Monthly Archives: July 2009

Just the facts, ma’am

“Just the facts, ma’am.”
–Sgt. Joe Friday, Dragnet

On June 11th of this year, Dr. Margaret Chan of the WHO (World Health Organization) announced that the H1N1 influenza virus (the virus formerly known as Swine Flu) had reached the pandemic stage. The actual announcement – “The world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic.” – is fairly succinct and is a passing sentence in a larger declaration with virtually the same title issued by Dr. Chan and the WHO. I don’t recall seeing any headline or byline of merit in the mainstream media, certainly not at the level poor Farrah Fawcett achieved in Michael Jackson’s posthumous shadow.

While the flu has so far been fairly benign in its effects, it shouldn’t be mistaken for the medical equivalent of Y2K. The potential consequences could be very significant, and there have been enough changes in its progression that the WHO has decided to alter its data collection procedures; it’s becoming increasingly difficult for local and national governments or agencies to collect or report their data.

That we’re able to follow both the spread of the disease and the global developments undertaken to fight and/or cure it is intriguing.  Projecting ahead, it will be interesting to see what will be written about swine flu (there, I said it) when the research has finished and it has run its course.  Historically both a disease and its cause–as independent phenomena–have proved elusive to those investigating it.  The literature can be both informative and engaging, opening up centuries of discovery, politics, history and sometimes the inevitable  “I knew that” moment (insert sound of hand smacking forehead here).  After reading some of the histories I can only marvel at the promise of the times we live in.  In other instances, I felt more like a moviegoer, squirming in my seat, trying to will Harry and Hermione from going “there” or doing “that” because the consequences are so obvious…now.

Available for checkout, some readings on the subject:


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Merce Cunningham

On Sunday we lost a legend in the dance world, Merce Cunningham.  In honor of Merce Cunningham’s life and work, here are a few books, CDs, and videos that celebrate his career and collaborations:

  • Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years With Cage and Cunningham, by Carolyn Brown: The partnership between Merce Cunningham and John Cage was both personal and professional. Carolyn Brown, a former dancer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company writes about their collaboration and work in the Cunningham Company from its early days in the 1950’s to the 1970’s. 
  • Chance Operation: The John Cage Tribute: John Cage was the longtime musical advisor for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.  This compilation includes recordings of Cage’s compositions by artists such as The Kronos Quartet, Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, and Frank Zappa (performing Cage’s notorious 4′ 33″). 
  • David Tudor & Gordon Mumma: David Tudor collaborated with both Cage and Cunningham, and took over as musical advisor of the dance company upon Cage’s death.  This CD contains several of Tudor’s compositions, including a performance of Rainforest with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. 
  • Goddess: Martha Graham’s Dancers Remember, by Robert Tracy: Martha Graham was an innovative dancer who was also the teacher to many dancers who became famous in their own right.  Merce Cunningham, Rudolf Nureyev, and Madonna are among those she influenced.  In this book, many of her former pupils discuss her influence on their own careers. 
  • Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance: This video examines Cunningham’s influence on modern dance.  Interviews are interwoven with performances to give an overview of Cunningham’s career. 
  • Rauschenberg: Art and Life, by Mary Lynn Kotz: Merce Cunningham collaborated with artists in much the same way that he did with musicians.  Robert Rauschenberg worked with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company during its early years, and this biography explores his life and art. 


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Eat Your Veggies

Son of Jim Norris, homesteader, tying corn into bundles, Pie Town, New Mexico (LOC) by The Library of Congress.

Son of Jim Norris, homesteader, tying corn into bundles, Pie Town, New Mexico October 1940. Photographed by Russell Lee

As a CSA member, I’m getting my fill of beautiful vegetables. If you’re unfamiliar, CSA is an acronym for Community Supported Agriculture, and Pittsburgh has a nice selection of local farms to choose from.  The idea is simple. You buy a “share” in the farm and gain boxes of vegetables and other edible items throughout the season.  Naturally, like any investment there are risks involved, such as a disappointing crop due to insect snacking or destructive weather.  Nevertheless, I love my veggies so I’m always searching for creative and new ways to enjoy them.

We have a harvest of cookbooks featuring vegetables at the library as well as a Web page dedicated to the subject of produce. One of my favorite food blogs is Farmgirl Fare which chronicles life on a farm and includes great seasonal recipes not to mention photographs of awfully cute animals (cats included).  Epicurious has a seasonal cooking section to help you figure out what to do with the 4 heads of cabbage in your refrigerator.

Grab your apron, cutting board, freshly sharpened knife and favorite veggie, and get cooking.

– Lisa

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Recently, heavy rains and a traffic-snarling, water main break in front of the library made me think of the Sisters of Mercy album Floodland. Its songs “Flood I” and “Flood II” have brooding refrains of “and the water comes rushing over, and the water comes rushing in.” (Unfortunately, that also reminded me of my somewhat inept swimming abilities so I thought of the Jesus Lizard song “Seasick” with its vacillating refrain of “I can swim, I can’t swim.”)

Another water main break in Wilkinsburg in 2005 flooded a practice space of mine and almost destroyed my drum set.

Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters

Certainly, the Pittsburgh region needs a lot of work on its infrastructure. The perfect soundtrack to this crumbling decay and work requiring heavy machinery would be Einstürzende Neubauten whose music in the early 1980s involved hammering and scratching metal objects, smashing glass, operating power drills, etc. Really, nothing else captures the end of the industrial era better than Blixa Bargeld’s barking and sinister whispering in German over the sound of clanging metal. Perhaps my next musical project should evoke our current time and place by utilizing sounds of rushing waters and sloshing mud.

— Tim

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Rip Van Winkle, Dormez-vous?

Today is National Sleepyhead Day.

National, that is, in Finland, where the day is known as Unikeonpäivä.


Distinguished Citizen of Naantali, Finland

On Unikeonpäivä sleepyheads suffer. The town of Naantali, in southern Finland, celebrates by choosing a well known town resident, called Unikeko (Sleepyhead of the Year), who is awakened, carried from bed in a sheet, and thrown into the sea. 

Naantali’s Sleepyhead Day celebration traces its origins to nineteenth-century spa culture. A spa day started at 6 AM with a drink of healing mineral water. Every July 27, the last one to arrive at the spa was greeted with song and presented with a bouquet of thistles. The group then marched to town to wake the residents. This early morning, water drinking, song singing, thistle giving tradition evolved into the current Sleepyhead festival.

When waking in a Finnish household on July 27, you’ll want to rise early. Another Sleepyhead Day tradition is to throw water on the head of the last person sleeping, who then endures teasing as the laziest member of the house.


Seven Sleepers of Ephesus

Today is also the traditional feast day of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. During the reign of Roman Emperor Decius (249 – 251), so the legend goes, the Sleepers were sealed in a cave for their religious beliefs. They were awakened by a farmer 230 years later, and thought they had been asleep only one night.

Their story is one of many examples of legends about people who fall asleep and years afterward wake up to find the world changed. (For a light hearted version of the Seven Sleepers story, turn to chapter 40 of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad.)


Old coins, strong drink before sleep, and confusion upon waking are some of the Sleepyhead tale elements echoed in another famous long-snooze story, Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle.


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A Summer’s Day …

sonnets2009 has been designated the 400th anniversary of the publication of perhaps the most famous poetry collection of all time, the Sonnets of William Shakespeare.  Frequently, when you mention Shakespeare, folks start looking around for the exits, a feeling you might be having some kinship with at this very moment, but hang in, because there is a neat little tidbit forthcoming.

As you might imagine, it was with much trepidation that I’d thought about using the Sonnets in the various lifelong learning poetry classes I’ve taught or for our ongoing poetry series here at the library, 3 Poems By … Discussion Group .

Over the last few years, I’ve built up a substantial number of poems to use for discussion while preparing for these classes and this bank of poems actually ended up being the impetus for starting the poetry discussion group here at the Main Library.  Still, when it came to Shakespeare, I always got cold feet contemplating reading his immortal words, in a fading Jersey, rising Yinzer accent to a frightened and possibly hostile audience.

This past April, I decided to take a looser approach to preparing for the next class; I brought a much larger number of poems than necessary and thought, a la Elvis Costello’s Spectacular Spinning Wheel Songbook tour, why not let folks in the class choose what poems they’d like to cover?

Once I had this idea, I realized this was the perfect opportunity to see if big Will would fly or even if he was (fly, that is).

So, tucked in with some of the usual suspects – Frost, Oliver, Dickinson, Collins etc. – were two poems by the Bard, and a 3rd ringer to accompany them.  The Oasis audience was lively and engaged and the Collins, Oliver, and Frost had gone over well, so I thought, why not?  Did you folks want to tackle a little Shakespeare, I timidly breached?

The 30 plus women, all over the age of 70, said quite emphatically, “Bring him on!”  And I did and they loved it.

Now, in one sense I cheated, and that’s where the ringer comes in.  The first sonnet I decided to use was the grandest of old chestnuts, Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft’ is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Folks listened both attentively and appreciatively and when I finished, prior to any discussion, I suggested that I’d like to read a contemporary “updating” of the poem, for comparison, written by twentieth century American poet, Howard Moss.  So, falling back on my old Jersey accent (and a great big slice of ham, inherited directly from my mother), I let them have it with both barrels:

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day  (Howard Moss)

Who says you’re like one of the dog days?
You’re nicer. And better.
Even in May, the weather can be gray,
And a summer sub-let doesn’t last forever.
Sometimes the sun’s too hot;
Sometimes it is not.
Who can stay young forever?
People break their necks or just drop dead!
But you? Never!
If there’s just one condensed reader left
Who can figure out the abridged alphabet,
After you’re dead and gone,
In this poem you’ll live on!

By the third line (including the title), there were a few smiles and some quiet laughter.  By the fifth, general laughter.  By the ninth, Mr. Moss had them in his hip pocket and was taking them home.  At the final line, there was applause all around.  What Mr. Moss had done was, in effect, a cultural translation, from 16th century English to mid-2oth century American Long Islandese.

And it was a beautiful thing.

– Don

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I am not a big fan of gardening, but I love to weed. Now don’t get me wrong, I delight in the bounty of the garden, which, aside from being beautiful and delicious, has the added benefit of being temporary, and thus not adding to the accumulation of stuff. Around me, friends and relatives are careful not to mention having over-stuffed closets or being buried by stacks of paper, for fear that I will get out of control and start throwing their stuff away.

You see, one of my missions on the planet is to help people get rid of the items they don’t need in their lives. Just like in the garden, there are material goods that may be pretty, but they choke the life out of a space because there are simply too many of them. With our busy, busy lives we may not even have time to enjoy them, and then they weigh on us as something we should be doing.  It’s all very exhausting.

If this situation sounds familiar, you may wonder where to begin or why you weren’t born into my family.  I can’t help you with the latter; however, for the former, we do have a number of books on the subject here at the library.  (Yes, the library is your #1 friend in the pursuit of less stuff:  borrow, don’t buy!) Don’t be put off by the titles. I hate the word “clutter,” and find it difficult to deal with the phrase “once and for all.”  That is why I think of the process as a form of weeding, giving your life room to grow.


Support your library! The Pennsylvania Library Association has designated the week of July 20th PaLA Call-In Week. Please take the time to call the Governor, your Senator, or your Representative and tell them how much your library means to you. Visit the PaLA website or our advocacy page for details.

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Library Call in Week

Want to help the library? Pick up the phone!

This week is Pennsylvania Library Association’s Library Call-In Week.

Look up your PA State Representative and call to say how important level library funding is to you.  Ask two friends to do the same. 

Consider calling your favorite talk show and doing the same.

Find your Rep’s number and more details at CLP’s Advocacy page.


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Believe the hype

I hope I’m not the one to break the news to you of the memoirist Frank McCourt’s passing on Sunday. McCourt left us with three unforgettable full-length books: Angela’s Ashes, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award; ‘Tis and Teacher Man. It is my belief that these books can only be truly appreciated when read aloud by the author. That’s right—I’m telling you it’s time to step out of your comfort zone and listen to an audio book. Listening to Frank McCourt with his Irish lilt, telling you about his miserable childhood in Ireland is like having your very own Irish grandpa telling you hilarious, heartbreaking stories of the old country.

Here is a snippet from the beginning of Angela’s Ashes:

“The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood. People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests, bullying schoolmasters; the English and all the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years.”

If you have never had the pleasure of reading Frank McCourt, believe the hype, and try out one of his books in audio format.


Support your library! The Pennsylvania Library Association has designated the week of July 20th PaLA Call-In Week. Please take the time to call the Governor, your Senator, or your Representative and tell them how much your library means to you. Visit the PaLA website or our advocacy page for details.

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How do you say “pass the popcorn” in Kurdish?

The Film & Audio Department is the home of foreign films and artsy photography.

The Film & Audio Department is the home of foreign films and artsy photography.

Among the many many wonders of the Film & Audio Department is our foreign language film collection. What started out a decade ago as four shelves of French, German, and Italian VHS tapes has expanded to twenty-nine shelves of VHS tapes and DVDs in fifty-nine languages.

So yes, we do have those Japanese samurai classics. And if you’re feeling a little Swedish, we can hook you up with some Ingmar Bergman. But come on, you can do better than that! Why not try a film in one of these languages?

  •  Estonian: City Unplugged– Russian mobsters plan to hijack a billion dollars of hidden Estonian gold bullion by recruiting Toivo, a poor electrician, to engineer a midnight blackout.
  • Icelandic: The Seagull’s Laughter – In 1953, Freya returns home to begin a new life in a quiet fishing village in Iceland. Freya, now a beautiful woman in her twenties, is somewhat of a mystery to the men of the community.
  • Kurdish: Journey to the Sun– Mehmet (from Western Turkey) and Berzan (a Kurdish rebel) become fast friends while living in Istanbul. When Berzan is entangled in political trouble, Mehmet embarks on a sweeping journey across Turkey to his friend’s Kurdish homeland.
  • Sinhalese: The Forsaken Land– During a cease-fire treaty between the Sinhala government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a serviceman who lives with his wife and sister receives orders from the army that will change their lives forever.
  • Tagalog: The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros – 12 year old Maxi is deeply loyal to his family of petty thieves. But when Maxi befriends Victor, a well-meaning and handsome policeman, he is torn between his family and his desire to follow a more honorable path in life.
Masai? Mongol? Marvelous!

Masai? Mongol? Marvelous!

Check them out, turn on the subtitles, and enjoy! And if you do know how to say “pass the popcorn” in Kurdish, be sure to let me know.

– Amy




Support your library! The Pennsylvania Library Association has designated the week of July 20th PaLA Call-In Week. Please take the time to call the Governor, your Senator, or your Representative and tell them how much your library means to you. Visit the PaLA website or our advocacy page for details.

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