a certain Chinese flexibility as to history, they can.

I can’t vouch for longevity of Shangri-La’s citizens, but I can vouch for Himalayan beauties, mountain vistas, frosty air, Buddhist temples filled with scarlet-robed monks, yak steaks and friendly people with exotic customs. Our guide told us that a friend of his had run over a rare snow leopard.  In the best Chinese tradition he took it home and had it for dinner. monks It was cold there. The last night we wore coats and gloves at dinner as the restaurant was  heated only by a small charcoal stove and any heat had to get past a gaggle of Chinese to reach us, which it didn’t. In case you’re thinking of warming up with a hot shower, hotel warning: At that altitude,  long, hot showers may result in oxygen deprivation and fainting. It was the first time I ever got out of breath napping.

On the way to the hotel we passed a group of men by the road looking at a bonfire. I wondered aloud, why, since it was so cold and wood so scarce, they didn’t take the wood home to heat their houses.  “Ah,” said our guide, Hwang, “they are making a cremation”.

And so we bid good-bye to China.  Perhaps we’ll meet again one day.

But I digress. . .

Great Movie #10 – Paper Moon

Another in a series of overlooked movies…

Paper Moon10. Paper Moon 

This black and white Peter Bogdanovich movie was widely applauded when it came out in 1973.  It stars Ryan O’Neal and daughter Tatum at their most charming, backed up by Madeleine Kahn and John Hillerman.  Ryan is con man Moses Pray roaming the depression-era countryside upon whom an unacknowledged daughter, Addie (played by Tatum), is foisted.  Tatum, then 10, won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Despite a couple of oblique sexual references, it’s good for the entire family.

Moses: I won’t do it “. . . because I’ve got scruples.  You know what they are?”
Addie: “No, but if you’ve got ’em, it’s a sure bet they belong to somebody else.”

Watch the trailer.




Good Poem #20 – Barbara Frietchie

In the wake of recent events, flag-waving patriotism has become suspect in many quarters, but for decades celebrating being American was a defining characteristic of ours.  Few touchstones for Americanism were as deeply felt as patriotic poetry, learned and recited by school children everywhere.  It gave us a common heritage and informed us of America’s uniqueness:  “Paul Revere’s Ride”,”In Flanders Field” (although written by a Canadian), “Evangeline”, “O Captain, My Captain”, “Concord Hymn”, “Old Ironsides”, “The Ballad of William Sycamore”.  It’s hard to imagine such poems being written and taken seriously today.

A favorite is John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Barbara Frietchie” which is not to be outdone in its legendary celebration of sacrifices Americans are supposed to be willing to make for their country. It recounts an event that allegedly took place in 1862 as Stonewall Jackson’s army moved through Frederick, Maryland, to meet the Union army at Antietam Creek. Winston Churchill is said to have known it by heart.

“Barbara Frietchie” is an example of a poem that you can enjoy without loving all of it.  I used to think of the first verse every time we drove through Frederick to visit daughter Mary at school in Baltimore: “. . . the clustered spires of Frederick stand, green-walled by the hills of Maryland.” Barbara Frietchie’s house still stands in Frederick.

“Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare your country’s flag, she said.”

Barbara Frietchie
By John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 – 1892)
John Greenleaf Whittier
Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,
The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.
Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple- and peach-tree fruited deep,
Fair as a garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,
On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain wall,—
Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town.
Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,
Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.
Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;
Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;
In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.
Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.
Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced: the old flag met his sight.
“Halt!”— the dust-brown ranks stood fast.
“Fire!”— out blazed the rifle-blast.
It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.
Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf;
She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.
“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.
A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;
The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman’s deed and word:
“Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!” he said.
All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet:
All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the rebel host.
Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;
And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good-night.
Barbara Frietchie’s work is o’er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.
Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall’s bier.
Over Barbara Frietchie’s grave
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!
Peace and order and beauty draw
Round thy symbol of light and law;
And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!

Great Song #6 – Galaxy Song

Monty Python, God bless them for all the humor they’ve brought the world, are not just brilliant sketch comedians.  They also write some clever songs.  Here’s one to put us in our place in the universe, “Galaxy Song”.  It was written by Eric Idle (and long-time collaborator John Du Prez) for the movie, “Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life”.

Have a listen.