Can We Take It Anymore?

Can We Take It Anymore?

By Patrick F. Cannon

In the 1976 movie, Network, anchor Howard Beale, played by actor Peter Finch, finishes a deranged rant by yelling, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” (You can find the whole rant on YouTube.) He was talking about the state of the country. Forty-five years later, things are just as bad, and maybe worse. While examples are limitless, here are just a few.

            In 2016, the country elected a lunatic as its president. Emboldened by this, the Republicans in Congress rushed through tax increases that added vastly to the national debt. You used to be able to count on Republicans to find ways to cut spending, or at least give it the old college try. During Trump’s administration, the national debt went from $19.5 trillion to $27.7. In 2016, this amounted to 105% of the GDP (gross domestic product); in 2020, the ratio was 129%. In 1974, it was 31%, and in 2008 – when we were in a recession and bailing out the banks — 68%. These are Republicans? Go figure. Now that  they are in power – sort of – the Democrats are proposing to make things even worse.

            Politicians of both party’s persist in involving us in wars which we don’t – or perhaps can’t – win. Afghanistan is just the most recent example of a trend that began in Korea. And after we’ve lost, we don’t seem to be able to exit gracefully. Who can forget the pictures of helicopters lifting people off the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon?  President Biden persists in claiming he did the right thing in withdrawing the military before making certain that all US citizens and our Afghan friends were out. Disgraceful.

            (Let me toss in here the curious fact that our vaunted military – lavishly funded – requires 900 general or flag (that’s admirals) officers to supervise approximately 1.35 million men and women. That’s one high-ranking officer per 1,400 other ranks. In 1945, at the end of World War II – which we actually won – the ratio was 1 for 6,000. Also in 1945, there were 13 four-star and 7 five-star officers. There are no five-star officers now, but there are 43 with four stars! Too many cooks?)

            Living as I do in Illinois and the Chicago area, it is hard not to believe that the quality of our political leaders at all levels is about as low as it could be. We have a governor, JB Pritzker, who bought the office. He made many promises about ethics and redistricting reform, but caved to the Democratic legislature on both. He’s already running for re-election; spending lavishly for TV spots even though the election isn’t until November of next year. I do believe that some towns and villages have honest leaders, but remind me: how many Chicago alderman have gone to jail or are under indictment? And let me remind you that if you asked most politicians whether they put the interests of the country or getting reelected first, they’d lie.

            Then there’s the pandemic. Despite the fact that mandatory vaccinations have been required for school children for as long as I can remember, suddenly for Covid-19 it has become a matter of “personal freedom.”  A good many of your 676,000 fellow citizens who have died of the virus did so because they refused to get vaccinated. In freedom-loving Florida, the death rate is 2.07 per 100,000.  In Illinois (let’s be fair to Governor Pritzker here), the death rate is 0.34. Other states with high death rates (Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, etc.) have governors who are still living in Trumpland.

            So maybe we should all go to our windows, open them, and yell: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”  But perhaps things aren’t quite as bad as I think. The White Sox look like they might get to the World Series; the Cubs are showing some signs of life; and the Bears stand atop the North Division of the NFC. Don’t believe me? Look it up.

Copyright 2021, Patrick F. Cannon

Lights! Camera! Action!

Lights! Camera! Action!

By Patrick F. Cannon

Action movies, defined broadly, include westerns, war movies, super hero extravaganzas, spy thrillers, space operas – well, just about any film that aims to get you to the edge of your seat. Most are forgettable – super hero films in particular have been overdone and oversold.

            But some stick in your mind, and are worth seeing again (and again!). Streaming services have made most them available to see almost on a whim. Here are a few of my favorites, classics that have more than stood the test of time, starting with the earliest. Have you seen any or all of them?

              The Adventures of Robin Hood. There have been many versions of this tale of the legendary character who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. The very best is the 1938 version starring Errol Flynn. Flynn was then in his charming prime. The lovely Olivia de Havilland was the demure Maid Marion; Basil Rathbone hammed it up as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham; and Claude Rains was the hopeful usurper, Prince John. The rest of the cast included a great selection of the era’s notable character actors, including the gravelly-voiced Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck.    

            She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Any number of John Ford westerns could be included, but I always liked this second of Ford’s so-called Cavalry Trilogy (the others are 1948s Fort Apache and 1950s Rio Grande). It’s the only one in color, which takes better advantage of the Monument Valley exteriors. John Wayne, of course, is the star. He is supported by the members of Ford’s  familiar reparatory group – Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr, and Victor McLaglen (who provides the comic relief).  The obligatory love interest is provided by John Agar and Joanne Dru. Treatment of the Native Americans wouldn’t pass muster these days, but Ford was by no means the worst offender.

            Bridge on the River Kwai.  A bit long for my taste (but not so long as director David Lean’s masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia), this 1957 classic features a great performance by Alec Guinness as the obsessed British Colonel Nickolson, whose passion for doing things right makes him forget he’s building a bridge for the enemy. His nemesis is the Japanese Colonel Saito, played by Sessue Hayakawa. While they’re building the bridge, a reluctant American, William Holden, and a gung ho Brit, Jack Hawkins, are bent on destroying it. It all builds to a wonderful climax.

            The Day of the Jackal.  Although we know that the target of the film’s assassination attempt, Charles de Gaulle, was not in fact assassinated, the 1972 thriller, directed by Fred Zinnemann, convinces us to the last minute that he might be! Edward Fox plays the debonaire and menacing Jackal, with the late Michael Lonsdale as the French policeman who tracks him down. The excellent supporting cast includes Cyril Cusack, and a very young Derek Jacobi, on his way to becoming one of the great actors of his generation. Based on a book by Frederick Forsyth, it’s an example of a movie far better than the book upon which it’s based.

            The Man Who Would be King. Fulfilling an ambition he had had for years, in 1975 director John Huston finally was able to make a movie of this Rudyard Kipling story. It features Michael Caine and Sean Connery (good friends in real life) as two former British soldiers  who decide to travel to remote Kafiristan and use  their soldierly skills to take over a local kingdom and make their fortune. Christopher Plummer plays Kipling, who tries to dissuade them. As you might imagine, as most forays to that part of the world did and still do, it ends badly. Even so, there’s lots of action and humor along the way.

            The Last of the Mohicans.  While the 1936 version starring Randolph Scott is fairly good, director Michael Mann’s 1992 version of James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel is more exciting and better acted. Casting Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye was an inspired choice. He is utterly convincing as a White American raised by Native Americans. His intense preparation for roles was legendary – think the title role in Lincoln – and the toll it took was one reason he decided to retire from acting. Madeleine Stowe was suitably lovely as the love interest. Unlike the 1930s, when Native Americans were often played by Italians and Jews, here we have the real thing. Wes Studi convincingly played the menacing villain, Magua; and the late Russel Means – perhaps better known as an activist for Native American rights – was the much more sympathetic Chingachgook, the “last of the Mohicans.” Here is another case where the movie was better than the book.

            I’m sure you have your own favorites; but you could find worse ways to waste your time than by searching out and watching one of more of these.

Copyright 2021, Patrick F. Cannon

We Really Miss You, Fred

We Really Miss You, Fred

By Patrick F. Cannon

My contention that Fred Astaire was one of greatest singers of popular song of his era – hell, of any era – is often met with incomprehension or bemusement. Surely, people think, you mean one of the greatest dancers? That’s, of course, if they have any real idea of who he was in the first place. Like so many artists of even the day before yesterday, he has faded into the mists of entertainment history.

            A case in point: when giving tours at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio in Oak Park, I would mention that the actress Anne Baxter was his grand daughter. Most of the 15 or so people on the tour wouldn’t  have a clue who she was, since her heyday was in the 40s, 50s and 60s. The exceptions would be people older than 70 and cinema nuts. While Fred Astaire had a much higher status and fame than she, he is just as dead for most young people.

            Yet, he deserves their attention. In an age of increasing and unceasing vulgarity, he might offer an oasis of grace and elegance. Even his walk was worth watching. In one of his best musicals – and one of the best of all movie musicals – The Band Wagon, he has arrived in New York on the 20th Century Limited. He is a Hollywood star whose career in is decline, and he has taken a role in a new Broadway musical. On the train, he meets Ava Gardener, playing herself. They chat a bit, but when they get off the train at Grand Central Station, she is mobbed by reporters and photographers, while poor Fred is ignored.

            Alone, he begins walking to the terminal, while singing “I’ll go my way, by myself…”  I urge you go Google these opening lyrics, which should lead you to an outtake from the movie. Notice how Fred’s walk is gracefully attuned to the music, how this simple act becomes imbued with meaning and emotion. Notice also how beautifully the song is sung, how each word is presented clearly for your consideration.

                Two of the greatest composers of American song of the 20th Century – really of all time – Irving Berlin and George Gershwin both were quoted as saying that they preferred Fred above all others to sing their songs. Why? Because they could count on him to sing the song as written, to annunciate the words clearly, and to be in tune and on pitch. I should also mention that the great Tony Bennett, now 95, many years ago mentioned Fred as one of his inspirations.

            I have a CD of some of his greatest songs. I keep it in my car and play it often. Like Bach’s Goldberg Variations, I never tire of listening to it. If you don’t know Fred as a great singer, I’m sure you would be able to find albums on Amazon or any of a number of music sites that would convince you. You can also check out YouTube. While we all should keep up with contemporary music (selectively!), we should also find time to honor the great art of the past.

             Finally, if you get a chance to watch any of his movies, you’ll discover that he could dance a little, too.

Copyright 2021, Patrick F. Cannon

Knots to You!

Knots to You!

By Patrick F. Cannon

As my faithful readers know, last week I favored them with a history of the necktie. Wishing only to bore you to a reasonable extent, I didn’t explain the various methods of actually tying the colorful fabric swatches. Nor will I now. But it did get me to thinking about knots in general.

            For most of us, our first experience with knots comes when we learn how to tie our shoe laces. As it happens, I was rather advanced in this regard, having learned the useful skill well in advance of entering the first grade. I should mention that the school in question, St. Thomas in Braddock, Pennsylvania, did not offer kindergarten. (Braddock is a steel town near Pittsburgh. It was and is the home of the Edgar Thompson Works of US Steel. As it happens, it was the first area mill – started by Andrew Carnegie in 1872 – and is now the last survivor in the area.) The good Catholics of Braddock no doubt associated kindergarten with the very few Protestants in the area, who were mostly their hated bosses at the mill.

            I’m afraid my knot education did not advance further for many years. Many young men learn the ropes as Boy Scouts. I avoided this, and for good reason. It seems my brother Pete – a go-getter if there ever was one – became a Scout. We were then living in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago, and his troop embarked on a Fall camping trip in some nearby woods. Poor Pete failed to consult the calendar and see that the camping trip coincided with Halloween, always a favorite holiday for greedy youngsters. His consternation when he arrived home the very next day was memorable.

            I was sifting through my swag when detailed by my parents to accompany Pete on his hapless quest to extend Halloween one more day. You can just imagine the reaction of the local householders when we showed up at their doors. One was shocked to hear adults using such language on little tykes! Anyway, the Boy Scouts were knot for me.

            Other than the bow and square knots, I’m afraid my knot repertoire is somewhat limited. Perhaps if I had served in the Navy instead of the Army, I would have learned all about the Knotical Knots. On a trip to  Los Angeles, I took the family to Disneyland, but ran out of time before we could visit that other City of Angels attraction, Knots Fairy Farm.

            You should not be surprised to discover that there is a web site for knot devotees; it even has a “Knot of the Day.” When I visited, the featured knot was the Flat Overhead Bend, which I’m sure comes in handy on the tennis court. According to this refuge for the have-knots, the basic knots are the Overhand, Figure 8, Half Hitch, Square, Slip and Sheet Bend. Of these, I believe I have accomplished the Square and Slip, but I can’t be certain.

            The knot is also celebrated in song and story. Who can forget Hamlet declaiming: “To be or knot to be?”, or that enduring classic ballad by George and Ira Gershwin, “They’re writing songs of love, but knot for me.” And of course there’s the famous Forget Me Knot, which one can’t remember how to untie. I could go on and on, but you probably would rather I knot. Anyway, I’m heading for Knots Landing, for obvious reasons.

Copyright 2021, Patrick F. Cannon

Let’s Tie One On.

Let’s Tie One On

By Patrick F. Cannon

 I started wearing a necktie every working day in May of 1973; and donned the last one – save for weddings, funerals and television appearances – in August of 2001, when I retired from work that actually paid me money. That’s nearly 40 years and hundreds of ties of varying widths and lengths. Most were conservative – no fish or naked ladies for me. On a typical day, I would have perhaps 25 to choose from. I even had a motorized gadget that went round and round until that day’s tie appeared. I now own four ties (I think).

            I’m ashamed to say – considering my reputation as an historian of repute – that until today I never wondered about the history of this male adornment. I was astonished to find that these fashion accessories are a relatively recent phenomenon. I guess it never occurred to me to wonder why one never sees neckties in paintings of historical figures like Julius Caesar. Jesus Christ, Richard the Lion Hearted or the Venerable Bede. Strangely enough, they only began appearing in France (of course) during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).

            It seems that Croatian mercenaries serving the French king were seen wearing small, knotted neckerchiefs around their necks. Even then, many Croatians had to leave the country to make a living. As a result of a later emigration, I had a Croatian uncle, John Ratesic, who was born in this country, but only wore a tie when he had to. His sons weren’t as lucky, becoming teachers and administrators. It was only after they retired that teachers became indistinguishable from hippies and other layabouts.

            The young Louis XIV, fashion forward even at the age of seven, noticed the jaunty Croats and soon began emulating their neckwear. Through some strange melding of the Croatian and French languages, the French ended up with the word cravat. For experienced linguists like me, it makes perfect sense as a combination of the Croatian “Hrvati” and the French “Croates.” By the way, the late actor and acrobat Nick Cravat had no relation to the neckwear, or to Louis XIV for that matter.

            Once men started to wear fabrics in various forms around their necks, it was Katie bar the door. Although you likely don’t give a fig, here are some of the more common versions. Still to be seen today, the “Stock” was originally a piece of stiff leather worn under the chin and tied in the back. It encouraged soldiers to maintain a proper posture by preventing them from slouching. It gave rise to the expression “pain in the neck.” Off duty soldiers often looked like they had just been hanged by the neck until almost dead. A version of the stock is still in use by the military, although now made of soft cloth, much to the dismay of drill sergeants.

            Somewhat similar is the “Ascot,” a more complicated version of the Stock. It is, of course, named after the famous British horse-race course of the same name. Its use was once mandatory if one was privileged to be in  the Royal Enclosure during the Annual Royal Meeting at Ascot in June. The Ascot tie was part of what we call “Morning Clothes,” which includes a cutaway coat and stripped pants for the gents  and extravagant hats for the ladies. The day’s festivities traditionally begin when the Queen ( or King on the rare occasions when there is one) enters the course in a horse-drawn carriage. One shudders to think what Queen Victoria might have done if she spied someone wearing a four-in-hand. I went to Ascot at a later meeting, but was only required to wear a jacket and regular tie.

            Most of we commoners wear the familiar long tie, knotted in various ways, including the Windsor,  named after its most famous devotee, the short-lived King Edward VIII, who abandoned his throne in 1936 when told he would be required to wear the Ascot tie instead of his beloved Windsor. By the way, the English take their ties more seriously than we careless Americans. Military units, private clubs and some schools have their unique ties. For example, if you attended the public school, Eton (which is actually a private school, but let’s not go into that now), you would be intitled to wear its black and white striped tie, thus being instantly recognized as an “Old Etonian.” By the way, you’re an “Old” Etonian even if you’re not strictly speaking, old.

            Famous English regiments also have distinctive striped ties. I once owned the tie of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. I shudder to think of what might have happened to me had I worn it in Edinburgh! As a former member of the US Army Signal Corps, I would be able to wear its tie, which has embroidered  crossed semaphore flags on an orange background. Alas, orange is not my best color.

            Current ties come in various lengths. The late, largely unlamented former president favored a very long tie, which extended as far down as his crotch. This may have been symbolic, but one can’t be sure.

Copyright 2021, Patrick F. Cannon

When Did the Melting Stop?

When Did the Melting Stop?

By Patrick F. Cannon

The final 2020 Census numbers are out. Nationally – and it’s no surprise – Hispanics had a significant increase to 18.7 percent of the total population. But so did Asians, at 5.6. Blacks held steady at 14.1, while Whites decreased to below 60 percent of the population (57.8). Interestingly, 10 percent of Americans describe themselves as multi-racial. You’ll be interested to know that you have 331,449,280 fellow Americans. That was a 7.4 percent increase in the total population since the 2010 Census, one of the smallest increases in recent history.

            The real reason for the Census – and where it gets interesting – is to enable politicians at every level to carve up the electorate into districts that favor them. For example, Illinois lost 18,124 souls (one of only three states to lose population, the others being poor West Virginia and perhaps even poorer Mississippi). Not so much, you say? Well, in fact, it will mean that the state will lose one seat in the Federal House of Representatives.

            Since the reapportionment process in Illinois is controlled by the Democratic Party, you can be certain that the lost seat will be Republican, making the split 15 Democrats to 4 Republicans. In contrast, Chicago’s population actually increased by about 50,000, to 2,746,388. It appears that someone was actually moving into all those new apartment buildings in the central city. But the good news is certain to cause a battle royal in reapportioning the city’s 50 wards.

            The current makeup of the Council is 20 African-American, 18 White and 12 Hispanic. There are currently no Asian-Americans. Based on the new Census, true parity would suggest a breakdown in the future of 16 Whites, 15 Latinos, 14 African-Americans and 4 Asians. Perhaps the last seat could go to someone of mixed race? Do you see a battle developing between blacks and Hispanics in these numbers? You can count on it. And it won’t be done in a spirit of good will.

            There is, of course, no law that says African-Americans should be able to vote only for those of that race. But that, in fact, is what happens when reapportionment takes place. By now, all of us should know what Gerrymandering means. In my case, it means that I end up in the 7th Congressional District, represented by Danny Davis. Davis is African-American. I’ve met him, and he’s an amiable former history teacher, who is getting a bit long in the tooth. To insure his election, his district extends from the lakefront through the West Side to Oak Park and Maywood; then from China Town in a very narrow corridor to Englewood. This shape results in a majority black district.

            The concept that members of a race or ethnic group must be represented only by a person of that group is now firmly embedded in most states. The Constitution is mute on this point, leaving apportionment to the states. While it has had to rule on many local battles, the Supreme Court has mostly avoided taking any position, even in the most egregious cases.

            This has resulted in the Balkanization of the American electorate. Instead of one American people – the famous “melting pot” – we have at least three competing groups: Whites, Blacks and Hispanics. There is also a growing Asian population, which no doubt will increasingly demand to be heard. Oh, and don’t forget that all of this can be further divided by sex, whatever that now means.

            We hear a great deal about “disenfranchisement.” This seems to mean that if you’re a black man, you really don’t have a vote if you can only vote for a white man (or woman). Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, that was often the case. No longer. For example, Chicago has a black mayor; and New York will have one later in the year. Neither would have been elected with only black votes, so it appears that white and Hispanic voters are willing to vote for a black candidate if they feel he or she is the best qualified. As you may recall, Barack Obama was elected president twice, despite blacks only comprising 14 percent of the electorate.

            The number of representatives in Congress is based purely on the population of each state relative to the country’s total population. States and localities should have districts and wards based simply on population, and be contiguous. Race and ethnicity should not be a factor. Only citizenship. The party in power would hate such a system, which is precisely why it’s so badly needed. The real disenfranchisement takes place when a political party can carve up the map to insure it retains power. Even if I wanted to vote for a Republican, I couldn’t in many cases.

            As a result, ,the general quality of our politicians is only fair to poor. Under the current system, don’t look for any improvement. And there seems to be no way out.

Copyright 2021, Patrick F. Cannon

No Substitute for Victory

No Substitute for Victory

By Patrick F. Cannon

I am going to write about the implications of the 2020 Census later this week, but the tragic betrayal of our Afghan allies by the Biden administration has made me add an extra today.

            You may recall that those Afghans who had served us as translators and in other roles were promised that they would be able to emigrate to the US and other countries before we finally left. Despite getting advice warning of what might happen, President Biden kept his promise to leave after 20 years of endless war before keeping his country’s promise.

Once again, the United States was seen to shamelessly abandon its friends. Few of us would argue with the decision to finally leave after 20 years, but President Biden will have to live with his badly-timed decision to leave before keeping our very public promise. His self-serving statement on Monday will ring hollow and forever tarnish his legacy. While it is true that the feckless Trump made a bad deal with the Taliban, using it as an excuse for abandoning our friends was and is cowardly.

I am reminded of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur’s statement, after he was relieved of command in Korea, that “There is no substitute for victory.” By that, he meant you shouldn’t go to war unless you intend to win. Korea is still divided, and in its wake we have Viet Nam, Iraq, Syria, and now, Afghanistan.  But at least if you don’t intend to win, you should at least leave with honor.

Copyright 2021, Patrick F. Cannon  

Inexplicable!

Inexplicable!

By Patrick F. Cannon

The other day, I had breakfast with a friend at a popular diner, the kind typically run by Greek-Americans and only open for breakfast and lunch. The breakfast menu is copious and the food reliable and hearty. I ordered my usual eggs over medium, link sausage and rye toast. I didn’t feel like the classic hash browns and the waitress suggested tomatoes instead. Seemed like a good idea, but I’d forgotten that, regardless of the season, these places only serve rock-hard and mealy hot-house tomatoes, despite the fact that the fresh product was in season. Inexplicable to me, but my companion had a ready explanation: they’re cheaper.

            (By the way, I have been eating tomatoes from my son-in-law Boyd’s fruitful garden recently. He has a bumper crop this year of various toothsome varieties. I also bought two beauties at the local farmer’s market. What could be better in the Summer than homegrown tomatoes and fresh sweet corn?)

            I have been a fan of thoroughbred horse racing for more than 60 years. At the same time, I’m not really a gambler; it’s the horses and the races that interest me. I do think that having a couple of bucks on the horse you think (or rather hope) will win, makes it a bit more interesting, so I have an account with an on-line betting site. Although I’m a bit ahead at the moment (but just for this year), I do not expect to ever actually make a profit. To begin with, the track grabs (in Illinois) 17-percent off the top, and even more for exotic bets. Inexplicably, some people think they can get rich being on the ponies.

            Perhaps sadder, and just as inexplicable, are the low-income folks who play the lottery every day, hoping to hit the big one. The State of Illinois doesn’t mention this, but only 65-percent of the total lottery income is returned as prizes. If you spend $5 a day on the lottery – and many spend that and more – you would need to win nearly $2,000 a year to break even.  Put in an IRA or mutual fund instead, that same amount would add up eventually to a more comfortable retirement, or perhaps the down payment on a house. Easy for me to say, though, when many low-income people see winning the lottery as the only way out of a dead-end life.

            Excuse me for piling on, but “inexplicable” is the only word I can think of that applies to the millions of eligible Americans who refuse to be vaccinated against Covid-19 and its many variants.  I’m reminded of the New Hampshire state motto, “Live Free or Die.” For the vaccine deniers, perhaps it should read “Live Free and Die.” I’ve seen various percentages of the numbers of people newly diagnosed who have not been vaccinated – none is lower than 90.

            One hears various reasons or not being vaccinated. One of the loonier ones posits that they (whoever “they” are) are implanting some kind of chip along with the vaccine that will enable the evil cabal to gain control of their alleged minds. Other folks, including former Chicago Cub Anthony Rizzo, say it’s a matter of personal choice and that the vaccine needs further study before he’s convinced it’s effective and safe. Could it be that Rizzo is just afraid of needles? Or is he just an idiot?

            I see most health-care organizations, corporations and others are now mandating that employees get vaccinated or lose their jobs. A stark choice, to be sure, but entirely legal, as the courts have consistently upheld their right to make such demands as a condition of employment.  These initiatives, and the rising number of cases (and deaths) are finally convincing some of the holdouts, but by no means all. By the way, “religious” reasons are mostly phony. And while I support conscientious objection to serving as a soldier during wartime, I do not support religious reasons for refusing vaccinations. When you find an anti-vaccination quote in the Bible, please let me know.

            Finally, most of my friends and relatives find my dislike of the avocado (the “green slime” as I call it), well, just inexplicable

Copyright 2021, Patrick F. Cannon

Keep Your Pants On!

Keep Your Pants On!

By Patrick F. Cannon

If you’re as fascinated by history as I am, you will have no doubt been puzzled by the undoubted fact that belts appear to have existed before pants were invented in the 15th Century by the Chevalier de Pantaloon. I have therefore taken it upon myself to remedy this shameful lapse in the historical record.

            First of all, it would be well to define just what is meant by the word belt. As with so many English words, multiple meanings are available. As you know, one can belt out a song, or belt a fellow in the snout, or even belt a home run into the bleachers at Wrigley Field. These uses do not interest us. What we are after is a length of some material long enough to span ones waist.

            Astonishingly, little was available in the historical record until Cicero, in his famous Commentaries Upon the Domestic Habits of the Noblest Romans, mentioned in what should have been a more noticed aside, that aristocratic Romans had taken to putting golden cords around their waists on windy days to prevent their skirts from flying up and exposing their less noble parts. You see, underwear had yet to be invented.

            Well, as you may have already guessed, what started as necessity soon became fashion.  When Plebeians began emulating their betters, the Roman Senate passed a law specifying from which materials these cords could be made. Only Senators were permitted to don golden cords, while the Plebs had to make due with hemp. The ladies, for obvious reasons, were forbidden to cinch their skirts.

            As usual, there’s a dark side to the story. It seems to have occurred to a few aristocrats that the cord could be adapted to hold a knife. Thus, on those fateful Ides of March, Brutus, Cassius and their pals had their knives ready to hand when Julius Caesar unwittingly paused to greet his soon to be former friends.

            It is to the Romans that we also owe the transition of the waist cord into what we now call a belt. It seems that the first Roman to spot the trend and cash in by making and selling ever more elaborate cords was the canny tailor, Flavius Beltus. As happened later with products like Kodak and Xerox, the company name became synonymous with the product, and so the waist cord became the belt.

            Taking a leaf from Brutus and his crowd, the Roman Legions decided that the new belt could be adapted to hold any number of weapons in addition to knives. Hanging from their sturdy belts were not only knives, but swords, axes, maces, finger snips, eye gougers and even a flagon of Chiantus. The barbarians initially had no answer to this, but soon were emulating the Romans with weapons belts of their own, except their flagons contained Burgandus or Rhinelandus.

            Belts changed little over the centuries. But when the Dark Ages subsided, newly wealthy nobles and merchants began to adorn their belts with rare fabrics and jewels. Women, for the first time, were permitted to belt themselves. They soon abandoned its practical uses, and the belt became purely a fashion statement, which it has remained to this day.

            (I see I’ve neglected to mention the infamous chastity belt, designed to prevent wives from straying when hubby was away at the Crusades. I have often wondered how the poor women were able to go to the bathroom if the key was in far off Jerusalem, but decided there were some things one is better off not knowing.)  

            One suspects that belts were common during the Renaissance, but men’s waists were typically covered by short jackets, so visual evidence is lacking. It was only when the cutaway coat became fashionable in the 17th Century that the belt reappears in all its glory. As a man, I’m rather ashamed to say that the men of the period wore even fancier clothes than the women. In addition to belts, paintings by Van Dyke and others even show that the upper classes took to wearing garters. A Knighthood of the Garter was even created, still bestowed by the British monarch. Strangely, Winston Churchill refused a peerage, but did become a Knight of the Garter. When I saw a photograph of Sir Winston with his Garter regalia, I couldn’t help asking myself if he’d taken leave of his senses.

            As to the present, I’ll leave it up to you to observe the current state of this once practical accessory. You’ll find that some people even persist in using one to hold up their pants.

Copyright 2017, 2021, Patrick F. Cannon

Hats Off!

Hats Off!

By Patrick F. Cannon

Although it’s impossible to know for certain, there seems to be no evidence that cave men wore hats. I suspect that their simple tools were unequal to the task of cutting hair, so there was a sufficient mop on top to keep away the cold.

            Ruins scattered about the Middle East provide evidence that ancient civilizations like the Assyrians, Babylonians and Egyptians liked to have a hat or headdress to complete their outfits. I suspect the lower orders had to make do with a bit of cloth to keep the Sun at bay. I understand the modern version is called a bullmoose.

            If one is to believe later artists, Jesus favored a hatless page boy, as did his disciples. His Roman overlords also seemed to favor the hatless look, although for formal occasions a simple laurel wreath was deemed de rigueur. The wreath also tends to adorn the numerous portrait busts of Romans one sees in the antiquities collections of biggish museums.

            By the Middle Ages, however, hats were fairly common. Kings, of course, wore crowns, which were considered the top hats of the time. The court jester (see Danny Kaye’s movie of the same name) wore the first of the silly hats, which featured multiple pom poms. The lower nobility were allowed to wear lesser crowns called cornets as a way of blowing their own horns. The serfs had to make do with hats made from the local grasses, thus the term “serf and turf.”

            With the Renaissance came new prosperity and the first recorded hat craze. Fine wool and silk were used and jaunty feathers began sprouting. Initially, all were a bit on the floppy side, but the invention of the blockhead permitted shaping and stiffening. The famed Three Musketeers brought hat fashion to new heights, making France the center of the chapeau industry. By the middle of the 18th Century, a gentleman could choose between the bicorn, tricorn or unicorn. The bicorn could be worn fore and aft or side to side, depending upon the whim of the owner. Women’s hats became fantastical creations, and were often topped with birdcages (real birds included) or model ships at full sail.  

            This excess came to a halt with the American and French revolutions. In France in particular, fancy hats went away with the heads of their owners. As the 19th Century progressed, hat rationalization proceeded apace, and men everywhere were adorned with the Derby (called a Bowler in England, for reasons that seem sensible to them), the Homburg, the Top Hat, the Trilby and the classic Fedora, all made of felt in the blockhead technique.

As a young lad starting out in the business world in the mid 1960s, these styles were still au currant. After Memorial Day, they were replaced with straw hats, including the stiff brimmed Boater. But woe betides the heedless chap who wore them after Labor Day! But had I just been a bit more alert, I would have noticed that change was afoot. John F. Kennedy, a hero to the young, had taken to going bare headed! Although I had myself bought a fedora, eventually I felt empowered enough to consign it to the top of the closet.

(I must pause here to pay tribute to the French beret. After some 500 years, it still has its adherents. It’s particularly popular in military circles, since it provides a certain jauntiness that the old caps lacked. They are still worn by civilians, of course, and their effect is heightened by a burning cigarette hanging from ones lip, in the manner of Jean Paul Belmondo, or his spiritual father, Jean Gabin.)

Fashions, of course, come and go. For example, the fedora seems to have made a comeback, albeit in a miniature form, atop the heads of slight young men called hipsters. No one had ever adequately explained just what a hipster is, but it seems to have something to do with wearing black and displaying copious tattoos.

But for the last several years, it is the cap, not the hat, which has gained the most favor. Its rise has been insidious. Perhaps you recall Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds? Early on, we see a few birds here and there, just as we might on a normal day. Then, slowly but inexorably the number of winged creatures increases until their numbers become ominous. Just so with the ubiquitous baseball cap. When returning from Florida recently by air, I counted 16 heads with caps upon them in the seats in front of me, including on three women. They didn’t attack me, but I was fearful.

As a young lad, I played some baseball and proudly wore the game’s signature cap. I remember you had to shape the bill to fit the current fashion. When I stopped playing (curses on the hated curve ball), I stopped wearing its caps. I confess that I now wear similar caps when I play golf. When I leave the course, they return to their rightful place in the trunk of my car.

There was a time when wearing any kind of hat indoors was considered boorish. I can recall when gentlemen took their hats off even when they entered an elevator, much less a restaurant. Now, one sees baseball caps on the heads on men and women of all ages in even the best restaurants. And though the bill was meant to keep the sun out of ones eyes, the most fashion forward of cap wearers reverse it, presumably to keep it off the backs of their necks. I haven’t checked, but perhaps artificial light has unseen rays that addle the brain. There must be some reason why caps never leave heads.

The lack of dress codes generally gives us freedoms we should all embrace. Artfully torn jeans, liberal sentiments or obscene epithets on our T-shirts, $300 sneakers, copious tattoos – all let us advertise a new kind of individualistic uniformity, one that lets us relax as we escape the shackles of a more restrictive if more elegant and decorous past.  

Copyright 2017, 2021, Patrick F. Cannon