A toast to … Leon Redbone

This week I delighted in my daughters’ first launch into the field of nihilistic satire, then explained how it probably had a genetic origin.

Anybody who is aware of Leon Redbone is by this time similarly aware that the musician “crossed the delta for that beautiful shore” yesterday morning. I don’t have much to add to the obituaries and appreciations that have been appearing here and there (especially Megan Pugh’s exemplary profile of Redbone that appeared in March in the Oxford American). Two things worth noting, though: First, that Redbone was himself an anti-celebrity, whose self-conscious eccentricities served solely to foreground the early American music that seemed to be the love of his life; it’s a rare thing. Second, there is a vibrant if small subculture of other American musicians who are doing their best to keep this kind of music alive; Redbone was far from alone, if he was the most visible representative of this subculture. I recommend checking out these fine people.

Social media and the internet are littered with Redbone clips and tributes, so instead I offer something in his memory that I hope would meet with his approval, Laurel and Hardy’s performance of “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” one of Redbone’s signature songs, from their 1939 film The Flying Deuces; it’s a charming two-and-a-half minutes from the past, featuring Stan’s light and loose-limbed dance and Ollie’s very pleasant Georgia baritone. I’ll be lifting my glass to Mr. Redbone and Messrs. Laurel and Hardy at Cafe Katja this afternoon. See you there.

A toast to … Henry David Thoreau

This week I offered a few suggestions on how to jumpstart your personal resistance, learned a little more about Philadelphia history, and anticipated with pleasure the return of a favorite musical of my youth.

In preparing for a trip to Concord later this summer, I’ve been reading a little of Concord’s favorite native sons, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. I came across the below video about Walden Pond in my background investigations, and though I have my problems with Thoreau, I have fewer and fewer problems with Walden Pond. As the photograph at the head of this post indicates, the pond is a far cry from the Lower East Side of New York, but later this afternoon I’ll lift my glass to Henry David Thoreau from the bar at Cafe Katja; the pond seems to beckon even from there.

A toast to … Cafe Katja

I spent this week in a nostalgic and musical frame of mind, looking back to a peculiar television personality of my childhood and listening to a bit of American musical history.

My usual Friday getaway is to the delightful Cafe Katja at 79 Orchard Street, only a few blocks from my home; I’ve been going there since its opening in 2007, when it was only a third of a size it is now. Blissfully free of big-screen televisions (except during World Cup finals) and jukeboxes, the bar/restaurant is formally a buschenschank, an Austrian-style bistro specializing in local food and alcohol offerings; owners Erwin Schröttner and Andrew Chase preside over a multiculti staff and offer new twists on traditional Austrian cuisine. The drinks — my main concern on Friday afternoons — are exquisite, the food even more so. So I lift my glass to my Friday regular today; that’ll be me down at the end of the bar. Prost!

A toast to … World Press Freedom Day

This week I compared and contrasted two Missourians, Mark Twain and Scott Joplin; noted Alexander Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow’s misattribution of a quote to Mr. Twain, supplying a more cogent Twainian observation about the press; and chuckled over E.B. White’s change of heart about New York.

Speaking of Joplin, this Sunday Marilyn will perform a  program of Scott Joplin’s sublime, melancholy concert waltz “Bethena” (1904) and Charles Ives’ majestic Concord Sonata (1911) at St. Bart’s Church in New York. More here.

And speaking of the press, today, May 3, is World Press Freedom Day, declared in 1993 by the United Nations General Assembly. According to UNESCO, it is “a date which celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom, to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.”

The year 2018 was not a particularly good one for journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders, 66 professional journalists were killed in connection with their work around the world (compare this to the 13 Jewish men and women who were killed in anti-Semitic attacks last year according to this recent study issued in connection with Yom Hashoah — people who also were killed just for being who they were), and the organization remarks in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index that “an intense climate of fear has been triggered — one that is prejudicial to a safe reporting environment.”

Nor are things better here in the US. There was, of course, this:

And whether or not you think such stupidity has contributed to the dangerous hostility against the press both here and abroad (and I think it has), Reporters Without Borders says the hostile climate reaches past even this:

As a result of an increasingly hostile climate that goes beyond Donald Trump’s comments, the United States (48th) has fallen three places in this year’s Index and the media climate is now classified as “problematic” (orange). Never before have US journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection. Hatred of the media is now such that a man walked into the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, in June 2018 and opened fire, killing four journalists and one other member of the newspaper’s staff. The gunman had repeatedly expressed his hatred for the paper on social networks before ultimately acting on his words.

I won’t be able to get to Cafe Katja this afternoon, so I’ll raise a glass to journalists and press freedom at home, and direct the savings to Reporters Without Borders. I hope you do, too — and subscribe to your local paper while you’re at it.

A toast to … putting a point on it

I’ll be attending my usual residency at Cafe Katja this make a quick stop first just two blocks south at CW Pencil Enterprise, 15 Orchard Street, a charming boutique that opened last year and over which pencil maven Caroline Weaver presides.

As it happens, tomorrow, March 30, is National Pencil Day, Forbes magazine reports. Something there is in me that does love a pencil. As far as pens go, I’ll never give up my Pilot G-2 0.38mm standby, but the Pilot is aggressively plastic from end to end. The pencil is a little marvel of engineering, seemingly all-natural wood and graphite from tip to eraser, a writing implement that dates from the 16th century, when a graphite deposit was discovered in Cumbria, England. It is most likely the first writing instrument most of us used, apart from the crayon, and unlike the crayon the pencil has been a favorite tool of writers and editors for centuries. Among fans of the classic Blackwing 602 pencil, for example, have been John Steinbeck, E.B. White, Eugene O’Neill, Archibald MacLeish, and Vladimir Nabokov. The Blackwing 602 even has its own website, and The Hollywood Reporter, no less, traced its influence upon the entertainment industry in 2013. And so far as nature goes, Henry David Thoreau himself was the scion of a well-known New England pencil family.

Blackwing also offers the socially-conscious glow-in-the-dark Volume 811 pencil, “a tribute to libraries and the hope they represent.”

Although I’ve been using my Pilot to complete New York Times crossword puzzles for years, my first visit to CW Pencil Enterprise yesterday encourages me to pick up a pencil once again. In part, I suppose, this is humility — unlike the pen, the pencil comes with its own eraser, and we could all use a little more modesty in our daily lives; we all, the pencil’s eraser reminds us, make mistakes. CW Pencil Enterprise helpfully offers a sampler set of crossword puzzle pencils suitable for both the daily newsprint and Sunday glossy puzzles. You can also pick up a few Blackwing 602s and a box of 811s at the shop, but there are many, many more, along with a curated selection of related apparatuses, including sharpeners, erasers, and notebooks. For the kid in all of us, a separate sticker room fulfills all of your sticker needs, as it did for my two daughters yesterday evening. (I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Ms. Weaver’s own handsome book about the pencil, The Pencil Perfect, available for purchase here and at the store itself.)

So this afternoon at Cafe Katja I will raise a glass to the pencil, to Caroline Weaver, and to her CW Pencil Enterprise. I’ll see you there (and don’t worry if you forget a sharpener; I’ve got one of these on my key ring now).