Thursday, July 28, 2011

Any Tree That Falls: why creative people must create

Any Tree That Falls

There’s that old Zen riddle that we’ve all heard
“If a tree falls in the forest,
                and no one is there to hear,
            Does it make a sound?”
            I only lately came to some understanding.

            There is a writer’s workshop
            (it happens somewhere on any given weekend)
            Led by some accomplished poets and novelists.
            All in attendance are writers
            Most have never been published
            Most are unknown
            Except to a small circle of friends.
            Any published writer
            Evokes both admiration and envy
            From the many poets and writers
            Who create without recognition.

            In every city
            In every town
            People gather to make music.
            They sing
            They play their instruments
            In living rooms
            In church basements
            In garages.

            By the way,
            The answer to that riddle is “Yes!”
            The answer is always yes.
            Wherever there is life,
            The answer is yes.
            Any expression of art
            Says yes.
            Your contribution is important
            Your voice is heard.

            Your words are significant.
            For every poet, we say yes.
            For every singer, we say yes.
            For every dancer, every artist,
               every musician, we say yes.
            Even if there is no book,
               no recording contract,
               no public recognition,
            We say yes.

For every tree in the forest,
            Every movement,
            Every rustle,
            As long as there is life,
            We say yes.

            Whether you sing in the shower
            Or at the New York Met,
            The answer is yes.

            Whether you write for The New York Times
            For Harper and Row
            For your family
            Or just for yourself,
            The answer is yes.

            Whether you dance for the Bolshoi
            Or to the radio in your living room,
            Your movement
            Your celebration
            Your voice
            Your words make a difference
            And the answer is always yes.

            Charles Kinnaird

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Erskin Hawkins' Tuxedo Junction

On this date, July 26, Erskin Hawkins was born in Birmingham, Alabama. The year was 1914. Mr. Hawkins went on to become a famous big band leader, trumpeter, and composer. One of his most popular tunes is "Tuxedo Junction." Written in 1939, the song was first recorded by the Glenn Miller Orchestra. It has subsequently been recorded by many, including Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Frankie Avalon. My favorite version is from The Manhattan Transfer, recorded in 1975:

Photos from Tuxedo Junction in Ensley by Charles Kinnaird

Monday, July 25, 2011

Memories of Jack Throp (1926 – 2011)

Jack Throp was undoubtedly the most upbeat fellow I ever met. He always had a ready smile and a warm greeting.  He had a joyful musical lilt in his voice whenever he spoke, whether he was talking talking about family, volunteer interests, or just routine events.  There was a calm and joyful note behind every aspect of his life. If you ever encountered Jack Throp in the course of the day, you would likely recall that encounter as the highlight of your whole day.

Apprenticed as a saddlemaker when he was a young man in Arizona, Jack went on to a remarkable career as a zoo keeper beginning at the San Diego Zoo. He served as a bird trainer/consultant on the Disney movie, Swiss Family Robinson and went on to prestigious work in other zoos. He was General Curator at the Phoenix Zoo, moved on to be the Director of the Honolulu Zoo and later in his career became Director of Taronga Park Zoo in Sidney, Australia.

I first met Jack in 1991 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Birmingham, Ala., shortly after his retirement from the Birmingham Zoo where he was Director of the Birmingham Zoological Society.  I came to know him as a friend, a storyteller, a writer, a poet, a great conversationalist and a truly nice guy. 

It seemed that Jack could do just about anything he set his mind to do. A few years ago I was introduced to his artistic side. He had an art show opening at the old Lyda Rose Gallery in Homewood. The show featured a series of primitive wooden masks on which Jack had painted a variety of scenes and patterns.  Also there on exhibit was a beautiful bronze casting of two hippopotamuses, appearing to be rising up out of the water. I asked Jack about that piece. He told me that it was a replica of a very large piece that he had created for the Honolulu Zoo.  He recounted how at the zoo they had wanted to have such a sculpture as a centerpiece for a new area they would be opening. “I thought, well I could do that,” Jack told me, and he then talked about how he sculpted the large mold that would serve as a cast for the larger-than-life fixture at the zoo. I was amazed, partly because I didn’t know about that side of Jack Throp.  I asked him, “When did you decide to take on sculpting?” Jack responded in complete candor, “Right then and there at the Honolulu Zoo.”  I was dumbfounded and amazed. Some artists spend years in training, some go to Paris to study with the great ones, Jack Throp just picked up some tools and went to work when he saw what needed to be done!

Just a couple of years ago I was proud to attend a book signing event to have Jack autograph a copy of his book, Not-So-Wild Animals I have Known. Reading that book was just as fascinating and fun as talking with the man himself.  I count it a privilege to have known Jack Throp. I never had an encounter with him that was not delightful.  Jack was a bright light in Birmingham, and his light will be missed.

 Charles Kinnaird

*   *   *   * 
To read a wonderful article online from The Birmingham News about Jack on the occasion of the publication of his book, visit


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Politics and the Common Good

The common good involves establishing a healthy living environment for all who live in that environment. As such, politics is a necessity in achieving the common good. I am often perplexed when I see good hard-working American citizens voting against their own best interests. We hear that the "Bush tax cuts" are necessary because it is the business sector that creates jobs, while never stopping to ask where all those jobs are that the tax cuts ten years ago were supposed to bring. It is as though many voters have some doctrinaire concepts that they dare not question or challenge. Sometimes I wonder if some fear who might be helped if their taxes go toward any social safety net.

Years ago, even when I was a teenager, I heard that there were those who questioned why taxes should come out of their pocket to support schools when they had no children in public schools. Of course, the short answer is that if we have an educated public, then everyone benefits. If large segments of society are deprived of an education, then we all suffer as a result of that lost potential. There are many things that we can accomplish as a group that we cannot accomplish individually (and by "as a group" I means we the people of our town, our state and our country). By pooling our resources into the government process, we can accomplish many things for the common good. I do not have the personal capital to even pave enough road to get to work each day, but my taxes are used to maintain a road system that serves me well -- far beyond my own ability as an individual. The education I received in 12 years of public schooling was certainly more than my parents could have afforded if they had been required to hire a tutor or use private schools.

My short-hand view of what makes a society work is three-fold:
     1. Access to education
     2. Access to transportation
     3. Access to healthcare

When our government policies support these three things, everyone benefits. Look at any disenfranchised segment of our society, and you will see that one or more of these three elements has been hindered. This is why I believe it is patriotic to pay taxes. This is why I believe that policies should protect the private citizen, the working Joe or Jane, not the corporation. This is why I believe we could be handing our country over to an oligarchy of big corporations when the Supreme court rules that a corporation is a citizen and when the people vote for tax breaks for the wealthy. We may be in danger of losing our democracy "of the people."

Currently we are seeing a disturbing gridlock in our government which is making it almost impossible for it to function. There are intractable politicians who argue for no tax increases on one side and for no reduction of government programs on the other, even as the country teeters at the debt ceiling abyss.

For a well stated and coherent view of what is gong on in the current political process, check out Chauncy DeVega's article at Alternet:

Joe Klein also has some insightful words about congress's attempts to address the debt ceiling crisis in "Tea or Sanity." Klein's assessment says to me that it's not dark yet, DeVaga says, "but it's gettin' there."


Monday, July 18, 2011

The Speaker of the House

I was awakened this morning on my day off by the Speaker of the House.  We have four dogs. If one or more of them needs to go outside to take care of essential business, or if they decide that we’re late getting breakfast or supper, they will let us know with a bark. The thing is, it is always just one dog. They never all bark at once – except when there is an unexpected visitor coming into the house, or suspicious activity outside the house. Somehow they work it out among themselves as to who will be the one to communicate to the People of the House that they have important business to take care of. My wife has dubbed the one who barks as the Speaker of the House.

This morning the Speaker of the House was Daisy, our yellow lab. Sometimes it will be Mike, our little “Heinz 57” rescue. Mike is bright and full of energy, always ready to run and play. Other times it may be Martha, our little terrier mix whom we acquired from the pound as a pup for our daughter some 14 years ago. If you read my essay, “Living with Virtue: A Tribute to Mr. Higgins,” Martha was the little tyke that was welcomed and nurtured by the extraordinary Mr. Higgins.


Very rarely, Felix will be the Speaker of the House. Felix is another rescue dog, a Chihuahua mix. Felix didn’t really know much about being a dog until he joined our pack. My wife saw him wandering about the parking lot at the local gymn one rainy evening. When she spoke to him, he hopped right into her car. We never found his owner and later decided he must have been dumped. Felix came to us thinking that all there was to do in life was to eat and sit in someone’s lap. Thanks to our other dogs, especially Mike, he has learned to run and toss and tumble.  Since he and Mike are both boys, roughly the same size and about the same age, they have become great buddies.  On one of those rare occasions when Felix was the Speaker, it was 5:00 a.m. I had to be at work at the hospital, and normally would have been up by 4:45, but I had forgotten to set the alarm. That morning I was grateful that Felix had spoken when he did.

Getting back to the Speaker of the House phenomenon, I’m not sure exactly when that started or how our dogs decide who speaks, but it seems to be a rotating designation.  Years ago, when Daisy and Martha were our only dogs, Daisy would never bark inside. I don’t know why. She would bark outside, often too much, but would never make a sound inside. She knew that barking was the way to get our attention, so when she needed to go out, she would walk over to Martha, get her attention by ducking her head and giving her a certain look, at which point Martha would jump up and bark to let us know that dogs needed to go out. After we went from two dogs to a pack of four, Daisy at some point realized that she could bark in the house when necessary. Perhaps someone on the Animal Planet or some other source of information on animal pack behavior can explain how or why they do it, but I often marvel at the arrangements our animals seem to make among themselves.

Daisy & Martha: They always make the Buddha laugh

*  *  *  *

You may be interested in reading:


Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Conclave of Writers!

I just returned from a great weekend in Huntsville, Ala., where the Alabama Writers’ Conclave  met. The Alabama Writers’ Conclave is one of the oldest writing organizations in the country, and is the body which nominates the state’s poet laureate.  The annual meeting always focuses on providing workshops led by expert faculty for writers who work in all genres of the field. This year we had workshops in fiction, memoir, and poetry. My greatest excitement was that Rabbi Rami Shapiro  was there to lead a workshop session as well as to deliver the keynote address.

I discovered Rabbi Rami a couple of years ago when I noticed his column, “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler" in Spirituality and Health magazine. I have also recently begun following his blog, Beyond Religion with Rabbi Rami.  I knew he had a sense of humor from reading his blog, but this guy is hilarious! He encouraged us writers to be subversives to the status quo by puncturing the cultural norms that aren’t working by using humor. He gave us examples of what he does on Twitter to send out aphorisms that question some of our status quo assumptions.

Rabbinical wisdom

Rabbi Rami, in his keynote address had us all laughing but also shared some useful wisdom for anyone interested in spirituality and religion. He talked about how in the Jewish tradition, the old biblical stories are seen as just that – stories, not facts or history. This allows those in the rabbinic tradition to discuss and debate many different views of what a story means. He used the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as an example. He shared many different ways that Jews have interpreted that story, but never has it been taken as factual, and never has it been used to blame women for sin entering the world as many Christians have done.  Ideas about the serpent, what the exit from Eden meant, and what the angel at the entrance of the garden symbolized – all take on new meaning that those of us in the Christian tradition are not usually exposed to.

For example, did you know that, according to one interpretation, Eve passed by the forbidden tree in the garden three times? The first time she saw it looked good to eat, but did not give in to that base appetite. The second time she saw that it was beautiful to look at, but resisted the urge to take it just to have it for its beauty. The third time she realized that it was a means of gaining knowledge of good and evil, so this was why she ate the fruit (and it was an acceptable reason to partake). When she offered it to Adam, however, he asked no questions, gave no consideration, he just took it and ate it because it was food for the stomach. As a result, it was Adam who was sent out from the garden because he was not yet ready to make a new advancement in life and development. He was still guided only by his base appetites. Eve went along with him to help until such time that he could grow and advance in his development to the point that he was capable of the higher level of knowledge and life that is be found in Eden. The angel with the flaming sword was not to keep people out, but to show the way back when mankind is ready.

The rabbi also touched upon the idea that the serpent in the garden is sometimes seen as identical with the messiah figure in Jewish thought in that his role was to guide humankind out of a dependent protected existence as children in Eden to a more mature consciousness. Fascinating concepts! It can be invigorating to take a step away from our traditionally held views, which is one reason I love interfaith dialogue.

Philosophical Views of God

Rabbi Rami offered as an aside the five basic views of God. However you think of God, it will fall into one of these five categories:     
        1. Theism
        2. Atheism
  3. Agnosticism
  4. Pantheism
  5. Panentheism

Theism holds the view that God is “out there” somewhere. Away from us, separate from creation. Atheism holds the exact same view of God as theism – except that is denies Gods existence – but the God that it denies has the same traits as the God the theists affirm. Agnosticism says it is just not sure, so why go to all that bother with religion if we can’t be sure anyway? Pantheism sees God as equal to creation/nature.  What you see of creation is equal to God. Panentheism holds that God is indeed in all of creation (not separate from it). Creation (the universe) is God, but God is more than creation.

Those were just a couple of philosophical asides that the rabbi shared as he gave his keynote address.  I found out in conversation with Rabbi Rami that his rabbi is the renown Zalman Schacter-Shalomi of the Hasidic tradition. No wonder he has such a grasp on spiritual approaches to life and can so readily share those in the course of conversation. A project he is working on is to use children’s letters to God as a means of using humor to puncture some of the narrow cultural views of religious fanaticism.

An Inspiring Weekend

Let me hasten to say, lest anyone think that this was a weekend of Hasidic spirituality, there was a variety of educational offerings for writers with a wide range of interests. We were privileged to have an excellent faculty to lead the workshops. At night we were able to hear from many of our gifted colleagues as they read portions of their work. We meet all kinds of people at these gatherings. It is always fascinating to hear from other writers, to find out what they write, and why they write. I left the conclave today with new ideas for writing, new contacts, and renewed inspiration. For anyone interested in attending future conclaves or joining the AWC, be sure to visit their website at


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Bastille Day!

A classic from The Muppet Show: Miss Piggy playing the part of Marie Antoinette, singing the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive." This is comic genius on at least two counts: 1) using the tumultuous times of the French Revolution as a setting for the song (notice the view of the guillotine from the window) and 2) the fact that Miss Piggy's vocal quality is very similar to that of the Gibb brothers on that number.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Most of the Time

 There is a website,, which “Extracts posts from a blog and runs them through a set of classifiers such as Gender, Age, Mood and Tonality.” This site says my blog is "probably written by a male somewhere between 66-100 years old. The writing style is personal and happy most of the time."

I suppose I should take some solace that even though I may write like an old man, at least it's happy (most of the time). Which reminds me, Dylan has a song called "Most of the Time" from the album Oh Mercy (1989).  If you didn't know Bob Dylan could be wistful and romantic, scroll on down and listen to the music on the video.

Most of the Time
By Bob Dylan

Most of the time
I'm clear fo
cused all around
Most of the time
I can keep both feet on the ground
I can follow the path
I can read the sign
Stay right with it when the road unwinds
I can handle whatever
I stumble upon
I don't even notice she's gone
Most of the time.

Most of the time it's well understood
Most of the time I wouldn't change it if I could
I can make it all match up
I can hold my own
I can deal with the situation right down to the bone
I can survive and I can endure
And I don't even think about her
Most of the time.

Most of the time my head is on straight
Most of the time I'm strong enough not to hate
I don't build up illusion 'til it makes me sick
I ain't afraid of confusion no matter how thick
I can smile in the face of mankind
Don't even remember what her lips felt like on mine
Most of the time.

Most of the time she ain't even in my mind
I wouldn't know her if I saw her
She's that far behind
Most of the time I can even be sure
If she was ever with me
Or if I was ever with her
Most of the time I'm halfway content
Most of the time I know exactly where it went
I don't cheat on myself I don't run and hide
Hide from the feelings that are buried inside
I don't compromise and I don't pretend
I don't even care if I ever see her again
Most of the time.

Monday, July 4, 2011

"America, America..."

"...God mend thine every flaw.
Confirm thy soul in self control,
Thy liberty in law."

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