Sunday, April 29, 2012

Musc Sunday, but just barely...Singers edition

I got so interested in Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of all time when I was looking at it last week that I decided to look at some of the other music lists they've compiled through the years, so I took a tour through their list of the 100 Greatest Singers. Interesting stuff, but probably also the stuff of many disagreements among music fans.

Aretha Franklin is the number one rated singer on the list., followed by Ray Charles at number two, Elvis Presley at number 3, Sam Cooke at number 4, and John Lennon at number five. As you'll see if you read on, I'm not thrilled with all those placings. But if you have to make a ranked list, Ms. Franklin is a good choice for the top spot.

I guess when it comes to rating singers...or songs, or music, or any art form...a lot of what goes into the consideration of who or what is better than the other is mostly subjective. There are technical considerations, of course, and those are beyond me when it comes to music. I played clarinet for three years, and used to be able to plunk out a melody on a piano after I'd heard it a few times. But none of that is really musical training.

Still, I know what I like, and what moves me, when it comes to music, and I had a number of "what the hell?!" moments when I was looking through Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 100 Greatest Singers this morning. For example, I kept wondering as I progressed through the list, where B. B. King was. Found him, finally, at number 96.

Ninety-six? That's just nuts. Well, I guess he's known more for his guitar playing than his singing - he's at number 6 on the magazine's list of Greatest Guitarists - but still, when "The Thrill Is Gone" came out when I was in junior high, the first time I heard it, I knew that was some singing right there.

But, surprises aside - and there were some good ones, too, from my point of view - it is an interesting list. I've seen six of the artists on the list perform live at one point or another: Prince (#30), Bono (#32), Neil Young (#37), Elton John (#38), Bjork (#60), and Karen Carpenter (#94). I can see why all of them made the list from my experience in hearing them live, although I've developed more of an appreciation for Bjork's singing from hearing her recorded work since the night I heard her play with the Sugarcubes, who were opening for U2 when I went to see them in Oakland, California. She isn't a conventional singer, but what she does with her voice is interesting and original. I don't know if she should be on the list of the 100 greatest singers, but she's got as much right to be on the list as some of those who are on it, I think.

As people will do, I would argue with some of the rankings on the list. Janis Joplin not there until number 28? Jim Morrison at only number 47? And, most surprisingly for me, in a good way, is Steve Perry at number 76?

I understand that the fact Steve Perry sang for Journey for so many years counted against him among some of the people compiling the list; it isn't a popular thing in some circles to even admit that you ever listened to the band. And, to be truthful, I was surprised that he made the list at all, given that handicap. But, that voice. There are a number of singers above him on the list who don't have his vocal range. The man just has a beautiful voice, and he knows how to use it.

The other pleasant surprise, although I think he should have come in higher, is Don Henley, at number 87. One word: Desperado. That might be the most achingly beautiful song I've ever heard, and it's his voice on the lead vocal that makes it that way.

The biggest names or places that I would argue with? Well - and I know there are people who will throw things at me for saying this - I really don't understand Elvis Presley's placement at number 3. Really? Yes, he always had that cult following. But his voice never did anything for me. (Not that that really means anything. A lot of people hate, and I mean purely hate Geddy Lee's singing voice, and I agree that it isn't the most beautiful voice in the world and I'm not sure I would place him in this list at all. But I enjoy listening to it.)

Also, as much as I love John Lennon's work, I would not rate him as the fifth greatest singer ever. And Mick Jagger at number 16? Yeah, no. Here again, I suspect that cult following had more to do with their placement on the list that their ability, to either sing or to move people with their phrasing or vocal technique. Lennon, I think should be on the list. Not so sure about Jagger although, again, I love some of his singing.

Another quibble, this time with Freddy Mercury, at number 18. I'd put him in the top ten, if not the top five.

I could go on for quite a while longer, dissecting the list and rearranging it according to my own tastes. Certainly, I would rate Levon Helm (at #91) higher on the list than he was placed. I think Bruce Springsteen (at #36) is about where he belongs. And I have to say that I'm not really sure why Mariah Carey (at #79) is on the list at all.

But again, all of this is really down to subjective issues, and my takes on the list, while right and valid for me, don't have anything to do with how other people see it.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Life according to Keith Richards

There's a great video on You Tube that I stumbled on the other day, in which Rolling Stone magazine contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis interviews Keith Richards. DeCurtis starts out the interview by mentioning that, in an earlier interview Richards had answered a question about how he thought things had changed since the Rolling Stones had first started out by observing that "nobody reads anymore". DeCurtis then asks Richards to talk a little bit about what books and libraries have meant to him. Richards says that libraries are the "center of things", and that this is the way it should be.

And then Richards says that when he was growing up, libraries were the only place he "willingly obeyed the rules".

Reading Richards' autobiography, Life (Little, Brown and Company, 2010; 564 pages), written with James Fox, there is a continuing sense that this must be the truth. Richards, it seems, has broken just about every rule there is, in all aspects of life, and managed to come out the other side with intelligence and wit intact.

Richards makes no apologies for the things he's done, not about the drugs, not about relationships, not about anything. His philosophy seems to be that, yes, he'd done some stupid things, and some dangerous things, and that no one should try to emulate him in doing them, but that, hey, that's life, what can you do. And, in the end, it doesn't seem like all that bad a philosophy to have. Far too few of us can forgive ourselves for the things we've done, and Richards' ability to forgive himself for his transgressions is probably healthier in the long run.

Of course, he talks about the drugs. And there were a lot of drugs, including years of addiction to heroin despite many attemtps to clean up. This has been documented endlessly. But, he feels compelled to point out that, despite the reputation as a junkie that still follows him around, he's been clean of heroin for over thirty years, finally kicking it after an ultimatum from his manager. He admits that he loved heroin but that enough was, finally, enough. And, at one point, lest any of his fans think that they might like to try to emulate their hero's drug habits, he blatantly warns, "Don't try this at home" (p. 262).

But he also talks about the music, and about his long and rocky relationship with Mick Jagger, saying that from his point of view, Jagger makes it hard to be friends with him, but that they're brothers and that he would be there in an instant if Jagger really needed him and that he believes Jagger would be there for him in time of crisis. Richards documents, in fact, the times Jagger was there for him when he really needed him. This does not mean that Richards didn’t also point out what he sees as Jagger’s personality flaws.

The only time the book dragged for me, as a reader, was when Richards wrote about the technical side of his guitar-playing, about his discover and use of alternative tunings and so forth. It was interesting, but I don't play guitar, and so the discussion was too technical for me to really understand.

There is a lot in this book, stories of the road, stories of friends, those lost and those who have remained for decades. He talks particularly fondly about his relationship with Gram Parsons, who didn't manage to make it out the other side from drug addiction. He writes about meeting some of his own musical heroes, who didn't always live up to expectations as people, but who mostly met and exceeded expectations as musicians. And he talks about the women in his life, both those he had long relationships with and those who came into his life briefly while he was on the road with the Stones. In his case, at least, he claims that there wasn't nearly as much sex going on as one might assume.

Well, you can believe him or not about that, but in the end it all seems beside the point.
I've read a lot of books about rock and roll music and those who make it, and this is one of the best. It is written as if, as I commented to someone while I was reading it, someone put Richards before a tape recorder, turned it on, and said "Go!", and then edited it just enough to put events in a roughly chronological order. Richards' voice comes thorugh loud and clear, telling the story of his life as he sees it.

And an interesting life it has been, and continues to be.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

As I time-travel without ever leaving my desk...

I spent a good chunk of the day yesterday playing in the past. In 1940, to be precise.

I found my family there, both sides, and some information about them that I didn't know before, or at least that I didn't realize. Stuff like the fact that none of my grandparents had more than an 8th grade education. And like that most of my mother's family was still living in Arkansas or Oklahoma in 1935...I had never realized that when they took the 1940 census, they asked everyone where they had been living five years earlier. And like that my mother was the only one of her siblings born in Oklahoma, while the rest were born in Arkansas. This goes along with a fact I already knew: my mom was the only one of her siblings born in a hospital. Which could explain a lot. But that's another story.

There were also a few mysteries. The 1940 census records claim that my mother was in 6th grade in 1940. However, I know that she graduated high school in 1945 - she is of that generation that lived pretty much their entire high school lives during World War II. All I can figure is that the census-taker wrote down the wrong grade level for my mother one of her sisters, who were in the same grade despite being about a year apart in age (actually about a year and a half). You see, when my mother's family moved to California from Arkansas (Bates, so the records say), my mother was held back a year in school because she had missed so much school in Arkansas. "Sick headaches" kept her out, my mother always said. Well, at least the move to California fixed that; she said she never had another one once they got here.

There were not quite so many surprises from my father's side of the family. I discovered that my great-grandmother Frei was already dead in 1940, which I didn't know. And that at the time of the census my great-grandfather Frei was 69 years old. Which means he was about 70 when he left the US not long afterward, to go back to Germany, where he was born, as the war was breaking out. He left by ship for Japan, then traveled across Russia to get to Germany. Family lore says that he left after the family had a falling out over the fact that he was a supporter of Adolf Hitler, which the rest of the family was most certainly not. This whole episode, which I didn't know about until a couple of years ago, always makes me queasy when I think about it. I knew that I had other relatives in Germany during the war, and that some of them probably had to fight for their country, whether they liked it or not (and I have no idea where they stood on the matter). But there is something, I don't know, unsettling, to say the least, about knowing that a direct blood relative of mine fled toward the Nazi regime willingly, because they supported it. It's like when I watch those genealogy shows on TV and people find out that their ancestors were slaveholders. You just kind of wish that you didn't have that in your family's past.

One of the delightful surprises was finding my great-great Uncle Jacob and my great-great aunt Catherine on the census rolls. I don't know why that surprised me. I knew they had to have been there, right alongside my father's immediate family and my great-grandfather. But I was surprised and delighted to see them there. I don't remember Uncle Jake. He died in June of the same year I was born in August, at the age of about 93 or 94, still doing farm work as he could, according to family stories. Certainly, he was still listed as working as a farmer at age 78 in 1940. But I do remember great-aunt Catherine, vaguely. I seem to recall being slightly afraid of her because she was so old (she would have been around 83 or 84 when I was born). I remember her mostly at family holiday dinners, but I must have been around her more than that, since she lived right next door to my grandmother. But, I couldn't have been more than about three years old when she died, so I suppose it is understandable that I don't remember her more vividly.

I come, the census information I found emphasizes, from the working class on both sides of the family. I had known that, of course, and have always been proud of that, but seeing it there on the page makes it a little more real and vivid...Grandpa Frei lived on a farm and worked as a packing boss at a citrus packing house. Uncle Jacob was a farmer. Most of the male relatives on my mother's side of the family were classified as some sort of farm laborer (they were Okies, after all) in the 1940 census; those who weren't working on a farm were doing some kind of labor as opposed to working in a store or an office. On the other hand, my Grandpa Minor held a number of jobs throughout his life. When my mother was born, he was a streetcar conductor in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He was, at one time a coal miner. He sharecropped in Arkansas for awhile. Then, after the family came to California, besides working on farms, he was a clerk in a grocery store and then, later on, night watchman at a packing house. A citrus house, actually. With both grandfathers working in some capacity around citrus houses, I guess it was inevitable that I love oranges and lemons.

Not all of this information, of course, came from the census rolls I spent time looking at yesterday. But just doing that brought to mind so many family stories, good and bad. It was like spending a day with family.

If you had relatives in the US in 1940, and you want to spend some time with them, I highly recommend going to the 1940 census site in the Internet. If you know where your family lived that year, it's relatively simple to find them. Although I will warn you, some of the census takers the government hired to go knock on everyone's door, on or about April 1, 1940, didn't have the best handwriting in the world. And you'll probably have to search page after page of census sheets to find them, because there is no way to search by name, but just by where your family lived. The upside of the deal is that you don't have to register or pay to use the site.

That was my big frustration yesterday in trying to find my mother's immediate family. They all lived in the same town, and I found most of them without really even trying. But it turned out - and I should have known this from family stories and knowing which grammar school my mother graduated from - that my mother's immediate family was still living out in the country, while the rest of the family were all living, with their various spouses and children, in town even though some of them still worked on farms.

Still, the effort, and the achy eyes at the end of the day, were worth it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Now, how old do you feel?...

I don't know why I listen to "classic rock" radio. It's just an invitation to feel old, engraved in gold and served up on a silver platter.

They just finished playing (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction. Rolling Stones, of course. I can't say I've ever been a huge Stones fan, but whenever that song comes up, the volume gets cranked up. Good song. Rocks, even all these years later.

Yeah, all these years later. That's the key here. I did a little figuring, and now I feel like one of those fossils I've been reading about for the writing I'm doing now. Satisfaction was released in the US in June 1965. 47 years ago. I was just finishing up the third grade. Lyndon Johnson was President, for Pete's sake. Completely different world, really.

Of course, me being me, I see more in the song besides just a rocking good sound. If you've read this blog much, you know I tend to over-think things from time to time. Still, it has been my opinion for a long time that Mick Jagger wrote some insightful sociological commentary into this song, even if he didn't mean to.

No, really.

Consider the line, "...but he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke the same cigarettes as me."

How does that not capture the essential tribalism human beings still hang on to, all these millennia since we became supposedly "civilized"? We get into arguments with people who don't support the same teams we do. We marginalize people who don't come from the same culture we do. I once knew a woman, a friend of my mother's, who thought that people from the town she grew up and lived in should only marry people from that same small town. "Marry a good Sanger boy," she told me one time. As if. That woman had done that, and ended up in a loveless, abusive marriage.

Of course, rock and roll is just as tribal as anything else. You've got your rock fans and your pop fans, who often look at each other like they're crazy. You've got people who have bumper stickers on their cars that say, "There's two kinds of music: Country and Western". There are jazz purists, and blues purists, and bluegrass purists, and on and on and on.

But, in that song, with its snide comments about the commercialism that was rampant when it was written and is even worse today, you have that line that can be taken either as a straightforward statement of how it is, or as a finger-pointing statement of how stupid it is to judge someone else's manhood by what brand of cigarette they smoke.

As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter which way Jagger meant it. What matters is that the observation was made and presented for our consideration.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Music Sunday...

Occasionally, I will tell people that the closest thing I've ever had to a spiritual experience is the night in February, 1964, when I saw the Beatles for the first time, the first time they were on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The thing they sometimes don't really get is that I'm only half joking when I say that. It really was a major turning point in my life. At seven years old, hiding behind the piano to watch because I was supposed to be in bed asleep, I got turned on to music. I had been in bed, but I heard that wonderful noise coming from the TV and I had to get up and see what it was. Forget the fact that the next morning was a school day, and I had to be up early. I just had a sense that this was something important, something I had to get in on.

And, really, it was. Not just the fact that the Beatles changed the world. Well, yeah, they had help, but they're the ones who really started the change in what music meant to the world and could accomplish in it. But also the fact that they...their music...changed my life that night. From then on, really from nearly the next day, while my second grade friends were running home after school to watch cartoons, I was running home to watch the local afternoon music shows, L.A.' weekday-afternoon clones of American Bandstand. I'd say it took me less than a week to discover them after that Sunday night.

Some people don't believe me when I tell this story. I was just a little kid, they say, and young kids that little don't get music in the same way that older kids and adults do. But, I was a precocious kid in other ways, too. By that time, I was reading books out of the adult section of the library, and not only reading them but understanding them. So, I don't really think it was unusual that I responded to the Beatles and their music the way I did, when I did.

What brings all this up is that I stumbled onto Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" yesterday, while I was looking for something else on the Internet. That's one of the things I love about the Internet. You go looking for one thing and, completely serendipitously, come across something you didn't know you were looking for. Something wonderful. I only got through reading the first 50 titles on the list before I had to go off and do other things, but even that first fifty brought back memories, including,, at number sixteen on Rolling Stone's list, "I Want to Hold Your Hand", which The Beatles played that night in 1964.

Several of my all-time personal favorite songs are also in the top 50 of Rolling Stone's list. At number 21 is Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run", from 1975. Number 26 is "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay", by Otis Redding, which is from 1968 and didn't come out until after Redding was killed in a plane crash. At number 29 is another Beatles song, "Help", from 1965 and was the title song for their second film. U2's beautiful "One", which came out in 1991, is at number 36. And "Hotel California," by the Eagles, from 1976, is the 49th song on the Rolling Stone list.

There are seven Beatles' songs in those first 50 plus, at number 3, "Imagine", by John Lennon, from 1974. Those seven include, along with "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and "Help", which I've already mentioned, "Hey Jude" (at number 8), "Yesterday" (at number 13), "Let It Be" (at number 20), "In My Life" (at number 23), and "A Day in the Life" (at number 28).

The Beatles aren't the only act to have more than one song in the top 50. The Rolling Stones placed three songs there, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction", (at number 2), "Sympathy for the Devil" (at number 32), and "Gimme Shelter" (at number 38). And there are two songs each from Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, and Elvis Presley. Actually, Dylan has three if you include, at number 47, The Jimi Hendrix Experience's version of "All Along the Watchtower", which Dylan wrote.

There is just one song in that first 50 that I don't know at all, The Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset", which is at number 42 and came out in 1968. I'll be checking that one out. I'm not sure how I missed it. I was in seventh grade in 1968 and listened to the radio constantly.

I'll also be going back to the list, to see what the other 450 songs included are, and to see what other memories those titles bring back. It's a neat list. Almost like a time machine.

Or like a service in the First Church of Musical Greatness.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Celebrating the life and work of Levon Helm...

Sometimes you get bad news after the fact. And sometimes you find out before the fact that something bad is soon to happen. And that's the case this week, with the announcement that musician and actor Levon Helm is "in the last stages" of his longtime fight with cancer. The announcement was made by his family on his website yesterday.

This is a sad, sad thing. Not only has he had a hand in making some of the best music of the last half of the 20th century with The Band, Levon Helm is also an actor of immense likability. Lots of people have been posting examples of his musical performances, for good reason. But, today, I'd like to share one of my favorites of his performances as an actor. This scene from The Right Stuff features Levon Helm as Jack Ridley alongside Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager. Helm also provides the narration.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Is there really anyone - aside from bullies - who think bullying is a good thing?

I thought long and hard about writing this blog post. I don't want anyone to get the impression that I am anti-Christian or anti-religion. Because I am not. Finally, I decided that I had to go ahead and write it, because I don't recognize what is going on as having anything to do with the Christianity I was brought up with.

In reading an article that appeared earlier this month on Huffington Post's website that was brought to my attention on Twitter, I discovered that certain organizations on the religious right, including the national group Focus on the Family, are agitating against anti-bullying legislation and activities, claiming that these are really part of an agenda to "promote homosexuality and transgenderism", as the author of the article characterizes their position.

Additionally, the article points out that a group called the Center for Arizona Policy lobbied to kill anti-bullying legislation even though the legislation did not specifically mention sexual orientation, while last year legislation was passed that specifically allowed bullying to continue if it was based on "a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction", although that clause was removed after lawmakers and the parents of the teenager whose suicide after being bullied inspired the legislation protested the clause that allowed religious bullying.

All I can think when I read about this is What. The. Heck? Well, my reaction was actually a little stronger than that, but I'm trying to be respectful here and not go over the top in my reaction.

What are these so-called Christians thinking? While I do not currently attend any church, I did attend a Christian university and grew up going to church (Methodist, Baptist and LDS, primarily). I've read the New Testament, and I'm pretty familiar with the things that Jesus taught. I don't recall anything about it being okay to bully anyone, ever, under any circumstances. Jesus did, however, teach that Christians are to love their neighbors.

Jesus didn't say that, according to the Bible, just once. He said it three times in the Gospel of Matthew (5:44; 19:19; 22:39). He also said it in the Gospel of Mark (12:31) and in the Gospel of Luke (10:21). Additionally, the Apostle Paul, in his Letter to the Romans (13:10) said, "Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." Bullying does harm. Clearly, then, bullying is not a Christian thing to do.

I understand, I really do, that the Great Commission, which Jesus delivered in Matthew 28:16-20, asks Christians to go out and convert the world. I sincerely doubt that Jesus meant that as a license to bully anyone who will not acquiesce and conform to the one particular version of Christianity that the religious right promotes. And I understand that there were times in the history of Christianity when that sort of force was tolerated. I would hope that we have become more civilized in the 21st century, especially in light of the fact that not every Christian denomination agrees with Focus on the Family's reading of social issues.

The real problem is not that Focus on the Family advocates the positions they do. I certainly do not agree with them, but I believe that followers of that organization have the right to believe whatever they want, and even to say that is what they believe. I'm kind of a First Amendment purist in that regard. The Free Speech clause was meant to protect speech that not everyone agrees with, not just the stuff that nobody has an issue with. The problem comes when organizations such as Focus on the Family start believing that they have the right to force their interpretation of Christianity on those who do not share that interpretation.

And that is where their stand on bullying comes in. They think they have the right to intimidate people into following their program. That's what bullying is: Intimidation. And intimidation is never acceptable. Not even in the name of one's religion.

And think about this: They aren't likely to stop with issues surrounding sexual orientation. With the flurry of legislation regarding reproductive rights from lawmakers on the religious right, it is fairly obvious that their goal is to make anything they don't think conforms to their particular interpretation of Christianity illegal for everyone. They won't stop until they can regulate what books you can read, what you can listen to on the radio, and what you can watch at the movies and on television, and everything else about your life.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Fashion? Meh...

I don't get fashion.

Anyone who knows me will tell you it's true. I hate "dressing up", and I hate the whole "dress for success" cult (I've always thought that if you can do the job, it doesn't really matter how you're dressed, as long as everything essential, according to our culture, is covered). And I really hate the idea that there are people who get paid to tell us how we should want to dress.

Give me shirts and jeans, and occasionally a longish, full, swishy skirt, and shoes that will keep my feet cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and I'll be perfectly happy.

The closest I come to really having any desire to pay attention to what I wear is when we're talking SCA (the Society for Creative Anachronism; those of us who like to go out of a weekend and pretend we're living in the Middle Ages). That's fun, although some of those dresses weren't very comfortable, and multiple layers aren't fun in the middle of a San Joaquin Valley summer afternoon.

But, ordinarily, clothes are just boring to me. I appreciate them for their service in covering up the private bits and whatever other body parts I'm not happy with (usually most of them). But I don't like thinking about them, and I don't like shopping for them. Occasionally, I enjoy looking through Vogue magazine, because some of the couture they feature is weird enough, and the photography is good enough, that looking at it is interesting sometimes. Other than that, I really just don't care.

So, why I am I writing about this, if it bores me so?

Well, I got started thinking about the whole issue while I was reading an essay on the Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo in film director John Waters's book of essays, Role Models (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010; 304 pages). I'm enjoying Waters's writing tremendously, but it was tough to get through the thirty-page essay because I couldn't work up much interest in an an anti-fashion fashion designer, whose clothes incorporate features that make them look old, or stained or misshapen on purpose, or in the associated issues that Waters brought up in the course of the essay. It wasn't a bad essay, by any means. It just wasn't interesting to me.

Additionally, from Waters's description, the designer doesn't sound like a very pleasant person. She comes across as dictatorial, and she is quoted early in the essay as saying that the thing that makes her laugh, something she apparently doesn't do very often, is "People falling down" (p. 96).

But then, a lot of designers seem to come off as awfully humorless and not very nice people when you think about it. There was the male designer, for example, whose name I can't remember right now and who I don't care to publicize by name anyway, who criticized singer Adele recently regarding her weight (he thought she was too fat). Most of them seem to design for a size that most women just aren't. They probably do that for men, too, but I don't know anything about the designing of men's clothes, so I can't really say for sure.

Which brings me to what is probably the root cause for my disinterest in fashion. I've never walked in to a store to buy clothes and found anything that will really fit me correctly. Of course, the designers would say that it's my fault because I'm not what you'd call thin. I've got a big butt and breasts that are too big for a B cup but too small for a C cup. I know there are other women who have this shape to their body. I know it.

Not that the designers are interested in acknowledging my shape. If I buy a shirt or dress that fits my top, it's too tight for my hips. If I buy a shirt or dress that fits my hips, it's two or three sizes too big on top. It's just ridiculous. And it's no use saying that I should just make my own. Even if I was a much better seamstress than I am (I make SCA garb when I have to, and then only with lots of help; sewing is something that I don't love to do), garment patterns aren't shaped any differently for the DIY seamstress than they are for store-bought clothing, as far as I've ever been able to tell.

Why would I enjoy shopping for clothes when nothing ever fits, and nothing ever would even if I lost weight, since the first place I lose in in my boobs and the last place I lose in in my hips. Losing weight just makes the problem worse, not better, to be honest. It's just an exercise in frustration all around.

I suppose I could join a nudist colony. I understand that all shapes and sizes of people engage in that sort of thing. And all the best to them, if that's what they want to do. At least, they escape the tyranny of the fashion industry. But, you know, that's just not for me. I'm kind of modest about that sort of thing. When I lived in a dorm that had a communal shower one semester, I took my showers at three in the morning rather than have to get naked in front of other people. I'm not against nudity in principle, but I'm definitely against it for myself.

So, I suppose, since my body grows and shrinks in its own special pattern, and since I have a difficult time losing weight anyway, thanks to stunt dieting when I was in high school that screwed up my metabolism on a permanent basis, I guess I'll just keep dressing in the things that fit me best, although they are not anywhere close to what anyone calls fashionable.

And, most likely, I'll remain pretty much completely uninterested in fashion.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Fossils, not cookies, or, what I've been thinking about lately...

Oreopithecus bamboli.

Yeah, no. I'm not writing about creme-filled cookies here. Instead, I'm talking fossils.

Here lately, I've been all about fossils, because I'm writing a book about physical (or biological) anthropology and archaeology, and fossils are a big part of physical anthropology. It's all fascinating. It's also very difficult to write about, especially when you're writing for beginning, who more than likely don't have a great grounding in science and might not have much of a grasp on anything having to do with human evolution, who might even have religious or philosophical issues with any kind of evolutionary theory, much less the idea that modern humans evolved through a series of forms before we got to who we are today.

As an example, there is Oreopithecus bamboli. O. bamboli is a Miocene ape, fossils of which have been found in Tuscany and Sardinia in Italy. This species lived 7 to 9 million years ago and has been touted as evidence that bipedalism didn't just evolve in hominids (that was David Pilbeam, or Harvard University).

In the 1950s, Johannes Hurzeler found fossils representing this species and proposed, based on indications that it could walk upright, that it was a human ancestor. His conclusion was widely criticized, with some other researchers saying that any resemblance to hominids was strictly coincidental, a case of convergent evolution. Others didn't even see a resemblance to any creature on the line to humans.

Case closed, right?

Well, this is paleontology, the study of fossils and closely related to paleoanthropology, the study of the human fossil record, so, no. Paleontologists and paleoanthropologists argue about most things related to their field most of the time, or so it seems.

In the 1990s, Meike Kohler and Salvador Moya-Sola, both from the Miquel Crusafont Catalan Institute of Paleontology in Spain, took it upon themselves to reanalyze the Oreopithecus collection in a Swiss museum. After their research, the two concluded, as had most before them, that the fossils represent an ape and is not on the line that led to modern humans. But they also said that the spine and lower body show a resemblance to the australopithecines and to modern humans, and that its hands were capable of a precision grip.

One exception to the general conclusion that Oreopithecus' lower anatomy is hominid-like is that its big toe diverges 90 degrees from its other toes. Then again, several of the proposed earliest ancestors to humans also have divergent big toes. Just something else to speculate about and argue about; how close does a hominid foot have to resemble a modern human foot for that hominid to have walked bipedally enough like a human being to be considered to be a relative of modern humans, directly or indicrectly?

Kohler's and Moya-Sola's explanation for Oreopithecus' traits, which were characterized as intermediate between apes and australopithecines, was that the specimens they looked at had lived on a swampy island, were threatened by no predators, and thus could spend a lot of time on the ground, which led to its development of the ability to walk for short distances on two feet.

Again, others have said they do not see the hominid-like traits Kohler and Moya-Sola reported, and one researcher, Randall Susman, from Stony Brook University in New York, pointed out that these fossils are difficult to evaluate in any case, because they are poorly preserved.

Which leaves us where? Writing in The Last Human (Yale University Press, 2007), Esteban Sarmiento, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, said that "Oreopitheucs suggests that features, such as the shape of the pelvis, lower back length, a knee joint with a carrying angle, a skull with a downward directed opening for the spinal cord, and non-interlocking canines, all of which have been used to classify fossils as hominids, are probably shared by the common human-African-ape ancestor, and do not distinguish a human lineage exclusive of African apes."

And this is why it is so difficult to write about human evolution. All we are left with is bones, some of them very old, very poorly preserved, and very difficult to evaluate accurately. Not only that, but most of the time there is no complete skeleton of an individual, and sometimes not even complete bones. We can't see what these fossils species looked like dressed in their skin, and we can't see how they behaved. This makes figuring out who evolved into whom a guessing game.

A game of educated guesses, to be sure, but a guessing game nonetheless.

Which, I hasten to add, does not mean that evolution did not happen. It simply means that the story of how that evolution proceeded is very hard to discern and that paleoanthropologists and biological anthropologists will be putting together the clues for a long time to come.


Some of the information about Oreopithecus bamboli in this post comes from online reports appearing in Science News and Smithsonian Magazine.