Monthly Archives: July 2011

Branson–a Place Like No Other

The Presley Theater opened in 1967 on the Highway 76 strip--the first theater in Branson.

Jeerk, 5 Swedish guys who are incredible tap dancers, musicians, and percussion artists.

The show simply called "Six." They are six brothers singing acapella. Probably the top show in Branson.

Inside the Showboat Branson Belle.

Pam and I just returned from our fifth trip to Branson. That would be Branson, Mo. We went for the first time in 1999, not really knowing if we would enjoy it. But we fell in love with the place.

The next two times, in 2002 and 2004, we took my parents. Pam and I visited again in 2008. Then, this year, we took my parents again.

Branson, tucked away in the Ozark Mountains south of Springfield, is a somewhat magical place where traditional values prevail. There’s nothing like it. Branson sets squarely in Flyover America, the heartland. Everything is family friendly.

Branson offers something for everyone. There is Silver Dollar City, a family-oriented theme park. Three outlet malls. Numerous craft shops. Museums. Mini golf. But the reason most people come to Branson is for the shows which perform at over 50 theaters—music, drama, comedy, acrobatics…you name it.

There are acts by people you’ve heard of. The Osmonds, Bobby Vinton, Jim Stafford, Andy Williams, Mel Tillis, Yakov Smirnoff, Mickey Gilley, and many other celebrities, especially in country music, either have their own theaters in Branson or perform there regularly. But most of the shows—and, I would say, the best ones—are by folks you haven’t heard of until you visit Branson. Shows like:

The Presleys. The Hughes Brothers. Six. Shoji Tabuchi. The Brett Family. The Baldnobbers. And many more.

In almost every show, certain values are emphasized:

  • The family. So many of the acts emphasize family values, and the best ones (the Presleys, Hughes Brothers, Six, and others) are predominantly family acts. Of all of the shows we’ve seen, only one show had anything off color (Ray Stevens, disappointingly). They keep it wholesome in Branson.
  • Love for country. It’s nothing political, no digs at either Democrats or Republicans. Just good old fashioned patriotism.
  • Appreciation for military vets. Nearly every show works in some patriotic music and asks military vets to stand, usually broken down according to branch. I’m always proud when Dad stands with other Army vets.
  • Christianity. This is what really makes Branson magic. The performers talk about Christ and the importance of their faith. No apologies. You wouldn’t expect Christ to be exalted at one of America’s premier tourist places, but He is. Imagine that in Las Vegas!

This year, a member of Six said at the end of the show, “Branson is a place where we can talk about Jesus, where we speak well of our country, and where you can sing Gospel music.” They then closed with a beautiful acapella version of “Be Still My Soul.” I still have goosebumps thinking about it.

Yes, there are plenty of old people in Branson. But the visitors include many young people and young families, too. Several of the main acts, like Six and Jeerk, seem aimed at a younger audience (though I, at age 54, loved them, so maybe my definition of “younger” is messed up).

Thus far, we’ve seen 21 different shows in Branson, 7 of them more than once. Some of them have come and gone. This time, we saw seven shows during our three days in Branson:

  • “Noah: the Musical.” Simply astounding! This play opened in 2008, and closes this summer. You just can’t believe what you’re seeing.
  • “Hooray for Hollywood.” A high-energy song-and-dance tribute to great songs from Hollywood musicals and movies. We all loved it.
  • “Jeerk.” Five amazingly talented young guys from Sweden in what was voted the Best New Show of 2010. A little bit of Stomp (turning just about anything into a percussion instrument), combined with the most innovative tap dancing you’ll ever see, plus superb music and lots of comedy. I’d drive to Sweden to watch these guys (who have performed around the world).
  • “Circle B Chuckwagon Show.” A dinner show with a great meal, but a very disappointing show. The only sub-par act we saw this year. Nice Christian people, but….
  • “The Presleys.” Our second time seeing what was the original show on the Branson strip, dating back to 1967. Members of the Presley family combine with a number of other superb singers and musicians. I’d see this show every time we visit Branson. It is everything Branson stands for—faith, family, country. They have the best piano player (by far!) that I’ve seen in Branson, the best Gospel quartet, and the best comedy (Herkimer and Cecil are just hysterical!). A well-oiled, professional show in every way.
  • “Six.” Pam and I saw these six brothers in 2008. It’s an acapella show. You’d swear you’re hearing a full band, but every sound you hear comes from their mouths. They came to Branson in 2007 and were voted Best New Group. Ever since, they’ve been named the “Best Show” or “Entertainers of the Year.” Their tribute to their mother, who died of cancer at age 52 (after bearing TEN sons), will make you cry.
  • “Showboat Branson Belle.” Pam and I took this cruise in 2008, and knew my parents would love it. Great food, and a wonderful program with music, comedy, and magic. True class all around.

I can’t get enough of Branson. After five trips there are still so many shows I’d like to see. By the time we return in 3 or 4 years, or maybe 2 years, there will be new acts and new theaters. I just hope Branson never loses its soul. I need a place like this to return to every once in a while.

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Okay, I was Definitely Wrong About That One

My life verse should be Proverbs 10:19, “When words are many, sin is not absent….” I write a lot of stuff for people to chew up in the marketplace of ideas. When you write or speak a lot, you’re inevitably gonna say some things that are just wrong. As Proverbs 10:19 points out. I apologize in advance for all of my future stupid statements.

Recently I made this comment on Facebook: “I voted for GW Bush (twice), who created most of the current debt. I voted for Obama, who added significantly to it.”

Both Tom Datema and Paul Michelson pointed out that that was inaccurate. Both presidents increased the debt significantly, but Bush didn’t create “most” of it. Obama is on track to break all previous records.

Paul Michelson directed me to the site TheNationalDebtCrisis.com, which explains various aspects in a well-reasoned, calm tone. That kind of tone doesn’t necessarily make it accurate, just more palatable, like an English accent.

However, I did find the site very helpful. The author is never identified, which is troubling to me. Nevertheless, I commend the site for what appears to be a nonpartisan approach.

One page shows “The National Debt by President,” listing the amount each President increased the debt, going back to Reagan. The writer says, “It is clear that the National Debt has been growing uncontrollably in recent years, regardless of which political party has been in power.”

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Books: Lee Child’s “One Shot” and “The Hard Way”

I’ve been reading the Lee Child “Jack Reacher” series in order. I just finished books 9 and 10 in the series. Jack Reacher is a truly original action hero, as lethal as they come. None of these books are art, but they are sure fun to read.

“One Shot” opens with five people being gunned down by a sniper in a small Indiana town. A former sniper named James Barr, who lives in that town, is arrested. All of the evidence points to him–a solid case if ever there was one.

When Reacher hears about Barr’s arrest on the news, he immediately leaves for that town. Turns out Barr had done this before, in Kuwait, and Reacher had promised Barr that he would kill him if he ever tried anything like that again.

But, as they say in good mysteries, “nothing is as it seems.” Some brutal Russian gangsters are involved, a group of nicely drawn characters, all of them hardcore killers.

Reacher assumes that Barr is guilty, but when he is attacked for no good reason, he begins wondering what’s going on. He then sets about figuring it out.

In “The Hard Way,” Edward Lane, the head of a mercenary company, hires Reacher to find his wife, who has been kidnapped and is being held for a ransom involving millions of dollars. This is Lane’s second wife. His first one was killed several years before in another kidnapping….and everything points to him being the prime suspect.

So reacher tries to unravel what happened. There are plenty of suspects, including two former mercenary employees whom Lane abandoned in Africa years before, and were presumed killed.

It’s another Lee Child winner, with an action-packed climax with some twists.

Five more books and I’ll be caught up. Think I’ll take one on vacation next week.

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A Tale of Three Chicago Maps

In 1995, a heat wave killed 739 people in Chicago in just one week. No doubt the current heat wave is causing hundreds of deaths in Chicago once again, especially among the elderly, sick, and poor.

By 2100, forecasts show, Chicago could face 30 days a year when the temperature exceeds 100, compared to 3 days now. They’ll have 70 days a year when it’s over 90, compared to 12-15 now. Obviously, there are zillions of variables. But it’s definitely gonna be a whole lot hotter. A 2-degree rise in temperature, from 1900, is pretty much locked in; it’ll probably go higher. Lots of variables, but a good thing for responsible politicians (an oxymoron?) to anticipate.

Fortunately, Chicago has a very aggressive plan for dealing with climate change—a model for the rest of the country. They don’t anticipate any big water problems—not sitting next to Lake Michigan—but they are concerned about severe heat.

Two things Chicago is doing: planting more trees, and shifting to windpower for electricity. The book “Hot: Living Through the Next 50 Years on Earth,” by Mark Hertsgaard, tells about it.

One very simple idea came as a result of three maps:

  1. A heat map showed parts of the city where temperatures were higher than elsewhere. It revealed “heat islands” throughout the city.
  2. A second map charted tree foliage. Overlaying the maps showed that temperatures were higher in areas with fewer trees.
  3. Then they overlaid a third map, this one showing income levels. It showed that the hot, low-foliage areas were especially prevalent in low-income areas.

So, they are intentionally targeting those hotspots for tree-planting, including planting trees in vacant lots. In the future, this additional tree cover will bring down temperatures throughout the city…and contribute toward saving lives. A simple bit of intentionality. New York City is doing the same thing.

Chicago also wants to become America’s capital of wind power. Eight of the world’s leading manufacturers base their North American operations in Chicago. The Midwest is the Saudi Arabia of wind power. Huge wind turbines are difficult to transport—so why not build them near where they will be installed? That’s the idea.

Chicago is doing many other things to deal with climate change, and their example is spreading to other cities. Very interesting, and encouraging, to read about.

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Book: “Borkman’s Point,” by Hakan Nesser

“Borkman’s Point,” by Hakan Nesser, was written in 1993 but not published in English until 2006. It’s part of a series starring Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, whose popularity in Sweden rivals fellow fictional sleuths Kurt Wallander and Martin Beck. So far, five Van Veeteren books have appeared in English, the latest in 2010 (though it was originally written in 1997), and a sixth (written in 1998) is due later this year.

In this book, Van Veeteren is sent to a small town to help catch a serial murderer called The Axman, since he kills with an axe. Two murders occurred before his arrival, and one more occurs after he arrives.

It’s very much a police procedural. There isn’t much action at all. Rather, you tag along as the cops talk to people, follow clues, and discuss what they’ve got so far. They go a long time without much of any clue whatsoever.

Nesser develops his characters well, and keeps you in suspense. The murderer wasn’t at all who I thought it would be, though the idea did cross my mind once. But I was more focused on others. Nesser is great at misdirection. This was a totally satisfying plot.

The title refers to a policeman’s rule that sometimes you already have all the information you need to solve the crime, and if you keep collecting more information, it won’t help. You just have to look closely at what you’ve already got and follow your gut.

I previous read two other Van Veeteren books back-to-back, “Mind’s Eye” and “The Return,” and reviewed them together on my blog. Those were very good books, too.

Curiously, Nesser never identifies the country in which the books take place; it seems to be a made-up country in northern Europe. The setting resembles Sweden, but it’s not Sweden. The names of towns and people are mostly Dutch. As I read, I picture the Netherlands.

Five Nesser books have been translated into English, and all five feature Van Veeteren. “Borkman’s Point” was translated first, in 2006, followed by “The Return” (2007) and “Mind’s Eye” (2008). However, “Mind’s Eye” was actually written first, back in 1993.

The translating for the three books I’ve read was done by Laurie Thompson, a British academic who has translated works by a number of other prominent Swedish mystery writers, including Henning Mankell and Ake Edwardson. I came to appreciate his translations initially in the Mankell books; his name is on 10 of them now.

All of Nesser’s English publications appear under the Black Lizard imprint from Vintage Books.

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Our Current Heat Wave, and What Lies Ahead

With a merciless heat wave in effect, I’m reminded of a superb book I read earlier in the year, “Hot: Living Through the Next 50 Years on Earth,” by Mark Hertsgaard. It’s the best book I’ve read so far this year.

Currently, New York City has 14 days a year when temperatures exceed 90 degrees. By the 2020s, they’ll have 23-29 such days, and the number will triple to 29-40 days a year by 2050.

New York now experiences two extreme heat waves a year. By the 2050s, there will be 4-6 extreme heat waves per year.

The heat will be even worse in interior areas, whether in the American Midwest or in Africa. If it’s 2 degrees hotter on the coast, it’ll be 3 degrees hotter inland.

Currently, Chicago has 3 days a year over 100 degrees. By 2100, their own forecasts show, they’ll face 30 such days a year. They’ll have 70 days a year when it’s over 90, compared to 12-15 now.

This isn’t a linear thing, where you can chart a continual increase in temperature every year. The fact is, next summer could be very mild. The climate is a very complicated thing. But everything is trending upward, no doubt about it. The fact that the polar ice cap has pretty much melted, and glaciers in every part of the world are melting, is an obvious indication of global warming.

The science of climate change is solid. In the future, there will be higher heat, reduced water supplies, more flooding, and more major storms. Plus a whole bunch of other ramifications.

In his book, Hertsgaard doesn’t try to convince people that global warming is for real. In fact, he says he rarely engages with deniers, considering it a waste of time. Rather, in this book he shows what governments around the world are doing to prepare for what lies ahead.

No country is in more denial than the United States; just listen to Fox News pundits and Rush Limbaugh. However, a number of localities in the US—most significantly Seattle, Chicago, New York, and the state of California—have developed serious plans for dealing with climate change. Chapter 4 of “Hot” deals with those three cities. I was encouraged to know that, despite the blindness at the national level, there are local governments that do understand the issue and are doing something about it.

Likewise with some countries. The Dutch have developed a 200-year plan to deal with rising sea levels. That’s right—200 years (and glimpse ahead 400 years in some specific areas). Hertsgaard spends all of chapter 5 talking about the Dutch. It’s fascinating.

The British established an agency in 1997 to prepare the country for climate change, and they are working with scores of local governments and businesses to help prepare for harsher summers, more flooding, and reduced water. The government provides maps showing areas at greater risk. Every British government department must prepare plans for dealing with climate change. They are increasing the size of floodgates on the Thames river to deal with rising sea levels.

Bangladesh, which is threatened by major storms more than any other country, is trying to do some major things, despite their poor economy. The Chinese, however, like the US, mostly remain in denial.

Hertsgaard writes in a very popular, picturesque way. And he continually comes back to his young daughter, Chiara, recognizing that he’ll pass from the scene before the brunt of climate change hits, but that Chiara will remain to deal with it. Puts a very human face on it.

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Books: “Murder at the Savoy,” “The Abominable Man”

Murder at the Savoy is the sixth book (of 10 total) in the Martin Beck series, by Swedes Maj Sjowal and Per Wahloo. The series has ten books in all, written from 1965-1975. While Martin Beck is the main character, he’s not a dominant lead; most of the books scatter the story among an ensemble cast.

Murder at the Savoy begins with a man walking into a dinner gathering and shooting, in the head, a powerful Swedish industrialist named Viktor Palmgren. He then escapes through a window.

The assassination occurs in the southern city of Malmo, which is home to another famous Swedish policeman, Kurt Wallender (from the series by Henning Mankell). Martin Beck, based in Stockholm, gets sent to Malmo to investigate, and he teams up with Malmo policemen to try to figure out the who and why of the murder.

They pursue threads involving Palmgren’s wife, a couple men heading up some of Palmgren’s business interests, Palmgren’s involvement in African gun-running, and other paths. In the end, it’s resolved in a way I didn’t expect, but which was somewhat anti-climactic to me.

I’ve enjoyed the Martin Beck series, but this book seemed sub-par. Even the title, Murder at the Savoy, seems like the authors weren’t really trying. I finished the book, stuck it on the shelf, and proceeded to the next book in the series, The Abominable Man.

Once again, as is their habit, the authors start with a murder. This time, it’s a hospitalized police inspector who, while in his hospital room, is brutally killed with a bayonet. The usual characters assemble to solve the mystery. The plot resolves in a much more straightforward way than Murder at the Savoy.

The murder victim is the title character, “the abominable man.” He’s a sadistic, brutal guy who trained other cops in his ways. It makes for an interesting character. But the authors didn’t really do anything with the character.  And who killed him? We never learn much about him. When a list is discovered of other police targets, Martin Beck is on the list…but we’re never told why. The killer had a motive for killing the “abominable” guy, but not for killing anyone else. There is a killing spree at the end, but again, it’s all pointless, without motive.

I didn’t like either of these books. I’ve enjoyed the previous Martin Beck books, but these two were really lame.

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