Friday, March 23, 2018

A Curmudgeon's Etiquette

“I just got an invitation through the mail 
‘Your presence requested . . .’” 
Irving Berlin

Actually, in the last two days I received two invitations in my mailbox. In neither case was I advised—like Fred Astaire—that proper dress was “top hat and white tie and tails.” 

The first invitation to arrive—from Carnegie Hall for its Patrons dinner and concert—specified “Business Attire” as the appropriate dress. While I had no problem with that togging out when I was teaching, I have had to send my regrets to Carnegie in recent times because, being retired and having no business to which I could attune my habit, I thought it would be inappropriate to attend wearing sweatpants and a tee-shirt. I have also taken to wondering how Ed Norton would respond to such an invitation.

The second invitation was to a wedding. On it, down at the bottom. were the words “Black Tie Optional.” I was immediately reminded of the reaction of the stuttering comedian Joe Frisco upon receiving a “Black Tie” invitation: 

“BBBut how will it gggo with my  bbbrown suit?”


Over the years I have received a few wedding invitations that began like this:

Mr. and Mrs. John Smith 
Mr. and Mrs. Ed Brown  
Request the pleasure of your company at the wedding of their children, Heloise and Abelard.

This drives me crazy. The prospective bride and groom—both in their late 20s or early 30s—have been cohabitating for donkey’s years.* And now they’re to be viewed as “children”? Isn’t there an etiquette book somewhere that alerts people to the fact that we are no longer in the Victorian world? Shouldn’t modern wedding invitations read something like this?
Hey, World,
After living together for x years, Heloise and Abelard have decided that it may work after all. So, we’re going to get spliced. Want you to come.


Gift-giving to wedding couples has been a problem for me. Watching money being handed over in films like “The Godfather” and in real life, I’ve always thought, “How incredibly tacky!” So for years I would search out some gift like fine French champagne flutes, and feel that I had demonstrated high-class continental taste. Until an aunt** upbraided me for purchasing from a company with a Nazi-sympathizing owner. Chastened, I have since become a tacky checkwriter on nuptial occasions.


I refrain from giving gift cards—except in the rare case of my knowing absolutely, positively that the recipient actually loves to shop there. This stems from the time my tenure as department chairman was up and some bright spark decided that the gelt collected*** should be turned over to me as a gift certificate to a certain men’s shop. Unfortunately, visiting that emporium would have meant having to drive about 20 miles and, once there, having to reach into my pocket for additional funds to buy the only thing they had that I could possibly have wanted (but didn’t even need). I never used the certificate, and since the business folded years ago, I wonder where the funds went. 


*I have no idea if this is so in the present case.

**For the lowdown on aunts, read P. G. Wodehouse.

***I thought at the time that they should just have handed it over to some charity.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Art, Artifice, and Real Life

One thing above all is genuinely unknowable and it is the supreme matter of fiction. That is, what is going on in anyone else’s mind? 
Laura Ashe


Unknowable to others because they are outside and the thoughts are inside the shell  of the other person’s head. To the outsider thinking looks like this:

or this:

or this:

Writers of fiction overcome the problem of unknowable thinking by either telling the reader what a character is thinking:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning — fresh as if issued to children on a beach. (Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway)
or demonstrating the character thinking:

no thats no way for him has he no manners nor no refinement nor no nothing in his nature slapping us behind like that on my bottom because I didnt call him Hugh the ignoramus that doesnt know poetry from a cabbage thats what you get for not keeping them in their proper place pulling off his shoes and trousers there on the chair before me so barefaced without even asking permission and standing out that vulgar way in the half of a shirt they wear to be admired like a priest or a butcher . . . (James Joyce, Ulysses)
In the theater thinking is externalized by the playwright’s having his character speak his thoughts out loud—the soliloquy:

“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.” (Richard III)
“To be, or not to be: that is the question . . .” (Hamlet)


Art is a wonder. These “artistic conventions” allow us to do what can’t be done in real life. “Here I present you the thoughts of another,” says the novelist or playwright. And the audience accepts the unnatural for the sake of enlightenment and enjoyment—but only after the conventions are learned. Young Bernard Shaw did not walk into the musical theater knowing where the singers were (and weren’t)*. Likewise, when my grandson Tomás, playing the Beast in his school’s production of Beauty and the Beast, was “killed,” his young sister, Emma, was frightened because she didn’t understand that art is sometimes better than life—because everybody takes the curtain call; nobody has been killed.**


But if art is conventional, so is life. Consider the spectrum of human societies; how vast are the possibilities of human behavior: from cannibalism to veganism, from polygyny to polyandry or—to be mundane—driving on the left side of the road versus driving on the right. Each society uses only a small part of the spectrum. Looked at that way, one can say that “real life” is as artificially constructed as art itself. 


“Real life” is as much of a theater as the theater itself.*** It is not only Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock who has “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”; what woman has never said at one time or another before leaving home that she has to put her face on? Make-up for the stage or for life—needed in preparing a theatrical character (art) or our “real life" character to face an audience. And costuming ourselves as well: swim suit for swimming, and suit for being a suit. We follow the (artificial) codes for dressing in “real life” or suffer real consequences. Is your shirt tucked in? Is your slip showing? (And why are you wearing a shirt, anyway?)

And your actions must align with your costume. A real life Yossarian, who recognized that real bullets cause real injury, would be a disgrace to his costume (i.e., uniform) and suffer real consequences for violating the artificial norms of his society. 


Ultimately it all comes down to the contest of the artifice of art versus the artifice of life. 

Art is a critique of the artifice of life; life is a critique of the artifice of art. 

And all is philosophical—until blood flows.


*See the previous post, “A Night at the Opera.”

**Except in certain murder mystery novels in which the author diabolically has an actor-character done in during the course of a play. (Cf. Simon Brett and Caroline Graham)

***The vital text on this is Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

Friday, March 16, 2018

A Night at the Opera

A contributor to a watch forum I read wrote in the other day:
One of my favorite operas is playing Friday in Chicago. Last day. Cosi fan Tutte, by Mozart. Tickets are min. $100 each. Some lightweight binoculars are supposed to come for my daughter tomorrow. Problem is, she's only 6 and can't read yet, much less fast enough for the projected subtitles. She would enjoy the music, have fun with her binocs and in general, have a blast, but she wouldn't understand anything and would be asking me all the time what's going on. Should I pony up and take her? I'm thinking yes. She would remember it forever, even if she can't read. 
The few who ventured to answer the question agreed that the father should take his daughter.*


When my daughter was about the same age, I took her to see the New York City Ballet version of The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. When the curtain dropped, Susan was indignant: 

“That was unfair!” she proclaimed. 

“What was unfair? I asked.

“They didn’t get to dance,” referring to the children Marie and the Prince. 

I tried explaining to her that during the second act when they are in the Kingdom of the Sugarplum Fairy and seated on a raised platform, they are being honored by being danced to by the others.

But Susan wasn’t having it. For her—since she was taking dancing lessons—the purpose of dancing was to dance, not to be danced to.


In doing my research for my doctorate so many years ago, I came across an anecdote that George Bernard Shaw told about his first visit to a concert in Dublin when he was a child. (I have searched to re-discover it—but in vain; so I have to paraphrase it.) Shaw’s mother gave singing lessons at the family home, so the young boy had an idea of what singers looked like. Upon reaching his seat in the concert hall, young Shaw climbed onto it and, resting on his knees, turned his back to the stage to face the audience. As time went by, he wondered when the finely-dressed men and women would stand up and begin to sing.

Young Shaw had not learned that one convention (the major one, in fact) of a musical evening is that the singers will perform on the stage.


This is by way of an introduction to a future discussion of conventions—artistic and otherwise.


*A note of no importance:

The father, who goes by the nom de Web of Smaug, wrote that if he does go to the opera tonight, he will probably wear this watch:

I have its soulmate:

Friday, March 9, 2018

Close Shaves and Hot Air

I had reason the other day to wander over to the website of my internet provider (, where curiosity led me to segue over to their Help page. I decided to investigate ”How to Restart Your Xfinity Wireless Gateway (aka: WiFi Router)." There are, I learned, two ways to do so: The Manual Restart and The Remote Restart. Here are the respective instructions:

To perform a manual restart:

1—Shut down the device you are using to connect to the Internet (e.g., a computer, laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc.)

2—Unplug your Wireless Gateway, modem or router from the electrical outlet and leave it unplugged for at least 10 seconds.

3—Plug the power cord back into the electrical outlet. Wait 30 seconds, then turn your device back on.

To Remotely Restart the Wireless Gateway via the XFINITY My Account App:

1—Download the app from Apple iTunes or Google Play; you can also search your mobile device's app store for "XFINITY My Account."

2—Sign in using your XFINITY username and tap Internet at the bottom of the home screen.
Note: If you forgot your username or password, you may find it on the Password Reset page.

3—Tap Restart device on the XFINITY Internet screen and tap it again to initiate the restart process for your Wireless Gateway. This process takes about five minutes to complete.
XFINITY Internet screen shows a Restart Device option under Support.
You will see a message confirming that a restart signal was sent to your Wireless Gateway.

4—If your device (Gateway, modem or router) successfully restarted, tap Yes to exit. If your restart was unsuccessful, tap No to display a page providing you with additional resources.


In the 14th Century, William of Ockham (or Occam) formulated the philosophical principle that became known as Occam’s (or Ockham’s) Razor, or the Law of Parsimony. It is basically an instruction on how to approach the solving of a problem. There are multitudinous ways to express the reasoning; here are a few from the Web:

One should not multiply entities beyond necessity (Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate);

Plurality should not be assumed without necessity;

When presented with competing hypothetical answers to a problem, one should select the one that makes the fewest assumptions;

When you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.

It should be noted once again that Occam’s Razor offers an approach to an answer, not a guarantee of the answer. In other words, start with the simplest explanation and run with it until necessity (that is, more evidence) demands a re-think. It is the way that crime novels are built; suspect the most obvious person, until a new piece of evidence rules him out—and so on to the next most obvious person, until . . . . 

Occam’s Razor is not only the logical way to approach an existing problem, but is also a valuable tool to use in deciding future action. For example: When I wish to go shopping at a certain supermarket, I have two routes (of almost equal lengths) that I can take. It thus becomes a question of splitting hairs which route my whim of the day will decide on (and it would fruitless for someone else to claim, in retrospect, which route I did take, absent further evidence). However, my future action will (most likely) not be a toss-up if I have either a letter to mail or a bank deposit to make. If the former, I most likely would go by way of Ford Avenue and Route 1 (because I would pass 3 mailboxes on my side of the road); if the latter, I most likely would go by way of Main Street and St. Georges Avenue (because I would pass my bank on my side of the road). Almost certainly the Law of Parsimony would be followed here. (Especially if one is thoughtful—or lazy.)

Which brings us back to re-starting our modem.

Which procedure does Occam’s Razor suggest as the most logical way of going about the business? 
  1. Getting out of one’s chair, pulling the power cord from the back of the modem (or, at the other end, from the wall), and plugging the cord back in after waiting a few seconds, or 
  2. Downloading an app, signing in to one’s account, tapping on one’s remote device twice, waiting 5 minutes, then tapping Yes or No, whether the restart was successful?


The latter procedure is an example of a modern-day Heath Robinson (for UK readers) or Rube Goldberg (for US readers) approach to accomplishing a task: How to do simple things in the hardest way possible.

Heath Robinson:

Rube Goldberg:


So what does all this have to do with our present-day conspiracy-mongers? Without citing any specific examples (you can supply your own) of the mind-boggling pretzel twists of their convoluted reasonings, I invite you to remember “Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate.”


Speaking of which, you might prefer to resort to one of these to dry your hair. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Church of Woody Allen

This gold watch—on his deathbed, my grandfather—sold it to me.


In his stand-up comedian days, Woody Allen was a very funny man. He presented his audience with a world in which even the clichés were askew. Hamlet saw a tragic universe that was “out of joint”; Allen’s was a comic one.  

And then he graduated to the movies.


In the middle of  “Hannah and Her Sisters” David, an architect, is asked about his favorite buildings:

                   (looking only at David)
            What are your favorite buildings,

            You want to see some?

            Oh, yeah.

            Well, let's do it.

                   (looking at David)

David starts the car and the movie cuts to an unfolding
visual excursion through New York City's landmark buildings,
as seen from the trio's point of view in the moving Jaguar.
Inspiring classical music plays in the background.

The series of shots includes the Dakota, complete with
surrounding winter trees, the Graybar building on Lexington
Avenue, an incredibly ornate building on Seventh Avenue and
Fifty-eighth Street, a red-stone church, an old building
with embellished, bulging windows on West Forty-fourth
Street, the Art Deco Chrysler Building, a red-brick building,
Abigail Adams's old stone house, and the Pomander Walk
nestled off Broadway on the Upper West Side.


What was it that bothered me about this episode—which flashed on the screen a number of buildings that I appreciate—in a film that I enjoyed?

It was the unspoken assertion of what is the good without any of the hard work of analysis or explanation. Woody Allen has smiled on these buildings, and, so, they have been blessed. The word that defines this is “ipsedixitism,” the claim of authority in an argument, not by presentation of evidence, but by “he said it.” It’s all talk the good talk the good reference, talk the good name drop. The filmmaker as pseud.


I first had embryonic intimations of Allen’s ipsedixitism when I saw “Annie Hall” (which I also liked). In every culture clash between the unsophisticated midwesterner and Woody Allen’s hip New Yorker, Alvy, the former is automatically wrong (I mean, come on: “I’m gonna have a pastrami on white bread with, uh, mayonnaise and tomatoes and lettuce”) and the latter is right (this is what she should be reading: Death and Western Thought  and The Denial of Death). 

But it is important to note here that whenever Allen goes into ipsedixitism mode his audience is with him—because he is with them; he is flattering them by reproducing their cultural prejudices. Consider the following scene in “Annie Hall”:

It's a beautiful sunny day in Central Park.  People are sitting on benches, 
others strolling, some walking dogs.  One woman stands feeding cooing pigeons.
Alvy's and Annie's voices are heard off screen as they observe the scene before
them.  An older man and woman walk into view.

Look, look at that guy.


There's-there's-there's-there's Mr. 
When-in-the-Pink, Mr. Miami Beach, there, 
you know? 
(Over Annie's laughter) 
He's the latest! just came back from 
the gin-rummy farm last night. He 
placed third.

M'hm.  Yeah.  Yeah.

The camera shows them sitting side by side relaxed on a bench.

(Watching two men approach, one 
lighting a cigar) 
Look at these guys.


Oh, that's hilarious.  They're back 
from Fire Island.  They're ... they're 
sort of giving it a chance-you know what 
I mean?

  Oh! Italian, right?

  Yeah, he's the Mafia.  Linen Supply Business 
or Cement and Contract, you know what I mean?

Oh, yeah.

No, I'm serious. 
(Over Annie's laughter)
I just got my mustache wet.

Oh, yeah?

(As another man walks by) 
And there's the winner of the Truman 
Capote look-alike contest.

Funny? Yes. Nasty? Yes. And how easy to put down these people.They aren’t members of Allen’s congregation—Mr. Miami Beach? Hardly. We’re better than they are. They don’t read Death and Western Thought. They play gin-rummy.


I hung on with Allen’s films until “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” In this supposedly philosophical movie about guilt, justice, etc. I never got as far as bothering with those abstractions. What arrested my attention was an early scene between Cliff (Woody Allen’s character) and Barbara, his sister, who is relating a horrendous dating experience to him. The man was

Very attractive.
It was very nice.
I went out with him three times.
He was never fresh.
He was always a perfect gentleman.
So... we both came back here,
and Jenny was away.
She was sleeping over
at a friend's house.
And it was, like, one o'clock
in the morning or something
and we both had had a little to drink.
You know, I wanna tie you to the bed.
- Really?
- And rip your dress off.
Have you ever been bound up,
tied up and made love to? . . .
Barbara, I'm shocked at what I'm hearing.
You're my sister.
A nice, middle-class mother.
What are you telling me?
I couldn't move.
I was tied tightly to the bedposts.
Jesus. By a stra...
a guy that you didn't know?
And now you're gonna tell me
that he robbed you, right?
He got on top of me and... and...
- And what?
- I can't say it. I just... I can't say it.
What? Tell me. What's so terrible?
He sat over me...
and went to the bathroom.
That's so disgusting!
Oh, my God! That's the worst thing
I ever heard in my life.
- Then he took his clothes and left.
- Barbara! You idiot!
This guy could've cut your throat!
Murdered you!
- I would've preferred it.
- Jesus. You're such a dope!
I wish I could have sympathy for this
 . . .
A strange man defecated on my sister
. . . 
Yeah, well, I gotta be up at seven.

“You’re my sister.”

“Oh, my God! That's the worst thing I ever heard in my life.”

“A strange man defecated on my sister.”

“. . . my sister.”

“. . . my . . .”


There it is: All the pain, grief, and suffering of others (I wish I could have sympathy for this) is obliterated by the need to relate everything to one’s own self. In this case: Look at me, how I am disgraced, dishonored by this event. (At least, had the violated woman been the sister of a mafioso of type laughed at in “Annie Hall,” her date would have been in cement blocks the next day.) She would be avenged.

Not that we hadn’t been warned before about Allen’s solipsism. Back to “Annie Hall”:

ANNIE : And you know something else?  You know, 
you're so egocentric that if I miss my 
therapy you can think of it in terms of 
how it affects you!


The comedy of Woody Allen (even at its best) was—if I may coin a phrase—shibboleth comedy. That is, it played to an audience who could pronounce the cultural passwords correctly. These congregants of the Church of Woody Allen, however, may not have understood that the new gospel read: “In the beginning was the word—and the word was me.


The weird shifting of quotes from the left margin to the center and back is down to the texts of the movies that I could access.