The latest excitement in the bloviating branch of the blogosphere is the report that Patty Murray and Paul Ryan may be close to a small-scale budget deal. This puts me in mind of an old joke, dating from my college days:
Mrs. Finkel, the local shadchen [Yiddish term for a marriage broker] has for some time been trying to arrange a union for Mrs. Goldbloom's precious son, Morris, but Mrs. Goldbloom has an exalted view of her son's worth and summarily rejects all of Mrs. Finkel's proposals. Finally, more in desperation than hope, Mrs. Finkel brings to Mrs. Goldbloom the suggestion that Morris marry the Princess Margaret Rose, Queen Elizabeth's younger sister. Mrs. Goldbloom is at first outraged at the mere idea of Morris marrying a shiksa, but Mrs. Finkel persists, pointing out that the princess is very rich and has outstanding family connections. Mrs. Bloom is growing anxious that her darling Morris will never marry, and she recognizes, as any sensible mother must, that no daughter-in-law is perfect, so at long last she relents and authorizes Mrs. Finkel to arrange the wedding.
Mrs. Finkel breathes a deep sigh of relief, leaves the Goldbloom house, offers a silent prayer to heaven, and says, under her breath, "Well, that's half of it."
The news reports have not indicated how Senator Murray and Representative Ryan plan to get their prospective deal through the House.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
In the past few days, I have been reminded of the broad range of expert knowledge among the visitors to this blog. Professor Goldfarb corrected my false notion that Memorial Hall at Harvard is a memorial to the fallen on both sides in the Civil War [he graciously suggested I might be confusing it with Memorial Church, but no such luck -- I was just wrong.] Professor Ogilvie of the UMass History Department pointed out that the original creator of Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce attended Bowdoin and Cornell, not Harvard [although I still cling to the fragment of a notion that he might have visited Harvard and seen the inscription]. And several of you responded to my idle and ignorant remark about the lack of serious classical compositions for string trio by pointing me toward significant counter-instances, with none of which I was familiar.
I was turning this over in my mind during my morning walk, when it occurred to me that perhaps all of you collectively might be able to answer some questions that have nagged at me for years. I could of course try Google, but that is so 2012. The new thing is crowdsourcing, so let's see whether it works. Here are three things that puzzle me. Can anyone shed light on one or another of them?
1. How does soap work? I mean, I understand why rinsing your hands in water, rubbing as you rinse, might shake loose some bits of dirt and carry them away, but why does it help to use soap? By way of contrast, my Dental Hygienist has counseled me that the proper way to clean my teeth is to start by flossing, which if done well loosens the plaque that has built up; then to brush with a bare brush to complete the removal of the plaque, and then to apply the prescription fluoride toothpaste [after which one is not to eat or drink for twenty minutes, an injunction I honor more in the breach than the observance.] She says using toothpaste just confuses things and does not do any additional good. So, if that is true, what good is soap?
2. How can stunt planes at aerial circuses fly upside down? I learned all about Bernoulli's Principle and the differential pressure under and over the wing created by the curved upper surface of the wing, thus creating upward pressure that lifts the airplane, but if all of that is true, why doesn't an airplane crash when it flies upside down?
3. How does friction work? Friction is a ubiquitous phenomenon, as common as gravity. But I have no idea how it works. Why do some things produce friction when rubbed against one another whereas other things do not? Why is ice virtually frictionless? In the summer, when it is very warm here in North Carolina even early in the morning during my walk, I am liable to return home sweaty, whereupon friction gets in the way of my taking my T-shirt off, whereas in the Winter, it comes off easily. How come?
I await your collective enlightenment.
The American Kennel Club is the official arbiter of dog breeds and standards in the United States. Every year it holds a much heralded gathering at which breeders compete for the title of Best of Breed or -- the highest possible award -- Best in Show. Back in the late Sixties when I was teaching at Columbia, I actually went to an AKC Dog Show and watched the proceedings for a while. It was there that I saw for the first time a magnificent Great Pyrenees. For those of you who do not know it, the Great Pyrenees is a large splendid shaggy dog, looking like an unusually big pure white Newfoundland. It is the sort of dog that makes you want to throw your arms around its neck and hug it. There is a long list of officially recognized breeds, each with precise standards of excellence maintained by the AKC. In the early stages of the competition, Poodles compete against Poodles, Labrador Retrievers against Labrador Retrievers, and English Bulldogs against English Bulldogs. On the last day, all the dogs judged Best in Breed compete against one another. Now there really is no way to compare a Miniature Poodle with a Great Dane, so essentially the judges are asked to decide which dog comes closest to the ideal of perfection of its breed. You may like the Great Dane more than the Miniature Poodle, but the Miniature Poodle may be a better Miniature Poodle than the Great Dane is a Great Dane. I don't much care for English Bulldogs, but I can see how one might be declared Best in Show.
I thought of all this when my friend, Professor Goldfarb of the Harvard Philosophy Department, chided me gently for describing Memorial Hall as "ugly." He described it as "the best example of Victorian Gothic architecture in the US." It is, in effect, Best of Breed. But I am afraid that to my ear, that is rather like saying that a new book is "the best example of Hegelian metaphysics by an American."
Monday, December 2, 2013
As I was taking my morning walk at six a.m. this morning [above forty degrees, so I was not quite so huddled inside my sweater and hoodie], I found myself reflecting on the difficulty of finding interesting music for two or three strings. The quartet literature is vast and endlessly rewarding, but two or three strings -- a violin and viola, say, or a violin, viola, and cello -- have for the most part been ignored by the great classical composers. Not entirely, of course. Mozart's duet for violin and viola, K423, is splendid. I have a recording of it being performed by Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman, and as you might imagine, it is to die for.
The classic trio of instruments is the piano, violin, and cello, for which there is a very rich literature. One of the great piano trio ensembles was the Beaux Arts Trio, with the elfin Menachim Pressler on piano, the magisterial Bernard Greenhouse on cello, and [to my ear, at any rate] a rather dry Isidore Cohen on violin. [There were actually a number of violinists who played with the trio, but it was Cohen when I heard them.] A performance of the Beaux Arts in Cambridge, Mass was without a doubt the most bizarre concert experience of my life.
It was 1986, and I was separated from my first wife, living alone in Watertown. The Beaux Arts Trio announced a concert in Sanders Theater, and I bought a ticket. A word about Sanders before I get to the concert itself. Just north of Harvard Yard is a large ugly brick building called Memorial Hall, erected to honor Harvard men who died -- on both sides -- in the Civil War. The west end of the building is taken up mostly by a very large hall in which final exams were held during the early fifties when I was an undergraduate. The east side is an amphitheatre called Sanders Theater which served both as a lecture hall and as a concert venue.
I have many fond memories of Sanders. It was there that I heard Bertrand Russell speak. I sat almost in the last row of the raised rear portion of the hall and could scarcely hear him, but it was indubitably the great Earl Russell, co-author with Alfred North Whitehead of the ground-breaking Principia Mathematica [and fifty other books, of course, for which he won the Nobel prize in Literature, but for logic students like me, Principia was the book.] It was in Sanders also that I first heard the man who introduced countertenor singing to America, Alfred Deller. Back then, no one had ever heard a countertenor, and Deller made it a point to address the audience at some point during his concerts so that they could hear that he had a normal speaking voice. If the truth be told, Deller was not a great countertenor. Some years later, I sat down front in the first row of Sanders and heard the really great countertenor Russell Oberlin sing the exquisite Monteverdi duet for two countertenors, Zefiro Torna.
It was also in Sanders Theater, in the summer of 1956, while I was hard at work writing my doctoral dissertation, that I sang in the pit chorus of a summer stock staging of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, with Shirley Jones of movie Oklahoma fame singing Polly Peachum and her new husband, Jack Cassidy, singing MacHeath. I was paid a dollar a performance and got to dress up in rags [the pit chorus was figured as the inmates of debtor's prison.] The smash hit of the performance was a basso who sang Peachum, Polly's father. He was so good in rehearsal that Daniel Pinkham, who was playing harpsichord, adapted a Handel aria not in the original composition to give him more time on stage. The performance opened with Peachum and Lockit sitting at a table. The very first "line" of the performance was a luxurious belch by Peachum that could be heard in the last row of the theater. Every night, I waited to see whether he would succeed in producing the belch. He never missed.
One evening, while I was standing idly in the hallway between the east and west wings of Memorial Hall during a concert intermission, I made a discovery that may not be widely known to the aficionados of popular culture. The walls of the hallway are covered with plaques on which are inscribed the names of the young men of Harvard who lost their lives in the war. Idly running my eye over the names, I came with a start upon Benjamin Franklin Pierce, which will be known to fans of the movie and television show MASH as the full name of the lead character Hawkeye, played in the movie by Donald Southerland and in the TV show by Alan Alda. I cannot prove this, of course, but I would be willing to make a sizable bet that one of the writers of the movie was a Harvard man who, like me, had seen this inscription on the wall of Memorial Hall and thought it would make a splendid name for a character.
But I digress. On the evening in question, I was seated about two thirds of the way back on the left hand side of Sanders. Pressler and company launched into the first composition on the program and were well into the second movement when there was a disturbance in the audience on the far right side, halfway back. After a moment a voice cried out, "Is there a doctor in the house?" Someone was clearly in some sort of medical distress. The trio stopped playing and everyone looked around expectantly.
Now, this was Cambridge, Mass and much of the audience was associated in one way or another with Harvard, so certain proprieties had to be observed. The medical students in the audience looked at the Mass General Interns. The interns looked at the Residents. The Residents looked at members of the Harvard Medical School faculty, and finally, by a sort of unspoken understanding, a senior professor -- probably Chief of Cardiology -- arose and walked over to where the cry had arisen. We all sat dead still, waiting to see what would happen. After a bit, an ambulance siren could be heard in the distance, growing louder by the minute. Two EMTs hustled in carrying a stretcher and rushed to the seat of the stricken concertgoer. As he was lifted onto the stretcher to be carried out, a whisper travelled around the audience announcing that it was not serious, just a music lover overcome by the performance, as it were. Everyone relaxed, the Trio took up its instruments, and the concert continued.
In the midst of the next movement, a cry went up from a different part of the audience. "We need a doctor here." Stunned, we all sat there incredulous as the identical charade was enacted. When the second patron had been carted off, the Trio gave up and announced Intermission.
This was during the time when I was traveling to Chapel Hill as often as I could to see Susie, and when I arrived for my next visit, a week or two later, she announced that she had managed to get a pair of tickets to a concert at Duke University. With considerable excitement, she said the Beaux Art Trio would be performing. As you may imagine, I attended the concert with considerable trepidation, but although I scarcely relaxed for the entire event, it all went off without incident.
Sunday, December 1, 2013
Those of you who have been following my exchange of comments with Michael Llenos will have long since realized that he has been teasing me, having some fun with me, saying obviously foolish things just to get me going. Sigh. I am so thick! Well, it finally dawned on me with the bit about Methuselah. I mean, I should have caught on when he referred to vegetarian lions, but I am terminally dense.
What follows is a circular letter I received from William Polk about his new book. I have ordered it, and will report when I have read it, but on the basis of what he has written so far [some of which I have reproduced here], I am confident that it will be an important read. I reproduce it for your attention.
November 23, 2013
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
Attached below is a flyer on my most recent book which I hope you will get and enjoy. It deals with most of the major current problem areas in the Middle East – Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Libya and Mali – analyzing their history, culture, society and politics in a way I don’t think other books have.
It has gotten marvelous reviews, a few of which are reproduced on the flyer, from a wide variety of experts and concerned readers. Indeed, you probably are one of them!
I am sending out the flyer because I find that the most serious failure in contemporary publishing is in access to audiences. I have published in the past with a variety of “houses,” including Harvard UP, Chicago UP, Knopf, Doubleday, Palgrave MacMillan and Harper Collins. Most of them have suffered in recent years and now offer less help in producing books than they used to do. So, with this book, I have shifted to Amazon as you will see. They also do little for a book. They require that the copy be delivered to them ready to print so give no editorial or production assistance. Mary Tiegreen My daughters, Milbry and Eliza, took on these task and did them very well. More important, Amazon does little to promote the book so I am turning to you to ask your help.
In addition to getting a copy of the book for yourself, I would be most grateful if you would send the attached flyer to as many of your friends and associates as you feel comfortable in doing. I have priced the book at the lowest possible figure so as not to burden you or them.
And I think you will like having it!
With thanks and warm regards,
USA Kindle Edition:http://www.amazon.com/Humpty-Dumpty-Fate-Regime-Change-ebook/dp/B00GSWF4MS/ref=sr_1_5?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1385484718&sr=1-5&keywords=william+polk
UK Kindle Edition:http://www.amazon.co.uk/Humpty-Dumpty-Fate-Regime-Change-ebook/dp/B00GSWF4MS/ref=sr_1_13?ie=UTF8&qid=1385484872&sr=8-13&keywords=william+r+polk
Friday, November 29, 2013
Well, I knew I should not have written about Iran and Israel. I appear to have screwed up royally, not about any large geo-political question, just about the elementary matter of who wrote what comment. I think I am going to go back to watching re-runs of NCIS until my mind clears. Aaarrrggghhh!!!