Monday, April 29, 2013

On a Personal Note

Canada has lost one of its most beloved singers, Rita MacNeil. Her autobiography from 1998, On a Personal Note, tells a detailed story of her life in Cape Breton, her body issues, her relationships, her children, ultimately ending with the start of her triumphant musical success story when she won the Juno Award for Most Promising Female Vocalist in 1987 at the age of 43.

MacNeil, who wrote this book with Anne Simpson, opens up about some traumatic life experiences that she had never before shared, such as being sexually molested for many years by an uncle. All her life she had to overcome body image issues, brought on by this abuse as well as by her cleft lip, which took several operations throughout her life to repair. She is upfront about her weight and its effect on her career, and she devotes a chapter to the music business's obsession with image, especially for women.

I became a fan of Rita MacNeil many years after her breakthrough song "Flying on Your Own", and album of the same name, which came out in 1987. It wasn't until I saw one of her Christmas specials that I took notice of her voice and her songwriting talent. MacNeil composes her own songs and her Christmas albums are, save for one or two chestnut classics, comprised of her own material. Her songs speak from the heart and her delivery sings to your soul. I would not be lying if I tell you that I frequently find myself humming along to MacNeil's self-penned Christmas songs throughout the entire year. Those are reasons why she has such a tremendous following in Canada.

I was amused by a couple stories she told, such as being asked by a fan to perform Anne Murray's "Flying on Your Own". This song was a Rita original, and made famous by Rita herself. Anne Murray covered the song and released it the following year, making it a hit again. It was not as big a hit in Canada the second time around, yet it cracked the US Billboard Country Chart as Murray's cover. Rita also told of the time she and her band were on tour in Australia. Rita was always the first one on her tour bus yet this time she was the last. After sitting alone inside for what seemed like forever, she was suddenly greeted by an entire busload of Japanese tourists. She had chosen the wrong bus!

Rita has two children, Laura, born in 1966, and Wade, born in 1970. She has fond things to say of her ex-husband, who fathered Wade. She has a close relationship with her ex to this day. However, MacNeil never mentions her first love by name. The father of Laura, whom MacNeil never married, was not named. I can imagine Rita did this on purpose, to suit the father's wishes for anonymity. I can't imagine that Rita would hold any long-lasting negative feelings toward him, based on what she wrote, by leaving his name out.

This was an inspirational read, and it made me appreciate the woman who gave such loving music all the more. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Wunnerful, Wunnerful! The Autobiography of Lawrence Welk

In March of 2010 I read Wunnerful, Wunnerful! The Autobiography of Lawrence Welk by Lawrence Welk with Bernice McGeehan. I am a huge fan of "The Lawrence Welk Show", and have been for about twenty-five years, when I turned on a Christmas rerun and was hooked by the bouncy music. I watch classic rerun episodes every weekend on PBS and I am proud owner of about a dozen CD's by the Lawrence Welk Orchestra, plus others by members of the Welk musical family, including the Lennon Sisters and pianist Jo Ann Castle. Welk's four-LP Christmas box set gets annual turntable play at my house, since many of these vinyl cuts have never been issued on CD.

Welk wrote this book at the height of his popularity in 1971. He had by then a ten-year string of hits on the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the number one "Calcutta" in 1961. Throughout this autobiography Welk bemoans his lack of proficient English as he claims to have spoken only German at home and in school. While many immigrant families spoke the language of the old country at home, and even in school where Welk's teachers themselves had English as a second language, I doubt his claim that he didn't learn English until the age of 21--this is a Welk myth that I think even he has been misled to believe. Nevertheless I doubt that Welk had much part in actually writing this autobiography. It was a rapid read which carried more like a very long interview session with the coauthor McGeehan.

Lawrence Welk was a religious man who lived his life according to Catholic principles. He had profound faith and seemed almost naïve in his trust in people. He was not afraid to tell of the many times people took advantage of him as he was building his career, and even after he had "made it" in Hollywood. In spite of these run-ins with scammers and rip-off artists, Welk never lost his faith in people and he could only joke about lessons he had learned the hard way.

Welk addresses some items of show gossip (take it from me, a Welk fan would want to know the truth behind these things) such as the real reasons Champagne Lady Alice Lon left, and why the Lennon Sisters left the show under supposedly acrimonious circumstances.

Wunnerful has plenty of history of the American midwest musical scene, and Welk has a great memory for capturing every detail of the old dance palaces of the 1930's and 40's. I can hear him right now playing the accordion as he dances around the stage. Music was Welk's first passion and his love for it is easily translated to the written page.

Monday, April 15, 2013

No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington

Condoleezza Rice is a personal hero. She is a strong Republican woman, for whom I hold the highest esteem. As I watched Dr. Rice do the TV news and talk show circuit promoting No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington, she told the interviewers that she wrote about one hundred pages for each of her eight years spent in Washington, yet she didn't think she had written enough. Thus at close to eight hundred pages (766 in fact) Rice's memoir is quite literally a heavy read. There is a lot of text on each page, and while I wouldn't call her memoir boring, it was while highly interesting and extremely detailed nonetheless a slow read. I could only manage to get through twenty pages an hour. For an intimate account of the foreign policy issues during the George W. Bush administration, there is likely no better source than No Higher Honor.

Rice conveys how carefully she had to tread with diplomatic language and how much can hinge on including or excluding a single word from a negotiated agreement. She had to look over all speeches and international statements and go over them word by word, carefully looking for any nuance and expectation, as well as any subtle offence, that might have been missed by the writers and negotiators. Rice comments on today's media and its expectations:

"One problem in managing a crisis in today's media environment is that you are forced to say something each day. If you are not careful, your rhetoric escalates little by little and you create demands that must then be met by the other side. Since the other side is doing the same thing, it's easy to have the crisis spin out of control pretty quickly."

Rice was National Security Advisor at the time of the attacks on 11 September 2001. Her account of that day gave me chills, for the Secret Service believed Rice and her superiors to be the next targets. While Rice was in the President's inner circle discussing the horrors of the airplane crashes they had just heard about, they were all still in harm's way if an airplane hit the White House next. No one wanted to leave the TV or to leave phones unanswered, so the Secret Service had to yell:

"'Dr. Rice, you must go to the bunker. Now! Planes are hitting buildings all over Washington. The White House has got to be next.' I turned to head toward the bunker, and there was suddenly a report (a false one) that there had been a car bomb at the State Department."

In the mayhem of confusion as the United States was under attack, even the Secret Service could be mistaken in believing that Washington was being attacked all over by suicidal highjackers. While Rice delayed going to the bunker to call some relatives and then President George W. Bush himself, the Secret Service could not wait any longer, and:

"He [President Bush] didn't answer, and the Secret Service lifted me physically and pushed me toward the bunker."

Imagine what the White House must have been like that morning. It must have been the scariest time of her life.

While Bush was hosting a visit by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at his ranch in Texas in the spring of 2002, the Saudi leader threatened to leave if the President didn't do something to stop Israel from laying waste to the West Bank and Gaza:

"The President asked rhetorically, 'Does it matter if they leave?'
'It would be a disaster,' I said. Colin [Powell] nodded his agreement and was immediately told by the President to 'go and fix it.' He couldn't. The President, temporizing a bit, asked the Saudi leader to go for a tour of the ranch and talk about religion. As President Bush has written in his memoir, the atmosphere improved while they were riding together in his pickup truck. He and the Saudi encountered a wild turkey that Abdullah took as a sign from God and a bond of friendship between the two men. When the President related the incident that evening at dinner, I thought Whatever works."

Rice used italics like this to show her innermost thoughts. These thoughts were often humorous as they revealed her feelings of frustration since they could never be spoken either as National Security Advisor or later as Secretary of State. In her second tenure as the nation's "S", Rice had far more occasions to dive deep into her unspoken voice and vent internally. While nations were bickering in myriad voices around her, Rice could often find sanity in her inner voice. In her final discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over the proposed two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, her frustration bubbled past the boiling point:

"You snake! I fumed. I called him and yelled at him about it and I told the President I would never trust Olmert again. It doesn't matter, I told myself. We're done."

No Higher Honor spends excruciating detail in Rice's role negotiating the two-state solution. It seems that Rice recounted every flight she made to the Middle East, and every paragraph of every agreement as well. For those who are not interested in American foreign policy, these chapters will bore you, as they progress at a snail's pace. However, in foreign policy issues of this magnitude, even that speed might be going too fast.

She provides just as much detail in outlining her decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, and in relaying her numerous trips to the regions. Rice presents the lead-up to the Iraq war and justifies the American presence there, including the 2007 surge. I found the war chapters far more interesting than those on Middle East diplomacy. The reader can see through her eyes as she realizes there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and how the wars in both countries devolved into tribal chaos.

There is a short chapter on her one meeting with Muammar Gaddafi. She thought of him as "unstable", and related an account, with her inner thoughts in italics:

"After several hours, we were summoned to the residence, where I greeted the Libyan leader and sat down to hundreds of camera flashes. Qaddafi said a few completely appropriate words, as did I, and the press left. We began the conversation as Amado had suggested, talking about Africa in general and Sudan in particular. Libya, he promised, would help with alternative routes for humanitarian supplies to the refugees. This is going pretty well, I thought. He doesn't seem crazy. Then, as Amado had predicted, he suddenly stopped speaking and began rolling his head back and forth. 'Tell President Bush to stop talking about a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine!' he barked. 'It should be one state! Israeltine!' Perhaps he didn't like what I said next. In a sudden fit, he fired two translators in the room. Okay, I thought, this is Qaddafi."

Rice makes a good point for disarming those states that have WMD, Libya in particular:

"I remember that I came away from the visit realizing how much Qaddafi lives inside his own head, in a kind of alternate reality. As I watched events unfold in the spring and summer of 2011, I wondered if he even understood fully what was going on around him. And I was very, very glad that we had disarmed him of his most dangerous weapons of mass destruction. There in his bunker, making his last stand, I have no doubt he would have used them."

No Higher Honor is an exhaustive record of Dr. Condoleezza Rice's eight years in Washington as National Security Advisor and then as Secretary of State. It is primarily a document that recounts the evolution of American Middle East foreign policy and the (d)evolution of two of its most recent wars. Iran and North Korea also form another major part as the US tries to deal with these two Axis of Evil states and their threatening nuclear ambitions. Throughout the tumultuous eight years of the Bush administration the United States was guided by the advice given by a true American scholar and patriot, Dr. Condoleezza Rice.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People

I was drawn to this little book by its title, Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People by Charlie Campbell, as well as by its cover, showing Eve holding the forbidden fruit. Life might be a lot easier if we didn't take responsibility for our actions. If we could always fall back on blaming others when things went wrong, then they would have to rectify the situation. We could sit back and order them around to fix everything. In Scapegoat, Campbell has written short chapters covering specific individuals, religions, ethnicities and even animals and things that have been blamed for various ills.
Why do we have scapegoats? What is our need to transfer blame to others? Attribution theory states that one must find a reason for an event. When one can't find anything obvious, one looks for conclusions anywhere. In the case of personal misfortune, I found Campbell's reasoning below to hold particular relevance not only in the realm of scapegoating, but also in regards to unsportsmanlike Scrabble players:

"When we fail at things it is because of others; those who are below average bring us down. Whereas when we succeed it is due to our innate abilities (and when others succeed, we often put it down to luck)."

Campbell writes:

"We blame as we've always blamed, targeting minority and marginalized groups when things go wrong. But we've found new and unusual ways of doing so too--using pseudo-science and conspiracy theories--and technology makes it easier than ever before to spread these dangerous ideas. Whatever's wrong with us, there might not be a cure, but there's always a culprit."


"Ultimately, we make scapegoats out of those we have come to believe are incapable of suffering--we dehumanize them, making them easier to hate."

Christ and Alfred Dreyfus each has his own chapter. Jews, gays and other sexual scapegoats, and communists (including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) had the most interesting histories as groups. By far the chapter on witches and witch hunts throughout Europe and early America was the most revealing. Campbell relied on legal documents and testimonials from European and American courts in the sixteenth century to trace the evolution of one of civilization's most paranoid times.

Scapegoating didn't always target marginalized peoples. The funniest chapter dealt with those who were determined to find if not someone, then something, to blame for their misfortune. Farmers whose crops were destroyed demanded compensation by trying to sue the locusts that dined alfresco. Priests would threaten errant livestock with excommunication. A case in Switzerland from 1478 ruled:

"the insects were told to depart within the next six days from all places where you have secretly or openly done or might still do damage, also to depart from all fields, meadows, gardens, pastures, trees, herbs, and spots, where things nutritious to men and to beasts spring up and grow, and to betake yourselves to the spots and places, where you and your bands shall not be able to do any harm secretly or openly to the fruits and aliments nourishing to men and beasts."

Scapegoat is not a heavy psychological read, and is supplemented by an informative bibliography. I will definitely be looking at the source material Campbell used in writing his book.

Monday, April 1, 2013

North Korea Kidnapped My Daughter: A Memoir

On November 15, 1977 thirteen-year-old Megumi Yokota was abducted from her home in Niigata, Japan. She had disappeared without a trace. Police investigations came up with nothing. No one saw her disappear nor had anyone any ideas where she might have gone. The Yokota family did not know if their daughter had run away, committed suicide, or been kidnapped. Neither the police nor the family gave credence to the last possibility since no one had called to demand ransom. It wasn't until twenty years later that the truth finally came out. Megumi's mother, Sakie Yokota tells the story In North Korea Kidnapped My Daughter: A Memoir (translated by Emi Maruyama and Naomi Otani).

The first part of the book is devoted to the precious memories Yokota has of her daughter. Megumi was an active child and enjoyed physical activities. As a young girl she started ballet lessons and studied dance for many years. At thirteen she decided to focus her skills on badminton, where she showed great promise and was one of two students at her school to be selected for a special training program. It was after a badminton practice that Megumi was abducted on her way home from school.

Near the beginning of the book Yokota reveals the latest news she has of Megumi today: that Megumi married while in North Korea and had a child. We see alleged photos of Megumi, her husband and daughter yet nowhere else in the book does Yokota say anything about them except a few lines in a timeline chart of events at the end. As the end of the book drew nearer I anticipated Yokota would write about attaining some kind of contact with Megumi or with their granddaughter, especially since one of the photos in the book is of the granddaughter holding a photograph of her maternal grandparents, the Yokotas. How did this girl get that picture? How did Yokota acquire alleged photos of her daughter as an adult? Even though Yokota herself can't be sure that the photos are of her own adult daughter, nonetheless she should have explained how her own photo got into the hands of the girl claiming to be her own granddaughter. This part of the story left a football field of unanswered questions.

Twenty years after the abduction, Megumi's father received a phone call that started the process of unravelling the truth. It was confusing how Yokota related the connection between a counterfeiting ring and the kidnappers. By coincidence both were North Korean and they worked for the same people. When the counterfeiters were apprehended, they revealed other illegal activities and miraculously, when the line of questioning turned to abductions, they revealed that they had come across Megumi several times in their undercover activities. It all sounds too conveniently coincidental. If Yokota had elaborated more on this miraculous connection of events, it would have seemed believable. Unfortunately the way Yokota reveals the news how she and her husband found out that their daughter was still alive seems like a primary school magic ending where coincidences converge. Too much information is given in too few pages and one is left to make assumptions about the whole series of events. I reread the entire chapter to make sure I understood everything, but then Yokota retells the whole discovery story later on in a linear style that leaves no uncertainties. Yokota does this often: repeat things that she had only written about barely twenty pages previously.

The sad news is that the Yokotas are never reunited with Megumi, and that for the past 34 years their hearts have been empty without her. Yokota conveys the aching longing and feelings of helplessness without sounding maudlin. I was surprised to read that:

"It may sound strange for me to say that I feel grateful for what we have endured. But I do believe that my sons have learned to be perceptive because they experienced hardships not known to children who have led happy lives growing up in a normal household. I want to believe that there are positive aspects to what has happened, at least in terms of the opportunity that this experience has given them to develop spiritual strength within themselves."

The Yokotas have formed support groups with other Japanese who have lost family members to North Korean kidnappers. They continue to work to petition the government and human rights groups to pressure North Korea into releasing all Japanese citizens still held captive.