Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Boxed In


It’s always a warning sign (unfortunately usually ignored) when someone explains himself by resorting to clichés. For example, my successor as chairman of the English Department claimed that he believed that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
He then went ahead and stared breaking things. 

Last week the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, responded to the shooting at the high school in Santa Fe by claiming, “We have to get creative,” to think “outside the box” to find a way to stop shootings.* His creative beyond-the-crate solution: reduce the number of school entrances and exits. Fewer doors, he reasoned, would offer fewer opportunities for gunmen to penetrate school buildings. I wrote “reasoned” because his was a totally logical argument. Unfortunately, the Lt. Gov. didn’t allow his reasoning to continue to its obvious conclusion: build schools with NO doors, thereby preventing gunmen from entering the buildings at all.

*

One picture in the news reports about the Santa Fe shootings was of this schmuck, who showed up at the scene with a flag and a gun: 


I’m not sure what his flag was supposed to do—perhaps supply a force field to shield him in a gun battle—and I’m even less sure to what avail his weapon would be in the circumstances. I will guess, though, that he thought of  himself as that “Good Man With A Gun,” who would stand up heroically against one of those “Bad Men With Guns,” who allegedly are running amok in this country. He has what I suppose ought to be called the “High Noon Complex.”

*

I have an abiding interest in the history of Soviet spying in America and Great Britain before, during, and after WWII. You know, Philby, Burgess, and Maclean over there and the Rosenbergs, et al. over here. I am at present reading a biography of Harry Gold, the nebbishy chemist who served as a courier between the scientist Klaus Fuchs and Russian agents. What struck me was the fact that at the time the United States was at its greatest peril during the Cold War, facing a nuclear power enemy—whose atomic bomb program was advanced by the secrets Fuchs supplied—the undercover agents of the Soviet spy agencies and the clandestine American traitors did not have stockpiles of weapons. The United States government was not going to be overthrown by domestic force and violence. And a ragtag bunch of NRA whackos was not going to be needed to defend our institutions. 

*

In almost every case of recent mass murders—whether at schools, churches, or public gatherings—the murder weapons were legally purchased. For example, the Las Vegas gunman bought his own, while the Santa Fe shooter used his father’s legally obtained arms. In most jurisdictions, government authorities have sprinkled fairy dust over gun owners, granting licenses to them (after background checks of one sort or another) for potentially being “Good Men With Guns.”
The reality is, however, that that same legal weaponry is just waiting to be turned into killing machines. 
  

***


Saturday, May 12, 2018

Black Holes


The other day I read two articles that I would like to point you to. 

The first is an evaluation of the work of the late Stephen Hawking. (It is available at https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/a-brief-history-of-hawking-s-scientific-legacy) In its discussion of black holes and such astronomical phenomena the article did not include any mathematical equations, luckily for me as I can’t get beyond ten fingers and ten toes.*

What particularly struck me (apart from the way modern scientists have pushed ever closer to unravelling the deepest mysteries of the universe) is who those scientists are. Mentioned by name are Roger Penrose—like Hawking an Englishman—Albert Einstein (Swiss), James Hartle and Leonard Susskind (Americans), Jacob Beckenstein (Israeli), Gerard ’t Hooft (Dutch), and Juan Maldacena (Argentine). 

Certainly for residents of a small planet to attempt to comprehend the nature of the vast universe our home orb is a part of, nothing other than a global endeavor will do. And science, no matter how hard dictators try to make it, is anything but parochial or local or answerable to political dogma. 

*

In the second article, “Tracing the children of the Holocaust” (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32589411), writer Alex Last followed up, seventy years later, the attempt by the BBC after World War II to find relatives in Britain of children who had survived the Holocaust. 
It all began with a rare recording of an old radio broadcast, which starts with the words: "Captive Children, an appeal from Germany."
One by one, for five minutes, the presenter asks relatives of 12 children to come forward. With each name comes a short but devastating summary of the child's ordeal under the Nazis.
"Jacob Bresler, a 16-year-old Polish boy, has survived five concentration camps, but has lost his entire family…
"Sala Landowicz, a 16-year-old Polish girl, who's in good health after surviving three concentration camps…
"Gunter Wolff, a German Jewish boy, now stateless. The boy is 16 years old and has experienced the ghetto at Lodz, and the Buchenwald concentration camp...
"Fela and Hana Katz, their father and mother have died, they have lost track of two brothers and three sisters."
And so it went on.
In the end Last was able to trace 11 of the 12 children mentioned in the one extant broadcast. Most were no longer alive. But Last was able to meet four survivors.

Unfortunately for some of the children, even when relatives were found, all did not go well. Instead of joyous clasps to the breasts, these children found an atmosphere soured by old family feuds, stinginess, and distain. For example, while in a DP camp three sisters 
got a response from the cousin they sought in London - a hospital doctor. But it was not what they expected.
"I got a letter back [said one sister] telling me I had to stand on my own two feet, and that kind of annoyed me, this attitude. So I wrote him, he needn't worry, I won't come to him for anything, that I will stand on my own two feet because I had a good teacher and that was Hitler. And he taught me a lot.”
On the other hand, others, like Jacob Bresler, were lucky:
Mr and Mrs Samuels were more than lovely. And they became my parents, practically, for the rest of their lives. They were angels. You don't meet people like this today, and if you do, you should carry them on your hands, and celebrate them as the most fantastic human beings that were ever alive. To this day, I do not have the words to express my gratitude, and they really loved me, and I loved them.
                                                                                *
Last year at my bank I noticed that the teller had two little flags attached to her name tag. One was the Stars-and-Stripes, but the other I did not recognize. When I asked her, she replied that it was the flag of Jordan. “That’s what I like about this place,” I told her. 

They may not all be scientists searching for the deepest secrets of the universe, but our mixture of peoples, some having escaped from murderous homelands or from crushing poverty, is a cause for celebration. But how much longer can we celebrate when we have an administration hell-bent on kicking people out and bolting the door in their faces? 

*
General relativity predicts the existence of black holes, regions of space where matter and energy are so dense that nothing can escape from their gravitational pull, not even light.**
Trump’s Washington is a political black hole whose denseness does not allow light to escape—or compassion to be released.

***

*So I lied! I studied Advanced Calculus and Differential Equations in college.


Saturday, May 5, 2018

How My Wife's Two Black Eyes Led Me to God


Paige Patterson is the 75-year-old president of Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which claims to be one of the largest schools of its kind in the world. He is lionized among Baptists for his role in the “conservative resurgence,” which is what some call the movement to oust theological liberals beginning in the 1970s.. . . 
[In a 2000 audio recording] Patterson is heard telling a story about a female congregant of his who confessed to being abused by her husband. Rather than report the incident to the authorities or help the woman escape, he sent her back to her spouse and asked her to pray “not out loud, but quietly.” The woman returned the next Sunday with two black eyes, a sight which Patterson said made him “very happy” because it made her husband feel guilty enough to attend church for the first time.*

***

As I sit here I am thankful. Yes, I am thankful, O Lord, for having been led to your heavenly gates.

I was a roughneck, a real bad guy. I got into many scraps, but most of my violent behavior was directed against my wife, Debbie Lou. I hit her and beat her and mashed her and smashed her. I hit her when my beer wasn’t cold enough. I hit her even harder when she didn’t polish my shotgun shiny enough. And even harder than that when she forgot to take my best hound dog to the vet. 

And what did Debbie Lou do? Did she yell? No. Did she even complain? No. What she did was pray. And every time she prayed, I hit her again. Why was she praying? What was she praying for? Why didn’t she curse at me like Donna Sue, my brother Billy Bob’s wife, does at him when he beats her? 

One Sunday morning as I was nursing a bad hangover, I glimpsed Debbie Sue a-sneaking out of the house. She had on her only good dress and good shoes and was a-wearing a big hat. I pulled on my pants in a hurry, and I followed her down the road until she came to that old Southern Baptist church on General Stonewall Jackson Drive. 

And she went in! With her two black eyes and her nose to one side of her face, she went in to mingle with the high-falutin’ folks from the other side of town. I couldn’t believe it! 

I followed her in, determined to grab her by the neck and drag her home where she belonged to make me my breakfast. But as I entered the hall, a mighty ray of light hit me, and I sank to my knees. I started shakin’ and then rolled on the floor. Immediately I was surrounded by faces, one of which said to me, “Do you believe?” “Yes, I believe,” I answered tremblingly. 

“Then you are SAVED!” the face shouted. 

And I am saved.

*

And safe. 

As I sit here and write this down. Safe in my little cell. 

I’m gonna end this now as I got to write a petition to the Warden to allow me to attend Debbie Lou’s funeral. I know that I shouldn’t of hit her so hard, but she insisted on puttin’ make-up over those black eyes, and the Church don’t allow women to wear no make-up. Least, that’s what the preacher says. And I’ll bust you one if you disbelieve in the word of God.

Signed,

Jimmie Ray Jones

Prisoner #294751073

Alabama State Prison

Huntsville  

***


*https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/05/sbc-patterson/559532/

Friday, April 27, 2018

"If this be error and upon me proved . . ."


“April is the cruelest month,” T. S. Eliot has informed us. And this April has indeed been cruel to me. My beloved New York Rangers did not make the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in eight years. But I have to admit that the dark cloud that rained April showers on me to mix with my tears did have a silver lining. In the past I could not make a playoff bracket prediction because I could not let my head rule my heart and eliminate the Rangers at some point down the line. But this April, using all the hockey knowledge gained by night-after-night of couch-potatoness, I plunged into into the prediction business with full use of my head and with no interference from my heart.

As of today, with all eight of the first-round series completed, my score is four wins and four losses. A monkey—blindfolded and throwing darts—could do better. As far as the prediction business goes, I am a bust. And I don’t advise anyone to ask me for a hot stock tip either!

*

A good number of years ago a friend asked me, “Doc, why do you always have to be right?” The question penetrated to my inner core, and I thought hard about it. I realized that the question wasn’t posed right. There was the implication in it that whatever claim I made had to be right just because I was making it. The reality was that I absolutely hate saying anything that is wrong, false, or alternatively factual. It was not a matter of asserting that truth is on my side—but that I want to be on side of truth.

In all my years of teaching nothing bothered me—indeed ate away at my insides—more than the recognition that I had said something wrong in class. And it always seemed that the error was made on a Thursday, the last day on my teaching week, so that I had to stew about 95 hours over the weekend until I could stand in front of the class and offer a correction. So, yes, Doc always has to be right. (Or hate himself when he has been wrong.)

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that I have complete disdain for people who cannot admit their mistakes, but rather attempt to throw a blanket of self-protection over their poor easily-bruised egos. For example, many years ago the New York Times briefly had a feature in its sports section in which a staffer answered readers’ questions. I discovered an error in the answer given to the esoteric baseball question, “Is a run scored on a sacrifice fly an ‘earned run’?” Without going into detail (and boring everyone to tears*), I wrote to the staffer to inform him that his blanket answer of “Yes” was incorrect and cited the exceptions. He wrote back and instead of acknowledging the mistake, he huffed and puffed that he wasn’t being asked about exceptions and thus he wasn’t wrong, and so on and so forth.

The Times shortly afterwards ended the question-answering feature—and I’m glad to say that I never saw that writer’s name again in print.

*

As fas as owning up to one’s errors, there has never been an admission as worthy of praise as Fiorello LaGuardia’s:

“When I make a mistake, it's a beaut!”

***


*But in case anyone really cares, a runner who got on base on an error, or who advanced on an error, cannot be scored as an “earned run” if he does score. It, of course, only matters statistically.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Time on My Hands (The Curmudgeon's Etiquette)

Some people have problems, and The Curmudgeon’s Etiquette is dedicated to solving them. 

Today’s problem comes from the on-line watch forum that I regularly follow:
My job (and life) are fairly informal - and on the days that I am required to wear a jacket, my Damasko is more than sufficient. 
Unfortunately my brother is getting married next month, I'll be in a tux and surrounded by a wedding party of big $$$$ watch guys. Panerai, Rolex, Speedy dudes. What I wear will be noticed in this crew - it always is. 
I could head into midtown, hit up Wempe, and buy a $2k watch - but I don't really want to invest that much in a watch that will be infrequently worn. 
$500 is probably the most that I'd want to spend on a one-off dress watch - what's my best bet here? 
For $1k, what are some cooler, more versatile watches that could double-duty from tux to weekend wear? 
The OP (Original Poster), I should point out, claims to live in Brooklyn, NY. Now, I think I can handle this, but I must alert you that when I lived in East New York, Brooklyn some six decades ago, this problem would never have popped up, so I have no track record on this.
By his own admission the inquirer already owns a Damasko watch. The Damasko, made in Germany, is not widely known outside of watch enthusiast circles, but is greatly admired therein. Here are some Damaskos:


Damasko watches start at about $1100 and run to over three times that price. Now it seems to me that no-one should get collywobbles at slipping on a watch of that price (and of its reputed quality) to attend any sort of affair. In fact, it is my firm belief that one should demonstrate one’s individuality by wearing whatever suits one’s fancy. A Casio G-Shock might be a bit over the top at a formal wedding. But what the hell—it’s your wrist after all. 


Some responders to the original post suggested that the OP could simply go without a watch, thereby saving himself from the expected scorn from the big Rolex-wearing machers who don’t see a crown logo on his watch.


But I have another suggestion for Mr. Timorous: Get this Casio MTP-V007L-1EUDF:


It’s a classy-looking thin watch that will easily slip under one’s shirt cuff, so no-one will even notice the watch—unless they’re more interested in staring at your wrist rather than at the bride (and assuming you don’t roll up your sleeve to arm-wrestle). If, by any chance the watch did sneak out from under the cuff, a very quick glance may bring thoughts of a Cartier Tank watch to mind:



And you would have palmed off a $25 Casio as a piece of $6700 eye candy.

Still, the Curmudgeon’s advice is: Be a mensch. You’ve got a watch. Wear what you like. Don’t spend any more money just to keep up with the pseuds and show-offs. The hell with them. You’ll never see them again.

Épater la bourgeoisie!

***

On another thread at the watch forum someone posted this picture of Pope Francis:


He identified the watch as a Casio selling for under $10.*

Someone else claimed that the watch was a Swatch, still of modest expense. However, if the Pope was given to wearing a Swatch, why not this one?


That’s one of the few things the Curmudgeon feels the Pope has let us down on. 

*

To all those “Panerai, Rolex, Speedy (Omega) dudes” at every fancy wedding, I recommend that they take to heart these words by James Carroll about the Casio (or Swatch) wearing Pontiff:
The life of Pope Francis has itself become a kind of secular encyclical. In this white-robed octogenarian can be glimpsed the transcendent possibility toward which all desire stretches, whether that of the abject poor, who recognize him as an ally, or that of success-obsessed élites, who are ironically burdened by the ultimate vacuousness of the luxuries that he eschews.**
***

*Another member exclaimed: “That’s not a deal, that’s a freaking miracle!”










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
https://www.historytoday.com/laura-ashe/invention-fiction?mc_cid=80d53b14f5&mc_eid=c9770e1a07

*

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.