Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Porter Wagoner

The Hill notes the passing of seminal country music artist Porter Wagoner, who died of lung cancer Sunday at age 80.

Wagoner, a Grand Ole Opry mainstay for decades with his blond pompadour and rhinestone-studded Nudie suits, was one of the artists who expanded country music from its rural roots into the pop music mainstream. Beginning with "Company's Comin'" in 1954, Wagoner would go on to rack up 81 Top 40 country chart hits. Wagoner's greatest influence, though, was through his TV program which ran from 1960 to 1981. At its peak, The Porter Wagoner Show was in over 100 markets from coast to coast, and brought the top country artists of the day into millions of households whose exposure to the genre was otherwise limited. Wagoner had a flair for exposing up-and-coming talent; his most notable find was a buxom blond singer and songwriter from the East Tennessee mountain country named Dolly Parton. The young Parton was Wagoner's duet partner and co-host for several seasons before launching her own successful career. Had he done nothing else, Wagoner would have been notable for discovering Parton alone.

Wagoner's best songs may have sounded like standard country fare at first listen, but many of his lyrics exposed the dark side of life. In "The Carroll County Accident", a married man and his young lover are killed in a car crash, and the man's son covers up the relationship between the two victims. The offbeat "The Rubber Room" is a reverb-drenched tale of psychosis. Perhaps best of all was "The Cold Hard Facts Of Life", in which Wagoner returns home early from a business trip to find a strange man entering his house. He circles the block in anger over and over while polishing off the bottle he bought for him and his wife to celebrate the occasion. Fueled by jealous rage and alcohol, he finally comes home and stabs his wife and her lover to death.

"A Satisfied Mind" was one of Wagoner's earliest hits. Its message of happiness being more important than wealth and fame is one we could all take note of today.

My dad was a big Porter Wagoner fan. He never missed Wagoner's TV show whenever he was home. One year for Dad's birthday, we got backstage passes to the Grand Ole Opry. Wagoner was one of the performers that night, and Dad waited outside his dressing room after the show. Eventually Wagoner came out, chatted with Dad for a bit, and autographed a photo for him. Despite the late hour, Wagoner was friendly and gracious to the fans gathered outside his door. I have seldom seen my dad as happy as he was in that brief moment that he got to meet Porter Wagoner.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Dumber than dirt?

Via the indispensable Opit: SFGate columnist Mark Morford talks to a friend who's a long-time high school teacher, and comes away convinced that we're doomed:

We are, as far as urban public education is concerned, essentially at rock bottom. We are now at a point where we are essentially churning out ignorant teens who are becoming ignorant adults and society as a whole will pay dearly, very soon, and if you think the hordes of easily terrified, mindless fundamentalist evangelical Christian lemmings have been bad for the soul of this country, just wait.

It's gotten so bad that, as my friend nears retirement, he says he is very seriously considering moving out of the country so as to escape what he sees will be the surefire collapse of functioning American society in the next handful of years due to the absolutely irrefutable destruction, the shocking — and nearly hopeless — dumb-ification of the American brain. It is just that bad.


(H)e simply observes his students, year to year, noting all the obvious evidence of teens' decreasing abilities when confronted with even the most basic intellectual tasks, from understanding simple history to working through moderately complex ideas to even (in a couple recent examples that particularly distressed him) being able to define the words "agriculture," or even "democracy." Not a single student could do it.

It gets worse. My friend cites the fact that, of the 6,000 high school students he estimates he's taught over the span of his career, only a small fraction now make it to his grade with a functioning understanding of written English. They do not know how to form a sentence. They cannot write an intelligible paragraph. Recently, after giving an assignment that required drawing lines, he realized that not a single student actually knew how to use a ruler.

It is, in short, nothing less than a tidal wave of dumb, with once-passionate, increasingly exasperated teachers like my friend nearly powerless to stop it. The worst part: It's not the kids' fault. They're merely the victims of a horribly failed educational system.

Leaving aside the question of massive systemic failure of the public education system (which can be argued at length), the question remains, are we raising monumentally stupid kids, or is the nature of knowledge merely changing?

I tend to believe that it is more of the latter, the result of social and technological changes more than anything. Ezra Klein recently noted, "Google's like the brain I never had, the knowledge I never acquired." Why take the time to do any serious studying when the knowledge of the world is available with a few keystrokes? Whether it's classical philosophy or some obscure rock band that disappeared after a couple of poorly-selling albums, I can find out what I need to know within seconds. When I was in school, I couldn't find much of that information without trudging to the library, and the knowledge stored there was often incomplete.

The kinds of knowledge we need to get by in the world constantly changes over time. Everybody has heard about the buggy-whip manufacturers becoming obsolete. I've noticed a similar sort of buggy-whip story around town recently. The number of places one can go to get film developed has dwindled in recent years. Digital cameras have lessened the need for film developers. We may reach a point where the specialized skills of the darkroom will only be of interest to antiquarians.

The concern remains, though, that in the future, people will come to rely more upon that external knowledge and not develop the innate skills needed to communicate and to function in the world. Yet even many of those skills have been altered by technology. Language is constantly changing, as anybody who has studied Shakespeare knows. Texting and IM are causing similar changes in communication today. Often it's not a matter of the kids not knowing, it's simply that they are sharing their knowledge in a way the old folks don't understand.

One still has to wonder sometimes whether we are becoming too dependent upon our electronic crutches. Not long ago I was picking up supper at Kentucky Fried Chicken. The cash register wasn't working properly, and the young lady behind the counter was in a panic. She didn't know how much change to give me without the register telling her. The store manager came out, pushed a few buttons, and got the cash register working properly again. "I'm glad I got it working", he said. "Otherwise, we'd have to close." He explained that the register kept track of sales information that the company felt was important. He also said that he had a hard time finding employees who could make change without the machine telling them how much to give back. "They don't teach math in school no more. They just hand all the kids a calculator." We may reach a dangerous point where the vast majority find themselves dependent upon a very few who understand the inner workings of the machines everyone relies upon. I would hope that future generations retain and pass along enough innate knowledge in order to keep that from happening.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Happy birthday to me

47 big ones. The events of the past couple of weeks help me appreciate the time I have here that much more.

Last year, when I had four readers, I posted about some of the events in the news on October 27, 1960. You can go back and check that post out here if you are so inclined.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Sarah Cannon

The world knew her as Minnie Pearl, beloved country humorist, but Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon was also known in the Nashville community as a breast cancer survivor and dedicated supporter of cancer research and treatment.

Sarah Cannon was the daughter of a well-to-do Middle Tennessee family. She studied theater and dance in college, and discovered that she had a flair for comedy. She based her Minnie Pearl persona on a young mountain woman she met while with a touring theater company, and based many of her stories on characters and events she knew from her hometown of Centerville. In 1940, she became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and in later years became famous for her many appearances on Hee Haw. Onstage, she projected the appearance of a simple country woman with her $1.98 hat and exuberant "HOW-DEEE! I'm just so proud to be here!" But offstage, Sarah Cannon was known to Nashvillians as an important social figure and patron of the arts.

In 1985, Cannon was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she underwent a double mastectomy and radiation treatments. She devoted much of the rest of her life to helping fellow cancer patients. Cannon became an active supporter of the American Cancer Society and also became involved in the Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation supporting cancer research and education. As she said, "Cancer can change your life at the drop of a hat. I know. It changed mine." Sarah Cannon maintained an active role in advocacy for cancer patients until her death from a stroke in 1996.

Before her death, Cannon agreed to lend her name to the cancer unit operated by the Tri-Star group of hospitals in Tennessee and Kentucky. Today, the Sarah Cannon Cancer Center serves thousands of cancer patients throughout the region. My wife is one of the many cancer survivors who has benefited from the expertise and professionalism of the Sarah Cannon physicians and staff. The Sarah Cannon Cancer Center continues today as a testament to the caring vision of the woman whose name it bears.

Monday, October 22, 2007

In passing

Our family is still devastated by the loss of my wife's nephew. She was going through old photographs today, looking for some to send to his mother, and every time she saw a picture of him she would break down in tears again. He was a fine athlete, had a quick wit, loved animals, and touched the heart of everyone who knew him. He was on his way to work before dawn, and it was foggy. There is a lot of construction going on at the place he gets on the interstate, making it confusing in clear weather. In the fog, he got on the wrong ramp and was in front of the semi before he realized where he was.

This is the second time in recent years the family has dealt with the death of a young one. Not long ago another of my wife's sisters lost her young daughter to cancer. She was only eight. My sister-in-law went through a deep depression where she wouldn't even leave the house for months. Her depression has only lifted recently, and now we're all having to deal with it all again.

Thank you again for your support and understanding. Time now to get around the neighborhood again and start thinking of more pleasant things.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A death in the family

We have had a very sad and emotional last few days here. Over the weekend, one of Mrs. S.' nephews died in an auto accident. He went up an exit ramp the wrong way, and was going the wrong way on the interstate when he hit a semi truck head-on. He was only 21.

We will be headed up to Illinois for the funeral in the morning. Regular Pole Hill operations will resume after we return.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

SEO: The greatest hits

Out of the south comes Christie Fermicat with the meme of the moment. "SEO" stands for Search Engine Optimization; the idea originated from, a site dedicated to spreading imaginative ways for bloggers to increase traffic.

The meme consists of a chain of bloggers listing three of their favorite posts. Each participating blogger simply adds three favorite posts to the end of the chain, and passes it on. Each time the chain is reposted on another blog, it lets people know about your blog you normally wouldn't reach, and it also helps you build Technorati authority, for those who care about such things.

First, though, some observations about Technorati numbers. Personally, I don't think they mean all that much. Your Technorati Authority number is simply the number of unique blogs that have linked to you in the last six months. So if fifty different blogs link to you in that time frame, you have an authority of 50. But if only one blog links to you 50 times, your Technorati Authority number is one. Mostly what Authority tells you is how much your fellow bloggers like you. It doesn't give you much insight into who's actually reading. I know blogs with far more traffic than mine with lower authority. Also, I have more traffic than some blogs I know of with two and three times the authority.

Blog stats are mostly in the eye of the beholder. Some bloggers are really into comments. Others look at total number of hits and page views. Sitemeter tells me how much time each visitor spends here. What I'm most concerned with when I look at the stats is the total number of hits I get, and more importantly, how much time people spend here once they arrive.

The edginess of a few of my early posts kind of surprised me. I knew I'd softened up a bit over the past year. That's partly because I have other outlets for political ranting, but mostly because in my old age I've come to the belief that if your going to bitch about the nation's political problems, you need to have some feasible solutions handy. I can come up with some solutions, but they just aren't feasible in the current political climate. This post has me thinking that maybe it's time to recapture a little bit of the old edge.

Enough from me. Here's the official instructions for this meme from (Those participating in the meme are required to copy these instructions.)

"This seo meme was conceived and designed by Bobby at This is a new fun seo meme ride for us all. This is based on the seo theory that links to posts inside your blog are more important than links to your home page. I have selected three posts I want to promote along with my site’s name. You will do the same thing.

Let’s keep it simple and spread our good work around to both share and build some ratings! Make sure you pick three posts that you feel are your best. You could also select 3 posts you simply want to promote. Your site name is listed with your 3 selected posts beneath.

Once you have your post up: Add the sites and post links of the folks you tagged onto your post. Try to add the site and post links to anyone involved to maximize the effectiveness. Tag a minimum of 5 people.
Try your best not to double tag people so it will spread better! Please actually read the posts from everyone so you can see some really good work from our beloved blogging friends! Make your title a little different from mine to avoid repetitive titles."

Here be the list:

Revellian dot com: SEO Keywords For Beginners, Content: The Kings Illegitimate Stepchild, Tales of Blogger-X Illusion

Mariuca - Wishing On A Falling Star: Love In Disarray, In Love With A Dream, The Good Client

Mariuca's Perfume Gallery: Perfume Shopping Spree, Defining Beauty, In Full Splendour

Speedcat Hollydale Page: Rocket Boy In Hawaii - DC9, Speedcat's Death Ride Into Terror!, The Boy Inside All Men

Terri Terri Quite Contrary: Just How Immature Are We?, Finding A Voice, So Much More To See Than The Game

Mahala: Uncle Huberts Custom Cows, Pray For The Child At Big Lots, The Legend of Saushie's Crotch

Tiff: How Am I Like Ron Weasley, A Social Experiment, Absolutely Boring Entry 101

Cosmic Cat: Just An Ordinary Thursday Night..., Not Gone With The Wind. Just Gone., The "Weekly Thoughtful Reminder" And Other Hazards Of Working

Pole Hill Sanitarium: 756, Stocking Stuffer, Why It Matters

Naturally, the further this project spreads through the blogosphere, the more good it does for all involved. I hereby entrust 24 Crayons, Jeni, Gina, Mixter and Sonia with the further propagation of this meme. Additional tags are out on the loading dock for anyone who wants them. Be sure to leave a comment at when you're done so Bobby can add you to his list. Do as thou wilt.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Random blogservations

Sonia Sunshine has a contest going on over at her place. It's kind of a comment-whoring deal where part of the idea is to post something about the blogs we like. I'm just too out of it to do a detailed post, and there's no way in hell I'd win that contest because Sonia knows some high-powered folks, but if one or two (or more) of you click the link and leave a comment to the effect of "The Doctor sent me", I'd be flattered.

I left an obligatory blase comment on her contest thread, and Sonia e-mailed me back: "You sound tired - lol." If anybody should be tired, it's Sonia. She takes loving care of her husband, they're raising four children, and she contributes to at least four blogs that I know of. She even has a role in a
reality TV series, for cryin' out loud. I don't see how she does it.

But yeah, I'm tired all right. We've got three guys out sick, and Friday was my first day off in over a week. I didn't even bother to turn the computer on. I went out and grilled some hamburgers and bratwurst, drank a few beers, and went to bed early.


OK then, what are we to make of this?

The moral is probably that we should trust a woman's intuition. Or maybe God is seriously concerned about our appliance choices? Maybe the blender is possessed after all. The Talk To Action article that the video was nicked from contains some sinister implications, not all of which I'm sure I agree with. No one can deny, though, that Christian America has developed its own media sources and outlets, and that they have a significant impact upon how millions of Americans think.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Midweek interlude

Another busy week - not much time for profundity. Completing the Fairport Convention trifecta, I give you some Richard Thompson. "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" is one of my favorites of his. It's one of his best-written songs, and a fine example of why Thompson is a genius guitar picker.

Thompson says of "1952 Vincent Black Lightning":

"That song grew out of my frustration that it's hard to find contemporary British mythology, because American culture has been so dominant," Thompson says. "The mythical places are Laramie and Cheyenne; 'Going Back to Lancaster' just doesn't have the same ring to it as 'Going Back to Memphis.'

"But it's important to make music that incorporates elements from where you come from, so you're contributing something of yourself into the music. If you're from England and you're writing about the Mississippi Delta, there's something missing. You can be a good imitator, but what are you bringing to the process? Bands like the Kinks didn't really come to life until they stopped doing covers of American songs and started doing original tunes.

"A 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, which is an English motorbike, sounds mythological and British people can relate to it. But I'm surprised that it has become such a popular song because it's a ballad with eight verses. I didn't think people had that much attention span anymore. 'Vincent' is my most requested song, and 'Beeswing' is the second, which is another story song with lots of verses. I guess people are still hungry for stories."

Monday, October 01, 2007

Banned by Smyrna High

Just about everybody has heard of the Jena Six controversy by now. (Amy Goodman provides some background for those catching up.) Last week some local high school students were told that wearing T-shirts to class in support of the Jena Six was not allowed.

Norma Super and her daughter Dani wore their "Free The Jena Six" T-shirts to a recent Nashville rally. When Dani and some friends wanted to wear their shirts to classes at Smyrna High School, though, they were told that it would be disruptive:

"When I persisted to ask why, the quote was that 'It could cause problems,' "(Norma) Super said. "It's a political statement. I feel strongly about free speech. I feel like (my daughter's) rights were infringed upon.''


The Smyrna High administration treated the T-shirt as a dress code violation because it could have caused disruptions, Rutherford County schools spokesman James Evans said. Earlier that morning a handful of students made racial comments in the hallways, and administrators had to intervene, he said.

Seemingly, Dani Super and her friends should have every right to wear their T-shirts to school and show their support for a cause they care about. On the other hand, a kid wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt to Smyrna High School would undoubtedly be sent straight home and told not to come back until they changed clothes. And there's the rub - I assure you that there are plenty of parents in Smyrna, Tennessee who see nothing wrong with the Confederate flag and would say that if a kid can wear a shirt supporting the Jena Six, their kid ought to be able to proudly wear the Stars and Bars as well.

It's a tough call for school administrators to make. My civil libertarian instincts tell me that we should let the kids wear pretty much what they want on their clothing. But high school is a different place today compared to when I was there 30 years ago. Certain clothes today provide signals to gang members in many schools now. Also, the kids seem more prone to fighting now than they were way back when. Therefore, schools are tempted to ban anything "controversial". But free speech, by its nature, is often going to be controversial. If you say that a kid can't wear a "Free The Jena Six" T-shirt, that's infringing upon their free speech rights. But if you let a kid wear that shirt, then what grounds do you have to keep another kid from wearing the Confederate flag - even if you know a Confederate T-shirt is going to cause trouble?

If you start banning clothing right and left because it might be "disruptive", then you might as well make the kids wear uniforms. Of course, that's how more and more schools are starting to handle this problem.