America’s chief subversive, more on the bees, the Marvelettes, and talking ourselves into infirmities: newsletter, April 17, 2020

April 19, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,590) on Friday, April 17, 2020.



Not being able to grieve properly and not being able to express sympathy in person are two of the chief difficulties of our current situation. I mentioned those last week, and a friend who is a minister wrote this in an email to me this week:

I am . . . experiencing firsthand that other frustration you’ve described. Walking with families through the losses of loved ones in this season of social distancing is challenging. I’ve had a couple of private family interment services in cemeteries over the past few days, and the urge to share a handshake or hug is nearly primal. It’s very difficult to stand by, hands firmly clasped around a Bible, to offer the consolation, encouragement, and love that can be expressed from the safety of six to ten feet. That’s been the single greatest ministry challenge I’ve encountered during the pandemic.

We have been asked to overcome many difficulties in the last few weeks, and we will face many more in the coming months. Whatever those difficulties are, I hope that we can discover the really important things in life. Please stay in and stay safe. Keep reading, writing, and, above all, thinking.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,589 subscribers and had a 31.0 percent open rate; 2 people unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Mort Drucker, one of America’s most subversive citizens

For more than five decades, Mort Drucker was one of the most subversive people in America.

Drucker was not some member of an anti-government cell plotting the violent overthrow of the rule of law. Rather he was an artist who could draw people like no other artist, revealing their pomposities and absurdities but in a light-hearted fashion. He put his talent to work for Mad magazine, and he and his cohorts attracted an audience in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s — many of them teenagers — looking for a laugh to help them through troubled times.

Drucker was a caricaturist, but he didn’t seem interested in exaggerating physical features. Rather, he went for expressions, and he put his real-life characters into absurdly funny situations where they could be surprised, angered, humiliated, and astonished — emotions that their normal pomposity would not allow.

Drucker was born in Brooklyn in 1929 and began drawing comic strips when he was 18 years old. He got a job with the company that became DC Comics, and in 1956 he joined the staff of Mad magazine. He stayed there for the next 55 years.

Drucker was self-taught and initially had little interest in caricature, but he worked at it, found that he had some talent for it, and set about developing that talent. He soon found himself in the top ranks caricature artists, and over the years he gathered legions of fans who could quickly recognize and appreciate his work. Many of his parodies for Mad involved send-ups of current movies, such as his parody of American Graffiti titled “American Confetti.”

His fans loved his work, and so did his subjects — if they had a sense of humor.

His work ranged far beyond Mad magazine. He co-authored books, drew comic strips, worked with animated movies, and received commissions for posters and magazine covers. The covers that he drew for Time magazine are now part of the National Portrait Gallery collection.

Not only did Drucker have a legion of fans, his work also spawned a legion of illustrators who pay homage to him for their techniques and inspirations. Anyone who does caricatures these days (including me) has been profoundly influenced by the work of Mort Drucker.

Drucker died at his home in Woodbury, N.Y., last week (April 9, 2020). He was 91 years old. His New York Times obituary is here.

Inspecting the bees

Most beekeeping books these days tell their readers that once a hive or set of hives is going, the beekeeper should inspect the hives on a regular basis — usually once every week or two. That is, a beekeeper should open up the hive and take a look at the bees. That way, so the advice goes, if you find a problem, you can do something about it.

That advice is something I have grown skeptical about. After several years of beekeeping, I have found that you don’t have to look inside the hives to realize that the bees might be having problems. Careful observation of the outside of the hives can tell you many of the same things.

The other reason for my skepticism is that there are few problems about which the beekeeper can do anything at all. Bees are wild animals;  they are not domesticated, even though beekeepers have provided them with a home. Feral bees live in trees and other hollow places. They don’t require a beekeeper.

Bees have survived on their own for many thousands of years. It is only late in this evolutionary stage that humans have started “keeping” bees. Bees don’t need humans. (It’s the other way around, although that’s a different topic.)

In addition, opening up a hive is disruptive to the bees’ daily process. It breaks the seals that the bees have carefully constructed to keep the hive clean and safe.

So, at this stage of the hive’s annual process, there is one reason that I can think of that might justify inspecting the hive: the education of the beekeeper.

A beekeeper can learn a lot by looking inside a hive and viewing — with a great amount of care and caution — what the bees are doing: how they are building comb, how they are tending to the queen and the eggs she is laying, how they are keeping the hive cool or warm as necessary. The beehive is a fascinating phenomenon of nature. It’s one that, given the chance, we should not miss it. We also should not abuse it.

Here’s a two-and-a-half-minute video I did several years ago that shows a hive inspection:

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

Please, Mr. Postman

The Marvels needed an original song.

It was 1961, and the group of five girls — Georgia Dobbins, Gladys Horton, Georgeanna Tillman, Wyanetta (“Juanita”) Cowart, and Katherine Anderson – from Inkster High School near Detroit had gotten an audition with the fledgling Motown Records. Dobbins knew a blues songwriter named William Garrett who had a half-finished tune that he was willing to let them have. Dobbins took the song and reworked it. A couple of other Motown people also worked on the song.

By the time it was recorded, Horton had replaced Dobbins as the lead singer and Wanda Young had joined the group as one of the background singers. Providing the background music for the song was a group of local musicians (later known as the Funk Brothers) that included drummer Marvin Gaye.

The song was “Please, Mr. Postman,” and told the sad story of a girl awaiting a letter from “that boyfriend of mine.” She asks the postman to check his bag “to see is there a letter in your bag for me.” The song ends with no card or letter being delivered. The recording that the girls did — Motown originator Berry Gordy had decided to rename them The Marvelettes — was loose and a bit ragged, but it had a driving beat and enough energy and pathos, mixed with a little humor, to make it appealing.

It turned out to be appealing beyond anything that anyone at Motown imagined.

The song was released on August 28, 1961, hopped onto the national Billboard pop chart and climbed steadily. By December 11, it held the number one spot. It was the first time that a Motown record had made it to the top of the pop chart; the record also climbed to the top of the R&B chart. It stayed in the top 40 for 23 weeks and eventually sold more than a million copies.

The song was also a breakthrough for the growing number of all-girl singing groups, being one of the first recordings to rise to the top.

The Marvelettes, with an almost constantly changing cast of characters, recorded many more songs during the next decade, but none of them had the impact of “Please, Mr. Postman.” They soon had to compete with many other girl groups, some non-Motown such as The Ronettes and The Chiffons, and some from Motown itself such as Martha and the Vandellas. All of those groups had their moments, but they were eventually swamped by hit after monster hit from another Motown creation, The Supremes.

“Please, Mr. Postman” took on a life of its own. The Beatles included it on their album Meet the Beatles, and in 1975 a recording of the song by The Carpenters made the top of the pop charts.

Today, the song is a regular on radio stations playing classic rock and roll, and it still has the power to get your hands clapping.

Talking ourselves – and others – into the ‘inevitable’ infirmities of old age

In early December, I tripped and wound up with a small fracture in my kneecap. The result was that I limped around for a couple of months but managed to maintain some of my normal walking schedule.

One morning, a person I regularly see on our walks asked me what  happened, and I told her.

“Well, that’s what happens to us when we get older,” she said.

My accident, I was tempted to explain, had nothing to do with age. I remember tripping a lot when I was six years old. But I refrained, not wanting to be rude. Still, I was irritated.

Now that I have managed to pile up more than an average number of birthdays, I have become increasingly sensitive — and irritated — to the way that people in our culture blame age for whatever seems to go wrong.

It’s not just physical capacity that is shadowed by age. It’s mental functioning, too. I have found a soul brother in Dr. Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist, who wrote Everyone Knows Memory Fails as You Age. But Everyone Is Wrong  an article in the New York Times recently. In it he discusses the commonplace things that we might forget.

The relevant difference is not age but rather how we describe these events, the stories we tell ourselves about them. Twenty-year-olds don’t think, “Oh dear, this must be early-onset Alzheimer’s.” They think, “I’ve got a lot on my plate right now” or “I really need to get more than four hours of sleep.” The 70-year-old observes these same events and worries about her brain health. This is not to say that Alzheimer’s- and dementia-related memory impairments are fiction — they are very real — but every lapse of short-term memory doesn’t necessarily indicate a biological disorder. Source: Opinion | Everyone Knows Memory Fails as You Age. But Everyone Is Wrong. – The New York Times

Levitin is on target with everything he says. Our “senior moments” are moments that are not necessarily senior. They are moments that we are likely to have at any point in our lives.

Read Levitin’s article. More importantly, stop attributing every physical stumble and every moment of forgetfulness to age. When you do that, you are more than likely wrong.


Check out last week’s newsletter

Several of you wrote to express condolences on the loss of a friend to the coronavirus. Thank you very much.

Jennings B.: As you can tell from the attached photo (right), we are on the same bee timeline. 

Enjoyed the latest newsletter. I particularly enjoyed the Marvin Gaye piece. An otherwise all-Black band I was in during college did many of his covers. Your story evoked some humming and toe-tapping.

Kathy R.: Obviously the isolation makes life different.  I find the most frustrating thing is a lack of continuity to the week – no dulcimer practice on Monday, no exercise on Wednesday and no church on Sunday.  The benchmarks of the week are missing. One has to stop and think about what day it is.

Living in northern Ohio we haven’t had too many nice days yet.  One this past week inspired me to take my dulcimer outside and play for an hour while I enjoyed the warmth and sunshine. (Hope you are still playing your dulcimer too).

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Katherine Anne Porter (caricature)

If American letters had a sub-genre about pandemic literature (it doesn’t), Katherine Anne Porter would be the queen. She survived the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 and later wrote about it. More about all of that next week.

Best quote of the week:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. Viktor Frankl, author, neurologist and psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor (1905-1997)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: An artist and the FBI, Marvin Gaye, Woody Allen, and the first modern detective: newsletter, April 10, 2020


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