Believing Stuff

When you are asked what you “believe” about any subject, do you have to “look it up,” or do you have to do “research?” If someone has to consult a book (even the Bible) or some other authority to be able to regurgitate what he “believes,” does he really believe it? (And is looking up an answer that’s already been discovered and recorded really “research?” But that’s another question.)

If your friend and neighbor wears a political advocacy hat, you’re more liable to wind up wearing one, too. Ideologies are like viruses, and they are transmitted through symbols and idols such as crosses, elephants and donkeys, five- or six-pointed stars, flags, hooded sheets, logos, MAGA hats, NRA stickers, pink ribbons, sports emblems, swasticas, and symbolic gestures such as clenched fists, salutes, taking a knee, and bows.

What a person really believes has the potential to motivate life-changing decisions. Therefore it should be internalized to the point where we can articulate it if we are called upon to explain it or make decisions based upon it. People who believe that the Bible is God’s Word of truth are called upon to be “always ready to make a defense before everyone that demands of you a reason for the hope in you, but doing so together with a mild temper and deep respect.” (1 Peter 3:15) This sounds like good advice to me.

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Scary Words

Years ago I worked with a young female colleague whose upbringing made her squeamish about certain words. On separate occasions, I learned that merely saying one of the words made her squeal.

Her trigger words: spiders, snakes, underpants, and vomit! Saying any one of them would trigger: “Eeeew! Don’t say that word!”

If I wanted to get a rise out of her, I could slam my fist on my desk and say: “Spiders, snakes, underpants, and vomit!” It was better than cussing.

I wonder how she would have handled: “There are so many spiders and snakes in my underpants it makes me want to vomit!” She probably would have fainted dead away.

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Human Expectations

“How am I supposed to be able to bench press 250 pounds ten times?” you may ask, apparently thinking this is something that is expected of you.

The answer? You’re not. You are a human, not a gorilla. Your ability is to do brain surgery. Make Swiss watches. Play violin concertos. Stuff like that.

So maybe you’ll never be faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound, or reverse the rotation of the earth. But you can design and build an elevator to take you up and you can take a piano up with you and you can fly around and around the earth at 22,000 mph (orders of magnitude faster than a bullet) and can take the piano with you there, too. (Once Elon Musk gets his stuff together.)

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Just Learn to Write!

In the twenty-first century, any person who does not know how to write clearly is not completely educated. To this end, given present technology, keyboarding ability is an advantage. The person who can type eighty words a minute is able to express himself four times more fluently than the one who can bang out only twenty words a minute. Because typing takes longer than speaking but is required for much of modern communication, learning to type faster and more accurately is an advantage.

When I was teaching at a technical university, on the first day of one class, I asserted that anyone who was not fluent with a keyboard would be at a disadvantage and would have trouble in the class. Afterward, a minority student criticized me for failing to recognize his “cultural circumstances,” as though it was my fault that he couldn’t type. Why was he in a technical university and taking computer courses if he lacked this fundamental skill? My recommendation was that he drop out, take typing classes, and become qualified to do college-level work in computer technology, then enroll in the university.

Most writing we do is informal, with no aspirations to be literature. It should nonetheless be well-formed. The writing we do, in some cases, is the only picture people get of who we are. This includes our email and social media posts, including to length-limited Twitter.

Therefore, we should always write full sentences, consistently capitalized, the words correctly used and spelled, the sentences grammatically correct and punctuated according to standard practice, with paragraphs properly arranged and composed.

To do less is an insult to those we send our communications to. And I for one do not care to be insulted.

Anyone who apologizes for less is begging off. He can and should strive to improve rather than forcing others to bear the brunt of his stupidity, ignorance, and laziness.

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Pronoun Perplexity

It’s necessary for authors to be careful and explicit regarding the use of pronouns when more than one person is present in the context of a discussion. The antecedents of pronouns may be perfectly clear in the writer’s mind, but to a reader it may be anything but.

Consider the following sentence, which seems to make perfect sense:

He told him that he would pick up his kids and take them to his house.

But there is a big problem if the author is thinking:

John told Jake that Jack would pick up Jim’s kids and take them to Joe’s house.

There is nothing wrong with using proper nouns when pronouns would result in confusion.

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Nosing Around

a nose

A Nose

This article is from the series Meditations from the Track Changes Column

In the course of copyediting, I often find it useful to nose around in (aka research) what great authors of the past did. The sorts of points I seek insights into include examples of word usage, what preposition a verb most often takes, whether to use a comma in “Yes, sir”, and other subtleties of punctuation.[1]

To aid myself, I’ve accumulated a small library of fine literature in plain text format, currently numbering twenty-seven books, and including works by Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, H.L. Mencken, Edith Wharton, P.G. Wodehouse, and a translation of the Bible in modern English. These are in the public domain, acquired from Project Gutenberg.

I’ve hoped to add more volumes and more authors to this collection, except that, masterpieces though they may be, these books are venerably old from the standpoint of contemporary publishing practice, and many styles that were current in Dickens’s day, or even Wodehouse’s more recent era, are not those of today. Newer books are more difficult to come by, at least legally. The truth is, I don’t know where to get them illegally, either. I’d love to have plain text versions of Updike, Wallace, Delillo, and even the likes of Hemingway and Steinbeck, plus a number of non-fiction texts, but I’m unlikely to ever get them, short of scanning them with an optical character reader myself (which I ain’t gonna do), because they are carefully guarded. (And I don’t mean to suggest that I would want them illegally, for I am a respecter of copyrights.)

Much of the same information, and of books published up to the year 2000, is available from Google Books, particularly using Ngrams, but specific examples require more digging and clicking. Sometimes the effort yields useful examples, but it can also be a pain and more trouble than it’s worth.

Plain text files are searchable using standard Unix type commands or programs written in a programming language such as Perl (my personal favorite), which allow me to filter and format the results any way I wish. Therefore, using skills as a former software engineer, I’ve devised a number of tools to get at information.

To use one of the examples above, I find that in this collection “Yes, sir” (with a comma) occurs 224 times (spoken most frequently by Jeeves to Bertie Wooster in P.G. Wodehouse’s books), and only once without the comma, likewise in a conversation between Jeeves and Bertie Wooster in the midst of many others that do have the comma — so doubtless a copyediting oversight! I conclude from the data thus obtained that it’s best to use the comma in dialogue that contains words that follow the model “Yes, sir”. (Many patterns fit the model.)

Recently I recently wondered about the average word length (in letters per word) within a book. This information is easily obtained by counting the characters and dividing by the number of words. There’s a Unix tool, wc(1),[2] to get the numbers, and a script can gather them and do the dividing. The result is not precisely accurate, because the Unix tool counts as words every group of characters separated by spaces, so punctuation and numbers and various oddities skew the number correspondingly. But as averages across a library of books with the same constraints, they’re good enough for comparison, which I imagine is why the tool was written near the dawn of the Unix era.[3]

The range from author to author and book to book is not as broad as you might think. A calculation to several decimal places is in order. My script calculates to fifteen decimal places, but about three places seems to be adequate for discussion purposes.

So take a guess — what you think the range would be among these highly literate authors? The shortest average among all of them is the Bible at 5.377 letters per word (lpw). The modern book with the shortest words is (believe it or not) Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, with an average of 5.514 lpw, and the longest is 6.121 lpw by H.L. Mencken, who may have had the largest vocabulary of any English-speaking person who ever lived. Amusingly, the book with that count is titled: Damn! A Book of Calumny. Apparently the man even knew how to cuss in words of more than four letters.

From that analysis we see that the range from shortest to longest average word length is well less than a letter per word. Sounds about right to me.

Recently I edited one of the most horrendously bloated books I’ve ever laid eyes on. The author was a thesaurus diver, determined to seek out the longest and least common word in every possible case. It’s no exaggeration to say that in one out of three instances he used the more obscure words incorrectly. My task became an arduous one of consulting the dictionary, mind-reading, and replacing incorrect and rare words with ones his readers (as few as they will be, mostly his relatives) would be likely to recognize. In time it dawned on me that this guy may have used longer words on average than any author I’ve ever encountered — which made me wonder: How much longer? So I saved the document’s body text to a plain text file and made calculations as described above. (It was a very long book, too, over 500 manuscript pages.) The number I came out with was 6.821 lpw, vastly longer than H.L. Mencken’s erudite habit. (Most importantly, Mencken used and spelled all the words right, as his monumental three-volume work The American Language demonstrates conclusively.)

My favorite sentence from this editing job, said in regard to one of the author’s primary subjects of discussion, says:

He was not wont to bloviate.

Wont means inclined, and to bloviate means to speak verbosely and windily. How ironic that such was not the author’s own inclination, and that at six words in a book where sentences of thirty to sixty words are legion, it was also likely the shortest sentence in the book.

If the author was trying to impress readers that he’s smart, then bzzzt! Big mistake! No person, no matter now intellectual, actually talks like that. What he left instead was quite the opposite impression.

In contrast, the very next project I worked on was written by an author who describes himself as dyslexic and unable to read until after he left school. He has the vocabulary of a fourth-grader (though no fault of his own), and the average word length on his project came out to 4.401 lpw. It was the longest work of fiction I’ve ever edited — by about 20 percent. But it took me far less time to edit it than the previous book.

[1] Speaking of subtle things, did you notice that the previous sentence contains a subtlety of punctuation? And have you ever noticed that the spelling of subtle is subtle?

[2] The form wc(1) is standard Unix man (manual) page syntax.

[3] Aka Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which began at midnight on Thursday, January 1, 1970, and is calculated within many computer programs in seconds. I don’t know when wc(1) was created, but I’m rather certain that given the nature of it and its typical use, it had to be among the first that Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie provided when they first created Unix.

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Meditations from the Track Changes Column

Page with track changes on

Page with track changes on

In the course of editing the writing of clients, I encounter much in the way of ticks and bad habits, not to mention sheer ignorance, particularly in the writing of beginners and illiterati — of which I edit more than I’d like — in addition to the usual complement of routine mechanical errors.

Some booboos are laugh-out-loud hilarious. (If I didn’t allow myself to fulminate at and even ridicule (privately) some of the manuscripts I work on, I wouldn’t be able to do this work at all.) Other clinkers are illuminating in that they reveal modes of thinking on the part of authors that can be picked apart and learned from.

One of the most powerful features of the ubiquitous Microsoft Word text-whacker, one that is underutilized or even unknown by authors who work alone, is its ability to track changes from version to version. This function works well. A heavily edited manuscript ends up having a forest of marks on it that leave it looking like the image at the beginning of this article.[1]

When an editor is done with a manuscript, the author can go through and accept or reject changes, or having had a matter brought to light, might make a different change. For instance, if I delete the word very before large (because very is such a wimpy word that I routinely uproot occurrences like dandelions), the author might still wish to intensify the idea of largeness, so will delete large and substitute huge.

Not every change is routine. Sometimes an editor offers an explanation in a comment — such as you also see in the example image — in part to assure the author that the editor has a sounder reason than whimsy for making the change. (Sometimes I write them to convince myself as well.)

But comments take time to write, which has an economic impact on productivity. More importantly, marginal comments are not the place to go into detail or to give English lessons. Most of the time the editor is obliged to move on in order to get a job done. But certain problems stick in your craw.

At least they do for me, with the result that I may scribble out a few relevant lines in one of my many electronic notebooks.

And So …

I’m planning to write an ongoing series of short articles about craw-stuck problems I’ve encountered in the wild, that is, within manuscripts I’ve worked on, and to illustrate points with sentences taken from client work, suitably anonymized so as to avoid copyright infringement, letter bombs, and other negative fallout.

About the Name

These articles will be categorized under the Track Changes Meditations category in my blog. What I really call them is Meditations from the Track Changes Column, but that’s too long a label for a menu, so I saved that name for this cover article. That title is a tribute to a book that is legendary among ultrarunners, Meditations from the Breakdown Lane: Running Across America, by James E. Shapiro, regrettably long out of print and no longer available except on Amazon at a price I don’t want to pay. It’s about things the author thought about on his transcontinental run on the highways and byways of the United States. (He was one of the first to do this.)

[1] The text in the image is from an article by Dan Horvath in Marathon & Beyond magazine article that I edited a few years ago, used with the permission of the author. The actual content is irrelevant to this discussion.

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Aerial Gynectomy

Aerial solution

Aerial solution

Based on a true personal experience …

Trying to avoid eye contact with anyone, I chose the side of the street with shadows, but was approached by a woman who decided that I was the cause of all her life’s problems. She tried to delay me with her ranting. I tried to apologize in return, but she was adamant to the point of outright belligerence.

“Excuse me a sec, I have to take this,” I lied as I reached for my phone, pressed and held the hotkey 9, short for a personal-911 type call.

On the second ring, Charlie answered. “What’s up?”

“It’s a number 22.”

“No kidding? For real? Okay, less than five minutes.” Cool. I’d never actually done this before.

My best option was to stand still and listen patiently to the lunatic rave. It wouldn’t last long.

She explained that I had killed her Lord (I’d heard this charge leveled at others before me), was responsible for the polar bears disappearing, and that I was the one who personally invited all the persons of another ethnic category than her own to move into her neighborhood, bringing her property value down. (As though her own personality had nothing to do with that.) She continued to claim that when she lost her job it was because of me rather than her own slovenly work habits; further, it was because of me rather than her own exorbitant spending binge that only two months thereafter she had to declare bankruptcy. I’ll admit she had quite the array of problems.

I sensed relief the moment I heard the chop-chop-chop sound. A small helicopter swooped in and landed in the middle of the street, about fifty feet away from the slack-jawed “woman”. A jumpsuited functionary, some friend of Charlie’s, jumped out and began commanding traffic. (I’d need to see he gets a raise.) Fortunately, there was little of it at the moment. Two other men bailed out behind him, hustled over, and without saying a word to either of us, grabbed the confused shrew by the arms, escorted her rapidly to the helicopter, threw her in, and took off. Problem solved.

In and out time from touchdown to liftoff was about thirty seconds. A new record. (We’d done dry runs for practice.) They left without fanfare, as a couple of people who in the meantime had stumbled on the scene stopped to gape at the chopper. The woman was about to take a bath she would never forget. I remember hoping she knew how to swim really well. Lake Erie is huge and deep.

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The Goldfinch — A Review

The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch

Last night I finished listening to the audio recording of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which won a Pulitzer in 2014. Both before and after the award, it garnered a mixture of reviews, some praising it highly, some hating it.

One person I know (a fellow editor) called it “unreadable”. Really? Well I didn’t read it, I listened to it. But this bad publicity caused me to delay starting until there was nothing else new on my smartphone to listen to — particularly because the printed version weighs in at 800 pages.

I should point out that the reading of the audio version is first class. The reader, David Pittu, does voices superbly well.

I’m glad I started, because I quickly became engaged by it. And I truthfully can’t understand what all the negative fuss was about. Is it a perfect book? No, but how many perfect books have you read all the way through in your life? Do I intend to go out and find some of the negative reviews to discover why I’ve been deluded and should hate it instead of liking it? Why would I do that?

The basic elements are there: a good (if somewhat implausible) story; Dickensian characters (the comparison is not my origianl observation) the reader comes to know and like (mostly) and care about (I found the character of Boris to be far more interesting and multilayered than the main character, ultimately an example of a good rogue/bad guy with a heart of gold); beautiful language; and stuff that makes you think real hard and for a long time.

The novel takes its name from a seventeenth century painting by Carel Fabritius, which today is perfectly safe in a museum in The Hague, where it’s been for ages. But in the novel it’s more or less stolen (it’s complicated) by Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old boy, when he is at the New York Metropolitan Museum to see it on display, and there is a terrorist attack that kills many people, including Theo’s mother. The reason he does this is all very understandable in context and even excusable if you attach more value to the life of a young boy victimized by terrorists than to a painting, no matter how allegedly priceless.

The boy winds up keeping the painting, perfectly safe but hidden, for many years. He loves the painting, his mother who died in the bombing loved the painting, and the older man who dies beside him in the rubble had loved the painting since childhood. Theo — who becomes a man and is around thirty by the novel’s end — wanted almost from the beginning nothing more than to return the painting to its rightful custodians, but he simply hasn’t known how to do it. And the longer he keeps it, the harder it becomes.

Many, many things happen in the course of this book, most of them at least interesting. Theo Decker makes a number of radically different friends. In the end the painting is returned. That’s about as short as I know how to make the incredibly long story. And yes, it’s a spoiler, but not a very big one in my opinion. And all is well. Does everyone live happily ever after? Hard to say. That all concerned are much wiser is a certainty.

The protracted ending includes a lot of discussion about how objects of beauty affect different people in different ways. How that particular painting ninety-nine percent of all people will walk by in a museum and say “Mmm hmm” and not think about it again for the rest of their lives, whereas other people will look at it again and again and take airplane trips halfway around the world to be able to have another look at the original.

Furthermore, the thing that gets people is different for almost everyone. Someone will see brush strokes, another color, another composition, another symbolism, another a beautiful line, another a story or a mystery, so that even though the work itself may be whatever it is, static and unchanging, its higher meaning is what it is in relation to the one viewing it, and that’s different with each person.

That’s dumbing down the conclusion to near moron level, but any person who has learned to respond to objects of art will know exactly what I’m talking about.


Unfavorable reviews generally tell me more about the reviewer (something I rarely wish to know) than about the object reviewed. The review gives the reviewer a platform to rant and fuss and show his or her own self-assumed superiority. (“Charlie Parker? Oh man, I can’t believe you like him. Whoever said he could play the saxophone?” — Yes, there are people like that.)

I rarely write unfavorable reviews myself because if I don’t like something, I don’t finish it, or if I do, I don’t see the point of wasting my time fussing with it. There may be exceptions, when there is something instructive and useful to be learned from it.

As in all matters, YMMV. There’s probably someone reading this who thinks The Goldfinch is the worst, most overrated piece of tripe ever written. I would save that honor for something by Dan Brown.

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Words and Pictures — A Review

Words and Pictures

Words and Pictures

Words and Pictures, while perhaps not perfect, is a movie that is much better than its 6.6 user rating on IMDB would suggest, a rating earned probably because it’s not a Hollywoodish movie. It demands your close attention, and may not be for everyone.

In fact, the appeal will no doubt be mostly to viewers who read a review such as this one. If you keep reading this article without losing interest, you will probably like the movie.

The main characters in the story are a man (Jack Marcus, played by Clive Owen), once a successful writer, and a teacher of Honors English; and a woman (Dina Delsanto, played by Juliette Binoche), an even more successful painter and a teacher of Honors Art.

He is a brilliant teacher who engages and inspires students. He drinks too much. He’s an alcoholic. He has a son who appears in a minor but necessary role. There’s no mention of an ex or deceased wife or even an old girlfriend. The apparently gifted and becoming-successful son just exists, and the two are not close because of the father’s drinking.

She is a fine teacher, too, but somewhat on the stern and detached side. She has rheumatoid arthritis, which has affected her ability to paint, and is obviously unhappy about having to resort to teaching because of it.

When he shouts at his students, they get motivated. When she shouts at their students, they get discouraged.

The setting is a prep school in Maine. It’s not a stereotypical Hollywood prep school. It’s the sort of prep school that actually teaches students who want to learn stuff. It’s the sort of prep school I would have wanted my kids to go to if I’d sent them to one.

The script is scintillating and is the centerpiece of the movie. The Owen character and the Binoche character get into a spirited debate — edgy without being outright hostile — about the philosophical question of which has more value: words or pictures, a discussion that spreads school-wide. The dialogue is crisp, fast-paced, and thought provoking, like a discussion between Supreme Court justices.

And thus the title, and also the reason it’s not a Hollywood style movie. In the course of it we get to hear a lot of good words and see a lot of good pictures (paintings).

To me, Clive Owen’s character is the stronger and more interesting of the two. Yes, he has problems, but he’s got genuine passion for what he does, and he’s not really a horrible person. Owen is a terrific actor. His delivery and timing are impeccable, and he’s said to possess a phenomenal memory. The “Behind the Scenes” extra on the Blu-ray disc said he showed up the first day with a four-page monologue that occurs early in the film memorized cold; that he had to deliver it twenty-seven times to get various camera angles (his audience is a class of students); and that he delivered it with passion every time, never mechanically, and never dropped or fumbled a line. As such it was a performance and an acting lesson for the young actors playing students.

Juliette Binoche’s character is not a grumpus for the sake of being a grumpus, just to provide counterpoint and contrast, but a woman who is trying her very best to make the best of her unavoidable circumstances, like Stephen Hawking with ALS. Viewers understand and root for her to succeed.

What I did not know is that Ms. Binoche is herself a talented painter of long experience, and that she herself painted all the work shown in the film as being by her character. Part of her character’s development is to evolve her style from fairly average-size to small paintings with a certain amount of abstract semi-realism to finding new ways of painting … using large canvases, inventing new tools, brushes the size of mops, controlled by pulleys and cables, as she migrates into a new style of pure abstract painting. And you get to see a fair amount of Ms. Binoche actually working on it, in some cases gliding around on her stomach on chairs and dangling from slings and the like.

There is, of course, a love-hate relationship between the two, and it’s inevitable that it would develop into a romance. How that works out in the end, and how Jack Marcus deals with his alcoholism I will leave to you to discover when you see it, but will caution that the romance is not the most important element of the movie. The constant play of words against pictures is. So the movie is well named.

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Unbroken — Laura Hillenbrand

Recently, in part because of some books that have come my way as an editor, I’ve spent more time than I normally would have becoming acquainted with the experiences of men who have gone to war and returned from it.

Of these, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken is by far the best, a magnificently well-researched and clearly written account of the life of Louis Zamperini, a young rascal, high school track star, Olympic runner, World War II flyer (a bombardier, not a pilot), prisoner of war, and returnee who was ultimately able to reclaim his life after a few rough years.

The true and copiously documented story is by turns heartrending and inspiring. I won’t describe any more of it here. What interests me is good writing.

The acknowledgements section at the end, which most people will skip, is revealing. Ms. Hillenbrand had personal access to roomfuls of firsthand source material, above all to the person of Louis Zamperini, who said late in life that if he wanted to know something about what he did in Japan, he’d call Laura.

The book was published in 2010, and according to Wikipedia, Louis Zamperini lived until July 2014, dying at age 97, having lived a full postwar life that at first did not start out to be as promising as it turned out. He even managed to remain married to his vivacious wife, whom he met shortly after returning from Japan, for nearly sixty years, a feat in itself.

Parts of this book are extremely difficult to get through. Despite the imperfections that drive us to unseemly forms of conduct, humans are by nature loving and compassionate toward one another. Accounts of unspeakable endless brutality of humans against other humans are both exceptionally hard to endure reading and almost impossible to explain. But they do help us to appreciate more the triumphs that happen in the end, when the goodness triumphs over evil.

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Doing Their Job?

redeploymentA review of Redeployment by Paul Klay. Substantially the same text I posted on both Amazon and Goodreads.

Five stars if you can handle it. I can’t conscientiously recommend this book for everyone. It’s a book for grown-ups.

Its author, Phil Klay (I was told on an NPR review), pronounces his name “Kleye”; it rhymes with “fly”.

I dislike categorization of books. Putting a label on something makes it a commodity and cheapens it. But I do like to know what I’m reading.

Amazon tells me Redeployment is fiction. (It won the National Book Award in 2014 for fiction.) I had to check to be sure because it evinces such a strong ring of truth. It’s based on real experiences, including the author’s own.

Redeployment is comprised of twelve short stories about the war in Iraq. More precisely, it’s about young men who were there in widely varying roles. Each story is told in first person, each story differs greatly from all the others, and every single one is riveting.

My personal favorite is “Prayer in the Furnace”, the conflicted reminiscences of a Catholic priest serving as a Marine chaplain. How can someone who professes to serve God comfort men who sign up to to kill people as Marine infantrymen, when they return from doing their job and discover that what they’ve done bothers them?

The writing is extraordinary. It’s not minimalist, but there isn’t a wasted word. It’s the kind of writing that makes me think I wish I could write like that. I read a lot; I read for a living as an editor, and believe I can write better than almost anyone whose work I’ve edited. But I can’t write as well as Phil Klay. Not yet.

I’ve recently edited two books about men who went to war. The most recent was a biography of a World War II fighter pilot ace—still living and now in his nineties. His story was sanitized of the blood and gore and of all the violent and crude language so typical of warriors.

When you shoot other airplanes out of the sky or drop bombs, you don’t have to look at your victims. One passage mentions that part of the job was strafing, flying low over convoys and gunning down everything in sight, rightly calling it “mass killing.” The biography’s subject has blotted those episodes out of his memory and does not talk about them. But a lot of killing went on. An ace pilot is by official definition someone who has scored a certain number of confirmed kills against other aircraft. (And the poor pilots who flew them.)

Immediately before that biography I edited a collection of memoirs by Vietnam veterans, all of whom suffered deeply from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). None of the authors knew each other during their time in Vietnam, yet their experiences had many elements in common. Every single one came back broken for life.

My own life has been lived far away from war, as much by choice as by circumstance. I’ve known few people who were ever in the military, faced combat, and returned. Yet I’ve know some. And every single one has come back in a condition like the Vietnam vets whose experiences I edited—broken beyond repair.

And so when I heard a review on NPR of Redeployment a few weeks ago, I was interested in reading it because the subject was timely.

The military takes impressionable young men (and some women, but they rarely engage in combat), and teaches them to be conscienceless killers—the unvarnished truth of the matter. It immerses them in lingo laced with more offensive language than you’ll hear from any lowlife subculture short of lifers in prison. Their tribal culture allows other forms of immoral behavior that though they aren’t officially sanctioned are widely practiced. I don’t think I need to itemize here.

Sometimes the wars they get sent to kill them. If they survive they come back damaged, always (I will argue) mentally and emotionally, sometimes physically, sometimes for life. Those with thinking ability spend the rest of their days wondering about what they did, trying to rationalize it, often spinning their experience into the web of some supposedly justifiable cause. But when you train people to do such a job, what can you expect when they actually do it?

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Passing on 43 on 41

41: A Portrait of My Father

41: A Portrait of My Father

I had pretty much a 100-percent-certain chance to meet George W. Bush today if I’d wanted to do it. I say “pretty much” only because nothing in life is absolutely certain. But I could have done it. Didn’t do it.

My second stop in a chain of urgent errands was at Costco, where an unusual number of uniformed security personnel with solemn faces had assembled in front, and many more inside. A sign at the entrance said that George W. Bush would be at Costco for a book signing to promote his new book 41: A Portrait of My Father. The angle is clever—a presidential biography by a son who was also a president—but not unique. John Quincy Adams also wrote about ninety pages of a biography of his father, but the effort was interrupted and he never finished it. And GWB has never written a biography of himself. Frankly, I doubt if he could without a ghostwriter. The younger Mr. Bush is not a literary type.

Once inside, I went about my business, which took me to most parts of the store. Toward the very back there was already a line of perhaps seventy-five people behind yellow police tape that formed an entry chute. Mr. Bush was not there yet, but a crowd had begun to arrive.

That Mr. Bush has written this just-released biography of his father was not news to me, and I had decided that it doesn’t interest me. I’ve read over a dozen US presidential biographies,[1] most of them in my personal library, some of them outstanding, some of them not. On my shelf already is a biography of George H.W. Bush (a.k.a. “41”, his son is “43”—but you knew that, right?), written by Herbert S. Parmet, which I do intend to read sometime when I can get around to it because GHWB was a pretty interesting guy in his day. (Don’t know if it’s supposed to be good.) Maybe I’ll even get to it in 2015, but there’s a lot of books ahead of it right now.

You can probably think of good reasons to suspect I’d rather read GWB’s version of the story. After all, there haven’t been any people closer to the source who would also be able to understand the unique pressures that come upon a US president. The irony is there isn’t a thing I can think of that GWB (43) might have to say about any subject—even about his father—that I’m much interested in. What a pity.

Some guy walked up to a security guy near me and asked where The Man was. The SG asked him if he had any electronic devices on him—a phone or tablet. The inquirer said no, so the friendly SG directed him to the end of the line. I can think of some reasons why they’d rather not have people armed with phones (seeking to take selfies or record conversations) around a former president. Or maybe GWB himself prefers not to have any more of his unedited thoughts recorded and tweeted to the world. That didn’t work out too well for him in the past, as I recall.

Upon rumbling my cart to the very back row, I couldn’t reach what I wanted because it was on the other side of the yellow tape, so I gave up. I didn’t want my life to end in a pool of blood from an attempt to break a security line to get at some Kleenex.

On the way out of Costco, I checked the sign again and saw it was still a little while before Bush would arrive.

I’ve never met a US president, current or former, nor even knowingly been in the near vicinity of one, but I’ll admit that it would be a memorable experience as a sort of bucket list item to shake hands, introduce myself, and all the better, get his autograph on a book. Yeah, I’d have to buy the book to do it. That’s okay. And having gone that far, I’d read it, too, because I usually read the books I buy.

Great respect for the office and for anyone who holds or has held it obliges me to regard the possibility of meeting a current or ex-president as a privilege. Persons who know me are well aware that I’m strictly apolitical and my reasons for that—the vogue term is neutral, which does not mean apathetic and certainly does not mean uninformed. (Don’t get me started on that subject.) So it doesn’t really matter exactly who it might happen to be; a meeting is still an honor. (The number of choices at any given time are limited, currently only four.)

Be assured, too, that I’m not in the least bit intimidated about meeting or talking to high political officials, the rich, well-educated, or intelligent, or those who possess some combination of those attributes. People who accomplish big things in their lives can usually be counted on to be sources of stimulating conversation, if you have the opportunity to pursue it before being pushed away to make room for the next plebeian.

If I’d wanted to do it—and I certainly had that option—I would have had to deposit my purchases in the car, dump my cell phone, get in line, stand there for a while, and buy one of the books, because selling books was the whole purpose of the visit. Copies had been removed from the book tables in the store (I looked), so if I’d wanted one today I would have had to stand in that line and obtain it that way … and presumably also meet the author and get it autographed. The signature would increase its value if I wanted to turn it over—which I wouldn’t, because I would have read it, and when I read history books (I read a lot of history books) I also would have annotated it, rendering it worthless to someone else. But I really didn’t want to go the trouble. So I passed up the experience.

Maybe if I’d known about the event before I went to Costco and didn’t have so much other stuff to do, I might have planned for it and done it, just to be able to say I did. But I didn’t.

Yeah, it would be a fun and memorable experience meet a president or ex-president and have his autograph on a book. So maybe some other time … and preferably some other guy.

[1] Washington, John Adams, Madison, Lincoln, Garfield, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton, with Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush unread ones on the shelf and a couple more that I’d like to get to before calling it quits. (Not all US presidents are interesting.)

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Photo by Jen Goellnitz

Ted Williams had been saying he would quit baseball every year for four years. By September 28, 1960, it was finally time, and Ted wanted more than anything to do something memorable at the end. In his last major league at bat, he hit the ball out of the park, which was his favorite thing to do. He had hit many home runs before, but this one especially pleased him.

To compare myself to Ted Williams in any other way would be a case of ultra hyperbole. But I’ve been saying for the last three years that each ultramarathon I’ve run would be my last. On September 20, 2014, the time arrived for me to run what I’m certain really will be my last, the NorthCoast 24-Hour Endurance Run (NC24) at Edgewater Park in Cleveland, Ohio, this year once again the USA Track and Field National Championship for that format.

I arrived at the race undertrained and overweight but up for it, and wanted to do something to make it special.

When it was all over, I’d accomplished every one of my goals plus one I hadn’t expected. In short, it was the best race of my life — not in mileage accumulated, but from the standpoint of all the ways that matter most, at least to me.

To jump to the conclusions first:

  • I did the entire race without a single rest break. My only stops were for the potty (1 sitting, 3 standing), at the aid station table (average about ten seconds), and at my own table (average about six to eight seconds to guzzle water). And once I had to duck under the nearest canopy to throw on my rain poncho. I’ve gotten through 24 hours in both fixed-time and 100-mile races without sleep, but never without at least one or two brief rests. Somehow, I didn’t get even a little bit sleepy, but just kept grinding away from the start until I heard the siren 24 hours later. That achievement by itself was for me the most satisfying part of the experience given the state of my conditioning.
  • My total distance for the race was 67.555 miles. That’s 2.04 miles better than what I did at NC24 in 2010. And I’m four years older, which means something at my end of the scale. It also meant I finished comfortably in the top half for the first time in a few years, in the fifty-fifth percentile.
  • As a bonus, I got a medal for third in my age group (70-74), which I didn’t expect. I’ve reached the age where I can pick up medals by attrition, as the other old guys quit or (ahem) die. It means an extra medal for my bling box. As race director Dan Horvath said in announcing the results, “This is a competitive division. I know these guys.” I thought the others in my division are all way better than me. Actually, they are. But what I accomplished was to prove the old tortoise and hare principle. While others were resting, including in flooding rain at 4 a.m., I was out there burning up the course and beat out at least one guy. (I think there were only four of us, but I’ll take it. I worked very hard for it.) Sometimes I also like to amuse myself by thinking that I also beat the however many hundred thousand men in my age division who didn’t show up, most of whom couldn’t possibly participate in such an event. My competition was with only with men of experience, those who both can and do. Vanity, I know.

Some reasons that I know this will be my last ultramarathon are these:

  • I really don’t want to run another ultra, and had to convince myself to do this one. I enjoy the training, which I do for health, but the preparation is not the fun it once was. By that I mean the prerace logistics, making a race plan, packing, traveling, fretting the day before, and worst of all: race morning. I detest the part from when the alarm goes off until I get in the car, with all the pre-dawn slathering on of Bag Balm and Vaseline in unmentionable places, preparation of feet, and obsessing over getting just the right gear all lined up. Then again at the park: setting up the aid station, making sure I can find stuff I’ll likely never need, when I’d rather be visiting with running friends old and new as they arrive.
  • The unpredictability of the weather in some places, particularly in Cleveland, on the shore of Lake Erie, as fall rolls in, also makes me nervous. I don’t like to suffer in bad weather. I’ve done as well as I can expect in ultrarunning, and have nothing more to prove to myself or anyone else.
  • I can no longer run. That’s stating it as plainly as I know how.
  • It’s been several years since I raced with any regularity. For me running and walking have always been about the physical training, and also the assuasive solitude of the road, not the competition.
  • There are other things I both want and need to devote time to.

But I still do continue to work out nearly every day, have nearly limitless leg endurance, and saw a way I could capitalize on that for a last hurrah.

The Details

There isn’t much to tell. The race started, I began to hustle around the 0.90076-mile loop, and 24 hours later I stopped. I wore no watch, and my phone was off. I drank nothing but water supplemented with S-Caps, and I ate only aid station food, mostly peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and M&Ms. I was utterly unconcerned about my number of laps or pace, because I was doing the best I could. I haven’t seen any splits, but I’d be surprised if there is more than a couple of minutes difference between the slowest and fastest.

As dawn approached, my back began to give out, and I became aware that I was leaning forward. With my center of gravity pushed forward, I had to walk faster than was comfortable just to keep from falling over. It became more and more painful to continue. Back pain is what finally did me in at mile 96 of my last 100-mile attempt in August 2007, when I started stumbling and falling into the bushes at the side of the road. Both then and Sunday morning I’d tried locking one arm across my back, hooked into the crook of my other arm, to use as a combination lever and brace to prop myself up, but it took a lot of strength, and was good for only at most a dozen steps at a time.

At the end, I had given absolutely everything I had to give. There wasn’t one minute I wasn’t doing my best. Though I thought about it, I never seriously considered resting or giving up, and the farther I went, the more determined I became to finish what I set out to do. But I don’t believe I could have gone another two tenths of a mile without falling down. The last couple of minutes I just looked for the nearest bench to collapse on as soon as I could. When I stopped, I was as done as I’ve ever been.

I’ve run all six of the fall edition of the NorthCoast race. (In 2012, the year of the near hurricane, I did the 12-hour.) At each 24-hour race I had difficulty handling the nighttime hours. After between 12 and 14 hours of hustle, I’d melt down, collapse in my chair, suffer dry heaves, and sleep uncomfortably on and off, interspersed with death march laps, until dawn. After every one of these races I believed that if I could have endured the night better, I would have gotten a lot more mileage.

This year, following a ten-hour night of sleep, I arrived with the idea of hoping to fight sleepiness. In order to do that I would have to keep going no matter what, not taking any breaks. Restarting is just impossible for me. And I must confess that I didn’t think I could do it, but believed at least maybe I could do better.

My lifetime PR for a 24-hour race is 83.716 miles, set at the Olander race in Sylvania, Ohio, on September 15-16, 2001, four days after 9/11. That was thirteen years ago, and I was 58 then. Between then and 2008, I ran eight 72-hour races, and a ninth in 2010 I had to drop out of after 25 miles because of impending illness, and also a couple of other 24-hour races. I did well enough in my good years, even finishing second in a 72-hour once, but inevitably slowed down. I can’t do that any more.

At the first NorthCoast race in 2009, I got only 60.98 miles, disappointing but expected in the wake of traumatic life changes that happened when I moved from Phoenix, Arizona, to Columbus, Ohio. The next year I got 65.51 miles, better, and until this year, my best at this race. At all these races I would run as much as I could, then walk when I couldn’t, then turn into a rotting pumpkin.

It’s a certainty that I can’t get anywhere close to my lifetime 24-hour PR any more, nor even the 76 miles I did in San Francisco just a couple of weeks before moving to Ohio (which itself was barely two months after the 96 miles of my last failed 100-miler). But I thought I could better my previous NC24 best.

The Race

When we started, I didn’t feel my best. My right hip and my back were immediately stiff, but I couldn’t let it worry me. I took some ibuprofen, which helped.

On the fourth lap, Harvey Lewis, of recent Badwater fame, whizzed by and asked if my side was hurting me, cautioning that I seemed to be leaning to the right. Oh no! Was I suffering from the dreaded condition ultrarunners call runner’s lean, which plagued me for two or three years a decade ago? This happens when your iliopsoas muscles (the ones that enable you stand up straight) completely give out on you and stop firing. And I was just getting warmed up. I concentrated on my form, and guess I managed to overcome it, because I never did have a problem with it the rest of the race. Maybe Harvey just caught me at a bad moment.

As I’ve read other reports that have come in, I’ve been surprised to hear from some of the best runners that they thought the weather conditions were tough. Normally I’m the weather whiner, but I thought this weekend was the best I’d ever experienced for this race. It’s true that it hit about 81 degrees in the afternoon and was humid, and at night there was first a bit of a drizzle around 9 p.m., followed by a cloudburst at 4 a.m., but it didn’t last long. The heat didn’t bother me at all, but I was walking, not running.

Normally, as darkness sets in along the lake this time of year, it requires putting on more clothing, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it was comfortably cool, ideal for being out. I wore only a running shirt on my upper body, plus compression sleeves, and also had compression sleeves on my legs. I did change my hat when I got caught in the rain, but other than that, I was wearing exactly the same clothing at the end as I started with, even the same sweatbands on my wrists.

The arrival of the rain was well-timed for me. A drizzle began and grew steadily as I was on the back stretch approaching the curved hill before the lap start-stop. I decided I’d better grab my rain gear. I was no more than 50 feet from my table when a cloud moved overhead, and less than five seconds later I was in a furious downpour. I got wet, and so did the uncovered stuff at my table, but I grabbed my rain poncho and ducked under the nearest canopy for shelter to put it on and hit the road again. I didn’t let the weather intimidate me any. When the rain stopped a while later, I took off the poncho, and that was all there was. There was water on the bike path in some places, including some where runners had to wade through over the tops of their shoes. Runners whose ambition was to keep their feet dry may have had trouble with that, but I considered the whole thing both entertaining and refreshing and splashed through them like a duck.

One mistake I made was laxness in preparing my feet. Normally I use some combination of Bag Balm, taping, women’s half-height nylons inside my running socks, and even Injinji socks. This time I skipped the taping and used ordinary running socks. I’d gotten lazy about tending to those preparations when I went for long training runs, but I should have been more careful before the race because my feet have lost the toughness they once had.

As a result, by about eight hours into the race I was experiencing blisters from hell, a problem I haven’t had since my first 48-hour race in 2000. After that race I wised up, did some reading, and started experimenting. After that I stopped having incapacitating problems. But on Saturday it wasn’t long before both my feet were hamburger.

I could stop, lose time, get them treated, become stiff in the meantime, and then limp onward, but then I wouldn’t make my goals. And besides, I didn’t want anyone messing with my feet. Long ago I learned that it hurts a lot more to get off them (which does nothing to fix them) and then start walking again than it does to just keep walking. You kind of get used to it. So I did about 16 hours of this race with raw flesh for support. Today, two days after the race, my feet are still in pain, with blisters on several toes and on the balls of both feet. I’ll lose at least two toenails, maybe three, and the calloused pad on at least my left forefoot. But I refused to stop.

Fighting sleep was my single biggest worry. I’ve tried caffeine tabs, which have only given me the dry heaves about twenty minutes later. A few days before the race I asked a number of runners if they had tried 5-Hour Energy, which has been heavily advertised on TV and seems to be omnipresent in stores. Replies came in saying that the stuff can be effective if you can handle the disgusting taste. I figured it can’t be much worse than Red Bull, which tastes like bile and also doesn’t work for me.

There’s a rule of thumb all runners who race learn that one should never try something in a race that hasn’t been tried in training. Good advice, but nothing I’d done before was working, so what did I have to lose?

My plan was to try one 5-Hour Energy at 10 p.m., 13 hours into the race, and if it worked, to take another at 3 a.m. It does indeed taste horrible, but I chased it with water. End of suffering.

The impact was almost instantaneous, which is not surprising. People who drink coffee or tea are aware of how quickly caffeine gets into the system. A few sips and you’re up.

At the same time I took the 5-Hour Energy, I also cranked up my iPod, which I haven’t used in a while. (I usually use my phone in daily training outings.) It was set to select tunes at random, which was fine. Five minutes later I was not just strolling along, but smacked with an outburst of ebullition, as I danced and jived and conducted orchestras and sang while being treated first to some of the most beautiful pop music ever made (“Let It Be” by the Beatles) followed by some of the most energetic music ever made (by the jazz trio The Bad Plus, one of my current favorites). In previous NC24 races I would be out cold in my chair or my car at this hour, but this time I was completely cranked and pushing without letup.

When I took a follow-up at 3 a.m., it had little further effect.

Abschied (Farewell)

Ultrarunners like to say there’s always another race. But there is not always a next time.

And so I’m nailing a lid on my ultrarunning career. Between 1999 and 2014 I ran 39 ultramarathons — not a lot by some runners’ standards. But I’ve kept track of the numbers, and it comes out to 2964.21 total race miles, an average of exactly 76.00 miles per race. If you divide the miles by the distance of a marathon, it comes out to 113.06 marathons — for whatever value that statistic is worth. Probably none. But I like to think about it when non-runners ask me how many marathons I’ve run. (Twelve.) I’ve spent 35 24-hour days running around looped courses, several of them in three-day chunks, not to mention a half-dozen or more 12-hour races. My ultrarunning career ran from ages 56 to 71, so I was a late starter, which helps explain my five 100-mile DNFs. I’ve always done much better in fixed-time than point-to-point races.

In quitting, I realize that I’ll also effectively be leaving the community of ultrarunners. That part is hard. Ultrarunners as a lot tend to be healthy, focused, disciplined, dedicated, generous, friendly, intelligent, and a pleasure to know. But I do intend to keep following the various social media resources dedicated to the sport.

The title of this report, Schwanengesang, means swan song, and is the title of a posthumous song cycle by Franz Schubert. The term has come mean a farewell appearance or final act or pronouncement, especially of some kind of a performer.

Within that song cycle is a song called Abschied, which means farewell. The song’s lyrics bid a cheery but determined farewell to a town where the singer has been happy but which he must now leave. Its unusual key of B major is viewed by many musicians as being the most optimistic of keys.

So as a conclusion to this report I offer you this lovely version of Abschied sung by the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It seemed an appropriate gift to leave you with.

Schubert Abschied from Schwannengesang, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone

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Above and Below

Don’t you hate it when you see above and below used as nouns?

This lumpy construction usually occurs when the author wants to refer to material within text in a position relative to where the monstrosity occurs. (More precisely before and after, if you want to get literal about it.)

The above is what I believed at the time.

The below is what I believe now.

How about:

I’ve got a leak in the above.

Now I’m going to mop the below.

People, people! Please don’t do it!

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Verizon’s Newbie Android Class Fail

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

Last night Suzy and I went to Verizon to take a “class” entitled “Beginning Android”. We were almost the youngest people there — and I’m seventy — I’ve arrived at the age where I want to tell people how old I am.

If I had to rate this experience on a scale from one (worst) to any upper limit, I’d have to rate it as a one. It was a joke.

Because the people who usually teach the class failed to show up for work that day (as someone who did show up explained to us, with all due apologies), it started about fifteen minutes late. The conductor was some young buck who spoke off the cuff. He probably knew about the same amount about Android as I already have learned in a few days, especially since he happened to mention that he has an iPhone himself. He was utterly unprepared, certainly no teacher, and spent a part of the session telling us about other things we can give more of our money to Verizon to get, none of which anyone needs. Meanwhile, the audience of about a dozen people mostly drooled, checked the dryness of their Depends, and talked among themselves.

One person asked why he can’t use his tablet to make a telephone call. After all, if it’s running Android, it looks just like a phone. It’s not the most ignorant of questions, even though the answer is something akin to for the same reason you can’t use your lawn mower to drive to Cincinnati.

The class didn’t exactly end. It just sort of drifted off. I can truthfully say that there wasn’t one single thing said that a newbie shouldn’t have been able to figure out in about ten minutes, and I assume most people there had owned their phones or tablets longer than that. The instructor did talk about how to reorganize icons and put them on the Home page, something I wouldn’t recommend a person actually try until he has assembled the library of apps he’s most likely to be using frequently and has a sense of which ones are important to his own work flow.[*] Those who dared to try immediately messed up their Home pages and thereafter couldn’t find app icons they’d been used to seeing in a certain place. Thanks for that.

I’m one of the last persons to acquire a smartphone. I didn’t get a cell phone until July 2006, and used that very phone until February 12 of this year, using it only to make no more than a half dozen phone calls a month, mostly to Suzy when I was out somewhere.

But a couple of weeks ago I got us a pair of Samsung Galaxy Note 3s, pretty much the hottest phone on the planet right now. It took me a while to decide to go with Android rather than an Apple iOS product, but I’m more than happy with the decision.

The irony of the situation was that a modern phone is very much like a computer, and I’ve been involved with software since the early 1980s, most of the intervening period professionally. Today many of the people acquiring their <i>first</i> smartphones are older (meaning not young), and not a few have never touched a computer, so the whole experience of interacting with such a device, which some folks who understand about icons and files and menus and email and searching the Web with Google and the like take for granted, is totally new to them.

I wouldn’t recommend that some of the people in that class use a stylus phone because they might poke an eye out with it.

Before my phone arrived, I assembled a list of recommended apps from several knowledgeable friends, especially those who know what I will be using it for. (Yes, I do have a reason for going mobile besides just wanting to.) After first becoming acquainted with basic navigation and setting up reasonable options, I began downloading and learning apps, about thirty so far, with perhaps a dozen more to investigate before getting to the process of reorganizing the icons for efficiency.

By then I’ll be geared up for the second phase, to acquire tablets, which will also be Android based for the sake of app compatibility. Those will come in a month or two.

[*] A personal favorite Dilbert strip a few years ago showed a conversation between Dilbert (D) and the pointy-haired boss (PHB) that went like this:

PHB: I’d like you to install some apps on my new phone.
D: I’ll teach you how to do it yourself.
PHB: How many are there?
D: Two.
PHB: I want both of them.

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Sympathy Vote — A Review

Sympathy Vote

Sympathy Vote

Monsters exist in this world. They walk among us, and they sometimes hurt us and those we love.

On September 18, 1966, twenty-one-year-old Valerie Jeanne Percy was brutally murdered in her bed in Kenilworth, Illinois. She was the daughter of Charles Percy, who was then the Republican party’s nominee for the upcoming US Senate race in Illinois, the election barely seven weeks away. The questions of who committed the murder and why were never resolved, and the case remains open to this day.

A new book looks once again at the murder and the investigation that followed: Sympathy Vote: A Reinvestigation of the Valerie Percy Murder by Glenn Wall.

Ancient History

The Percys lived a little over a mile from my own home in Wilmette, Illinois. For four years, I passed by their place daily on my way to New Trier High School.

I first heard of Chuck Percy from my eighth grade homeroom teacher at Howard School in Wilmette sometime during the 1956–57 school year. Students in North Shore communities are deluged with assurances from their teachers and parents that they are privileged participants in the best school system in the country, one that has produced countless personages of note. (“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” say the skeptics and those who are tired of hearing about it and of undeniable Chicago North Shore snobbery.) One day in class, Miss Chase told us with notable pride about a man who had come through the system in Wilmette that locals were especially proud of. Already the multimillionaire president of Bell and Howell and a resident of his home in Kenilworth since 1952, Percy had political aspirations and was considered the sort of person who might even aspire to the presidency of the United States.

The murder of Percy’s beloved daughter changed much for the very close family. Despite it, Percy was elected to the US Senate — three times — but passed on the presidency when Gerald Ford opted to run (though he’d assured Chuck Percy he wouldn’t) and was defeated in his fourth bid for the Senate. But forever after, the whole Percy family remained haunted by fears and grief.

I first heard of the murder when I picked up a newspaper later on the day it happened. Because it took place at about 5:00 a.m., it was too late to make the morning editions, but it didn’t take long to hit radio and television. Like most people, I was rightly horrified by the news, and curious, knowing it had happened uncomfortably close to my own home — in peaceful Kenilworth, of all places!

Valerie Percy had a twin sister, Sharon, also an extremely capable young woman, who soon married Jay Rockefeller, who in turn became first the governor and currently a senator from West Virginia. The girls were one class year behind me at New Trier. They graduated in 1962; I was in the class of 1961. Although I knew students not in my class because of my music activities, I didn’t know either of the Percy sisters. But Valerie’s picture is in my 1961 Echoes yearbook. Sharon’s is not. I don’t know why. I’ve confirmed that they did both go to school there, but perhaps Sharon was elsewhere that year. Their younger brother went elsewhere. A high school, even a big one like New Trier, is small enough that surely we crossed paths on occasion, perhaps even regularly.

After I had focused for a short period on the story as covered in the news media, including an investigation that led nowhere, my interest in hearing about the case lapsed, and although I never forgot about it, I didn’t think about it either.

Modern Connections

Fast forward fifty years. Life went on for all of us, and now here we are at the end of 2013.

Since I now edit books for money, I can claim that I more or less read for a living. But I read far more than just the books I’m forced to read because I have to edit them. I’m a readaholic. And I’ve observed that the trail that leads my personal reading interests is often driven by a sense of closeness to what I read. And so it was that a chain of circumstances led me to read Sympathy Vote.

My wife and I often discuss together books that we read. Last summer, knowing I had recently read a couple of memoirs about personal and political turmoil in Africa, Suzy told me about the new memoir by Amanda Lindhout then making the rounds, A House in the Sky, a wonderful but terrifying book in which the author, a world traveler and self-taught journalist, describes her 460-day captivity that included physical, mental, and sexual abuse at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists in Somalia. The story left me with an enormous sense of righteous indignation over the atrocities that poor woman suffered and with great respect for her corageous, strong survival. Today Amanda Lindhout is touring as a speaker and engaged in humanitarian activities.

Soon afterward, Elizabeth Smart was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. Elizabeth was kidnapped from her bed at age fourteen while her younger sister slept in the same bed beside her and her other four siblings and parents were also asleep in the house. She was carried off and for nine months was subjected to non-stop personal and sexual abuse and humiliation by a raving lunatic whose name should perish forever. The story of the search for Elizabeth and her return to safety nine months later made headline news for a long time.

It’s now ten years after her kidnapping, and Elizabeth Smart has also written a recent book about her ordeal, simply titled My Story. I was drawn to read it, first of all because I had recently read Amanda Lindhout’s book, and was sympathetic in heart and outraged over what had happened to her. (I didn’t follow Elizabeth’s story at all when it happened, because I don’t as a rule follow sensational crime stories.) More poignantly, I was enormously impressed by Elizabeth’s calmness, intelligence, articulateness, and enormous dignity. Today she is a mature and happily married woman and founder, president, and chief spokesperson of the foundation that bears her name, which works to prevent crimes against children. So I read her book, too.

It’s impossible to use the word enjoyed in connection with this book, because it’s a horror story. But it’s fair to say I was enriched by it, as I learned how strong the human spirit can be, even that of a young girl, in overcoming adversity and bouncing back from it strong and happy.

It was reading about how Elizabeth Smart was taken from her bed by a home invader that reminded me of similar circumstances in the murder of Valerie Percy so very long ago. I related the parallels to Suzy according to my memory of them and later confirmed that my recollections of the basic facts of the case were accurate, except that I’d pictured the Percy home as being a block or two down the street from the actual site.

Next, by coincidence, I happened to see a reference to Valerie Percy’s murder pop up in a Facebook page I subscribe to, where the new book about the murder was mentioned. That in itself was not enough to pique my interest sufficiently to read it, though it got my attention, since I’d recently been thinking about it and had recounted what I remembered to my wife.

Finally, I learned to my great surprise that the book’s author, Glenn Wall, lived next door to my parents in Wilmette, Illinois, at the time of the murder. It was still “home” to me then, too, though by that time I was just starting graduate school at University of Illinois and considered Urbana home, too, since by then I lived there year round. Glenn was still a young boy in those years, and though I knew the previous neighbors quite well, I never met the Walls. But my parents and two youngest brothers would still live there for several more years, and I later learned they even socialized on occasions, as neighbors in those days were inclined to do.

Furthermore, he told me that another neighbor, Georgia Dearborn, whose family lived on the other side of the Walls, and a friend of our family’s as well, had been a close personal friend of the Percys through their church. I did not know about that friendship. (Chuck Percy and his family, but not his wife, and the whole Dearborn family were Christian Scientists who all went to the church less than four blocks down our street.) Mrs. Dearborn had been Glenn’s first source of information when he began researching the book.

Those combined coincidences were enough to move me to contact the author, buy the book, and read it.

The Murder

The basic facts of the murder, which has long been a part of the public record, are these. At just before 5:00 a.m. on Sunday, September 18, 1966, a male intruder broke into the Percys’ house, likely cutting his way through the glass on the French doors on the ground floor. He made his way to Valerie’s bedroom, and for whatever reason, began the beating and stabbing that quickly resulted in the death of Valerie Percy.

Loraine Percy, Valerie’s stepmother (the girls’ natural mother had died when they were quite young), was awakened by the noise in the house, rushed to Valerie’s bedroom, and saw the intruder, but not well enough to see his face. He made a break for it, escaping likely through the same door he entered, fleeing along the beachfront, leaving behind a pile of evidence. Moments later, Valerie Jeanne Percy died in Loraine Percy’s arms.

The Investigation

Kenilworth is a tiny and exclusive town of wealthy residents, sandwiched between Wilmette and Winnetka on Lake Michigan’s North Shore. There had never been a murder reported there, and very little trouble of any other kind—mostly burglaries by outsiders, the occasional domestic dispute, and traffic violations. The small police force was not large enough or adequately equipped to handle the investigation of what instantly became the biggest crime story in the nation. Help was enslisted from nearby communities (notably from Winnetka and Wilmette), then from Chicago, and finally from the Illinois state police, who took over and organized the investigation. If I read Glenn Wall’s accounting of the buildup correctly, the question of jurisdiction commendably didn’t become a contentious issue, or at least it didn’t become so publicly, even though everyone involved no doubt wanted to be able to take some credit for catching the bad guy. But clearly, the Kenilworth police needed help.

Need I mention that if it had been the murder of a poor person on Chicago’s South Side, the response would have been much different? As it was, the victim was the cherished daughter of a wealthy businessman running for the US Senate, by all accounts I have read a most honorable and personally popular man, and a cut above many other politicians. No doubt it made a difference. In all, hundreds of people became involved in the investigation.

Yet, with all that investigative clout, after months of searching, nothing was turned up that led to even one viable suspect. It wasn’t like they had cornered one or two possibilities but just couldn’t pin anything on them. They had mountains of data, pursued thousands of leads, interviewed something like a thousand people, and in the end they had nothing. Nada. Zip.

What Next?

Rather than simply regurgitating to no purpose facts that have been known for decades, Glenn Wall has sought to reintroduce some facts that were previously given little attention, along with some strong lines of reasoning, to build a case that argues in favor of one person as the most likely perptrator of the murder. Though I don’t claim to have any more knowledge about the data than is in this book, I must confess that the case Wall presents is more than a little convincing—so much so that readers will wonder how it ever got overlooked before.

It’s not possible for me to go any further with this review without including spoiler type information. Understandably, the author wants you to read the book, and to get the facts in a systematic way that he worked for years to research and put in order. If you do, you will be amazed by the mountain of facts presented, and will be able to draw your own conclusions.

For my part, I’m convinced that Glenn Wall is onto something here; I hope that after all these years the attention of persons in a position to act on it will be roused, and that in due time a correct and just conclusion can be drawn that might settle the questions that are still open beyond reasonable doubt, and in a way that satisfies the surviving family members.

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Swan Song Is As Swan Song Does

NorthCoast 24-Hour Endurance Run 2013

Picture by Jenn Goelnitz

Motivated by the principle that no news gets old faster than sports news, I figured I’d better bang out this race report for the NorthCoast 24-Hour Endurance Run that I ran in two days ago, before even I don’t care to think about it any longer.

One law of racing I’ve known for a long time became glaringly confirmed this weekend:

One’s performance rarely surpasses one’s training by very much.

The thrill of an event, adrenaline, and concentration can be the catalysts that move one to PRs, but by only a small margin of effort beyond what a person has been training for.

Furthermore, ultrarunning is a sport in which there is no faking it. It’s easy to show up at a starting line with a pair of shoes and shorts and figure you’ll gut your way through it. But if you don’t do the training, starting with a baseline of constant and consistent distance training over a period of at least a couple of years, building on that, then you will likely suffer and fail spectacularly, possibly even fatally. The long-term training is one thing I can claim to have done, and I have the records to prove it.

I’ve run every NorthCoast fall edition race. Last year I opted to do the 12-hour race for personal and practical reasons, but did the 24-hour race all other years.

Saturday morning, September 21, 2013, it was raining hard when I got up at four o’clock in Columbus. The rain continued throughout my two-and-a-half-hour drive, and into the first two or three hours of the race. It wasn’t raining so hard that it was impossible to function, meaning to drive and to set up my aid station. It got worse not long after we started running, but fortunately, the temperature was mild enough that nobody seemed to mind. In fact, it was mostly fun, but would have been a drag if it had gone on much longer.

Gradually, the rain stopped and the skies cleared off, except for one brief recurrence of the rain later on, and then another sprinkle that lasted only a minute or two in the middle of the night. But despite reasonable temperatures, the strong winds — which continued most of the night, bringing in whitecaps off Lake Erie that crashed dramatically onto the rocks — had an effect that caused some runners to wear more gear than you might suppose a reading in the fifties would demand. Depending on where you were on the course that you ran into it, the wind certainly also had at least some impact on progress. The blast coming around the southwest corner near the start was sometimes almost enough to stop me in my tracks.

At this writing, the final results have not been posted, but I know my distance was about 57.4 miles, plus or minus a tenth or two (and probably plus). This performance is not up to my usual standard, but neither was my preparation.

Until recently, for a dozen years or more I was able to average between 2000 and 2400 miles of running per year, much of that peaking during the summer months. A high percentage of that distance has been in long runs, and many of those long runs have been on short lap courses, delimited by the number of hours I was out rather than by some distance, thereby modeling the experience of fixed-time running. I’ve long believed that if you want to do well in fixed-time running, then that’s the sort of training you have to do.

This year, despite the best of intentions and motivation, the overall mileage in my training has dropped. Instead of summer months between 200–220 miles, my monthly mileage between April and August this year ranged (in round numbers) from 81 in August to 160 in June, an average of 128 miles per month. That’s not enough to support a good performance at a 24-hour race, not for me, and not for most other people either.

When I lived in Arizona, I stumbled into a good thing: a unique and life-changing sort of training routine that allowed me — a spectacularly ungifted runner — to develop the ability to participate in ultramarathons, and even to do well in a few of them.

But when I moved to Ohio, I abandoned a whole life that I had in Arizona, one that encompassed a great deal more than just running. It included a routine of working out and running that I’ve never been able to replace. That’s not to say that I’m not doing it at all or that I’ve given up. I’m out on the road almost every day, and in the gym about three times a week. But what I’m doing is just not enough nor of the right kind to enable me to keep doing ultramarathons.

This year extra complications have made matters more difficult. In addition to my working a bit more again than I had been for a while, Suzy had her second foot surgery in a year and a half in late May, and is still in a wheelchair today, meaning that I have to do a great many of the little things that need doing in a family myself that she would normally take on, and this has taken time away.

And as some Facebook friends and others are aware, we recently completed a massive kitchen remodeling job — not a mere makeover, but an outright gutting of the old, removing walls and building that part of the house from scratch, a job that touched five rooms and two hallways, and took eighty-two days of construction, plus the time getting it ready for demolition and the week it took to move things back in again. It’s done now, but that, too, took time away from other matters, including training.

And all through the year I kept hoping I might be able to shed a few more pounds than I did, which certainly would have helped my running. I did drop about five pounds, from roughly 202 to 197, but not enough to have a great impact on my running. And the older one gets, the more permanent one’s ugly, unhealthy fat becomes.

Not long after last year’s 12-hour race, which for me became a 6-hour race because I bailed out when the hurricane-with-hail arrived, I decided that because I would turn 70 years old in 2013, I wanted to run one more 24-hour race in my new age group. (More multiday races are definitely out of the question now.) So I registered for this year’s NorthCoast race way last November, when they offered a Black Friday discount that was too good to resist. Therefore I’ve had hanging over me all this time the knowledge that I’d committed myself to run the race.

Technically an ultramarathon is any distance over a marathon. But for me, and for the purposes of my goal at NC24, it meant anything over fifty miles, my low end goal for the race. And I felt I could do quite a bit better than that. In addition, I was hoping that depending on who else showed up, I could win my age group. That didn’t happen even though there was only one other guy in the 70–74 age group. And there was only one guy (and no women) older than us, the indomitable Leo Lightner, who is in the 80-plus age group, and probably ran farther than both of us. Leo is a force of nature.

My prospects for success hinged not so much on physical endurance as on how well I could handle the night. I used to do fairly well at this part of it, due primarily to my experience with multiday runs, which comprises mostly eight 72-hour races, plus a ninth (my last) where I had to drop out after about eight hours due to impending illness aggravated by the worst weather I ever experienced in all the years I lived in Arizona, so I don’t count that race among my 72-hour race experiences. I’ve also run one 48-hour race. That plus my history of now eight 24-hour races gives me a total of 34 24-hour days that I’ve spent circling various short-loop courses. And I’ve also run about a half dozen 12-hour races, four or five of them all-nighters rather than daytime races.

My history of eight 24-hour races can be grouped as three plus three plus one plus one. In the first three, my total distances ranged between 81.52 and 83.71 miles (my PR). I think of those three races, run between 1999 and 2004, as a group.

The fourth one was the San Francisco One-Day, which I ran in late October 2007, just a couple of weeks before I moved to Ohio. My distance in that race was only 76.10 miles, but I had run 96 miles of a 100-mile trail race just a couple of months before, in late August, before quitting because I was literally falling into the bushes on both sides of the road and could no longer even stand up much less go on. Even though it was a DNF, it was still a very good run for me, representing approximately an 82-mile 24-hour split, and then running on another four hours before diving.

I didn’t run another 24-hour until the first edition of NorthCoast in October 2009. Of those, in the first three my distance ranged between 60.98 and 65.48 miles.

In the first group of three I managed to get through each whole race without sleeping or hardly even stopping for much of anything.

By the time I got to the first NorthCoast race, my ability to cope with the night had become a huge problem. In all three, I managed to get to twelve hours almost effortlessly, and then crashed dramatically, the first two times in my chair, where I immediately suffered dry heaves and discomfort and tried to sleep in an uncomfortable camp chair. The third NC24 I had the smarts to retire to my car to get at least a semblance of real sleep.

This year the scenario was both similar and different. These days my running has been reduced almost entirely to walking. When I’m fresh I can do the ultra shuffle for perhaps 100 yards, preferably on a downward slope, then walk until I recover. I used to be able to keep that up for hours and hours. In fact, I used to be able to run without walking a single step for any reason, even to grab water, for up to five hours at a time. (I worked out a system where I kept water bottles on a stack of gym steps high enough for me to be able to grab it on the run, and I learned to drink while running.) I just can’t do that any more.

However, I do have a modicum of raw endurance left, which means that I can continue to walk without interruption seemingly forever.

On Saturday I ran-walked for about two and a half hours, then sporadically for a little longer, until I realized I was run out. Thereafter I just kept walking, and stopped for absolutely nothing other than to gulp water at my minimalist aid table (I could have survived with but nothing but something to set the water bottle on), and twice to pee, right on through the 12-hour mark, at which time my mileage was somewhere around 38.7 miles. I’d felt just fine up until that point, but exactly then I started to feel woozy, with an approaching sense of nausea. I did two more laps to get me to 40.5 miles, and realized trying to fight it would be futile. I went to the car, where this time I’d come prepared with a pillow and blanket, and just laid back the seat and got some honest sleep for a while, knowing I would wake up automatically. (I never use an alarm clock and normally get up between four and five.)

Because the temperature was not too low, I had a surprisingly easy time getting back to full speed walking. But my tenure on the track was short, just a few more laps, before I decided I needed more time off, so I headed to the car again. Finally I woke enough to sense that I’d be able to push through to the end. Historically, I’m always okay from first light until the end.

All the time I was doing numbers in my head. I knew that if I could have gone steadily the second half, my total distance could have been as high as the mid seventies, which I would have considered a form of vindication.

But I guess the truth of the matter is I’m not 64 any more, and this geezer now needs a bit more sleep at night than before, even though I get by pretty well normally on a nightly average of about six hours.

So as they say, it was what it was. I guess I should be grateful that I can do it at all, and that I ran over 57 miles and feel pretty good today, although I was a zombie last night. The night before the race I finished reading a long biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who looked like a corpse just before he died, after carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders for twelve years. And he was only 63 years old at the time. Yet here I am at age 70, hoping to be able to keep running and walking and working out at the gym for a lot of years to come.

Whether that activity will include any racing remains to be seen. It’s entirely possible that NC24 2013 was my swan song to racing. That’s what I’ve been telling myself and others who ask. I have no plans for any more races at this time. But I’ve also learned never to say never.

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Footnotes Versus Endnotes

My favorite magazine, The Watchtower, has a series of study articles in the July issue that uses endnotes rather than the footnotes it has used almost if not entirely exclusively in my forty-three years of reading the journal. A friend, knowing I’m an editor, asked if I know what the difference is between footnotes and endnotes, and why endnotes are used for this series of articles.

To state the obvious, footnotes go at the bottom (the foot) of pages, and endnotes go at the ends of articles, chapters, or a whole book. Note, too, that to call an endnote a footnote (or vice versa) is wrong. Last Sunday, when we studied the first article from this magazine, the reader kept calling them footnotes, even though the word Endnotes appears over them, grouped together at the end of each article. Bzzzt! Wrong!

Functionally, footnotes and endnotes accomplish the same purpose. Which kind to use is a publisher’s style decision. Each has advantages over the other, and each has disadvantages.

Generally, notes are a means of moving material that is parenthetical yet worthy of inclusion out of the main discourse. Often, readers who skip them will not lose anything essential to the main arguments being presented.

Footnotes are convenient. A reader can just drop his eyes down, read, and go back — or not. But footnotes are usually in a smaller type size, which makes them harder to read. Endnotes stand a danger of being skipped because they require flipping to another page and back. The way we study these articles, there is zero danger of their being skipped, whatever style is used.

Sometimes notes contain nothing more than references to outside sources. At other times they add interesting supplementary material, information that is worth reading, but that would be awkward to integrate into the main narrative.

But footnotes add clutter to a page, and too many of them are annoying to some readers and even intimidating to others who may think that only scholarly works that are beyond their ability to comprehend use such apparatus.

Which style to use is up to the publisher. Most journals, textbooks, and scientific, medical, and legal publishers have meticulous requirements for their publications that must be followed without variation.

Rarely, a publication will use both footnotes and endnotes. I’m currently reading FDR, the biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Jean Edward Smith, which uses both. The footnotes use asterisks as markers, are few (no more than two on any page), unobtrusive, and contain only supplementary information. I’ve been reading all of them. But there are 154 pages of numbered endnotes, most of them bibliographical references, with occasional minor commentary added. I’ve been skipping those because personally I despise endnotes. (There is also a huge bibliography.) Whereas I don’t speak for the publishers of The Watchtower, I can make an educated guess why the decision was made to switch from the customary footnote style to endnotes in the July 2013 issue.

These articles seem to have a little more than the usual extra material than most others. Also, there are two-page graphical spreads within the first two articles, which might have complicated the layout if they also had to squeeze in one or more footnotes on the bottom.

So different publishers have different requirements, based largely on aesthetic considerations. Each publisher has its own style guide that trumps the various standard style guides used as starting points or fallbacks. And given that prime decision-driving considerations of Watchtower Society publications are readability and accessibility to a worldwide readership, it should come as no surprise when we see things done a little differently once in a while, and that the result is usually delightful.

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There Are Not All Types of People

“There are all types of people in the world.” So claims an author I’ve been editing. Sounds like a truism, right?

No there’s not.

To say there is sounds as though there’s some master catalog of types, and that someone has checked to be sure there is at least one of each.

There are exactly as many types of people in the world at any given moment as there are people because no two are the same.

But the next time someone is born, it will be someone of a type that has never existed before, meaning that before he was born, there were not all types of people in the world.

Unless you start defining types with generalizations and grouping people into them, in which case someone could easily devise a type that no one matches, never did, and ever will, once again making the statement “There are all types of people in the world” false.

I’ll define a type of people right now: People with five heads and seven arms. I’ll bet there’s never been anyone of that type, and hope there never will be. But if there hasn’t ever been, then it’s still a fact that there are not all types of people in the world.

Two obvious lessons to be derived from this facetious exercise are: (1) all is a mighty big word; (2) vague generalities are often meaningless.

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A Letter to One’s Copyeditor

Dear Ed Itor.

Please to find in file word proces is many words of Story, Is very very funny hilarious freinds say (ha ha!) Please to choose salubrious and make nice sentinces with sound is Good English. If maybe some not gentle or Maybe I make masteak, but I did best Ican an dont know masteaks. Am thanking you for kindliest atention.


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A Late Quartet — a Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

It’s not often that I see a movie on subject matter that I think I know something about. But A Late Quartet in some respects touches very close to home.

The story is about a famous string quartet struggling to stay together after its cellist, played by Christopher Walken, announces he’s in the early stages of Parkinson’s and will not be able to play much longer — in fact is already barely play at the level of consummate perfection required of a world class chamber musician. In that world there is utterly no faking it.

The very idea of small ensembles in music has been one of my very biggest driving interests in life since youth — not just string quartets, and not just classical chamber groups in general. I’ve long believed that in small ensemble playing the end result can be far greater than the sum of its parts, and that the best groups are those who stay with it a very long time to the point that the players become like family to one another, virtually living together — disfunctionally perhaps, but family nonetheless. When I think of great groups I think not only of the Juilliard, Amadeus, Takacs, and Emerson string quartets, but also of the Beatles, Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and yes (some will shudder), even the Rolling Stones. By coincidence I happen to be reading Philip Norman’s biography about Mick Jagger right now, and previously read Keith Richards’s autobiography wherein I have come to appreciate that although the Stones are a different category of musicians from the others I’ve mentioned, in terms of their commitment to music making, they fit right in.

With any great ensemble, it’s not about who has the best assemblage of solo concert artists (though most great classical chamber musicians can knock off a concerto any day of the week), but above all about the chemistry between precisely the right people. Change even one person, and the whole sound becomes different. For instance, rock and roll drumnmers abound, and half or more of them are as good as or better than Ringo Starr. But the Beatles would not have been at all the same without Ringo, even at the beginning, and even though he was clearly the fourth man. But what a fourth man he was! In the world of classical chamber music it’s not hard to find a musician who can walk onto the stage and sightread all the written notes right, or who has played everything in the standard repertoire many times before, but the end result is never the same thing when a substitute is required. It takes months to work a single new musician into a tight group — and the quartet in A Late Quartet is acutely aware of that reality. My own frustrated efforts to create a long-lasting ensemble back in the late sixties, thwarted largely by non-stop personnel changes, taught me that lesson on a personal level.

The story line of A Late Quartet is built around the group’s preparation for a concert on which they will play Beethoven’s Quartet Opus 131, one of the composer’s latest works, which the group’s cellist hopes will be his farewell performance. (With consequences that explain what happens at the end.)

Each one of Beethoven’s late quartets is among the greatest examples of music ever written. There are six of them, known by their opus numbers in the range 127 to 135, and of these not a few musicians regard Opus 131 as their personal favorite, including me. While I was an undergraduate music student, I went on a Beethoven quartet kick (which followed my Beethoven piano sonata kick), during which almost all I did for a week or so was play recordings of all the quartets with the scores in front of me. And when I got to Opus 131, which somehow at that point I had never yet heard (there’s a first time for everything), it was a revelation, moving me to exude a tiresome stream of superlatives about it that my friends surely tired of hearing. It took me a while to get down off of that particular cloud. (Today I still rank Opus 131 as my third all-time favorite piece of music, with the Bach Chaconne at the top, followed by the second movement of Beethoven’s Opus 111 piano sonata.)

But the story of A Late Quartet is not just about the music. It’s about the people who make it, and about how the disturbance of inevitably losing their senior member was the butterfly effect-like tremor that presaged a tsunami of difficulties and misbehavior to follow — some of which events are frankly cheaply melodramatic, even stupid, reducing the merit of this film from being a great film to merely a very good film.

Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in by far the best acting performance as the brilliant but oppressed second violinist, married to the violist. (They have a beautiful violinist daughter who also figures importantly into the plot.) He confesses that he sees his role in the ensemble as having being that of an accompanist to the younger first violinist for twenty-five years. He’s as dead wrong as if John Lennon had told George Harrison that he was going to take over the lead guitar role — which never happened. (I’m reminded of one day when Mick Jagger was fooling around on a guitar, Keith Richards said to him, “There are two guitarists in this band, and you’re not one of them.”)

There are conflicts between particularly the younger three members of the quartet that have little to do with the music itself (and which are extremely important to the plot — no spoilers here), but from which Walken remains quietly insulated as he begins to adjust to a new life with Parkinson’s.

What Hoffman’s character goes through, as self-centered as it all is for a period, seems very real to me; and it affects the ensemble and therefore the music.

Christopher Walken, who would seem to be an unlikely actor to choose to play the role of an aging, wise, and mature classical musician, handles his part well, but despite a great deal of coaching, handles the cello awkwardly, and is not convincing with an instrument in his hands.

Making an actor who is not a musician look like a musician (or an athlete who is not an athlete) is always a difficult trick to pull off in moviemaking. There is no group of musical instruments harder for a non-playing actor to fake on stage by going through the motions in front of a camera while someone else plays on the soundtrack than the instruments of a string quartet. Almost anyone can be made to look like a competent pianist. The actor can hide behind the instrument and just emote, if necessary, so you never even see their hands. And a woodwind or brass player just has to put the thing to his mouth and wiggle his fingers. But a string instrument involves the player much more completely. Of these, the violin and viola are almost impossible to get right. It takes a couple of years for a beginning player who is taking lessons and practicing daily just to learn to hold a violin or viola properly and not look like a dork. There’s absolutely nothing easy about it, as a player must twist his arm and shoulder into an unnatural position so as to bring his hands into a position so that his fingers strike the stings vertically — and somehow also play vibrato. I don’t know how they do it, and I’ve tried myself. And then there is the bow to deal with, which must be held and drawn exactly a certain way. It’s as hard as juggling even to fake it.

A cello is, in my opinion, somewhat easier, mostly because of an approximately ninety-degree shift in left-arm position to one that is absolutely natural. I’ve messed around myself just a little bit on violins, violas, and even many years ago on my brother’s cello. (The sum total of my string playing experience amounts to hours, not years.) I think if I wanted to try and fool someone on camera, I’d go for the cello part first because I’ve played guitar and electric bass, so can handle the appearance of left-hand dexterity, and would have to concentrate mainly on the bow.

That said, I think that all three of the other actors who were quartet members look more natural than Walken, who appears to be in pain (maybe he was supposed to because of the Parkinson’s, which is allegedly not painful), and more than stereotypically frowny-faced and serious, in harmony with Hollywood’s conception of the typical classical musicians as being nothing but stuffed shirts all the time, never having a moment of “fun,” especially when performing.

The other nit I have with this film is that the name of the ensemble is The Fugue (always spoken with reverence so you’ll know it’s supposed to be a great group, one that fills concert halls). It’s a silly name for a classical quartet, given that the fugue is primarily a baroque musical form, whereas the string quartet, both as an ensemble combination and a musical form, is something that emerged in the early classical era — Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all wrote many — remained strong throughout the romantic era, and is still a respected combination today, written for by many composers. And yes, plenty of post-baroque composers have written fugues, even in string quatets. In fact Beethoven’s Opus 131 starts with a slow fugue, one factor among many that makes this work utterly unique in the repertoire. But starting in the classical era, fugues are the exception rather than the rule. So why call your string quartet ensemble The Fugue?

But regarding the group’s discussion about music — comments about string crossings, fingerings, matching vibrato speeds, arguments about hairpins (how many non-musicians will know they’re talking about crescendos and diminuendos, not bobby pins?), personal markings on the music, the problem of keeping the instruments in tune for the non-stop duration of the seven-movement Opus 131, and all the rest — a declamatory Yes! Those are exactly the sort of things real musicians talk about and work on when preparing for a performance. All that makes the movie more real. And in this case, verisimilitude is good, and a welcome relief from the usual Hollywood dreck thrown at audiences as representing the world of classical music. (For the very worst of that in comparison, see the dreadful film Mr. Holland’s Opus. Check that — don’t bother.)

In the end, all the conflicts — musical, mechanical, and personal — revolve around the question of whether being able to play the music is important enough that those four fragile, vulnerable, and imperfect human beings who comprise The Fugue are able to resolve their differences in a way that will allow there to be a quartet that will continue. The answer is supplied with great dignity, but not until the movie’s final scene.

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Annie Leibovitz at Wexner Center

English: Annie Leibovitz is one of the most fa...

Annie Leibovitz (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight we went to the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University to see the magnificent new exhibit of Annie Leibovitz photos.

The evening was highlighted by a conversation before a near capacity crowd (nearly 2500) in Mershon auditorium with Annie Leibovitz herself and none other than Rolling Stone founder and editor Jann S. Wenner, Annie’s former boss. To top things off, today happens to be the forty-fifth anniversary of the very first edition of Rolling Stone magazine. Wenner hired Annie as a photographer early in the magazine’s history. Until then it had been mainly a print publication.

The evening was not about just the show. Annie Leibovitz is the latest of fifteen recipients of the Wexner Prize awarded to living artists of monumental stature. Previous recipients have included John Cage, Merce Cunningham (whose dance company we saw at the same auditorium not long after he died), Martin Scorsese, Robert Rauschenberg, and Spike Lee, to name only those most familiar to me. Suzy noticed that remarkably, Annie Leibovitz is the first woman to make the roster.

Some non-central Ohioans (and a lot of other people) may not know that the Wexner of the arts center and of the prize is Leslie Wexner, founder and chairman of Limited Brands (parent of Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works, et al.), one of Ohio’s billionaires, and a commendably generous alumnus and donor to The Ohio State University, who regularly squeezes out gifts $100 million at a time. Well I say good for him. Business in fancy ladies’ underpants must be good.

The exhibit has three components. The primary part is Leibovitz’s Master Set, the 159 images from her last forty years of work that she herself picked out and assembled as being her best and most representative work.

And they are astounding. You have seen many of them, as much of Leibovitz’s work has become a part of national and world culture, seen and admired by millions.

The most famous of them all is the one she took of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, John naked (discreetly), the two of them kissing on the floor in their apartment, taken on December 8, 1980, the day that turned out to be by incredible coincidence, the last day of his life. Coming face to face with that photo blown up to museum size was like what encountering the Mona Lisa in person must be like. (Actually, I’ve never seen the Mona Lisa in person, but I have seen famous paintings by Degas, Renoir, and Rembrandt at touching distance.)

They put that photo on the cover of Rolling Stone immediately, with only the magazine’s title banner and no other print matter whatever. It’s been called the best magazine cover of the last fifty years. I haven’t seen all magazine covers in fifty years, but I wouldn’t argue the point. Could there possibly be a more poignantly revealing portrait of a man everyone in the world wanted to know all they could about, revealing his feelings so intimately on the very last day of his life? Annie Leibovitz can take credit for taking the picture, but that it exists at all is a miracle.

In addition to some great rock and roll photos, especially of the Rolling Stones, there are images of numerous celebrities. There is the famous Demi Moore pregnant-and-almost-busting-wide-open picture that was on the cover of Vanity Fair, was second only to the Lennons’ picture in popularity. Also one of Meryl Streep in heavy almost clown-like make-up stretching parts of her face, symbolic of her great versatility. And there is one of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon that defies description, likely a reprise of their roles in Some Like It Hot. All I can do is give you the link and say get a load of this. (I’d never seen it, and it stopped me in my tracks. I’m still laughing.)

And there were also the picture of the helicopter carrying Richard Nixon from the White House after his resignation (what a historical assignment for a photojournalist to have!), astounding matching portraits of Bill and Hilary Clinton (Hilary’s is one of the great photos in the exhibit in my opinion) and also of Barack and Michelle Obama, and also one of Queen Elizabeth II taken not long after her Jubilee celebration. Annie said that Buckingham Palace called her to come over and photograph the Queen, that she was able to request what she should wear, and at the end of twenty-five minutes she actually had the nerve to ask her if she’d remove her crown — and she did — and got the best picture of all.

The second part of the exhibit is a collection called Pilgrimage, a personal project where none of the pictures are of people, but are of items associated with well-known people who have interested and inspired Annie Leibovitz: Emily Dickinson, Abraham Lincoln, Martha Graham, Annie Oakley, Lewis and Clark, Elvis Presley, and others.

Finally, in the lobby is a collection of smaller prints of people who have been former Wexner Prize recipients or who have performed or had showings at the Wex, just a few of the thousands of people Annie Leibovitz has photographed on assignment.

As for the hour and forty-five minute conversation between Annie Leibovitz and Jann Wenner — it was valuable mainly for the sake of being able to say we saw these two illustrious people sitting in front of us in person. Surprisingly, neither one is a particularly fluent speaker, both speak with way too many regressions and ummms and likes and you knows. Although they presented a slide show, they skipped around a lot and didn’t appear to have much of an agenda planned. There were, however, some interesting anecdotes. I’m sure everyone was interested in knowing about the last John Lennon photo session, and about photographing the Queen.

After that story, Jann Wenner declared, “See who you have before you!” which provoked a standing ovation, as the two of them waved farewell.

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The Longest Race—Ed Ayres

The Longest Race

The Longest Race

Runner and writer Ed Ayres has written a new book about ultrarunning and the things ultrarunners think about: The Longest Race, lengthily subtitled A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance. I had the pleasure of reading an advance (not quite final, but printed and bound) copy from the author, sent to me at his behest by his publisher, The Experiment.The Longest Race is scheduled to be released on October 9, 2012.

Ed Ayres has been around ultrarunning since long before a good many readers of this article were born. He began running cross-country in high school in 1956, and hasn’t stopped running since. Among his running achievements are third place in the first New York Marathon, first in the JFK 50-mile race in 1977, and a number of US national age group championships at ultramarathon distances. In addition, he was the founding editor and publisher of Running Times magazine, now published by Rodale Press. The man knows running.

Far from being one-dimensional, Ed also worked for many years as the editorial director at the Worldwatch Institute, a research organization that develops solutions to the most difficult of world problems in climate, energy, food, agriculture, environment, and society.

The Longest Race is presented ostensibly as a book-length race report. In November 2001, at age 60, Ayres returned to the JFK 50-mile race to see if he could break the race’s 60–69 age group record. That he did so in 7:55, knocking over twenty minutes off the previous best, is not exactly a spoiler, because Ayres’s story of how he set a record is only an incidental point of discussion.

The book’s structure is built along salient geographical features of the JFK race, points where the terrain changes, and therefore also the runner’s mindset and technique. Wound into the journey are ideas about pacing, shoes, breathing, form, running alone, strategy (especially as an older runner), persistence hunting, nutrition and fueling, battling fatigue, competition, and runners’ indomitable urge to finish, along with—and perhaps more importantly—forays into non-running topics having to do with some of the Big Questions humankind should be asking itself in these critical times we live in. The connections to running are not merely metaphorical, but logically explained and elucidated.

The book concludes with an appendix, a soup to nuts how-to for aspiring ultrarunners, covering training, form, gear (running can be one of the cheapest sports for participants), nutrition, and a few words about trail running, which ties in well with one of Ayers’s deeper themes: mankind’s need to be in closer touch with the planet we live on.

Ayres’s writing is engaging and thought-provoking, expressing the voice of deep experience.

By coincidence, I read the book just a few days before I ran the North Coast 12-Hour Endurance Run in Cleveland, the first ultramarathon I’ve run since the 24-hour event at the same race a year ago. The book offered useful refresher points on pacing, breathing, and eating, things I already know about; but being reminded, I was able to put them to immediate conscious use in the race, resulting in a better performance for me during the first six hours than I’ve experienced in life—until a major storm came along and almost blew us all away.

Runners who like to be inspired by good writing about running will not be disappointed if they read The Longest Race.

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Not Half Bad

Photo by Jen Goellnitz

Photo by Jen Goellnitz

At age 69, my running these days consists mostly of alternating short bursts of slow running with short walks. If I’m rested and have my feet to the fire, I can run six miles or so continuously, but I rarely try. Despite this, my endurance is still good.

Personal circumstances led me to decide to sign up for the new 12-hour option at the NorthCoast Endurance Run in Cleveland this year (September 22, 2012), even though I did the 24-hour the first three years of the race’s existence.

Getting Ready

In the course of month in and month out training, I usually manage to get something just below 200 miles per month, with two or three months in a year over 200. In August I recorded 228 miles—not a bad month for someone rapidly becoming an old coot, given that I’m still working close to full time.

When it came time to bear down on what training I’d planned for the NorthCoast race, I decided that time on my feet, which is what I’m good at, would be the thing I’d emphasize. I planned 7-hour, 8-hour, and 9-hour loop runs three weeks apart, with the last on September 1, exactly three weeks before the race.

The place I go these days to do this sort of training is a bike path in a fairly isolated park called Sycamore Field in Columbus. The loop measures 0.78 miles on Google Maps (click the link to see it), and surrounds a large, open field big enough for several soccer fields, with lots of room to spare. It’s flat enough that it’s hard to decide if one direction is better than the other, although I always run clockwise, the direction NorthCoast is run. During a weekday afternoon, the typical density of foot and bicycle traffic there is to encounter one or two other people in three or four laps. In other words, it’s close to abandoned, even though it’s very well maintained, has two large parking lots, and a dog run that does get used just 100 yards to the north, and always has a regularly serviced porta-potty from spring until sometime in November. Two weeks ago I arrived on a Saturday morning to find they were using the field for a high school cross-country meet, allowing me to enjoy watching hundreds of fit, high-achieving teenagers run their hearts out as I circled the path while doing a final 10-miler in preparation for the race.

In each of my three fixed-time workouts, I was 100 percent successful in not stopping for anything whatever the entire time except for one potty stop per workout, and to grab water off the chair I’d set up. I was tired after each one, but I’m certain I couldn’t have lasted nine hours the day of the first one, so I must have made progress. And I do believe the effort paid off at the race.

Before the Race

Edgewater Park, on the shore of Lake Erie in Cleveland, where NorthCoast is run, is a drive of about about 150 miles, two hours and forty minutes one way from my home in Columbus, Ohio. This year I drove in on race morning, leaving a little after 5:00 a.m., arriving at precisely 7:40 a.m.

My gear plan was simple. For a 12-hour I could have survived entirely on what I wore on my back and not bothered with a personal aid station at all. But I learned there might be weather problems, so I packed some extra gear in a gym bag, including a four-pack of Red Bulls, which I hate, but buy and drink only when I’m doing a long run, sometimes drinking a can that’s been sitting in the hot sun for a couple of hours. I drink it for the jolt, not for refreshment.

All this stuff I set up on a folding camp chair. Total setup time: less than a minute after picking my spot, after which I checked out the nearest porta-potty (for the first time they had two near the start and finish area), taking care of some very important pre-race business in there, and then took off to find old acquaintances and make new ones, always one of my favorite rituals of any ultra.

Once a race starts I’m almost always a loner because (a) almost everybody goes faster than me anyhow; (b) I just do better when I concentrate on trying to work out my own salvation, though this race would prove to be an exception.

Along with all the rest, I had the pleasure of meeting John Hnat, the new race director, whom I’d talked to previously only in e-mail and on Facebook, and was impressed by what an upbeat and good-humored guy he is—qualities he would need about six hours later.

The Race

For a number of ingeniously thought-out reasons that added up to what seemed like a good idea to me, they moved the start back around the bend this year, about a tenth of a mile. That extra distance was added to everyone’s totals at the end.

The weather at the start was cool but comfy, super for running, and there were partly cloudy skies. Sometimes the sun peeked out, and it got almost warm. After a few laps I took off my red jacket and tossed it on my chair, leaving me wearing only shorts, a short-sleeve running shirt (last year’s race shirt) and a super-lightweight long-sleeve running shirt over it. Well—and a hat and shoes and big, fancy underpants, of course.

One woman, Hannah Critchfield, ran barefoot, and was running well—not a leader, but steady all the way. I never saw her walking. She stuck it out, and finished the 24-hour race with 79.3 miles, a fine performance. I remember a barefoot runner winning Tucson Marathon two or three years in a row, though I didn’t get to see him because I was on the other end of the race, of course. Most of Tucson Marathon is run on the rocky shoulder of a highway. Don’t try that yourself, folks. I don’t know how anyone does that. Just gimme shoes!

Historically, I’ve had some of my best outings in 12-hour races. Most of the eight or so that I’ve run have been very low-key semi-official but accurately timed and measured and well-supported races, including one all-nighter at Nardini Manor in Arizona (former home of Across the Years) one summer where there were only three of us at the starting line, though numerous others joined in later. And we were also the last three out there, all of us running until the end. I was the slowest of the three, but I got the “bronze”—I had the third most mileage of all participants by about twelve miles.

My goal at North Coast this time was modest: 40 miles, but a bit of a challenge, because I haven’t gone that long in a while, and I’m not running like I used to. Yet it was sufficiently doable that I thought if I didn’t make it, it would be a big disappointment. My secondary goal was to avoid stopping for anything other than a potty stop and to grab water or food.

So we were off at 9:00 a.m. The first thing I noticed was the timing system rocked, seemingly state of the art. Having been involved with races of this type on the creative end myself for quite a number of years, I know that timing is the single most difficult problem to get right, and just about the most important, along with providing a good course to run on. At the spring edition of NorthCoast last May, which was the USATF national 24-hour championship, there were horrendous problems with the timing. It basically didn’t work. Although they eventually got it mostly straightened out, a consequence of the misstep was that a runner ran what was potentially a new US women’s record for 24 hours, but her performance was unable to be validated and ratified. Such a happening, particularly at a national championship, is a crying shame, especially for the runner affected. After all, record performances don’t grow on trees.

The bottom line is that sort of thing simply mustn’t happen. It can, but every reasonable effort must be made to assure that it won’t. Prior to this race, John Hnat sent e-mail to participants explaining the new system that they would be using. Most important in any fixed-time timing system is not the glitzy (but thoroughly enjoyable) external features: multiple highly visible computer displays showing everyone where they’re at and the like, which are now becoming de rigueur at the best races. Far more important is the backup method used to assure that the end results will be correct in the event of failure, which can and does happen if there is a total power or main computer failure. I don’t remember the details of what John related, but it was sufficient to give me the warm-n-fuzzy necessary to be confident things would go well—as indeed they did, even though later happenings would prove to put the system to the test.

And for the first six hours I had one of the best runs I’ve had in years. Not only did I become certain that I would make my goal; I also anticipated exceeding it by perhaps as much as five miles if I could just hold steady, and given how well and under control I felt, I had every reason to believe I would.

Something that helped me greatly was a new book about ultrarunning I’d been reading for a couple of days prior to the race. The book is by Ed Ayers (a runner and ultrarunner for 55 years and founder of Running Times, for those who don’t know him). Ed’s new book, not yet published (it’s due out in October 2012), is titled The Longest Run. As a fellow editor, the author had his publisher send me a pre-publication “uncorrected” copy for review. I’ll be writing a summary of it on my blog and will have a word or two to share on the lists very soon. (I finished reading it this morning.)

In the course of reading The Longest Run, I made a few notes for what I’d have to say later, and in the process picked up some pointers and was also able to review some fundamentals. Review is good. As a lifelong student of many subjects and a sometime teacher and writer, I’ve learned that it’s often good to go back to page one on any subject and review the basics, in the spirit of what the apostle Paul wrote about understanding Christianity:

If anyone thinks he has acquired knowledge of something, he does not yet know [it] just as he ought to know [it].—1 Corinthians 8:2

In a sense, review is like a musician running down scales and arpeggios. It’s not that he doesn’t know them; it’s that he could know them a little better, and these fundamental exercises will help him play real music better because he’ll be less preoccupied by technical obstacles.

And so it was at Edgewater Park on Saturday that rather than allowing my mind to spin off dissociatively into thinking about whatever came to mind, instead I concentrated on thinking associatively about what I was doing, paying closer attention than I have for a long time, because after all—this was it—I was in a race, trying to do my best, and I don’t know how many more of these things I’ll be able to do.

My attention-paying actually began the night before with the pre-race meal I ate. Carboloading on pasta, which I learned about when I first took up racing, may still be popular in some quarters, but I believe it’s waning in popularity, as experienced runners now realize that for a lot of reasons, pigging out before a race isn’t such a good idea. I limited my pre-race dinner to a medium size baked potato with bleu cheese and a veggie burger on top of it. (No, I’m not a vegetarian, but don’t eat meat daily.)

The second matter for attention was eating during the race. Another popular myth is that a runner needs to eat several times his usual rate of calorie consumption during a race, chowing down food every couple of miles. Experienced and efficient runners will tell you this is not true. Rather than set some sort of arbitrary pattern, the best policy is to listen to one’s own body. Most runners should be able to survive at least a 50 km race on little or nothing more than they would eat normally during that time span. Past a few hours, of course, runners will need to eat a combination of standard nutrients, including some fats.

Every 24-hour race I’ve been at the last few years I’ve been amused at the setups some runners who come with crews have. I’ve seen tents that look like outposts of GNC health food stores, with racks of shelves filled with powders and gels that come in large, plastic bottles and cans, and with names that end in -yte and -ox. I have to wonder if the runners they support would do better if they ate actual food.

The food offered at most races is mostly unappetizing to me. I can’t imagine trying to eat a quarter of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that has been sitting out exposed to the air and drying up for hours, and has been visited by who knows how many flies, nor will I take a chance any longer on food that is grabbed out of a dish that many other sweaty people who have been stopping at porta-potties have grubbed around in before.

I’m prone to eating cookies and candy and pretzels when I really shouldn’t, but not so much during races, when they might be just what I need. Sometimes I can handle M&Ms. About two hours into the race I indulged in a single Oreo cookie. I was still chewing and gagging on it when I came around on the next lap. And yes, I was keeping up rather well with my hydration, drinking mostly water every lap or two, with Succeed! capsules every couple of hours, which was enough given the temperature. I wasn’t dehydrated. Sometime later I snagged another Oreo. Same problem. It was the last thing I took from the aid station. The race didn’t lose any money feeding me.

When it’s available at races, I prefer food that’s mushy and smooth: yogurt and pumpkin pie (especially the filling) spring to mind; also cooked foods: hot oatmeal, soups, and pasta are favorites, but last year the grease in the otherwise delicious pizza just killed my stomach. Gels do work if you can handle the usually horrible flavor. I do happen to actually like the PowerGels with extra sodium, but haven’t had any in a while. And soup has to be hot enough to be palatable. Often it’s barely lukewarm.

Even though I basically hate Red Bull—evil-tasting stuff—and would never drink it except during an endurance event, I’ve gotten used to it. It’s easy for me to wolf a half can or can at a time if I just swallow without savoring; and it does pack a wallop. I brought a four-pack of my own, consumed two cans of it a half can at a time at predetermined times, and had plans for the other two later on, if things had turned out a little differently.

Therefore, as far as I can remember, my total race caloric consumption consisted of those two cookies and those two cans of Red Bull. But it’s important to note that I never sensed the need of anything more. I was planning on eating something more substantial a little later. (Do you sense the premonition yet that something didn’t go as planned?)

Another thing I gave attention to during the race was my breathing. Mysteriously, I find that sometimes when I feel short-winded and am suffering, the main reason for that is that I’m simply forgetting to breathe! You might wonder how that’s possible. Isn’t it sort of an automatic and not-optional kind of thing to gasp for air when you need it? Apparently not. At least for me, it’s just a matter of focus, an element of associative thinking, paying attention to what I’m doing. If I’m not feeling right, there’s often a reason for it that can be addressed to make things better.

An important benefit of paying attention to breathing is that it provides a rhythmic backdrop for running. The fuel in our bodies has to be burned for it to be of use. that process begins with oxygen intake, a.k.a. breathing. Not enough oxygen results in slowing down and poor performance, not to mention incredible discomfort. Breathing rhythmically (according to a step count), being sure not only to inhale deeply and diaphragmatically, without forcing it, and also exhaling sufficiently to get rid of the CO2 and make room for more oxygen, is what makes it all happen. Sometimes just being conscious that there’s a problem and fixing it immediately can lead to dramatic relief in just a couple of steps.

Another thing I worked on was my form. I’ll never be on the cover of a running magazine, at least not because of the way I look when I run. (You can stop staggering around the room in shocked disbelief now.) And I have a back that’s never been flexible and that for the last several years has been increasingly affected by arthritis. I’m fine when I’m up and active and exercising, whether running, working in the yard, or just generally moving about, which is probably the best thing I can do for it; but the problem is there and will never go away. And sometimes I can barely get out of bed in the morning. So I tend to slouch when I run.

And I also frequently drag my right foot, seen in the wear patterns on my shoes, which tend to develop silver dollar size holes below my right toes long before the rest of the shoe wears out. Still, I’m not real fussy about shoes, having gone apostate from the shoe religion a long time ago. And while I don’t buy cheap shoes, I do tend to wear them until they are in shreds, and have been known to get 1200 miles out of a pair. As long as shoes provide something between my foot and the surface I’m running on, and as long as they don’t rub me in such a way as to cause blisters (usually not a problem for me once I learned how to prevent them), then issues of cushioning and all the rest don’t matter much to me.

But my body type is such that for me to run like a runner ought to, I have to concentrate, and when I don’t, I immediately fall back into a slouch. So it’s hips forward, permanently curved back as straight as I can get it, look farther than three feet ahead (I often run into people and things—including fences and bushes—because my head is down and I just don’t see them), and swing my arms. Fortunately, my feet don’t splay outward. My stride is about as straight-ahead as can be. Like most runners, I’m a heel striker and have no intention of trying to change that. But nothing I’ve ever been able to do has been able to prevent me from going chuff, chuff, chuff, dragging that right foot.

Again, it’s just a matter of concentration, and on Saturday, as I saw the laps adding up, and being unusually motivated on that day, I was able to focus on it more consistently than usual. Life was good.

One way to run disassociatively is to run with someone else. I’m mostly a loner out there, even in races, not because I’m antisocial, but because most people are running faster than me, and I like to be able to control what I do rather than being driven to one side or the other of what is comfortable for me, going either too fast or too slow—by someone else’s pace. But at NorthCoast on Saturday, I did spend several laps running in the company of Steve Tursi, who was gracious enough to allow me to slow him down a bit while I blathered on and did a brain dump about every little thing I’d been thinking about that day before he finally got tired of me and went off and we parted ways again. And when I was done I found that I was still right about on pace.

Regarding my goal to keep moving the whole race—for most of the first six hours I managed to do that and had no inclination to break for anything. But while talking to Steve I noticed I was starting to develop a hot spot, a harbinger of oncoming blisters. I wore Injinji toe socks with Bag Balm for lubrication—a yucky mess to get on, and painful, too, if you are like me and have trouble bending over in the morning. You have to get those things on just right. Finally, I stopped at my chair, sat down, pulled off my right shoe (a process complicated by gaiters), tugged at the sock, got everything back in place, and took off again. Down time: less than five minutes. I realized immediately I’d made it worse. Hoo boy. I’ve had problems in the past thinking I had a shoe or sock rubbing wrong, only to find that the irritation was coming from an actual blister that had formed. I stopped at a picnic table fifty yards down the path and redid the whole process, forcing myself to be careful. Down time: again less than five minutes. This time I was successful. Whatever was rubbing funny wasn’t any more, never came back, and I had no problem with that or any other area of my feet during or after the race.

So yeah, I did make a stop, but certain minor exceptions are normal and obligatory. My intent was to avoid stopping to rest, upon which I would just stiffen up and would be both unwilling and unable to continue, at least not very well.

Surf’s Up!

If you were at Edgewater Park in Cleveland on September 22, 2012, or followed discussions about the race afterward, then you know what happened to everyone there.

Word had circulated before the race of some heavy rain moving into the area. Being spitting distance from Lake Erie, by about 2:00 p.m., we could see thick black clouds roiling our way, and felt an increase in winds. When it finally hit, it was no ordinary shower or even a downpour, but a mean and hostile squall with some stinging hail thrown in to add injury to insult.

I’ve been caught in substantial downpours twice before at fixed-time races. The first time, at FANS in 2004, was fun. It had been a warm June day, and the evening rain was refreshing. The second was my last time at Across the Years in 2010. I was there for the 72-hour race, but on the verge of getting sick on the first day when a hard rain that began a couple of hours into the race continued to come harder and colder until very late at night. On that occasion I had to quit the race after only seven and a half hours to avoid almost certain personal disaster. (Like pneumonia and death—which would have been a Really Bad Thing—and which happened to someone else at that race once.) It was not how I wanted to end my streak at Across the Years (begun in 1999).

On Saturday I came around to my chair and calculated that I didn’t have time for another whole lap before the rain came, so put on my supposedly waterproof coat (turns out it’s not really) and also a beanie I wear in winter, with my regular running hat stretched over it.

By the time I got around again, there were winds that some people were estimating at 60 miles per hour driving heavy rain and nasty hail into anyone dumb … errr … brave enough to stay out there. At the time I was amused to see five guys suddenly show up with surfboards and wet suits and go enthusiastically plowing out into the lake for an afternoon of fun. Navy Seals out for recreation? The waves were not exactly Hawaii or California type, but I suppose good enough to be effective. God bless ’em. I could never do it.

This all happened just about six hours into the race, so approximately 3:00 p.m. I imagine the details will show in my splits.

And Then

Meanwhile, John Hnat was busy having fun with his bullhorn, recommending that runners take shelter, saying that the heavy rain would continue at least another 45 minutes, but that the race clock would continue to run, and anyone staying out on the course would do so at their own risk. A surprising number of hearty souls did.

I’m no fool. The wind stopped me in my tracks as I came around the final curve to the timing area and ramada, and the hail struck me in the face hard enough to bite. I couldn’t see two feet in front of me. Before long the temperature dropped to about 50, which is not extreme, or even uncomfortable if you’re running and conditions are dry, but if you’re soaked from head to foot, it’s a different matter. I headed into the ramada to enjoy chatting and laughing with other sissies who had come in.

After hanging out for quite a while, the rain was still coming down hard, but the violence had let up a bit. I headed back out to check things out and log at least one more lap, but the break and the wet cold had done their business. I was stiff and could only lumber around at about a 20-minute-per-mile pace, not fast enough to be fun or worth continuing to push it.

Meanwhile, the wind had rampaged through the park. Almost everything that had been put up was blown down. Volunteers were doing their best to cover the computer equipment, which as far as I saw continued to run just fine the whole time without missing a beat. Other volunteers were struggling hopelessly with the aid station—as if anyone was going to be stopping off for dried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or something in those conditions. They did an admirable job of keeping things going. One volunteer poked his head out the end when runners were coming by and offered to help anyone who needed anything, so at least it was functional, if not exactly five-star restaurant service for the time being.

Out in the tent village on the west side of the course, where almost everyone was set up, it looked like a war zone. All the pseudo-GNC outlets together with almost every shelter I saw had been blown over, and I later heard from some that some tents and other gear had been destroyed completely. Most of the crew people who were helping out the runners who were still out there had apparently fled to vehicles and other places of safety if not comfort, since I didn’t see many people standing around to hand anyone their water bottles filled with miraculously restorative food supplements. (Under the circumstances, a person could have gotten enough to drink by leaning his head back and opening his mouth.)

When I returned from that lap looking like a drowned rat that had washed up on shore, I knew I was done for the day. A lot of people stayed and toughed it out. I later learned that they all endured several more periods of intense rain during the night and that the temperature bottomed out in the mid forties.

So I told Dan Horvath I was bailing out. I detached and gave him my ankle chip, and he ran off to get me something. When he returned he was carrying the biggest “finishers” medal I now have in my collection, which looks surprisingly like a Harley-Davidson logo. “I get a medal for this?” I asked in bemused puzzlement, reflecting on the fact that I’d gone only half of a 12-hour race and was still feeling plenty strong and energetic, if a bit bound up. Oh yeah, there are no DNFs in fixed-time racing. I knew that. Dan got a serious look on his face, shook my hand, and gave me the standard congratulatory speech as if it were like the real awards ceremony, and people were gathered around and applauding my effort. We both had a good laugh about it.

I’ll take it. It’s going in my bling box. Oh yeah, my final distance was about 27.07 miles. And I believe that I was on pace to get close to 45 miles if the conditions had held. I would have been ecstatic with that number.

Of course, it’s one thing to say wanna-woulda-coulda-shoulda-mighta, but I didn’t actually run the second six hours, and most of the Bad Stuff that happens to ultrarunners happens in the later hours, so who knows what might have happened?

So was I upset about my race? Not at all. Yes, I wish it had been nice enough weather to allow me to pursue my original goal as planned. But it wasn’t, and it was absolutely nobody’s fault. Meanwhile, I’d had what was for me an excellent 6-hour run, which I will consider a training run, since I’ll be running the Columbus half-marathon on October 21.

And So

My next feat would be to get out of there. As I stood looking for a break to dash out and retrieve my gear, I had an encounter with an old man who I naturally assumed was there in some capacity in connection with the race, because everyone was, and besides, why else would anyone be out in that exact place in that weather on that day? But he told me he was Romanian, age 68 (didn’t look a day over 85), not a runner, but was at one time a fighter (he had very few teeth) and a weight-lifter. Unbelievably, he was standing in the middle of that soaking wet bedlam, having come there expecting to find someone to play chess with. He said he comes there every Saturday afternoon, that he used to be a highly ranked player, but now he plays only five-minute chess, presumably with a little money to sweeten the deal. I guess it didn’t occur to him that he wasn’t in the best place to find a partner on that day. When I told him I play chess, he thought I might want to sit down for a game. Ummm … no thanks, not this time.

Finally, after a stop in the medical tent to let Andy Lovy’s medical students bump me around a little, which felt wonderful, I decided to just head out to my chair and take the consequences. It was only about 150 feet down the path. But it was still raining very heavily at the time. Fortunately, I had no packing to do, having even already zipped all the gym bag pockets up before the storm hit. So I picked up my bag and chair and took the shortest path to my car, dropping two or three things in the parking lot, which was painful to bend over and pick up. I threw it in the trunk, grabbed the hooded sweatshirt out of the back seat and a towel, climbed in, and did the best I could to make myself comfortable before taking off.

Then I called my wife to let her know I wasn’t going to be rolling in at 1:30 a.m. after all. She reported that it was sunny in Columbus. She’d gone to a picnic!

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Case Hope Long Executed

Noted ironist author Case Hope Long was executed by lethal injection this morning for a crime neither he nor anyone else could remember. Beforehand, he announced that his last words would be, “These are my last words.”

Considered a master of the arcane form of recursive historical fiction, Long’s last and possibly greatest work was a novel titled … Sweat, considered unfinished by the few critics and scholars who have seen it because it is less than a single printed page in length—or about nine tweets, depending on your customarily preferred frame of literary reference.

The book is about a man assigned to write his own death notice for publication while waiting to be led off for execution, a task he was very much up to and anxious to complete, but was unable to get very far on because the first seven of the fifties era typewriters on the work table he was to work at were in such poor condition that they were inoperable, and when he finally found one that would suffice, the paper prison officials gave him to type on was already printed on both sides, so he had to go and ask for more with at least one blank side. When he got back he had barely three minutes to work on the project.

Oh crap, they’re here already.

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Uncircling, Unfriending, and Unfollowing

English: Semiotics of Social Networking

Image via Wikipedia

Though I don’t maintain an ironclad bullet list of rules about who I follow in my social networks, certain annoyances move me to uncircle, unfriend, or unfollow persons posthaste. (All three italicized words are social networking neologisms.)

Give me full sentences in some reasonable semblance of English. Persons who write habitually in the abbreviated language used in telephone texting will be cut from my network. If Roger Ebert can write full Twitter updates in 160 characters, so can you — if you care whether I read what you have to say. And you are under no obligation to care whether I read your posts, but I’m sure there are others who feel similarly.

I make exceptions to the abbreviated language rule in an interactive chat, when speed of semi-synchronous communication is essential. I type fast, but even so, I often use abbreviations, ignore upper case, punctuation, and don’t bother to fix typos if it’s obvious what I meant, when in a direct tete-a-tete, where the object is to get as close to the speed of speech as possible. But in such cases, if it’s important enough and available on both ends, video chat is sometimes the better medium.

Persons who insist on using vulgar or obscene speech or profanity do not remain in my networks. I don’t think foul language is funny, and I don’t think it’s colorful. There’s no need for it, particularly when communicating thoughts in front of the whole world. I may give a person one break. The second time they’re gone.

Users whose typical posts or comments consists primarily of LOL, OMG, ROTFL, LMAO, ROTFLMAO, WTF, and that ilk of stupidity strike me instantly as morons. They seem to be just wanting to be seen, like the cretins who walk behind reporters being interviewed on TV and wave or perform shenanigans in front of the camera.

If all you get from a post is a good laugh, then press +1 or Like or re-Tweet it, and if you want to re-share it fine — I like something funny as much as anyone else — but do so without comment. “For as the sound of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of the stupid one.” — Ecclesiastes 7:6

People who post links to really bad music don’t last long in my circles. I’m a lifetime musician and have precious little time to listen to good music without having to listen to bad music, too.

What’s with this fad for posting pictures of cats? Yes, I like cats and think they can be ridiculously cute, too, but c’mon, man! One a year or so should cover it, right?

These days I check in with Facebook about once a day, and have almost entirely lost my need for Twitter. I’ve moved almost all my social networking activity to Google+, which is far better for a host of reasons beyond the scope of conversation, and well-known to those who have done likewise.

On Google+ I often add large numbers of unknown plusers to a circle, especially by means of recommendations or shared circles. But I keep a watchful eye out for violators, and kick people out frequently.

Let’s keep the high quality rolling on Google+.

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Pressing the Elevator Button

Elevator buttons showing the missing 13th floor

Image via Wikipedia

Now and then I notice the way naive people make fun of more enlightened individuals who press elevator buttons repeatedly in an effort to make them arrive sooner. I’ve been known to beat on the call buttons of a few recalcitrant elevators myself. This actually works.

What these quipsters don’t know or have never thought about is that it’s a provable fact that the more times you press an elevator button, the sooner it will come! Why? Well, it always arrives nearest the last time you pressed it, doesn’t it? Can you deny that? Huh?

Therefore it must work, right? So there.

This applies equally well to pedestrian crossing traffic signals. Therefore I will continue to press both elevator and traffic control buttons as often as I continue to get comfort from doing so.

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Chronicles: Volume 1 — Bob Dylan

Cover of

Cover of Chronicles, Volume 1

Contrary to implications from the title, and also to the customary method of presenting biography, Bob Dylan’s book Chronicles: Volume 1 is not a traditional “Born on a mountaintop in …” chronologically-told tale. We learn bits of the back story throughout the book, enough to be satisfied that Dylan, famous for his penchant for privacy, has not withheld anything important. Is it any business of we the curious to expect more? In any case, the sort of trivia that obsessive star-stalkers seek is not hard to uncover from other sources; some of it is even true. (Apparently, but what do I know?)

I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan since early times. I used to hear him regularly in the early sixties on The Midnight Special, a Saturday night radio program dedicated to American roots music, broadcast on Chicago’s great FM radio station WFMT. The show has been running continuously since 1953, though I haven’t heard it myself since college days. I don’t know how often they continued to play Dylan after he became a breakaway star. For all I know, they still do. For all he has done in his life, he remains first and foremost a folksinger.

Chronicles: Volume 1 opens and closes around Dylan’s signing first a publishing deal with Leeds Music, which he soon got out of (he was technically underage when he signed it without the co-signature of a parent or guardian), then a recording deal with Columbia Records, having been acquired by John Hammond, one of the greatest talent discoverers in music history — all before Dylan had begun to write much at all. In comparison, imagine being the record company that signed the Beatles before John and Paul had written Please Please Me — which actually happened.

To be invited to record with Columbia on the basis of Dylan’s prior experience was a happening equivalent in order of magnitude to an aspiring classical pianist being asked to present his world premiere performance as a concerto soloist with the New York Philharmonic. In those days (late 1961) you couldn’t get a better deal, although Columbia also had a reputation that if your first record didn’t sell well, they would bury you and your career would be over.

A few years later, my band was also invited to cut a demo for Columbia. They didn’t take us on. It was probably not a good match for either of us at the time. My band never went much of anywhere, and today nobody has heard of it. Obviously, it went better for Dylan.

Following the signings in October 1961, we are shifted back in time to February of that year, when nascent but already experienced folk singer Bob Zimmerman, not yet Dylan, arrived in New York City. We learn of his successful efforts to find venues in the West Village basket houses and clubs, another experience we shared with Dylan, ours about seven years later. Dylan’s repertoire was already substantial, but for a while he would do nothing but Woody Guthrie songs. He seems to be a sponge for memorizing words. He hadn’t yet begun writing songs of his own. And we are told of the friends he’d acquired who were happy to let him stay on their living room couches for weeks at a time.

Dylan had a feeling he was going places, but even he could not possibly have anticipated what actually happened.

It should come as no surprise that Dylan, revered even more for his poetic lyrics than for the music that accompanies them (although I like the music and lyrics equally myself), is capable of writing engaging passages of prose, interrupted occasionally by quirkily casual colloquialisms, such as “Me and Clayton went [somewhere],” which a friend postulates is just “Dylan going from Proust mode, say, to Woodie Guthrie mode, just because he is able to do so. Think Mark Twain.” Surely Bob Dylan knows how to use pronouns properly, so I’ll grant credence to my friend’s theory. There are nonetheless a few minor passages in the book that could have used closer attention by a copyeditor. But that’s a subject I’m prejudiced about.

There are some extraordinary passages in which Dylan describes his influences. He’s always been surrounded by music and books. Although he was determined to pursue folk music, he liked and absorbed everything: classical music, modern jazz, even a great deal of pop music, including commercial performers like Rick Nelson and the Kingston Trio. He’s always been more focused on the songs, particularly their stories and words, than the artifice used to put them across.

Dylan relates an experience where he woke up in the apartment of friends he was staying with, and explored their vast library, everything from the Greek, Latin, and old English classics to modern times, also history, art, and philosophy. Dylan devoured such things during his hours alone. Although Dylan was apparently a mediocre student back in Hibbing, Minnesota, it’s apparent he had by this time acquired a substantial storehouse of knowledge about many subjects. He made special effort to memorize longer and longer passages of difficult poetry, mostly because he liked it, but also for practice. Dylan thereby demonstrated something I’ve long believed, that being a good student and getting an education does not mean getting top grades in school, but actually learning something.

His tale is suffused with enough back references that it’s not necessary for him to devote a whole chapter, section, or other discrete part to his being born, his family, growing up, school, friends, and the like. He doesn’t try to hide any of it as though he disowned his past, which he manifestly has never done. But most of these details are not important to telling the story that people who are interested in Bob Dylan the self-invented character need to hear about.

Another segment, similar to the bookshelf exploration sequence, is his telling of going regularly to the New York Public Library and reading newspapers from 1855–65 on microfilm in order to absorb the flavor of their language, and to become more familiar firsthand with what the real stories and issues were in those days, which included far more than just states’ rights and slavery. The nation was a powder keg at the time, and the conflict that came was unstoppable, a cancer that the nation had to battle to get rid of. Those times generated a lot of good music that few people today have ever heard.

Dylan seems to have been conscious from an early age of what he wanted to do in life: to be a folk singer, and to make a mark in the world that way. Fame and wealth were not objectives; in fact, he anticipated working in relative obscurity while recording for some minor folk music label, rather than becoming a mainstream artist. He never expected to become as big as his idol Woodie Guthrie.

Suddenly readers are shifted forward in time ten years. Imagine an autobiography by John Lennon, in which he skips covering most of what happened to him between ages twenty and thirty. It’s kind of an important period in his life, don’tcha think?

Still, the stories Dylan tells of events that are highlights from his own perspective, particularly of recording sessions for certain key albums, are remarkably cogent and informative.

Finally, readers are time-shifted once again back to the signing of his record deal, to his discovery on the very same day of blues man Robert Johnson by means of an unreleased acetate John Hammond gave him, as Columbia had bought all Johnson’s recordings and intended to release them, and to a scene of Dylan, who had worked hard recently to manufacture himself, feeling a sense of destiny, that something big was about to happen — as indeed it did.

Will there be a Chronicles: Volume 2? I certainly hope so.

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Ulysses by James Joyce — a Reaction

James Joyce

To quote a famous old Alka-Seltzer commercial, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” That was a long song.

If you are searching for an intelligent review of the James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, look elsewhere. The book has been out for a few years. Plenty of literati of all sorts, including hyper-, semi-, and il-, the type who like to read their own writing, have attempted to scribe meaningful words about it. Some of it may even be good reading. I’ll never know, and I’ll avoid getting into that fray myself.

Ulysses seems to be telling a story about some poor cuckold named Leopold Bloom, and another sad sack named Steven Dedalus, but I’ll be darned if I could tell you what it is. Reading the book is like overhearing a private conversation, or maybe a guy talking in his sleep.

Whatever it is the book was about, the language was certainly impressive, even if I didn’t get the drift — as drift it indeed did. The language contains non-stop puns and references, tons of which I even got, much to my surprise. Hey, I’m no dummy. I’ve read stuff. I can’t help but be impressed by the virtuosity, if need for intelligibility is discounted as a necessary value.

What the book tells me about James Joyce himself — supposedly a lot, as we’re told the character of Steven Dedalus is autobiographical — is that he’s arrogant, and that of the top one hundred people in the arts I would love to have been able to meet, he wouldn’t have made the list. I sincerely doubt he could have been a friend of mine.

Another bucket list item checked off.

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The Mettle to Medal

Before the race

I would pass here many times

At the North Coast 24-Hour Endurance Run in September of last year, Newton Baker placed first in our mutual age group. I logged the second greatest amount of mileage in that age group, but wasn’t a registered USATF runner, so didn’t qualify to receive a medal for my achievement.

Newton proceeded to rib me: “You should’a joined USATF. If you’da been a member, then you’da not only had a good race, you’da had a medal!” In that moment I resolved to return again in 2011, do my best, and secure a medal for myself.

Which I did. But how well did I do? Depends on how you tell the story. Spin is everything.

Last weekend my hope and realistic expectation was to finish with mileage in the mid-seventies. My actual finishing distance of 61.48 miles was exactly half a mile more than my personal 24-hour worst, set two years ago, and 3.93 miles less than last year. (For perspective, compare that to my personal best of 83.716 miles, set in 2001.) That made my overall finishing position (counting both genders) 125th out of 186 who logged distance, so 61 runners finished behind me. Of those not one was my age or older. In other words: many younger runners ran farther than I did; a few older runners ran farther than I did; but none of the runners I outperformed are older than me.

Got that? Does it mean much? Not a thing.

As I hoped, I earned my coveted medal for being second in the 65–69 age group in a national championship, the first medal other than a generic finisher’s medal I’ve ever gotten in a race. Woo, woo! Taken at face value it sounds impressive, right? Of course, Newton Baker won it again. He could beat me hopping on one leg. (Come to think of it, he’s got a nasty pin in one ankle that makes it difficult for him to run.) There was only one other runner in our age group but he didn’t register with USATF, or he would have walked off with the third place medal. But I did beat him, too.

At my age about all a person has to do to medal is show up. Knowing that, I trained a whole year to be able to do just that. I should have made a sign that said, “Don’t meddle with the man with the mettle to medal.”

The experience was rewarding as always.

These affairs invariably follow a similar progression.

First there’s the meet-greet phase, reunions with everyone you’ve known from previous races or from the Internet, while making new friends. Good vibes are always in abundant supply before a race.

In the close-knit world of ultrarunning I get to hug a lot of vibrantly healthy women. Hugged Debbie. Hugged Julie. Hugged Debra. Hugged Lisa. Hugged Shannon. Hugged some women I have no idea who they were, but who apparently know me because they initiated the hugging. I don’t mind. And my wife is a real good sport.

Dinner the night before was a doubly-special occasion, as it happened to be Suzy and my thirty-third wedding anniversary. Spending it with me at a race (not the first time, probably not the last) is further proof that she’s a good sport. Suzy enjoyed a Glenlivet with dinner. Single malt scotch whiskey may be my favorite taste in the whole world, and I haven’t had any in at least a year, but I remained alcohol-deprived because of the race the next morning. The evening before a race is no occasion for crapulous behavior. The food was good, the noise level of conversation, centered entirely on running, was animated and loud for a group of mostly sober people.

We arrived at the numinous running shrine at Edgewater Park by 7:25 a.m. on Saturday, September 17, to find hordes of runners and crews bustling about, already setting up, the tent village largely formed. I still managed to carve out a good spot for myself at my preferred location, exactly the same as the previous two years.

In recent years I’ve learned to execute these affairs mostly without any crew support at all. Suzy helped me set up my table, then scurried off to help with with registration. She left early to return to (race director Dan and) Debbie Horvath’s house in order to help with preparing breakfast for the next morning. I never saw her during the middle twenty-two hours of the race.

Some of the newer folks fret obsessively about gear and clothing and gels and performance products, but I’m betting all that fuss does little to help them. All a person really needs to do is to train well, show up on time, put down maybe a chair and a gym bag — to hold the gym bag off the ground, because after all you come there to run, not sit in a chair — and keep exercising gumption until the race is over. The rest usually takes care of itself, and if you need help, it’s not hard to find some.

My system entails the use of a folding camp table; a white hard plastic box about the size of a shoebox filled mostly with chemical substances — Succeed, ibuprofen, Pepcid A/C, ginger, sunscreen, lip balm, caffeine, and potassium; a gym bag with extra clothing; a single water bottle; and a camp chair, just in case.

If I’d had a crew urging me to eat or drink this or that when I didn’t want to eat or drink this or that, or to run faster when I couldn’t, I probably would have decked them. I’m always doing the best I can, even when that’s not very good. In fact, especially then. In an ultra, if you’re comfortable, you probably aren’t running hard enough.

The first four hours of the race I ran most of the time, except for the short segments on the 0.90075-mile certified loop where the path rises slightly. Unless you are a runner who expects to be able to run (meaning not walk) the entire 24 hours, running up even gentle inclines is a needless waste of energy.

The day was beautiful and cool, and the long-familiar racetime ambiance served happily to divert my attention away from the many cares that have preoccupied my thoughts day and night of late, allowing me to concentrate only on running, enjoying the experience at the beginning, knowing that discomfort and suffering were advancing like a cavalry charge and would soon envelop me. From hours eight until twelve I still ran as much as I could, but increasingly less.

I was the last person to finish a lap before the twelve-hour halfway split, at which time I had gone 41.43 miles. This compares with 45.04 last year, which I regarded as exceptional at the time; I expected to get less this year.

Even though by this time I was already reduced to walking most of the time, my plan of action for getting well into the 70-mile range was to stay out on the road longer. Both the previous two years I had terrible troubles fighting sleep. Furthermore, I learned to my dismay that for me caffeine tablets either serve as a miracle drug, or they upset my stomach so badly I get dry heaves. Not fun.

My new strategy for staying awake depended on heavy doses of Red Bull, one can per hour during the late night hours, a technique I learned from Jan Ryerse in 2003, when he won the Across the Years 72-hour race, and I was second male finisher. Jan didn’t sleep the entire race, nor for several hours before and after it.

There was only one minor caveat to that plan. I’ve drunk only one can of Red Bull in my life and I hated it. But I know it’s effective, so I’d just chugalug the contents like medicine and get on with business. Ultramarathons are not occasions for gourmet dining. How bad could it be? Red Bull may be unadulterated poison, but some people actually drink the stuff because they like it.

When I ran my proposal by sagacious Dr. Lisa Bliss before the race, she wondered if I’d ever actually tried it. Well, no. In addition to the caffeine, Red Bull has large amounts of sugar to deal with. It could lead to a crash. The caution may have affected me psychologically.

Clever plans are often subject to the vicissitudes of reality, and there was indeed a flaw in my method. I ate and drank copiously while topping off my electrolytes with Succeed regularly the first twelve hours, just as a wise ultrarunner ought to do, and was feeling fine — until I ate that second slice of pizza not long before the halfway point. That’s when mild nausea set in, along with the indomitable realization that it was bedtime. My habit of late is to turn in somewhere between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m., since it’s not unusual for me to get up around 4:00 a.m., sometimes even earlier. My normal day, one in which I’d worked very hard physically, was coming to a close, but I had a much tougher one still ahead of me.

I tried to remind myself it was still at least an hour too early to start on the Red Bull, but the arguments I presented were moot because I just wanted to crash like an airplane running on fumes. The grass by the side of the path was looking mighty tempting. In the end I never touched the stuff, as I was unable to convince myself that pouring bad-tasting sugar-and-caffeine-laced jet fuel into my already protesting stomach would be a good idea.

Also, the temperature was dropping, and there was a bit of wind whipping up off the lake. The low temperature at night was about 50 degrees, not bitter, but uncomfortable for a greatly slowed runner wearing soggy, stinking clothing. My gloves (wet with night moisture), a jacket, and a sweatshirt were barely adequate. Some runners ran with far less, and Jonathan Savage, on his way to over 146 miles, ran without a shirt the entire night.

I took advantage of the fact that Suzy left our car at the park for me and crawled into the back seat, where I fell sound asleep in a few seconds, intending to sleep just long enough to knock out the grogginess — maybe ten or fifteen minutes. When I woke up I misread my watch and was flummoxed into thinking — mistakenly — that I had slept well over five hours, thereby obliterating any possibility of having a good race. What I really saw was the time elapsed since the last time I pressed the lap split button on my timer, which I didn’t automatically do each lap, and hadn’t done for hours.

Furthermore, when I got back on the track, my head still in a fog, I didn’t realize that the race clock, which evidently doesn’t count any higher than 12:00:00, had been reset at the midpoint (9:00 p.m.) to count backwards to zero — and I never heard any announcement about that. It took me at least three laps to realize that, then to calculate the time of day, from which I estimated I was only down for an hour or so. Don’t ask why it never occurred to me to simply switch my watch to the time mode to get the time of day. An hour was still longer than I intended, but much better than over five. It also meant that I had a long time to go before the end of the race.

Alas, all good intentions to the contrary, I continued to fight drowsiness until dawn. As usual, when the first signs of light appeared, by which time I’m usually halfway through a pot of coffee and busy with projects, my energy returned, and I managed to keep on shuffling along among the other survivors until the end.

At 8:00 a.m. Sunday

8:00 a.m. Sunday

At 8:00 a.m. Suzy appeared on the path with a camera to record my sorry condition for posterity, then disappeared into the ramada to help with breakfast.

At the end, there are always runners who quit after the last whole lap they can get in, but as always, I grabbed a stick with my number on it and pressed on to log as many additional 100-yard segments as possible before the siren sounded and everyone still on the track suddenly stopped in their tracks and dropped their sticks, which must be fun to see standing in the middle.

Last crossing, a few minutes to go

Last crossing, partial lap to go

And so another successful North Coast 24-Hour USATF National Championship Endurance Run came to an end. Runners out on the course staggered across open fields back to the start area to get some delicious breakfast (for those who could stomach it), pack up, and listen as race director Dan Horvath read off the names (but in a break with tradition, not the mileages, which were still not official) of the top ten open performers in each gender (there’s money for the top three), then announced the age group winners. Mercifully, Dan finished up the awards in record time. Afterward, it didn’t take long for most runners and crew to vamoose, while clean-up crews stayed behind.

Since 1999 I’ve spent 34 24-hour days of my life circling tracks, not counting any of the 2010 Across the Years 72-hour race, which illness exacerbated by foul weather forced me to bail out of after seven and a half hours. Fixed-time running is my favorite format because it suits my personal skill set, training methods, and personality well. Whether I will be running any more such races remains to be seen. All good things come to an end, and no one does just one thing his whole life. I have no current plans for another race, but I’ve learned not to burn any bridges behind me.

North Coast is an excellent race, entirely deserving of recognition as the US national championship. It’s customary after successful events to hear cascades of bathetic plaudits from satisfied customers, along with the inevitable slew of affirmations that declare: “I’m definitely coming back to this one next year!” as runners always assume that there will be a next year. Whether there will be a North Coast race in 2012, I have heard from good authority, is a question that has by no means been determined. But if there is, it will be a good race.

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About Legacy Posts

As of July 25, 2011, I have migrated over 130 articles from my Neologistics blog, where since August 2005 I have posted many unsorted articles, including items unrelated to editing, writing, or literature. The articles copied from the old site have all been labeled with the category LEGACY.

It has been a longstanding shortcoming of Google’s otherwise excellent blog service that authors cannot order the display in any way except chronologically, with the newest material on top. In contrast, WordPress allows assigning any number of categories to any post, allowing visitors variety in sifting and sorting.

In addition, it also makes sense to me not to have to support two blogs at once. This morning I posted my last article to the old site, announcing my intention to use this one exclusively from now on.

The job of migration is done. Each older article’s publication date has been revised to show the date of its original publication on the other site.

Readers may find some of these articles enjoyable. I invite you to explore and by all means provide feedback if you would like.

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Easy Start

A string trimmer

Image via Wikipedia

If it weren’t so annoying I’d laugh at the words written on my Honda gasoline-powered powersprayer’s engine. It says:


One is led to conjecture they display this expression to convey a sense of contrast with the sort of gas-engine-powered tools that often require a combination of Olympic athleticism and incantations to foreign gods to spur them into an operational state.

However, my “easy start” powersprayer sometimes takes up to twenty vigorous tugs on the cord, pumping the choke, releasing pressure from the sprayer wand, and invocations of divine assistance to accomplish the task, bringing cascades of sweat to my fit body, and requiring me to take breaks to catch my breath every several yanks.

Frankly, that process does not fulfill my idea of “easy start.” In fact, it’s my idea of “extremely difficult to start,” and therefore seems to be a rather strange choice of phrase to feature in one inch letters on the engine. It might as well also say ELECTRIC POWERED, which is also a lie.

My Honda automobilethat’s what I think of when I see the words “easy start.” I barely have to blink or breathe and it starts right up, and quietly. It’s never failed me, even in winter. But nowhere on the displayed text anywhere in my car can I find the words “easy start.” You’d think that if Honda wants to display the words “easy start” at all, they’d choose to write them on a device that is actually easy to start rather than one that is almost impossible to start. Don’tcha think?

Last month my much needed cheapo Black & Decker GrassHog string trimmer broke, and I couldn’t fix it. I decided to invest in a tool that might actually work — a Stihl trimmer. But which model to buy? I perused the Stihl website product listings, then went to a local dealer and offered my throat to a young salesman. These gizmos are not cheap, and I don’t have money to spare right now. It came down to a choice between one model and another similar model that features a cleaner-burning engine and an “easy start” engine. Hmmm. The less featureful model was already more than I wanted to spend, so I opted for that one.

The salesguy took the device to the back room service center behind nearby closed doors to start it up for the first time for me and verify the instrument actually works. I stood there for several minutes listening to the trimmer’s gasps and chuffs, accompanied by an assortment of grunts and oaths being uttered by the team of two strapping lads working on it. Brand new machine. Wouldn’t start in five minutes of physically exhausting effort.

I stuck my head in through the doors and said, “I’m sorry. I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to buy this thing.” The two guys appeared to be bewildered and disappointed, but what could they do? I left, but this left me trimmerless. I considered just buying another one of the kind that broke and using it until that one broke, too. (That one is electric, and at least starts, but has the disadvantage of having to drag around a 30-pound 75-foot cord wherever I’m working.)

About two weeks later a minor windfall came my way. While I was in North Carolina, where my in-laws live, I visited the Stihl dealer there, where my father-in-law bought his. After talking to another knowledgeable young salesman, I selected the FS 56 model, the same basic unit as at the other dealer, but this one with the cleaner-burning engine and the so-called “easy start” system.

This time I followed the salesman outside, where he poured in a bit of gasoline, and prepared to test it. One easy pull. Ka-chuff. Nothing. A second easy pull. Brrrrrrr. Started right up. Runs quietly. That’s more like it.

We walked out the door with that trimmer. Getting it in the Honda Accord was more of a problem than I had anticipated, particularly inasmuch as I had to pack in a lot of stuff around it for our six-hour drive home the next day.

But guess what? The Stihl doesn’t display the words EASY START prominently anywhere on the tool.

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My Visit with Queen Elizabeth II

HM Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kin...

Image via Wikipedia

I had a dream last night about Queen Elizabeth II. Lovely woman, that one.

She came to our locality for a visit, accompanied only by a male attendant, whom I presumed to be a personal secretary.

She spoke at a function I was at, of undefined purpose.

I walked a few steps behind her as she and her attendant headed off to a bus stop. A bicyclist whizzed by coming from the opposite direction, coming carelessly close. The Queen’s hat flew off. Apparently she didn’t even notice. I picked it up, and ran the few steps to catch up to her, handed her her hat, and introduced myself. She thanked me.

We met shortly afterward at a social gathering at my house to pay respects to the Queen. People sat around drinking coctails and eating hors d’oeuvres. Elizabeth briefly leaned back, inadvertently flashing me a view much further up her dress than would have been considered appropriate for any lady, let alone a queen. I looked away in respect.

A young friend arrived, didn’t know who it was that was sitting not far away, and when told, not knowing the right way to behave, fell on the floor obsequiously and in tears, his face pressed to the carpet.

Later, Elizabeth and her secretary made it to the bus, but I hadn’t had a chance to talk to her because I’d been busy tending to the needs of my guests. (I was alone and had no wife to help me.) I hopped on a bicycle and got in the path of the bus, forcing it to stop and open its doors. A swarm of secret service types suddenly appeared to protect the Queen. I apologized and explained that I simply wanted to thank her for coming to my home, that it was an honor and a pleasure to have her, and to wish her a good return trip home. My explanation was graciously received by all. I waved bye-bye to the Queen and she returned the gesture.

It was one of the longest multi-part extended dreams that I can remember.

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A Former al-Qaeda Leader?

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 01: Thousands of people cel...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Recently, I read a news story that referred to Osama Bin Laden as the “former leader of al-Qaeda.” Former? Ha! Perhaps so in the same way that Hitler is a former Nazi, or Ted Bundy a former serial murderer, if we may refer to them at all in the present tense. But somehow in such cases it seems that “former” is not quite le mot juste. Why are people afraid to use the word dead regarding these guys?

Bin Laden is indisputably no longer in a position to head up al-Qaeda as long as he remains in a deceased state. Having been given an honorable funeral (likely to prevent ticking off any more terrorists), he has presumably gone wherever good terrorists go when they die, and has been busy fooling around with the army of virgins promised to him by his spiritual advisers, who I’m sure checked their holy books at least twice to be sure they could rightly offer that reward. This strikes me as a terrible waste of virgins. I’ll bet he’s real sorry now about all the mean things he did, too. Former my foot.

Wouldn’t it be funny if that teaching turned out to be true, but when he got there the virgins all turned out to be thirteen-year-old boys? A little detail his holy men forgot to mention. Maybe the God of terrorists has a sense of humor; his worshipers certainly don’t.

What can I say? Religion often makes people stupid. But that’s a topic for another post someday, and I’ve digressed.

Some designations remain for life, even though the designee goes on to other things; and some do not.

In 2011, it would be inappropriate to call the Boston Celtics the National Basketball Association champions, even though they have won that championship seventeen times. At this writing, the Dallas Mavericks hold that title. That a team has to compete for it and win it in successive years and with different team members is an indication that the honor, while memorable for a lifetime, is not permanently current. There is only one NBA championship team at any given time. Therefore, the Boston Celtics are presently former NBA champs. They have been such seventeen times, and could very well be champs again many more times in the future.

A use I’ve often heard for “former” is in reference to various Beatles, who as a band have earned a unique station in the world of popular music. Paul McCartney is often called a former Beatle, and true enough, I’ve never heard Paul himself dispute the term. However, even though John, Paul, George, and Ringo no longer work together and never will, the ghost of the band’s business is still going strong. New Beatles-branded product is periodically released to the world and continues to sell very well. In this, no one has a greater hand of overseership than Paul McCartney himself. No item is labeled as being from the Beatles unless Paul says it can be, undoubtedly with Ringo’s agreement.

If a Beatle still exists it would be Paul, and if Paul is a Beatle, then the same reasoning would include Ringo, but the case for Paul is much stronger. In both my mind and my heart, Paul and Ringo are Beatles, and will never be former Beatles as long as they live. John and George are not former Beatles. Sadly, they’re merely dead Beatles, but by the terms I’ve just described remained actual Beatles as long as they lived, regardless of the band’s inactivity.

In the United States, we use “former” in cases where someone definitely changes course and does not return to it. We write of former presidents because these men (and someday women) step down and another person takes their place, though I’ll admit that their status is muddied somewhat in that ex-presidents by accepted convention continue to brandish the honorific Mr. President for the rest of their lives. In comparison, we do not do the same for former US senators. When their terms of office expire and they are replaced, as long as they are living, they are former senators. When Harry S. Truman was elected vice president, he became a former senator.

Therefore, I would urge authors and copyeditors alike to agree to save “former” for cases where someone still living definitely changes course and completely relinquishes all evidence of still holding claim to the title formerly bestowed on him.

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Simple Signage

Haddon Hall. Haddon Hall near Bakewell, Derbyshire

Image via Wikipedia

In the venerable British tradition of estate naming, we call our house Haddon Hall. We named it that because we live on Haddon Road in Columbus, Ohio, also in tribute to a beautiful English medieval castle by that name. We would love to put up a sign that says that HADDON HALL — perhaps carved on a big rock or stone tablet, or engraved on a brass plate.

Our Haddon Hall is home to us, but we also identify ourselves as its residents by means of the brass knocker on our front door. It says, in mixed case and a classy serif font, Newton, because that’s our name. We see no need to add anything more. The meaning is clear.

Signage is written in an extreme form of headline style, the type of writing used in titles of newspaper articles, where the objective is to say exactly what is needed using as few words and letters as possible.

Sometimes context fills in meaning that culturally literate readers are expected to supply for themselves. For instance, if you drive anywhere in the United States and see a thirty-inch wide octagonal sign with white letters in Helvetica Narrow Bold font,[1] and a white border on a red background that says STOP, you know what it means. “The law requires you to bring your vehicle to a full stop right here.” But heaven help us all if we had to read all that on a sign. The simple imperative without punctuation is sufficient to communicate the desired conduct.

Returning to houses, think about the variations of style we observe on signs naming their residents. I first became conscious of this thirty-three years ago by means of a painted ceramic plaque above the door at the home of some friends named Olson. They are both now deceased, so I’ll honor their memory by using them as an example, while also poking fun at them posthumously, because their sign was wrong.

The simplest and most logical identifier would have been just the family name: Olson. Because Olson is commonly recognized as a name, no further explanation is needed to explain that’s the name of the people who live there. It could also have said Eggs, because they raised chickens and sold the eggs. Few people would have mistaken a sign with that word as someone’s name, particularly inasmuch as you had to drive right by the chicken yard to get to the house.

The Olsons, with the definite article and plural family name would have been acceptable, even though it says more than is needed. It suggests the sentence, “The Olsons live here,” or “The Olson family lives here.”

Olsons in the plural is marginally acceptable, but with some names may be ambiguous. Is it really plural, or is the final s part of their name? I found numerous examples among the commonest surnames where both the spelling with and without the “s” are common: Meyer and Meyers; Owens and Owen; Richard and Richards; Wood and Woods, and so forth. Specifying the definite article along with the correct plural form removes all doubt.

The Olson’s Bzzt! Wrong! (What was on my friends’ door.) Any form using an apostrophe forms the possessive, in this case, possession by one single Olson. The implied sentence is “This is the home belonging to the Olson,” meaning the one and only Olson in the whole wide world; and seems to present a question fragment: “The (one and only) Olson’s . . . what?” But there are many Olsons, and in this and most other cases there was more than one Olson to be found living behind these walls.

The Olsons’ is the plural possessive, and like the previous example, seems to ask a question, but in this case suggests the meaning is “The Olsons’ house.” There’s nothing grossly incorrect with this, but it looks wrong. Why slant the identification toward the structure, when the purpose of the sign is likely to identify the residents, not house itself?

I’m all for using the simplest form possible in such signage.

[1] You may not know the font, but you’ll notice if it’s something else. In fact, sometimes we see stop signs on private property (in malls) that are not provided by official sources, and that sometimes look slightly different. I remember coasting through one of those once, whereupon Suzy admonished me that I missed the sign. I told her, “Show me a real stop sign and I’ll show you a real stop.”

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Looking It Over

While I was an engineer at Motorola, I began editing the written work of others on a regular basis, and in doing so, discovered my ability to tear into someone else’s writing and make it better without making the author feel bad. What I did wasn’t a customary or assigned part of my job, so was never called anything as formally precise as copyediting. Instead, people called it get Lynn to look it over, meaning that I was expected to perform special favors for colleagues whenever asked.

The cycle would begin when someone in my department or a nearby cubicle dweller produced a report or proposal or some software documentation. The stuckee would wander by my office with a printed copy of first draft quality material and ask, “Hey Lynn, I’ve just finished writing this here massive tome that’s due this afternoon. Would you mind looking it over? Y’know, just to make sure I didn’t make no typos or nothing.” Apparently most people assumed I had nothing else to do, that the results of their labors were close to flawless, and that I could check over a seventy-five-page report in ten or fifteen minutes, maybe while eating lunch (which I never did, but that’s another story). I was always glad to help out because I enjoyed the work, and somehow I always managed to work it in with the other things I was doing.

As the process repeated itself, and those requesting my help saw their work returned with twenty or more edits per page, they discovered that I was actually pretty good at this looking things over business. That’s when some of them started showing up with their teenagers’s junior college term papers. I didn’t mind, especially if the students were trying their hardest to produce good work.

Rather than being insulted when I transformed their work from gobbledygook to something intelligible, authors were usually appreciative (or I wouldn’t have done it!), relieved that they hadn’t tried to submit their stuff without having another pair of eyes “look it over,” examining it critically.

That’s how doing other people favors came to be a part of my job that was never covered in performance reviews, but led to a new career in later years.

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George Washington and Abraham Lincoln: Remedial Reading

Cover of "Washington: A Life"

Cover of Washington: A Life

Cover of "A. Lincoln: A Biography"

Cover of A. Lincoln: A Biography

Most reading for the purpose of taking in information is remedial — don’tcha think? After all, if you already know a subject, why read about it again?

By the time a man gets to be my age, the scope of his sense of cultural literacy should encompass the essential facts regarding the lives and places in history of figures such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, information that falls into the Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! quiz question category “Things you should have learned in school if you’d been paying attention.”

So why do they publish new biographies of Washington and Lincoln, guys we all learned about in grade school, that are written for and sold mostly to adults? Is it because we never heard of them? Or because we need to know more?

For several years my personal reading has slanted heavily toward a great deal of material about United States history, cruising along in a sequence that has been informed by my provoked curiosity. In the process I’ve filled in gaps — chasms, really — in my knowledge base, coming to understand important events and personages from this nation’s history that I should have absorbed long ago, but — well, I didn’t, so what can I say? But now I’m not so much of an ignoramus as I was formerly.

Happily convenient to my reading program has been the availability of two recent one-volume biographies, one each about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, which I read one after the other. Somehow, in my nearly sixty-eight years of life I had missed studying much about either one. It’s true that I was forced to read a biography of George Washington in eighth grade and write a book report on it, but all I remembered from the experience was that Washington didn’t chop down a cherry tree and confess it to his father when confronted — but was nonetheless exemplary as an honest man of integrity; and he didn’t throw a silver dollar across the Potomac, which would have been a waste of money — but he once demonstrated arm strength that suggests he likely would have been able to nail a runner at home plate from the center field fence in Huston’s Minute Maid Park with one throw.[1] All of which is more than I knew about Abraham Lincoln.

George Washington

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow is more than merely informative. As a recent recipient of a Pulitzer Prize (shortly after I finished reading it), it’s been recognized by highfalutin types inclined to give awards for that sort of thing as being an outstanding piece of historical writing. I would be ill-equipped to disagree.

The reputation of George Washington the man needs no more approbation from me than it has already received from history. (Whoever that is.) Let us make allowance for his being a leading rebel against the established order of his time; a slaveowner; a presider over hangings; and the hands-on leader of masses of men engaged in wholesale slaughter, whose personal engagement and ferocity makes John Rambo look like a girlie man. If we acknowledge these realities as acceptable behavior for the time and circumstances under which Washington lived, then added to all the other things he accomplished it would be hard to deny that Washington was one of the most notable and highly accomplished men in world history.

My experience reading Chernow’s account of Washington’s life acquired the properties of a daily lesson. Each morning when I arose, my thoughts soon became fixed on sitting down to devour the next installment. And I didn’t hurry through it, but picked at it in swallows of ten to twenty pages per sitting. When I finished I felt I had been truly enlightened about an important person to whom I had formerly paid little attention. I’m glad I bought a copy of this book for myself rather than checking it out of the library, because I’m sure I’ll never remember it all.

Abraham Lincoln

There are just as many biographies of Abraham Lincoln, some of them massive, some very old, and many highly specialized. (Books on Lincoln’s early formative years, books focusing on Lincoln’s two years as a US Congressman, books on his famous debates with Stephen Douglas, and so forth.) For more than a year I searched for a relatively recent one-volume general biography targeted at intelligent adult lay readers (not historians), and had concluded there isn’t one, when one day, during the time I was reading Chernow’s book on Washington, I was in Bexley Library and just happened to stumble across A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White Jr. on a display stand. It took less than ten seconds of thumbing through it to conclude it was exactly what I had been looking for.

The writing of A. Lincoln, while fascinating, never boring, and certainly accurate, seems less inspired than Chernow’s account of Washington. Perhaps if I had not read them one after the other I would be more lavish with my praise for it, since I can’t really cite any of its faults.

Well, maybe one. Mr. White opted to end the book quite abruptly, barely two pages following the death of Lincoln by assassination. We must assume that doing so was the result of a conscious decision on the part of White, no doubt based on the proposition that as a story of the life of Lincoln there was no need to tell more of the tale after he died.

However, typical of most biographies, White dwells in some detail on what is known about Lincoln’s parents and other ancestors in order to set the stage for establishing his life as a self-made, hard-working, poor country boy. This information is welcome, but I imagine that even as famous an event as Lincoln’s assassination is, and having just completed a whole book about Lincoln so as to become attached to the man, most readers will have questions they would have liked to see addressed from the author’s viewpoint, such as: a summary of what became of John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators, still sufficiently interesting that there’s a current movie about it; and with the Civil War freshly over, and freshly inaugurated for a second term as president, what role may Abraham Lincoln have been able to play in giving direction to the coming Reconstruction period? Surely his input would have been more productive than the controversial machinations of Andrew Johnson, who barely escaped being thrown out of office on his keister.

Inquiring minds want to know.

[1] At 436 feet, Minute Maid Park is currently the longest yard in the major leagues.
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Keith Richards and Eric Clapton Autobiographies

Cover of "Life"

Cover via Amazon

Cover of "Clapton: The Autobiography"

Cover via Amazon

In January 2011 I read Life by Keith Richards. In April I followed that with Eric Clapton’s earlier book: Clapton: The Autobiography. It was inevitable that readers who read both will see comparisons between these two icons of rock and roll. I doubt I’m the first to do so.

I’ve never been one of Eric Clapton’s ardent fans. I’ll admit to liking his album Unplugged very much, and to playing some Cream covers when I played in bars many years ago. The main reason I consumed his biography was because I stumbled across it shortly after reading Richards’s.

Although I had a rock band myself in the late sixties and greatly admire the creativity and musicianship of both the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, I’m no longer sufficiently obsessed by rock and roll that I follow the lives of performers — with the notable exception of the Beatles. Therefore, my purpose here is to compare what I know about these two men on the basis of what they told me themselves in the pages of their books. If you want to read reviews of the books you can try the New York Times articles Stray Cat Blues by Liz Phair, about the Richards biography, and for Clapton’s book, Slowhand by Stephen King — yes that Stephen King, who is allegedly a capable amateur rock and roll guitarist himself. I’ll disclaim any inaccuracies herein that are attributable to lies, exaggerations, or misrepresentations by the authors. Are there any? In all probability, yes.

The Writing

Keith Richards’s tale is downright entertaining. Life is indisputably a page-turner, a thoroughly fun read, if you wear hip boots and don’t drag your feet through the vulgar parts. He made me laugh out loud often. James Fox is credited as co-author, but throughout it is the voice of Keith Richards that we hear, including his edgy sense of humor.

Eric Clapton’s prose, presumably fussed over by skilled but anonymous editors, delivers straightforward, “brutally” honest, and unmodulating narrative, with far less digression and color than Keith Richards injects in his own account. Honesty is always a good thing. Brutality never is, and sometimes the blows come hard and fast.

We suffer hearing about it anyhow, because Clapton relates the firsthand account of someone talented, popular, rich, and famous, someone whose life provides vicarious fulfillment of fantasies for not a few readers; but some of the details regarding Clapton’s difficulties with heroin and then alcohol become a little tiresome, even if these must be told in order to render a complete story.

The Backgrounds

To begin with the obvious: Both Keith Richards and Eric Clapton are Englishmen from the same era. Richards was born on December 18, 1943, Clapton on March 30, 1945. Both were from lower-middle-class families in an overtly class-conscious nation. Neither cared much about school. Richards had legitimate parents, but an unusual relationship with them. Clapton was illegitimate, and until he was nine believed that his grandparents were his parents, his uncle was his older brother, and his mother was his aunt. Eric Clapton is an unusually good-looking chick magnet, though recent pictures suggest he’s acquired a bit of a gut; today Keith Richards is outright scary to behold, but I think he likes the impression his ugliness makes.

The Music

As very young fellows both Keith Richards and Eric Clapton discovered and became enchanted by Chicago blues music. This was not a common interest among English boys. And of course, both became obsessively interested in playing the guitar in an attempt to learn to play this music themselves. Richards would sometimes even sleep with his guitar, cuddling it like a woman. But despite their similar roots, the two men became radically different guitarists.

Both Richards and Clapton have been deeply dedicated to quality music-making their whole careers; but their methods have found expression in different ways.

Richards has shown tenacity in his determination to keep his band together, with as few personnel changes as possible, and notwithstanding a history of feuds with Mick Jagger. For this I sincerely commend him, because of my own longstanding belief that the best music is made not by star soloists in front of a mediocre band of hirelings, but by small ensembles of performers who grow while working together for many years.

The longevity of the Rolling Stones is legendary. They formed a few years after John Lennon and Paul McCartney first met, have continued working together for forty years since the Beatles broke up, and the party is by no means over. No one will be surprised if they make yet another album and go out on tour again, when all of the core players are now old men pushing seventy years of age.

While the role of Mick Jagger in this must not be underestimated, Jagger was almost the one to put an end to it. I’m convinced that it has been Richards, more than any other member, who has been the most passionate about the Rolling Stones’ music, and the primary driving force in keeping the band together, continuing to create, record, and tour. Still, it’s clear that if either Jagger or Richards were to bail out, the Rolling Stones would be over.

In their earliest years the Rolling Stones were deeply interested in Chicago blues. For years their repertoire consisted almost entirely of covers of songs from that genre. But when they began recording, Richards and Jagger started writing songs together — after being locked in a room and forced to do it the first time. Their collaboration has been more productive in quantity than that of Lennon and McCartney, and the quality has not been too shabby either.

They developed their own distinctive style of rock and roll built upon an inimitable lead singer; raucous backup vocal harmonies laid over a bedrock of simple, physically imposing riffs, and what Richards calls “guitar weaving;” the rock solid drumming of Charlie Watts; and the better than adequate bass playing of Bill Wyman (until he retired a few years ago). It’s been good stuff for listeners who like that kind of thing.

In contrast, Clapton has proclaimed himself to be an idealistic purist about his music-making, and left several bands in succession at the peak of their popularity (much of the acclaim attributable to him) when the musical environment didn’t suit him, particularly whenever it seemed to veer away from pure blues and into commercial and overtly money-making pop and rock pursuits. Heaven knows he’s made a jillion dollars despite this finickiness, and has been in demand as a guitarist, singer, and composer, both as leader and as a featured sideman, his entire career.

Keith Richards does on occasion appear in contexts outside the Rolling Stones, but he does so rarely and seems not to fit in easily anywhere outside the domain he has created for his own unique talents. Clapton can do it because frankly he is a more skilled guitarist and general musician than Richards in that he can sit in with a group of similarly experienced musicians and play a million songs with little or no rehearsal. If he had not become a star, he would still be making an excellent living as a studio musician.

Keith Richards is not a flashy guitar hero type of virtuoso that Clapton has allowed himself to be, and never has been. To his credit, this has been at least in part according to his personal choice, as he is more concerned with the sound of his guitar: the rawness, the uniqueness of the riffs he invents, the texture, and especially the voicings of chords that are made possible by his playing on five-string instruments using an open G tuning (G–D–G–B–D) that give songs such as the popular rock anthem Start Me Up a sound that is often imitated but never duplicated except by players who take the trouble to learn how to play in open G tuning.

The reason I know about this is because Richards devotes quite a bit of space in his book to discussing musical techniques, and in doing so, also reveals much about his own dedication to the music he makes. But Clapton, other than expressing his like or dislike for certain songs, styles, and bands, and sometimes for special instruments, rarely discusses in his book the music he has played at even a simple technical level.

The Lives

Both Keith Richards and Eric Clapton have led lives of pitiful self-indulgence, free from much sense of obligation to follow common standards of accountability for what they do. Both were heroin addicts who took years to get off the junk. Thereafter, Clapton had a nightmarish time with alcohol, and almost killed himself with drinking, but has been sober for years. In 1997 he founded the Crossroads Centre in Antigua, a facility for the treatment of addictive disorders, including drugs and alcohol.

Richards has nurtured his outlaw image. When he suffered a severe head injury that resulted in brain surgery, he received good wishes from Tony Blair, who told him, “You’ve always been one of my heroes,” to which Richards quipped, “England’s in the hands of somebody who I’m a hero of? It’s frightening.”

How is it that we as a society have come to condone and even endorse aberrant behavior of people just because they are rich and famous in the world of popular music? (The same could be asked of sports and movie personalities.) It seems automatic that a part of the compensation package for success in those pursuits is a license to live irresponsibly, because stars can do it and get away with it. No one other than a series of wronged spouses is likely to hold them accountable; their popularity will barely diminish, and even increase. They’ll still be famous, usually rich, and successful in their chosen careers.

Today, both Keith Richards and Eric Clapton are by their own accounts happy family men rapidly approaching geezerhood. Clapton even married a much younger woman named Melia from here in Columbus, Ohio, has four daughters, and owns a home in nearby Dublin, though I understand he still spends more time at Hurtwood Edge, his home in Surrey, which he has owned since shortly after Cream disbanded.

Interestingly, Keith Richards has become a dedicated reader, with a beautiful library in his home in Connecticut. He even claims to read the Bible regularly. I don’t think Eric Clapton reads much more than the average person. (Which these days is not much.)

Although their pace has slowed, both Keith Richards and Eric Clapton continue to make music. I myself am a bit older than both of them. When we were all in our youth, rock and roll and popular music was exclusively the domain of young stars, their even younger fans, and a few older and more experienced but relatively anonymous professional backup musicians. All that has changed, as now former presidents of the United States and future monarchs of England, themselves in the same age bracket as the most venerable stars, enthusiastically attend the performances of the likes of Richards and Clapton. It will no doubt be interesting to see what sorts of things these guys produce in their dotage.

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Fry Street Quartet, Southern Theater

On Saturday night we had the pleasure of attending a concert by the Fry Street String Quartet at the Southern Theater in downtown Columbus, which we had not yet visited in our three-plus years of living in Ohio.

The Southern Theater, built originally in 1896, has a distinguished history of presenting theater productions featuring world-renowned performers. After closing for many years, it was refurbished, and reopened in 1998, now with 995 seats, a good size for the presentation of chamber music. It retains its late nineteenth century decor and character.

When we entered the theater’s auditorium we were surprised and delighted to encounter something I’ve never heard — an accomplished all-female string quartet of high-schoolers playing Debussy’s string quartet (quite a difficult piece to negotiate, with its constant ebb and flow) as people entered and found their seats. Part of Fry Street Quartet‘s trip to Ohio was devoted to meeting with and teaching young students. It seemed like an excellent opportunity for these young players to get some exposure of a type they would be unlikely to get otherwise, and I’m sure they were glad to do it, despite the many people in the audience who continued to socialize while they played. I called them the warm-up band.

The audience was about eighty-five percent people of retirement age. Okay — I’ll admit I’m a gray-hair myself, but I’ve been going to these things since I was old enough to sit still and behave, surely no older than four, and I never thought of myself as unusual for being at concerts as a kid. Some of the remaining audience members appeared to be music students, in training to entertain the next generation of gray-hairs.

I did not see even one black person at the concert, but saw one at the reception later.

Both of these observations bother me because they are constants, characteristic of the state of classical music in the twenty-first century; I have opinions about the whys and wherefores, but must save them for another post.

The Fry Street Quartet’s program was a heavyweight: Beethoven’s Opus 18, No. 3, actually the first quartet Beethoven ever wrote; Bartok’s first string quartet; and Schubert’s best-known quartet, titled Death and the Maiden. They topped it off with a cleverly staged encore, a virtuosic rendition of the country fiddler’s tune Orange Blossom Special, performed with style and pizzazz, a treat which some people too anxious to get out the door missed.

Being disinclined to write descriptive reviews of musical performances (heaven save us from the ignorance and idiocy of the typical newspaper critic, particularly the dolt who wrote the Columbus Dispatch review of this concert), I’ll say only that the whole program was played with enormous enthusiasm and that the ensemble is tight as a Swiss watch, with a sound that’s warm, balanced, and transparent.

What more dare I say? They got all the notes right, and in tune to boot, no mean feat! They’ve won a bunch of prestigious awards and have played in numerous foreign countries. Isaac Stern loved and promoted them shortly before he died, and sponsored their Carnegie Hall debut that received rave reviews. I’ve been listening to string quartets my whole life, and have known all of the works they played at this concert, including the Bartok rarity, since childhood. They sparkle.

And while I’m at it — they’re all really good-looking, too. It helps with the presentation. I’d rather see attractive musicians than ugly ones, wouldn’t you? ‘Nuff said.

I must single out first violinist Will Fedkenheuer; he’s a force of nature. In addition to being a standout player, he’s animated, and is an articulate and humorous spokesman who even speaks loud enough to be heard in an auditorium without a microphone. He presented a fascinating analysis of the thematic material from the Bartok quartet before they played it, supplemented by his comical narration of the Orange Blossom Special.

Until I was well into adulthood it was almost unheard of for classical musicians to address an audience. Today it’s done frequently, almost routinely. Unfortunately, sometimes the chat is mumbled and badly prepared, and seems to be an obligation forced upon the performer who would rather just play. Also unfortunate is that sometimes the words are offered as a form of apologia prior to the performance of a contemporary work most people in today’s ultraconservative audiences will otherwise automatically hate before they have even heard it.

It’s likely that audiences today are less familiar with the music, so need a little coaching. They seem to enjoy it, so far be it from me to think I’m above that sort of thing.

One On One

For us, by far the most interesting aspect of this concert experience came from the one-off connection I have had with the Fry Street Quartet. I’ve been following their career since about 2001.

Co-founding violinist Rebecca McFaul is the niece of Tom McFaul, my musical partner from our mad rock and roll days of so many years ago, and still a good friend. Tom produced the Fry Street Quartet’s first CD, and also composed a five-movement quartet for them to play, which has now had several performances, including a live rendition on the air at WFMT studios in Chicago. Tom has kept me apprised of all the Fry Street Quartet news as it’s happened, which I’ve followed with enthusiasm, because they really are quite good.

I’ve communicated in e-mail with Rebecca on occasion, and she is in my Facebook friends list, but until Saturday I had never met any of the group in person.

A significant problem the ensemble has had to overcome has been adjusting to two personnel changes. This is no trivial matter for a chamber music group.

Artistic musical ensembles aren’t merely players who get together to play some concerts. Well, sometimes they are, but even so-called supergroups often fall short of what an ensemble that has played together for many years is able to accomplish.

The factor that above all makes a group click, the source of the magic, is the chemistry between individual players. And because no two people are the same, no two musical groups are the same, even if they play the same instruments and perform the same music. This principle holds true whether the organization being considered is the Beatles, Keith Jarrett’s Standards trio, Simon and Garfunkle, or a string quartet. Replace one person and you’ve got an entirely different entity, whatever name you attach to it.

Several years ago, Fry Street Quartet’s original first violinist decided to move on. This is the most difficult position to fill. That they found Will Fedkenheuer, a whole echelon better than the player he replaced, is little short of miraculous. But it does take a great deal of time and accompanying anguish concerning the probabilities of a group’s survival in the interim to find just the right person and fully integrate that one.

More recently, the quartet’s co-founding violist also left. The new violist, Bradley Ottesen, has now been with the group about fifteen months — still the new boy by the standards of classical music ensembles. Happily, he too is a superb player with a golden sound. It’s the nature of the viola’s timbre that many instruments sound tubby, resulting sometimes in a quality that can uglify a group’s sound. Not so in this case.

After the concert we rushed backstage to finally be able to meet everyone. They kindly invited us to a reception at the home of some people who live in Hilliard, on the upscale west bank of the Scioto river. There I was able to connect with individual players better, especially Rebecca. And I was also able to enjoy some quality face time with Bradley Ottesen, finding myself able to negotiate a bit of viola talk, primed by my family experience, in that that my father was himself a prominent and respected professional violist.

Our move to Ohio a few years ago has resulted in an enforced dearth of cultural experiences of the type we enjoyed constantly when we lived in Arizona. Saturday’s concert by the Fry Street Quartet was immensely enjoyable in itself, because it was so darn good, and served at the same time as a tonic to refresh our dominant gloom.

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Soft Pedal vs. Soft Peddle

Piano pedals on a Grand Piano.

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Once I used the phrase soft pedal in e-mail to an erudite friend, in a form like this: “I intend to soft pedal my idea so as not to stir up controversy and resistance.” The friend corrected me, claiming that the preferred phrase is soft peddle.

A bit of Google research indicates that although my version is far more common, my friend’s usage is conceivable.

As a pianist I know that the left pedal of three on a piano is most often called the soft pedal. Its function on a grand piano is to move the whole action slightly to the side so that the hammers that normally strike three strings strike only two, and those that strike two only one. On an upright it moves the whole set of hammers closer to the strings. The result is similar, a softening of the sound that is different from merely playing with a lighter touch. The traditional instruction found in music to use the soft pedal is una corda (Italian for one string), and to release it is tre corde (three strings). (In practice, neither is often very encountered.)

Therefore, to metaphorically soft pedal an idea or a request, would be to offer it unassertively.

The verb to peddle means to sell. To soft peddle an idea, an instruction, or a physical object would certainly be understood to mean promoting its acceptance without attempting to hard sell it as by direct confrontation amounting to a commercial, preferring instead to employ suggestion, gentle persuasion, or incidental reference.

Whether soft pedal or soft peddle, although the mental imagery triggered is slightly different, the intended meaning would be close to the same for either one and therefore either expression would work, depending on the intended metaphor.

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Right Ho, Jeeves!

Cover of "Right Ho, Jeeves"

Cover of Right Ho, Jeeves

Among P.G. Wodehouse’s most popular novels is the 1934 work Right Ho, Jeeves!, featuring recurring luminaries, the young English gentleman Bertie Wooster and his ingenious and far-cleverer-than-his-boss valet Reginald Jeeves (whose first name is not given in this novel). One measure of this book’s popularity may be seen from the page of quotations devoted to Wodehouse on Wikiquote, where fully four to five screenfuls are from Right Ho, Jeeves! alone — more by orders of magnitude than is given any other Wodehouse work.

Lovers of P.G. Wodehouse need not be told that he was one of the most prolific of writers, nor that he was one of the very best writers of English ever to try his hand at it, right up there with Oscar Wilde and — dare I suggest? — Dickens and Shakespeare. If not, then surely in the very next echelon.

Wodehouse’s magnificent prose and dialog sparkles with non-stop hilarity of a type that were a reader to dare to consume it while sitting in an airport terminal he might find himself unable to constrain himself from laughing so long and loud that he soon embarrasses himself. Been there, done that myself.

The beauty of the language lies often in its combining elements of erudition with outright silliness. To be savored above all are the extraordinary conversations between Bertie and Jeeves. It seems no author is able to construct more ways to say a simple Yes or No than Wodehouse.

I have read the opinion P.G. Wodehouse never wrote a bad sentence in his life. While this may be hyperbole, I have yet to find one myself.

Wodehouse is often complimented by reviewers for the masterful way in which he constructed and resolved the thorniest complications of plot. Because Wodehouse wrote comedic works exclusively, some of his stories reflect the insanity of opera buffa, presenting scenarios wherein the most implausible of circumstances develop, stretching the bounds of credibility. In the end everything always resolves both logically and happily for all parties involved.

Bertie Wooster is far from a dimwit. Nor are his actions ever deliberately malevolent. Nonetheless, in the act of trying to be magnanimously helpful, he manages to bollix up pretty much any situation he puts his hand to, with the resolution invariably coming at the end from the hand of Jeeves.

The essential plot of Right Ho, Jeeves! revolves around Bertie trying to help two young couples resolve their ping-pong marriage engagements long enough to stick, so that the right persons are ultimately matched and by story’s end presumably on the way to marriage. Bertie even accidentally gets himself engaged to one of the young women in the process.

A side story in the plot involves a certain Gussie Fink-Nottle, normally timid and a virgin to alcohol, getting roped into the uncomfortable task of passing out awards at a grammar school, inadvertently having consumed a snootful of gin before arriving. As reviewer Stephen Fry describes it:

The masterly episode where Gussie Fink-Nottle presents the prizes at Market Snodsbury grammar school is frequently included in collections of great comic literature and has often been described as the single funniest piece of sustained writing in the language.

Right Ho, Jeeves — just read it. You won’t regret the time expended.

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Keith Jarrett — Paris / London: Testament

Cover of "Paris / London: Testament"

Cover of Paris / London: Testament

Music reviews are typically descriptive, but because words never adequately describe music, I rarely review music recordings. Nonetheless, for Keith Jarrett’s 2008 album Paris / London: Testament I’ve made this exception.

But first some background …

People who know me are aware that I have long regarded Keith Jarrett to be my favorite musician of any genre currently walking around on planet Earth. I’ve heard most of his recorded output since the time he worked with Charles Lloyd in the late sixties. It’s not my habit to make a big deal of this in front of others, but I own thirty-eight of Keith Jarrett’s albums on CD, and another twenty on vinyl. That count is in titles; half or more are multi-disk combinations. Among these are work from almost every genre he has worked in, including small group and trio jazz, classical composition, and many of his excellent classical music recordings.

It’s not difficult to argue that the form of expression in which Keith Jarrett has made his lasting mark is in solo piano improvisation, in studio albums, and moreso in live concerts, where he subjects himself to walking on a musical high-wire without a net, creating everything new the moment he sits down at the piano. Could even Bach or Mozart improvise as well in their own days and in their own ways? Perhaps they could, but even if so, as an improviser Keith Jarrett surely belongs in the same echelon.

Today we enjoy the luxury of being able to record Jarrett’s improvisations, after which we can listen to them as often as we wish. Personally, I listen to a vast range of music, but never tire of hearing Keith Jarrett’s solo recordings.

In 1994 I wrote a longish biographical sketch of Keith Jarrett for my nascent website. It contained little personal research, and consisted largely of a combination of points I had picked up from personal experience, plus what I had learned from Ian Carr’s 1992 biography of Jarrett (now greatly out of date). For two or three years this article attracted enough readers that it was a rare week when I did not receive a half dozen e-mail comments and questions about the subject matter.

Because of that biography, for about three years I had the pleasure of carrying on a regular correspondence with Keith Jarrett’s mother, Irma Jarrett. She wrote to me herself, first to compliment me on the article (aw, shucks!), saying it was “mostly correct,” except for a few details regarding Keith’s early life, and to express her relief that the tone of what I had written was not “over the top,” in the manner that some sycophantically worshipful admirers have been inclined to pen about Jarrett, and to whom he is viewed as a godlike hero. Irma (who invited me to address her by her first name) also promised to correct some misstatements and fill in some missing details, but in the time we corresponded she never got around to doing that, and I did not feel it was appropriate to press her on the matter.

Delighted to hear from her, I assured her at the time that I would never abuse the fact that I’d made her acquaintance to probe her for information that was none of my business, nor would I share publicly anything she told me in confidence, a promise that I stuck to. As any good mother would, she refused to say that she thinks any more highly of her most famous son than she does of any of his less well-known younger brothers; she is very proud of each one, and would write enthusiastically about each one.

One day I was delighted to receive from Irma Jarrett a self-printed book of poems she had written. It remained visible in my home office for the rest of the years I lived in Phoenix.

Eventually our discourse tapered and I lost track of Irma Jarrett. I have not heard from her since October 2003, nor attempted to contact her since then, and do not know if she is even still living. If so, she would be in her mid-eighties by now.

I’ve included the previous information as background in order to impress upon readers that my acquaintance with Keith Jarrett’s music is more than a passing fancy, and is something that has played a meaningful role during most of my adult life. Despite this, I have never yet been able to hear Keith Jarrett perform live. Thank goodness we have his recordings to revel in.

Jarrett began his solo career in 1971 with the landmark solo studio album on ECM Facing you, still one of my favorite albums of recorded music of all time, in the same league with the best Beatles work.

In 1973 Keith Jarrett began performing and recording solo concerts. the first one to be released was the Bremen/Lausane set — a three-disk collection that astounded critics and listeners alike. Since then there have been many more, with a break in the 1990s during which Jarrett stopped performing entirely while he battled chronic fatigue syndrome, which Jarrett claimed may have been brought on in part by the extreme stress of playing solo concerts.

Happily, Jarrett has been back to playing a more reasonable schedule of concerts for well over a decade, most with his so-called Standards Trio, now nearly thirty years in existence, along with the occasional solo concert, and continues to grow as a musician and a pianist.

When Keith Jarrett first began playing solo concerts, his approach was to play two forty-five-minute sets, each one an uninterrupted excursion, allowing himself to noodle around wherever his muse led him. Any given segment could cover a great deal of musical ground: foot-stomping gospel, be-bop, lyrical ballads, one-chord vamps, quiet meditations, and wild atonality (never in Jarrett’s case mere hand-flailing), including picking and beating around inside the piano. He would conclude each concert with a short encore or two, often of a standard song. One of my favorites is his rendition of Over the Rainbow from his 1995 concert at La Scala in Milan, Italy. I learned a written transcription of this myself, which I play with the care of a Chopin Nocturne.

In recent years Jarrett has begun to rethink his approach to solo playing. Now he will let the music stop when it seems appropriate, accept applause, and then start with something new, as if he were performing a series of compositions (or tunes in jazz parlance).

In 2008, Keith Jarrett released a three-CD set of concert recordings under the title Paris / London: Testament, which showcases him in new levels of musical maturity and pianistic ability.

Jarrett provided a poignantly personal set of liner notes for these recordings. What he writes therein is unquestionably touching. But I wonder if it is fair to read them in advance, thereby letting knowledge of his emotional state at the time influence our impressions? Might it be better to let the music speak for itself first? I’ll say no more about that part of the package so that you as a listener, forewarned, can make your own decision about whether to read the liner notes before or after listening to the music — or to skip them entirely. But the notes do shed some interesting light on the experience.

And now, at last, it’s about time to discuss some bits of the music itself.

The first thing I notice is how extraordinarily rich the recording of the piano is. Historically, recording a piano, particularly solo, is one of the most difficult feats for sound engineers to accomplish. But Jarrett has teamed up with Manfred Eicher and ECM’s engineers since 1971; in fact, as their primary recording artist, Jarrett has put ECM on the map. Eicher has given Jarrett the freedom to grow as an artist, doing virtually whatever he wants, usually to their mutual benefit. It has been a happy partnership, as in forty years ECM has learned how to record piano, and Jarrett in particular.

I can’t detect whether Jarrett uses the same piano in Paris and London, but Jarrett is fanatically fussy about instruments, and given his status and artistic success, it would not surprise me if he is able to move a preferred piano around from place to place. To my ears, the recorded sound in the two concert halls is the same, and it is as good a recording of piano sound as I have ever heard.

For this discussion I’ll assume that Jarrett played the same instrument in both concerts. And I know pianos well enough to recognize that it’s a real beauty. It sounds magnificent, thanks in part to its spectacularly bright, and clear tuning.

No small part of the sound is Jarrett’s ability to play with all the technique and finesse of the fine classical musician he is, which means not merely his ability to play cascades of notes correctly, but also the depth and shading of the sounds, his dynamic and pedaling control, and ability to balance chords, while playing almost continuously in counterpoint, keeping the individual lines clear.

In the liner notes notes Jarrett makes it known that he was seeking to take his solo playing to a higher level, reaching for something new. The results suggest that this means he is now aiming well beyond the mere ability to play and improvise continuously, into the realm of producing what amount to complete compositions on the spot, with the structure of introductions, melodies with chord changes, bridge sections, verses, variations, and endings that make up a cogent whole.

The twenty segments that make up the two concerts vary in length from 3:56 to 13:48. They have no titles. Why would they? Created in the moment, they are what they are, therefore without preconceived verbal associations, so they are identified only by the concert location and sequence number.

The only parts I will comment on specifically are the last two pieces in London (the second concert), which contrast greatly and make a fitting conclusion to the set.

The next-to-last (Part XI: Royal Festival Hall, London) is a highly chromatic but not at all atonal free-form excursion in continuously winding melody accompanied by startlingly original coloristic harmonies. And I particularly delight over the delicious little four-chord flourish that ends it, starting at 7:21.

To finish things off (Part XII: Royal Festival Hall, London), Jarrett returns to a type of music he has played before, but that I haven’t heard from him for a long while. He begins with an achingly beautiful tune, not complicated either melodically or harmonically, and develops this into an artfully restrained but full-bodied gospel-style romp. It was a perfect way to end the concert, and doubtless must have brought the crowd in London to their feet. Who could possibly dislike such music?

Persons who know little or nothing about Keith Jarrett are often urged to start by listening to his 1975 mega-hit, The Köln Concert, the best-selling jazz album of all time. It was recorded under great duress on a grossly substandard piano. This performance is famous for driving ostinatos and transcendentally pyrotechnical right hand passage work. I’m sure that many fans of Jarrett come to concerts hoping to hear more like that.

But Keith Jarrett left that kind of playing behind many years ago. As his ultra-simple albums The Melody at Night, With You (1998) and the recent Jasmine (2010), with bassist Charlie Hayden indicate, Jarrett is utterly unafraid to create albums consisting of simple and familiar songs, with simple chords in quiet and untechnical versions, and releasing them to the world, because to Keith Jarrett the depth of expression always takes precedence over technical artifice.

Keith Jarrett is twenty-two months younger than me, and has been a part of my life since I was a young adult. He is playing as well as he ever has. It is my fond hope that he continues to make music of the highest quality for many years to come.

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Taking a Drink

A shot glass filled with alcohol and fisherman...

Image via Wikipedia

When we speak of taking some substance, in the sense of ingesting it, the verb take carries connotations of need, of measured and countable doses designed to satisfy a perceived deficiency.

Most people would not think of taking medicine unless they needed it to combat some physical malady. Each morning, when I make coffee, I always take my blood pressure medicine.[1] The drug is prescribed by my doctor, who claims I need it to maintain health. I dutifully pop the pill into my mouth, wash it down with juice or water, certainly don’t chew and savor it, and think no more about its effects until the next morning.

Some speakers and writers also refer to taking an alcoholic drink. They sometimes apply the term to the consumption of any amount of alcohol at all and for any purpose, as measured doses — such as in a shot glass or a swig from the bottle — likewise as though the drinker performs this act in order to accomplish some effect, presumably the well-known consequences of downing alcohol quickly.[2]

Thus we sometimes hear, particularly from persons who view alcohol with mistrust, queries along the lines of this model: “How many drinks a day do you take?” How do you answer such a question truthfully and without appearing to be a drunkard?

The question suggests necessity, rather than the healthier viewpoint that alcoholic drinks are merely another type of food, albeit one that warrants more than the ordinary amount of care in measuring and controlling.

When was the last time you took a carrot? How many ounces of sugar do I take each day? I dunno. I don’t spoon granulated sugar out into a cup and then consume it directly, washing it down with water. Normally one would not say, “I took some orange juice and scrambled eggs for breakfast” unless it was in order to focus attention on the need, as when a person famished and weakened with hunger and thirst or recovering from grave illness would take desperately needed nourishment.

The book I’m currently reading about George Washington says that on the night he crossed the Delaware, Washington took food on horseback, meaning that he stopped and ate it, not that he was carrying it with him.

This is an entirely appropriate use of the term. He didn’t stop to have a relaxing repast with his officers. His troops were literally starving to death, they were all on the move, they had the battle of all battles just ahead of them, and Washington needed whatever it was that he ate as fuel. He didn’t even climb down from his horse. He thereafter performed acts of leadership and bravery nearly unequaled by any man before or since.

The book says that afterward Washington’s soldiers took rum lifted off the enemy. Their action could be understood in two senses. Washington had ordered the rum poured on the ground because they had much left to do, and he didn’t want his troops to be drunk. But they managed to get their hands on some anyhow. In the state they were in doubtless the rum provided them some nutritional and energy benefits, not to mention bolstering their determination.

When we eat meals, whether formal, sit-down occasions with family or friends, or just grabbing something while passing through the kitchen without thinking much about it, we don’t often regard doing so in terms of taking nourishment. Perhaps there would be less obesity if people were more conscientious about eating and drinking only when feeling the need, but clearly there is also a measure of pleasure, joy, and even aesthetic satisfaction in partaking of food, which our Creator intended for us to experience.[3] Enjoyment of alcoholic drinks is often a normal part of eating meals; and sometimes alcohol is drunk by itself or with lighter food on social occasions. Unless we happen to be starving or otherwise in sore straits, that’s normally how we view eating, even knowing we must do so periodically in order to sustain life.[4]

In contrast, alcoholics — persons who have developed a dependency on alcohol — take drinks in the sense of fulfilling an urgent need, because they find they are unable to function without it. This behavior is universally understood to be a Bad Thing for many reasons. Therefore, to say that someone takes a drink is to suggest that the drinker has little choice in the matter — an implication that might prove to be both untrue and unappreciated by the one so described.

Understood in this way, the answer to the question of how many drinks a day I take is None! The last time I drank alcohol because I thought I needed it was the day of my best friend’s wedding in September 1964. The affari was a big bash with all the attendant social functions and formalities. I duly executed my duties as best man throughout the day until the newly married couple drove off from the house of the bride’s parents on the way to their honeymoon, whereupon I retired to the bar in the basement, and greatly enjoyed three gin and tonics in fairly rapid succession. Mission accomplished. A while later I drove home feeling stone cold sober.

[1] Never mind that my blood pressure would likely be lower if I didn’t drink the coffee.

[2] … wine that makes the heart of mortal man rejoice … — Psalm 104:15

[3]With a man there is nothing better than that he should eat and indeed drink and cause his soul to see good because of his hard work. This too I have seen, even I, that this is from the hand of the true God. — Ecclesiastes 2:24

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Taking Remedial English

Note: This post is a duplicate of the article by the same title on my Neologistics Blog, but here is where I originally intended to put it. I decided that rather than moving it, I would just allow the duplication to exist.

Alma Mater statue (Taft, 1929) in front of Alt...Image via WikipediaOne dismal February morning in 1962, near the beginning of the second semester of my freshman year at University of Illinois, I arrived late for my early morning English class, interrupting proceedings while I climbed over students in the crowded classroom in making my way to my seat.[1]

“Tedious journey, Mr. Newton?” asked the instructor, whose voice quivered with sarcasm like Paul Lynde’s.

“Not nearly so much as the destination, Mr. Prahlhans,” I replied, as I struggled to remove my wet overcoat.

At the university they offered new students two paths of study in basic academic subjects. I chose what was undoubtedly for me the wrong one, called DGS (for Division of General Studies) English. I adjudged the course to be trivial and the teacher to be loathsome. Always more concerned about expending time doing what I thought was interesting to myself than about superfluous abstractions like grades, I limped by, cut most of the time, and in the end managed to squeak out a D, despite having sufficient command of my native language to meet the university’s low standards.

The consequence for anyone getting a D or failing grade in their freshman English class, whether DGS or traditional Rhetoric, was being forced to take a class called Remedial English — a disgraceful subject to have to stand in registration lines to sign up for, and while I accept that I’d earned that humiliation for myself by my own actions, still I grumbled about it, and blamed the inferior course and teacher I’d had the previous year.

To make matters worse, no credit was given for Remedial English, attendance was mandatory (cutting twice for any reason whatsoever meant automatic failure), and no person would be permitted to graduate without having earned at least a C (I think) in that course. A person could repeat it as many times as necessary to accomplish that end. I was in academic debtor’s prison.

One relief was that there was no homework. We simply had to be present every session and listen, and we were required to write a series of six increasingly complicated essays in class, which the teacher then critiqued, graded, and returned.

For the very first exercise we had a choice of writing either about some issue of student politics on campus, about which I knew absolutely nothing, or about something having to do with Lyndon Johnson, who was then Vice President, and I cared equally little about him.[2] Being angry about the choices, in addition to having to be there in the first place, knowing that the best I could do was make something up, and so was bound to fail, I submitted an altogether stupid @#$! off-topic rant about having to write this stupid @#$! paper on this stupid @#$! topic about which I knew nothing, and having to take this stupid @#$! class. I didn’t include the expletives, but was thinking them.

To my surprise, the teacher graded my paper thoughtfully and intelligently, as if it were just another badly written assignment from a clueless student (which it was). He included some written advice on how I could cope with the rest of the semester’s work.

I no longer remember the name of the graduate student instructor, but for his calm handling of my tirade he deserves highest marks, perhaps even a meritorious service medal, when he could have reprimanded me, and might have griped equally from his own side of the divide about having to teach such a class to mostly morons and losers unqualified to do university level work who all needed to go get jobs pumping gas and stop spending their parents’ money by being in college.

He never knew that his thoughtful comments probed a Good Attitude button in my head and triggered a permanent change in my life. Shortly thereafter my whole stance became transformed. I began to listen attentively to his carefully prepared and enthusiastically presented lectures, which constituted in toto a formal review of English, from basic grammar through advanced composition, over the course of a semester. As I listened and learned, the quality of my own writing escalated asymptotically.

As a result, despite the no-credit shameful status of Remedial English, I have always looked back on taking this course as a highlight of my undergraduate experience, and in some respects a turning point in my life, because it imposed a need for me to come directly and intelligently to grips with the techniques of writing, today one of my deepest everyday concerns. What I learned then has served me well all my adult lifetime. And it’s worth noting, too, that for the rest of my academic career I never got anything but A’s on term papers.

[1] Note on the image I used here. By coincidence, the classroom in which this episode took place was located in the building entered through the door under the outstretched arm of the figure in the statue.

[2] I have since learned a great deal about Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose greatest importance came after the period of this story, and find him to be a fascinating character in US history.

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Giving Away My Roots

BERLIN - OCTOBER 12:  A dentist and her assist...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

When I lived outside the tiny coastal town of Searsport, Maine, I had a nasty tooth problem and had to hightail it to a dentist. I knew of one in Belfast named — I’m not making this up — Dr. Blood, and his assistant was named Savage. Blood and Savage. Hmmm. I don’t think so. I wanted to be cautious. After all, I was living in Stephen King country.

I decided to take my chances instead with a practice I’d seen on the edge of town in Searsport. The office was barely a mile from my house. I no longer remember that guy’s name, but at least I’m fairly certain it wasn’t Dr. Axemurderer.

This man’s office was in his home. His wife worked as his assistant. Presumably she was qualified, but I didn’t ask to see a diploma. The dentist recognized me from when I stopped at his door two months before to deliver a special invitation to come to our Kingdom Hall.

They were a chatty couple. But have you ever tried to carry on a meaningful conversation with a dentist while he’s working on you?

The doctor took one look and decided to yank out the offending fang. My mouth already full of cotton, I began to tense up as he made preparations to rip a piece of my body off of me. Assuming I might be in a mood to talk about spiritual matters, he asked me: If Jesus Christ was really who he claimed to be, why did he let people do all those terrible things to him?

“Mmmmpfhm mmmph mphmmphph mmmmpfhm” was my reply. But he wouldn’t buy that explanation.

Soon my mouth was thoroughly numbed and stuffed with cotton. As the dentist anchored his body weight, readying himself to perform the heinous deed, the dentist’s wife-assistant asked me, “So tell me — what part of the Chicago North Shore are you from?”

“Mmmmpfhm?” was my nonplussed reply.

I’ve always though my speech is as free of any regional accent as can be. Someone told me once that I speak Walter Cronkitese. Besides, I hadn’t said very much, but evidently some utterance gave away my roots. (I was obviously in a frame of mind to give away roots on that day.)

When I was finally able to speak clearly again, I admitted that I grew up in Wilmette, which is what I say when I tell people where I’m “from,” but of course I wanted to know how Mrs. Wife-Assistant knew this.

The woman had two advantages I was unaware of. First, she had a master’s degree in some category of linguistic practice, and considered herself an expert on American dialects. In addition, she got that degree from Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, the city that lies between Wilmette and Chicago on the North Shore, so lived there herself for some period of time. In fact, I lived in south Wilmette, within walking distance of the Northwestern campus, where my father also taught for a number of years.

So I guess the lesson is that just about everyone picks up little regionally-based speech idiosyncrasies. But Mrs.  Wife-Assistant never told me what it was that I said that exposed me.

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Running Only Four or Five Hours

View looking towards the Black Elk Wilderness ...Long ago I considered running the Mickelson Trail Marathon. It sounded like a good race to me, and besides, I hadn’t run a regular marathon in years; but running it would have required me to travel from Arizona to South Dakota.

When I proposed the idea to Suzy, her initial reaction was: “It seems like a lot of trouble and expense just so you can run only four or five hours.” Because I knew exactly what she meant, I just started to laugh, then so did she, as she quickly caught on to the double meaning of what she’d said.

Doubtless some non-running spouses are of the opinion that spending time and money traveling to races constitutes a questionable use of resources that could be better used in another way, which in some cases may be true. Not Suzy. What she meant was that it’s not worth the cost for me to travel to any race that will take me less than 24 hours to finish, preferably a whole lot longer, so I get more miles and hours per dollar for the experience. And that way she gets more shopping and sightseeing time. She’s an economist.

The result of that discussion was that I scrubbed my plans to run the Mickelson Trail Marathon, and instead ran the Leanhorse 100-mile trail race a few years later, which is also run on the Mickelson Trail, albeit on a different part of it. Despite my almost-made-it DNF, I got to mile 96 in 28 hours before falling down in the bushes twice in twenty yards. Therefore, I definitely got almost my money’s worth out of that trip. Suzy loved it, too, because she spent the race afternoon getting a massage in town.

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Stephen King and David Foster Wallace Compared

Cover of "On Writing: A Memoir of the Cr...

Cover of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

What do authors Stephen King and David Foster Wallace have in common? As authors, other than having been successful, very little. Their work emanates from about as far from opposite sides of the universe as can be.

Their commonality from the perspective of this neologician is that they are two writers about whom I know far more personally than I do of their written works.

David Foster Wallace I wrote about in the flippant pseudo-blog article Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which I created as filler to initialize this blog. As that piece points out, the book of the post’s title is about Wallace, not by him, and in that regard it is enlightening. To date I still have not actually read anything Wallace wrote, though doing so is high on my gotta-do-RSN list.

Neither have I ever read a single word of any novel or short story by Stephen King, although I have seen at least two movies made from his work — The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile — and greatly liked them both.

One reason I’ve never read any King is that for the most part his subject matter does not appeal to me. I have zero interest in horror stories, never have, and never will, other than a couple of well-crafted tales spun by Alfred Hitchcock that can be dispensed with in two hours viewing time. Fantasy, mystery, and science fiction generally leave me cold as well, though I’ve read isolated examples of all that I have found enjoyable. Horror, though, I find particularly objectionable for its blood and violence, so have avoided it. Call me a moralist if you will, but I don’t see anything entertaining in reading about psychotics dismembering other human beings and the like, even though I know there are people in this world who actually do such things.

However, this morning I finished reading Stephen King’s non-fiction book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, in which King discusses, in a surprisingly informal tone, his life history and his substantial experience with writing, presenting just a few useful tips on getting it right for those who would follow in his path.

The first part of the book, titled C.V. (curriculum vitae), he devotes to a series of short vignettes, some less than a page, at first seemingly irrelevant tales from his early life experiences, ending with when he sold his first breakthrough novel, Carrie, written while he and his wife were still Maine-poor, living in a double-wide travel trailer. (I’ve lived there myself and know how that is.) In ways the sequence reminds me of James Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in that it tells in increasingly adult-like fashion of the events that shape the subject from sponge-absorbent child to productive artist.

Having exhausted the subject to the degree King cares to discuss it, he then tells the story of his near-fatal accident on June 19, 1999, when he was hit by a van while out for a walk. Telling this is a sort of self-referential feat of a type I admire, in that King was in process of writing On Writing when the accident happened.

In describing the drunken assailant Bryan Smith with commendable restraint, King tells of Smith’s cretinous decision to leave the scene of the accident while waiting for emergency assistance to arrive in order to buy candy from the corner store for himself and his rottweiler. King adds, “It occurs to me that I have nearly been killed by a character right out of one of my own novels. It’s almost funny.”

Correction. It is funny.

I’ll leave the details of King’s insightful views on writing as an exercise for the reader to discover. You can get the book from most any library or buy it on Amazon. At 288 pages it’s not long, and is an easy read. If you’re not willing to go to the trouble, suffice it to say that you are breaking King’s first principle, and are liable never to become a writer yourself. But that’s okay. Maybe you don’t want to become a writer.

To this little blurb I add one more postscript about David Foster Wallace that I didn’t include in my previous article about him. Wallace goes by his three-part name in writing, but is called only by his first name. For him this is certainly no problem, as no one is likely to assume he prefers to be called Foster. I also go by my three-part name in writing, and have since I was a child, but in my case, there are those who mistakenly assume I prefer to be called David or — curse those who are so presumptuous as to assume the uninvited familiarity — Dave.

I write about Wallace in the present tense, even though he is now dead, because a published writer has managed to accomplish a form of immortality, and will always live as long as his work remains.

And that’s about the only thing I have in common with David Foster Wallace, except that I also lived in central Illinois. But I don’t even play tennis.

Postscript, February 22, 2017 – I just stumbled across this blog post today, having nearly forgotten that I wrote it. Since reading it I have read every one of David Foster’s canonical books, several of them twice (including Infinite Jest), and he has become my favorite late twentieth century author. I’ve also read numerous books by King, some of them very good, some of them only pretty good, others not so good. King in my estimation is not one of the great writers, but a good writer nonetheless.

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Reading in Installments

At any given time I have between one and seven books in my Recent Reading stack marked as current. These are books that I really am reading at present.

At this writing there are six on the stack:

  1. Washington: A Life (Ron Chernow)
  2. The Elements of Typographic Style (Robert Bringhurst)
  3. The Associated Press Stylebook
  4. Life (Keith Richards)
  5. Marathon & Beyond – Volume 15 Issue 1
  6. Jazz: A History of America’s Music (Goeffrey C. Ward, Ken Burns)

In addition to those, I negotiate daily reading of the Bible, and related study materials, which I don’t count because such reading been an ongoing lifetime habit of mine for the past forty years, like showering and brushing my teeth.

Usually I save concentrated, uninterrupted readthroughs for lighter works, such as John Grisham’s The Confession, which I finished in four sittings two weeks ago, while putting other projects on hold. In that case, one reason for the hurry was because it’s a currently popular book, I had a non-renewable two-week checkout limit on my Bexley Library copy, and Suzy wanted to read it, too — and did.

When the list grows to more than two items I think of myself as reading pieces of books in installments. When it’s backed up to more more than three, I almost never get to more than three on any given day.

For heavy-duty tomes of non-fiction (Washington), technical books (The Elements of Typographic Style), or reference books (The AP Stylebook), I view each time I pick them up as lessons, as though I were studying them in school.

Books I own I annotate. For those I get from the library I often collect notes in a series of commonplace notebooks, though doing so slows down my reading.

I’m not exactly slow, but I’m not an unusually fast reader either, but make no apologies for it, since I’m not competing with anyone else; and I adjust pace according to need. At times I can tear through fifty pages in an hour, but at others, in deeply technical material, an hour’s labor can move me no more than six pages ahead.

Just as Indian musicians view some ragas as appropriate only on certain occasions or times of day, I categorize my reading. When I sit down with my first cup of coffee for the day (generally between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m.) is not the time to read a legal thriller or about the insane lifestyles of the Rolling Stones. I wake up quickly and tend to reach my mental peak for the day early, so find early morning is the best time to tackle spiritual, technical, reference, and historical works, often fueling me with thoughts for what I need to accomplish in the day ahead. The evening, when my work for the day is done, is the time for work that is more purely entertaining. If I fall asleep while reading, it doesn’t matter.

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The Creative Habit — Twyla Tharp

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

As a sometime composer and writer, I have always been fascinated by listening to creative people of all types discuss their work, especially how they go about doing it.  Therefore, when I recently bumped up against the title The Creative Habit, a 2001 book by master choreographer Twyla Tharp, I checked it out from the library to have some airplane reading on a trip to Arizona.

Ms. Tharp’s intention is to present a how-to book, replete with exercises, because she believes that (contrary to popular romantic notions about artistic inspiration) creativity is largely a matter of cultivating and practicing good work habits that allow creativity to sprout. This belief sounds like Thomas Edison’s famous saying: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”


She writes first about the value of a regular daily routine, which for her begins with stepping into a cab early each morning to head to the gym for a workout. This is followed by blocks of time devoted to various categories of activity, such that by the end of day, all the most important tasks — workout, business, dancing, correspondence, and personal reading — have all been covered, whereupon she can retire, satisfied and ready to rest up and begin a new cycle the next day.

Forty years ago a close friend told me he had discovered that the more he repeated things — referring to the normal cycles of daily activities — the more good things happened in his life. His statement has stuck with me ever since, and I have learned it to be true.

The Box

Tharp says that before you can think outside a box, you have to have a box. To organize her projects, she uses literal, inexpensive file boxes from Office Depot to store all manner of physical materials she accumulates in the process of researching for and creating a new dance.

My boxes take the form of notebooks — many of them — paper notebooks that I carry around with me, and an array of computer-based notebooks any of which I may call up in a keystroke to prepend dated and labeled items of any length at the top. I’m presently composing this review using one of them, in which I have over 17,000 lines of text fragments that may someday see light of day in a blog article or other form of publication.

Where Ideas Come From

One of my most creative times of the day is that brief period in bed when I know I will be falling asleep momentarily, but am sufficiently conscious to enjoy the free associations running wild in my mind. Many is the time I’ve thought about getting out of bed to write down ideas that seemed worth preserving at the time, but I’ve never actually done it.

Ms. Tharp reports that Thomas Edison, famous for eschewing sleep, would sit in a chair when sleepy, palms up, with a ball bearing in each hand. When one ball bearing fell to the floor, it would wake him, and he would immediately write down what he was thinking in that idea-rich neverland between sleep and wakefulness.


Tharp tells us: “Like an athlete in training, the more you read, the more mentally fit you feel.” Rather than merely reading for pleasure, she devours the material, studying it, annotating the margins, and researching related topics.

Me too. That’s how one thing leads to another and ultimately to good ideas. I certainly read a great deal of lighter material for pure pleasure — popular fiction, cartoon books, even occasional children’s books — but whenever I read I hope to obtain something beneficial from the experience, even if it’s intangible and hard to identify. I almost never read just to pass the time.


Ms. Tharp places a premium on the value of developing skills of every kind to the ultimate degree possible, illustrating: “A successful entrepreneur can do everything and anything — stock the warehouse, negotiate with vendors, develop a product, design an ad campaign, close a deal, placate an unhappy customer — as well as, if not better than, anyone working for him.” She quotes golfer Gary Player as having said, “The harder I practice, the luckier I get,” and applies the principle to skills beyond what are most essential for her art form. As a choreographer and dancer, of course she devotes great energy to dancing itself, especially to improvisation. But she also works to understand music, literature, theater, costume design, business, and a host of other disciplines that enable her to keep a company of full-time dancers employed.

A Boo-Boo

On being in a groove, Tharp commits a minor error of musical fact, saying: “When I think of a groove, I imagine Bach bounding out of bed to compose his preludes and fugues, knowing that he had twenty-four keys to work with. ‘Let’s see,’ he must have thought, ‘today I’ll tackle G-sharp major and A-flat minor.'”

Bzzzt! Wrong!

Speaking with my musical editor’s hat on: the pitches we call G-sharp and A-flat are enharmonically equivalent in the equal tempered tuning system that Bach explored in Das Wohltemperierte Clavier that she alludes to; simply put, to play either one you press the same key, the middle of any of those sets of three adjacent black keys on a piano keyboard.

The key of A-flat minor is plausible but unlikely, because it would require seven flats in the key signature, so that every one of the seven scale pitches is flatted. That’s a lot of flats, so Bach instead wrote the minor prelude and fugue on that pitch in G-sharp minor, which has five sharps — still a lot to remember, and not often encountered, but a bit easier to read.

But G-sharp major exists only theoretically, in that the key signature would have not merely seven, but eight sharps in it, meaning that the F would be a double sharp, raised two half tones. It’s possible to go on adding as many sharps and flats as desired, but there is no point to it, because once every scale pitch has been flatted or sharped, there is an enharmonic equivalent that is simpler and a whole lot easier to read, and is why Bach stopped with twenty-four of each — the twelve major and minor keys on each of the twelve degrees in the equal tempered system that has been the standard tuning in Western music for centuries. In this case, Bach wrote the prelude and fugue not in G-sharp major, but in A-flat major, with its key signature of only four flats.

If Ms. Tharp had proposed Bach might have thought, “Today I’ll tackle A-flat major and G-sharp minor,” there would have been no problem. For this minor booboo we can easily forgive her, a proven genius at her art, and knowledgeable about many subjects including music, but not necessarily expert in music theory.

Thank you, Twyla Tharp, for providing these tools by means of which I may keep my own creative skills percolating.

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