Thursday, August 30, 2012

An Unconventional Convention

I was looking forward to watching the Berlin Philharmonic and my daughter Isolde in a performance of Sibelius' violin concerto, scheduled on the Public Television Network. (Commercial TV does not carry this stuff.) I was, then, mightily upset when I found out that the performance had been pre-empted by the Republican National Convention. This was akin to expecting a filet Mignon steak and getting hamburger helper.

Worse, I got hooked for a bit in listening to some of the speakers at the convention, amazed at their ability to hold two ideas directly opposite to each other, and somehow bring them forward as a unified whole. Let me explain.

Now I well realize that to hold two conflicting ideas at the same time is possible -- religious leaders do it all the time, as they acknowledge (begrudgingly) scientific reason while maintaining the validity of their particular superstition. Yet politics is supposed to be the art of the possible, and I was flabbergasted to hear speaker after speaker hold forth on two such opposing ideas.

The first idea propounded by the speakers was that government is far too large, and must be cut back severely, almost to the point of emasculation. The second idea was that leadership of this government was all-important, and that Mitt Romney would be the one to lead such a renewal. But to lead...what?  The government being proposed was to be a shell of its former self, and surely the hallmark of  leadership is to strengthen, not to weaken, forces at his command. Or hers, but it will be some before Republicans go down this particular road again. Step forward, Sarah Palin.

This awkward dichotomy extended to the audience, where two delegates sat side by side. One hoisted a sign from time to time that stated "WE NEED LESS GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS!" The other raised a sign exclaiming "DON'T YOU TAKE MY MEDICARE!" But Medicare is a government program, and hence.....oh, forget it. Finally, there was an unrelenting attack on taxes, with frequent reference to the 'fact" that this was God's will, and that such tax cutting would lead to some sort of fiscal heaven. My comment here is that Republicans appear very keen on the 'what', but not so hot on the 'how'.

I had had enough. Yet I was still in the mood for some TV, and then a happy thought occurred. There was a show that I always PVR, and turn to when I want to hear people who really know what they're talking about.

I refer, of course, to The Antique Road Show.

May all have a lovely week.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Critiquing Criticism

My eldest daughter, Isolde, called me from St Petersburg in a rage. She is a top-ranked violinist, and had just read a scathing review of her work in some state-owned press organ.

"Mum, the reviewer thought I was playing Brahms. It was a Bartok concerto, for God's sake! You'd think the clown would have at least read the program!"

How did the audience receive it?"

" a standing ovation", she stated in a more subdued voice.

"Then that's your critical review. Now stop whining and move on."

She did so, but I was curious. Russians can be incompetent at many things -- legal transparency comes to mind, along with throwing female rockers into prison for praying to the Virgin Mary -- but they do know their music. What was this all about? After a few strategic phone calls to some friends in St Petersburg I had met over the years, the picture became clear. Apparently a crony of Putin, who previously had managed an extensive pig farm, was getting on in years. A sinecure was found for him at a St. Petersburg state-owned paper, and it seemed the only position vacant was one of music critic. Enough said.

Still, the whole incident got me thinking about critics and criticism, and evolving one iron clad rule: KNOW WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT. Northrup Frye, in his Anatomy of Criticism, makes this point well when he writes: "When a critic meets St. George the Redcross Knight in Spenser, bearing a red cross on a white ground, he has some idea what to do with this figure. When he meets a female in Henry James' The Other House called Rose Arminger with a white dress and a red parasol, he is, in the current slang, clueless."

Now I have a background in English Literature, and Frye's comment is spot on. The reverse of the medal would be me criticizing an economic proposal to deal with stabilizing the European bond market. My take on economics is a simple one: always ensure there's more money coming in than is going out. Yet things are a great deal more complicated than that, what with collateralized debt options, derivatives, swaps, and the complexity of futures trading. To say nothing of the LIBOR mess. For this area, I turn to my financial advisor, WDM, who does know what he's talking about. It's something I (and my sugar beets) have never regretted.

Now I well realize that there is a key difference between formal criticism and the expressing of an opinion. Just imagine a dinner party under the conversational stricture of knowing what you are talking about. The silence would be deafening. It is for this reason that the weather is such a popular topic. No one really understands it, and meteorologists have been known to throw up their hands when a hurricane unexpectedly veers into an area where no one thought it would go, or a normal little rainfall turns into a raging flood, with people screaming, "Why weren't we told!" To this end, weather predictors turn for help to a Latino and a Latina ocean current,  El Nino and El Nina respectively. As Marshall McLuhan well knew, naming is numbing, and everyone feels better. Mind you, this bringing forth of figures that ease one's mind doesn't always help, as the writings of Joseph Smith and a semi-insane Arab merchant well attest. But I digress.

It is, of course, not easy being a critic. But if you know your stuff, you can elucidate and even illuminate the piece being criticized so that greater understanding emerges. In film, for example, critics such as Pauline Kael, Jason Alexander and Roger Ebert do their job well, and in literature, well, it's hard to top old Northrop. Of course, few accolades are ever tossed a critic's way, and I conclude with these words from the composer Jean Sibelius: "Always remember, there is no city in the world which has created a statue to a critic."

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Lauding The Laconic

My daughter Victoria was spending a few days with me at the Manor. She needed time to recover from receiving a number of bumps and bruises from her various roles as a 'stunt victim' in a number of films and TV shows. She is also a first rate historian, but this is not a highly paid profession, and she does like her Guccis and Louis Vuittons. Hence the (considerable) supplementary income.

One of the bruises, on her left forearm, was particularly nasty.

"And that one," I said, pointing to her arm, "just how --"

"Oh, that happened on a cool British show called 'Strike Back'. It was a mistake."

"No kidding."

"Really," Victoria replied, and took a moment to gather her thoughts.

"You see," she began, "I was tied to a chair for an interrogation, the thumbscrews were ready, when one of the soldiers -- real SAS guys helping out -- accidentally tipped the chair over. I fell on my arm, it hurt like blazes, and I screamed bloody blue murder. Everyone was apologetic as hell, and the director immediately offered a $10,000 bonus. Said it was one of the best shots he had ever filmed. And the soldier felt so bad he took me to dinner that night at the Savoy. It was a great night out -- who's Bella Abzug?"

Victoria had noticed an article I had been reading.

"Bella Abzug," I explained, "was a fine New York Congresswoman who expressed herself in very brief but incisive manner, in a laconic way, if you will. She also had a way with hats, maybe not quite the paragon that the late Queen Mum was, but not bad at all."

Victoria ignored the comment about hats, but was curious about my use of the words 'brief' and 'incisive'.

"I'll give you an example," I said. "Ms Abzug had no use for the term 'housewife'."

"Why ever not?"

"Because she said it implies that there's another wife or wives somewhere else."

"Hmmm. Pretty laconic," said Victoria. "And somewhat coincidental."

"How so?"

"Turns out that I am currently co-authoring a paper on Sparta's role in the Peloponnisian Wars. Another name for Sparta was Lakedaemon, and their use of terse, to the point writing gives us the word 'laconic'. So we have the memorial at Thermopolae where Xerxes' Persians were held up long enough that Greece could get its act together. All it states is 'Go stranger and to Lakedaemon tell, / That here, obeying her behest, we fell.'"

"Your point is made," I stated. Girl did know her history.

"Oh, I can do better than that," said Victoria. I remember reading somewhere** that Phillip of Macedon sent a threatening letter to the city officials, the ephors, of Sparta, which stated 'If I enter Lakedaemon, I shall raze it.' The ephors sent a one word reply, an 'if'." Can't beat that, Mum."

No you can't.

** Victoria really must have been bounced around a bit. She usually is very accurate in naming her sources. The "if" example is cited in Norman Davies' fine text Europe, Oxford University Press, (London, 1996) p. 133. -- ed.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Of This And That

Last night saw the arrival of the Compte de Rienville, who had had quite enough of overseeing French security at the London Olympics. After a fine dinner a small party occurred, involving the Compte, my minder Irving, his computer whiz colleague Rachel, and yours truly. For some reason, all felt like a sing-song, so nothing would do but gather round the piano and let loose with a number of oldies and goldies from the Spanish Civil War.

This choice had come about with the Compte's observation that corruption still was too much in evidence at the Olympics. I made the point that it was at least better that when old Juan Samaranch was in charge, the man who insisted on being called "His Excellency". I mean, really. And this was the guy who was Education Minister under Franco -- hence the draw of the Spanish Civil War.

Later in the evening, the Compte having noticed that I was somewhat subdued, I admitted that my two daughters weren't on good terms with me at present. Both Victoria and Isolde had somehow obtained tickets to various Olympic events. Earlier in the day they had called me, expressing outrage about some goings on at a soccer match, and an insane (their term) result of a boxing bout. They sought my opinion, looking for support.

They didn't get it.

I explained that I don't watch any event that involves interpretation on the part of judges or referees. I also avoid like the plague anything that has the word 'synchronization' in it. I stick to timed events, and am quite content watching swimming races (but not diving) and all activities related to track and field. These allow an athlete to compete as themselves, without some incompetent (or worse, corrupt) official throwing a spanner into the works. Yes, timed events have supervisors, but these people are there to ensure fairness-- starts, sticking to the prescribed lane, or measuring the distance of a throw or jump. In other words, such officials ensure a level playing field. Referees and judges too often tilt the field itself.

The girls did not accept my stance on this issue, wanting me to join them in some heartfelt wailing and bemoaning at whatever injustice had affected them. This to me was getting close to whining, something that I will not countenance under any circumstances. The call then ended abruptly, and I was left feeling not a little remorse.

Irving had listened to all this, and was spurred to remark, "You know, Simone, this will happen again and again."

"Well, that's comforting," I responded gloomily. "And just how do you know this?"

"The Talmud."

"Oh, of course. The Talmud. And just how does that ancient text speak to this issue?

"Very well," replied Irving. "Quite simply, it states, 'Do not attempt to understand your children. They were born in a different time.'"

I will have to ponder that for a bit, but it was in a way.......comforting.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Olympic Oddities

I didn't expect to be writing on the 2012 London Olympics -- why add to what amounts to a verbal torrent of prose --  but then certain things stood out that irritated me enough to  alter my purpose. These are as follows:

The Shameful. Aside from the Opening Ceremonies, where the main stadium was packed, all venues, including the main stadium, featured large gaps where no one was seated.  Those who wanted a ticket were told that all were sold out. Turns out that these huge 'seating gaps' were reserved for and had been distributed to, Olympic VIP's (read: Various Idiotic Prats). Obviously, such VIPs had much more important things to attend to then actually watch an Olympic event. As I say, shameful.

The Bizarre. We go now to fencing, where a young South Korean girl was in a close match. As the clock wound down, she scored a go-ahead point, but with one second remaining, THE TIMER STOPPED. No big deal, you might say. I mean, all the girl had to do was back up on the ramp (or piste, as it is termed) and she would advance. Hell, even a non-fencer would succeed in such a case. But, oh no. The officials hemmed and hawed over the machine, a process that took some 25 minutes, with a now crying athlete forced to stay on the piste when all this was occurring. Finally, these paragons of athletic justice made their decision. The timer was re-set, and the match began all over again. Needless to say, the South Korean girl, now an emotional wreck, lost the match. This, then, a lovely example of common sense being trumped by bureaucratic paranoia.

The Gutsy. The bone-jarring, sinew-straining sport of badminton now comes to our attention. Owing to a somewhat insane of match grouping, it can and did result in teams finding it more profitable to lose a match, in order to face a weaker opponent later on. Badminton itself is wildly popular in South-East Asia, where most of the officials come from. As two matches of this ilk took place, the crowds in attendance (minus, of course, those VIPs referred to earlier) rained down their disapproval. I fully expected their displeasure to be ignored. After all, the teams, from China, South Korea, and Indonesia were from the "home" area, as it were. Lo and behold, however, badminton officials, as did Lady Macbeth, "put their courage to the sticking place" and turfed the teams right out of the competition. As well, they vowed that from this point on, there would be blind cross matches to ensure that such a thing never happens again. Well bowled, guys!

The Ridiculous. I will give the Saudis some credit for allowing two women to participate in the Games (although not without some severe arm-twisting by Olympic chief Jacques Rogge). I will give them no credit at all for insisting that one of the women, entered in the Judo competition, wear her hijab. At no point, of course, did we hear her views on the matter. When the appropriate Judo officials indicated wearing a hijab was forbidden for safety reasons, something the Saudis would have known in advance, they objected, and threatened to withdraw their women from the Games. Unlike the badminton officials referred to above, these officials caved, and the woman was allowed to wear a 'specially-designed' covering. Now I know from experience that Judo is a fabric-gripping sport, and wearing any kind of fabric around the head or neck make strangulation a very real possibility. This appeared to worry the Saudis not at all. I mean, we are talking about a woman here......

The Petty. Some of the VIPs have let it be known that the opening ceremonies went on too long. All those countries joyously marching in and all. You'd think that the athletes were the most important aspect of the Games. Silly thought.

The Awkward. The Olympic motto is citius, altius, fortius -- fastest, highest, strongest. There seems, however, to be a recent addition to these three: the prettiest. In some events, it is not just that you have performed an athletic feat, but how good you looked while doing it. Synchronized swimming is perhaps the best example, but gymnastics and platform diving also fall under this rubric. Thus we move from a performance per se to an interpretation of that performance. I wonder what Baron de Coubertin would have thought about all this?

So there. And I will now make myself a martini, a drink that, in a certain competition some years ago, I received my very own gold medal from the bartenders at the old Gollywog Lounge at New York's Taft Hotel. Have a nice weekend.