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Ian Stepp

Summer Soundtracks

Ah summer.

Grown-up summer has a lot going against it. The days of three month summer vacation are long gone, and the electricity bill is higher than ever. The humidity leaves your shirt sticking to your back the moment you step outside, and getting into your car will cook you alive. The scent of chlorine is everywhere. But despite it all, I love summertime.

Part of that is the soundtrack.

Every year, starting in the late spring and going right through August, I do a little time travelling. Old friends like Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, and, of course, the “Fab Four” keep me constant company. A couple of classic seventies acts make appearances as well.

Is it the weather? Is it the image of hippy dippy types frolicking in the sun? I don’t know. There’s nothing to stop me from listening to these fellas year round, but for whatever reason they inevitably take over around now. It just makes sense!

Am I alone here? I got a handful of LPL audiophiles to share their summer soundtracks to find out. Read More..

America will be!

Last December, still in a post election funk (that has yet to dissipate) and shifting books, I stumbled across an illustrated copy of a Langston Hughes poem, Let America be America Again. The poem’s title seemed to riff on a now distant campaign slogan (I never imagined I’d miss the 2016 campaign), and it caught my eye.

Let America be America Again is a plea, a lament, and a statement of resolve. The whole poem is well worth reading (seriously, read it), but I want to focus on its opening stanzas in particular:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

No matter your race, party, or creed, the words “America never was America to me” should bother you. They should sting. How many “me[’s]” are represented in that one devastating sentence? What a travesty that words written in 1935 can still ring true for so many today.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day I was spit on for not being white. I was in the seventh grade. As I got off the school bus and it started to pull away, I heard someone hock a loogie above me. Then I was covered in spit. My fellow bus riders were pointing at me and laughing. Two kids I barely knew (the culprits, I assume) were proudly sticking their torsos out of bus windows. One shouted “rice picker” as the bus pulled away. I stood there stunned. I wiped the gunk from my face and hair. Home was a couple blocks away.

Rice picker?

A ridiculous racial epithet that followed me from middle school until I graduated. Just thinking about it makes me feel incredulous. Some days I laugh at the small-mindedness of it all. At the time it only hurt. I felt embarrassed to be myself. I felt unwelcome.

That was my first experience with America being less than what I had been taught.

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I know that in the face of this country’s history of racial injustice my exposure to prejudice doesn’t amount to a drop in the bucket. It doesn’t compare to the myriad struggles that countless Americans have confronted or the disenfranchisement that millions of fellow citizens are made to feel daily.


Let America be America Again
is deeply rooted in that anguish. It is a heartbreaking poem that doesn’t shy away from the exploitative capitalism and institutional racism its author faced. But at the same time it is an inspiring and defiantly hopeful work of literature. Hughes didn’t retreat. He didn’t cower. He recognized his self worth and and waited for a day when his homeland would do the same:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Let’s go back to the beginning. Not to the historical America of 1776 or to some idyllic America that never existed for the majority of us. Let’s go back to the American promise. The American Dream. Back to the city upon a hill. Back to “All men are created equal.” Back to the country that not only welcomed “the homeless, tempest-tossed” but demanded to be given “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” Let’s go back to the beginning and refamiliarize ourselves with those lofty, worthy, admirable ideals. Forget about some nativist, exclusive, reactionary idea of greatness. Let America be herself. Set fear aside, listen to our better angels, “and make America again!”

-Ian Stepp is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library. 

Cover Image credit: Jack Delano

Studio Ghibli’s less celebrated master

When I think of the famous Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli, several things come to mind: fantastic worlds, brave young female protagonists, nuanced antagonists, and a certain giant gray bear-rabbit spirit named Totoro. I also think of a man named Hayao Miyazaki.

In large measure Hayao Miyazaki is synonymous with Studio Ghibli. Often referred to (somewhat clumsily) as the “Walt Disney of Japan,” he co-founded Studio Ghibli in 1985 along with three other men, and for the past 30 years he has elevated and expanded the boundaries of Japanese cinema to widespread international recognition. Read More..

2016: Lawrence’s Space Odyssey

It’s been a very space centric year here at LPL. We’ve read The Martian for Read Across Lawrence, listened to astronauts at Liberty Hall, and spoke with the International Space Station via radio! And we’re not done yet.  Read More..

Discography Dilemmas

I never listened to Bob Dylan growing up. I blame it on my parents. It’s not like they banned him from the house. They just weren’t Dylan fans.

In those pre-Napster, pre- job days, it was either the radio or my parents’ music collection: Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits, Madonna’s Immaculate Collection, Supertramp’s Breakfast in America. There was plenty of the Monkees (my mom never grew out of her girlhood crush on Davy Jones), but not much of the Beatles, and Dylan just wasn’t on the radar. Read More..

July 4th Burger Blues

The Fourth of July was a tough holiday for me. It’s not a lack of patriotism, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s the barbecues. You’d think I’d have gotten used to not eating meat after so long, but man. Just thinking about some nice grilled hamburgers gets me ready to abandon a decade’s worth of vegetarianism.

Some people stop eating meat because they don’t like the taste. I am not one of them. Every now and then I see a commercial on TV for Wendy’s or something and it gets my mouth watering. Wendy’s. Read More..

The library isn’t just for books anymore.

When my wife and I moved to Lawrence last August, one of the first places we visited was the library. It wowed us. We hadn’t yet sold our souls to an internet service provider so we were Netflixless, and LPL’s media collection came to our rescue. The video game collection in particular provided an endless supply of entertainment. I’ve been a gamer (but not a gamer gater) for as long as I can remember, and having free access to hundreds of games at once was a very pleasant surprise. My wallet has never been happier.

At LPL we have quite the game collection. We currently carry games for six systems (Wii, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, Playstation 4, and Xbox One) and try to keep up with all the latest and greatest games out there, which can be pretty intimidating. A couple of decades ago when gaming was just getting started, people would have never guessed just how diverse the medium would become; these days there’s a game for everyone. Let’s take a look:                     Read More..

Revisiting the Star Wars Radio Drama

Like William, I was lucky enough to be born into a good, Force sensitive, Star Wars loving household. As a kid, my brother and I watched Star Wars movies several times a month. My parents were fairly religious and had strong opinions about what media was “appropriate for the Sabbath.”

It may seem odd that laser swords, spaceships, and Death Stars made the cut off (along with The Sound of Music, The Princess Bride, and Disney movies), but they did, and watching the original trilogy became a regular Sunday activity. The fourth, fifth, and sixth Gospels. We were in deep.

Action figures, video games, and Legos (this was before Lego video games or we would’ve had those too) all branded Star Wars were an integral part of my childhood and teenage years. To be honest, Star Wars is a large part of my adulthood. For my 28th birthday and much to my spouse’s (and to a certain extent, my own) incredulity, I bought myself a Lego Star Wars set. An expensive one. I spent my birthday sitting on the ground in our living room watching The Clone Wars as I built it. You only live once, right?

All this started in 1977, when visions of a galaxy far far away completely mesmerized my 13 year old dad. The movie that later became known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was like nothing he’d ever seen. As one of ten kids getting by on my grandpa’s teacher’s salary, it wasn’t often that my dad got to go to the theater, but he was industrious. Scrimping and saving he managed to see A New Hope a couple of times in theaters thanks to his paper route earnings. Some of his friends saw it well over a dozen times and had every line memorized. They’d reenact the entire movie by heart. They’d talk about it in their radio club at school. No wonder I ended up so nerdy.

My newest Star Wars experience was something with which my dad was already well acquainted.  The Star Wars Radio Drama. I didn’t know this existed until my dad offhandedly mentioned listening to “the Star Wars tapes” back in the 80s.

Tapes? What tapes?

In 1981, George Lucas “sold” the rights to produce a radio serial version of A New Hope to KUSC-FM, UCS’s public radio station, for a dollar. Looking at it objectively, the idea seems a little preposterous; a large part of Star Wars’ appeal, especially when it first came out, is the sight of it—special effects, iconic spaceships, strange creatures, and foreign planets—it really does transport you to a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.

But thanks to some great performances from Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels who reprise their roles as Luke Skywalker and C-3PO, as well as a talented voice cast (who if I’m honest, sometimes ham it up a little too much), liberal use of the original sound effects, and access to John William’s iconic film score soon NPR was touting “you may think you’ve seen the movie; wait til’ you hear it!”

The radio drama is broken up into thirteen roughly thirty minute episodes and clocks in at just under 6 hours as a whole. That’s a lot of radio drama for a two hour movie. But it works. Brian Daley, who adapted the original screenplay, really wanted to add characterization, including some additional backstory, to the cast. That’s probably where this adaptation shines the most, adding to the movies some of us have seen hundreds of times. I particularly appreciate that Luke and Leia both have brief moments where they get to grieve their tremendous losses in the radio drama. Ben Kenobi’s fate gets some extra attention as well.

There are little additions like that, but there are also all new scenes. Obi Wan gets in a little more training with Luke. There are extra scenes with Han Solo showing more of his rascally side, as well as scenes elaborating Darth Vader’s cruelty. There’s an entire episode dedicated to Leia’s backstory. You also get to finally meet Luke’s friends at Toshi Station, and spoilers: they’re not great.

Add all that new material to compelling performances and great production value and you have a hit. When the Star Wars Radio Drama first aired it broke NPR records with over 750,000 listeners. One of them was my dad. I asked him how many times he relistened to the tapes once he got a hold of them. “We probably listened to it ten thousand times.”

And why not? It’s not perfect, but the Star Wars Radio Drama adds a new depth into a classic story that so many of us have come to love. And most importantly, it’s a lot of fun. And luckily for us, we don’t have to wait years between episode; the library’s copy comes with dramatizations of both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. So get listening!

Oh yeah, and may the Force be with you.

—Ian Stepp is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.

 

The Once and Future Read: T.H. White’s Classic in 2016

Last year, Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk was released to tremendous praise (our own Eli considered it his book of the year). It’s a true story that examines the intersections between isolation, solace, civilization, and wildness.

In an attempt to exorcise her own rage and desperation, a grieving Macdonald, long a practitioner of falconry, decides to train a ferocious young goshawk after her father’s sudden passing.

Having never trained this particular species before, she relies upon T.H. White’s The Goshawk as a manual of sorts. In a rave review for H is for Hawk, Kathryn Schulz of The New Yorker describes the work as “one part grief memoir, one part guide to [goshawks], and one part biography of [author] T. H. White.”

Read More..