Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Ong, Orality and Literacy

Walter Ong knew he wanted to be a priest at age 12, and indeed, from the time he was ordained in 1946 until his health no longer allowed it, he heard confessions and celebrated Mass most every weekday at 5:30 a.m. and most every Sunday at 7:30 a.m.; but from the early 1940s, he was also passionately devoted to questions of text, language and culture. He was born on this day in 1912 in Kansas City, Missouri.

While pursuing his ordination, he studied English at St. Louis University, where his Masters adviser was Marshall McLuhan. He was awarded 2 Guggenheim fellowships, one in England (1950) and the second in Paris (1952-3), where he lived with several other Jesuits, including Teilhard de Chardin (and read Teilhard's unpublished masterpiece, The Human Phenomenon); and finally received his Ph.D from Harvard in 1954 before settling down as a professor at St. Louis University. His early work concerned itself with Renaissance literature (Ramus, Method and the Decay of Dialogue, 1958) and contemporary Catholicism and spirituality (American Catholic Crossroads, 1959; In the Human Grain, 1967), but he would make his mark in the nexus between language, thought and culture.

Living in both the "oral" world of the Roman Catholic liturgy and the "literate" world of English literature no doubt made Father Ong acutely attuned to the differences between the two. In his best known, most often cited work Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), Ong articulates a series of "orality-literacy theorems."

First, he observes, where the primary mode of communication and preservation of traditions is oral, represented by written versions of oral pieces such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, rhetoric is characterized by repetition and aggregation (rather than an attempt to convey deeper analysis), with a sense of inviting the listener's participation in the event of speech (identifying the listener as a member of a group) and a bent toward living examples rather than abstract arguments -- much of which contributes to the ability of individuals in a group to remember spoken rhetoric, as well as to a kind of cultural conservatism, advanced through mnemonically perpetuated truths.

Ong's next argument is that the emergence of writing as a principal mode of cultural expression gradually restructured consciousness: it distances the originator of a message from the person receiving it, meaning that it cannot be directly questioned; it promotes the interiorization of thought, prompting the reader to see him or herself as situated in time rather than spatially within a group of like-minded listeners; and with words now being understood as things to be manipulated, an author's expression is less about recycling accepted knowledge than it is about evocations of new authority.

With "oral" and "literate" cultures as a backdrop, Ong's most influential ideas concerned the emergence of electronic media (a decade before the emergence of the Internet as a significant cultural force), in which he described its effect on consciousness as a "secondary orality," a self-consciously oral consciousness in which the groups with which we identify are much larger now with the aid of TV and radio. While Ong was careful not to suggest that literate consciousness is better than oral consciousness, or vice versa, his description of "secondary orality" and the complex interactions between literacy and orality within modern culture has provided us with tools for analyzing how human beings may think and who we might become in a post-literate society.

Father Ong passed away on August 12, 2003 in Richmond Heights, Missouri.

Labels: ,


One way of understanding Winston Churchill is to recall that he was a contemporary of Rudyard Kipling -- within whose literary code a man only found his truest sense of worth and honor amid danger, conflict and the charge -- yet his life's most important work was done in the age of Hitler, the embodiment of mechanized, unchivalrous brutality, and Oppenheimer, whose science threatened to eliminate from war all romantic notions of personal heroism.

Churchill was indeed a romantic: politically conservative, he longed to turn the clock back to the time when England's preeminence was undisputed by returning to the gold standard while serving as chancellor of the exchequer and by raging against Gandhi's independence movement (Churchill called him "a seditious Middle temple lawyer . . . posing as a fakir . . . striding half naked up the steps of the Viceregal Palace . . . ") and any other threat to British colonial dominance; and while he appealed to the British sense of romance as the Empire's public leader during the darkest hours of World War II, he rose above his old-world sensibilities with a single-minded, often strategically brilliant campaign against the Nazis' threat to Western civilization.

Winston Churchill was born on this day in Blenheim, Oxfordshire, England in 1874. A descendant of the 1st Duke of Marlborough, a 17th century war hero, Churchill was the eldest son of Lord Randolph Churchill and his American wife Jennie, though he was somewhat of a disappointment to his father due to his lackluster school performance. After military studies at Sandhurst, Churchill joined the 4th Hussars as a cavalry officer and fought in 3 campaigns while sending reporting dispatches back to British papers: in Cuba in 1895; the Northwest frontier of India in 1897; and in the Sudan in 1898, where he took part in the British Army's last-ever cavalry charge.

He lost a bid for Parliament in 1899 as a Conservative candidate and went instead to the Boer War as a journalist. He returned as a national hero, having fought with the British and escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp, and upon his return he was elected to Parliament. Within 4 years he switched to the Liberal Party, and was quickly promoted through its ranks: in 1906, he was named undersecretary of state for the colonies; in 1910, at age 35, he was named home secretary, where he promoted prison reform but was criticized for calling troops in to quell a mining strike; and in 1911 he was named First Lord of the Admiralty, where he established the Royal Naval Air Service.

His first major stumble as a public figure came during World War I when, frustrated by the stalemate in Flanders, he attempted to outflank the Germans on the Western front, culminating in the tragic slaughter at Gallipoli in 1915; he was blamed for the failure. (See also 'A Matter of Great Regret'). He briefly left government to command a battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Western front before David Lloyd George invited him back to serve as minister of munitions, and later, as minister of war and air (1919-20) and colonial secretary (1921-22).

He was briefly tossed out of Parliament before being reelected as a Conservative again in 1924, and he was rewarded by Stanley Baldwin for coming back to the fold with his appointment as chancellor of the exchequer. His return to the gold standard was an economic disaster, helping to stimulate the British general strike in 1925.

Away from the seat of power during most of the 1930s (his "wilderness years"), Churchill displayed his considerable rhetorical gifts by writing his History of the English Speaking Peoples among other works, warning of the impending rise of socialism and encouraging the rearmament of Great Britain. By 1937, when he made headlines for his support for Edward VIII during the abdication crisis, his influence had all but disappeared.

However, when Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement toward Hitler failed with the outbreak of World War II, it vindicated Churchill's calls for a military build-up, and Chamberlain brought him back into government as First Lord of the Admiralty once more in 1939. When Chamberlain resigned in May 1940, Chamberlain had hoped Lord Halifax would succeed him, but Halifax demurred, leaving Churchill to become prime minister and minister of war.

By this time, France and Belgium had fallen, and the Germans seemed poised to cross the English Channel; but Churchill, bulldog-faced in his old-fashioned frock coat flashing the "V" for "victory" sign for photographers, had an almost immediate impact on the spirit of the British people, with his dramatic radio addresses in which he summoned a nostalgic, defiant brand of nationalism in his listeners. Installing himself in the cabinet bunker beneath Whitehall while German rockets bombarded London, he dominated the strategic effort, sometimes driving his exasperated aides crazy with impossible demands and occasionally wrong-headed plans.

Yet his ideas kept the British in the fight, which is what he seemed to thrive on: he refused Hitler's offers of peace on his terms and mobilized the successful British air defense which became the Battle of Britain. He also theorized that the Germans would not attack by land if they believed the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force were intact, so despite being comparatively under-equipped, he initiated new fronts against the Nazis in Africa and the Middle East, both to distract the Axis forces and to show British might.

He knew he needed help, however; he publicly declared his support for Russia as a full partner against Hitler in 1941, and began to cultivate a close personal relationship with U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, meeting him in a secret ship-born summit off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941, and ultimately coordinating the Allied war effort in close consultation with Roosevelt and Harry Truman, his successor, after the Americans entered the War following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 by the Japanese. Together, Churchill and Roosevelt had significant influence on the bombing, blockade and subversion strategy which resulted in the Nazi surrender in 1945.

In the post-War aftermath, Churchill's spark left him, and he had not given great thought to the disposition of Europe after the War; his performance at the Yalta Conference with the other members of the "Big Three" (Roosevelt and Stalin) was uninformed and underestimating of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's sharpness.

In peacetime, Churchill had no compass; he once confided that in the worst of war, "I could always see how to do it" but that in peace the problems seemed "elusive and intangible." He was taken by surprise, however, when the Labour Party and Clement Attlee gained power in 1945. After 6 years, with Churchill now in his late 70s serving as a lackluster leader of the opposition, the Conservatives came back into power with Churchill as prime minister in 1951, but Churchill suffered several strokes and left most of the affairs of government to his subordinates, including his successor Anthony Eden, about whom he had his doubts. He retired as prime minister in April 1955 at the age of 80. He passed on Queen Elizabeth's offer of peerage, preferring to stay on in the House of Commons, which he did with decreasing visibility until the 1964 election. He died the following year -- but Douglas MacArthur's observation that old soldiers never die, they just fade away, probably applied to Churchill better than any other important "soldier" of the 20th century.

(Apropos of nothing, a "Churchill" cocktail is made from 1-1/2 oz. Scotch, 1/2 oz. of Cointreau, 1/2 oz. of sweet vermouth, and 1/4 oz. fresh lime juice, stirred with ice and strained. For his own part, Churchill preferred a weak Johnnie Walker-and-water, apparently at all hours of the day.)

Labels: ,

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Elevator Pitch

[The following is an epitome of a talk I delivered to two separate sections of a course entitled “Fundamentals of Business Communication” at the University of Pittsburgh’s College of Business Administration this morning.]
. . . [Your professor] asked me to come here and speak this morning on two things. She wanted me to describe to you how my career has developed, and she wanted me to give you my insights, as a former venture capital lawyer and as someone who has been involved in the development of new businesses, into what a venture capitalist is looking for in a presentation from a company looking for investment.

I understand you’ve been given an assignment to prepare a short hypothetical presentation asking for money from a venture capitalist. That kind of presentation, in my world, is typically called the “Elevator Pitch” – because it shouldn’t be any longer than it would take to ride up in an elevator with someone in a relatively short building. In the real world, we’re often talking about a pitch that lasts no more than 60 seconds, or perhaps 2 minutes at the most.

At first I didn’t think the two topics I’d been asked to talk about today had much to do with each other, but I’ve decided that they have a lot to do with each other. The “Elevator Pitch” to a venture capitalist is just one species of short communication designed to express something about what you want out of life – whether it’s a job or a place to live or a lifetime companion. While some of the tips we’re going to go over today are specific to the venture capital pitch, others have broader applicability to the kinds of statements of desire you may have occasion to make in the future. Based on my experience in developing opportunities for myself, I want to suggest to you that the “Elevator Pitch” should not be considered an empty classroom exercise, but a lifetime tool to help you open doors for yourself – especially if you are open to the spontaneous generation of opportunities that come up where you least expect them to . . .

. . . Now, about the “Elevator Pitch” itself: why does it need to be so short? When I was first informed about “Elevator Pitches” and the fact that they can run as short as 60 seconds, I was a bit offended at first. I mean, what we’re talking about here is potentially a multi-million dollar investment. Shouldn’t we have a chance to take our time on this, warm our listeners to our subject, tell a little bit about our life story?

I think there are a number of reasons why venture capitalists like to keep these presentations short. One of them can be found in the nature of communication itself.

Each of us, in our own way, grows up thinking we are the center of the universe, and that every little fact about ourselves is fascinating. We keep photos of our memories, yearbooks, trophies on the shelves, we put posters on our walls that are meant to express something about what we like and who we are, we keep journals. We’re fascinated by ourselves.

And what about the rest of the billions of other people who live on Earth? Well, not so much. Most of them will never know anything about you, and even if they have a chance to, most will probably choose not to pay much attention. It’s nothing to do with you. They’re just busy being fascinated by themselves.

Much of our communication with other people on this planet is a navigation across the great divide between you saying “I’m fascinating,” and someone else saying “I’m not interested.” In dating, there is a tacit understanding that you can talk about yourself as long as you’re willing to listen to someone else talking about themselves. Advertising? Advertising is clever, because it is a message about me dressed up to appear to be a message about you. Journalism? That’s a message about something else, held up as important to both you and me, but that is often merely a camouflaged message about me.

Most commerce, in fact, takes place somewhere on that plane between “I’m fascinating” and “I’m not interested.” Particularly where the type of communication is strategic by its very nature, there is a tendency to push away superfluous information. We’re trying to transact business here, we say -- let’s get to the bottom line. When you stop in a convenience store to buy a pack of gum, you don’t want to know the life story of the cashier, you just want to pay for the gum and be done with it. Gum . . . money . . . let’s move on.

A venture capitalist is like that. He or she knows you’ve come to ask him or her for money. And he has to invest some money – a little known secret, but we’ll get to why in a moment – so there’s a reason for him or her to be there listening to you. But the nature of the business is such that hundreds of companies and business ideas are out there looking for cash, and the VC is just looking to keep the pitch as painless as possible. It’s not so much that he or she will decide to make an investment based on a 2 minute hearing, but if in 2 minutes he or she can’t think of a good reason to hear more about your proposition, he or she is just going to have to leave it there, for the sake of efficiency. Eventually, if he or she has an interest in investing, he or she will want to know your life story and more . . .

. . . At this point, maybe it makes some sense to go through some of the elements of a good venture capital pitch from the standpoint of the venture capitalist.

I mentioned earlier that a venture capitalist has to invest money. It’s not always apparent to a first-time entrepreneur that this is the case, but it is typically true. A venture capitalist has typically gone out and raised money from individuals and institutions on the premise that he or she has an expertise in investing that money in private companies in some sector, and that by doing so he or she can earn higher than average rates of return on investment. Thus, the “Elevator Pitch” that a venture capitalist has had to give to his or her investors becomes a factor that limits the scope of investment that can be considered by that venture capitalist. At the same time, however, the venture capitalist can’t simply put the money in the bank and let it collect interest – the investors are looking for greater returns than that. So, there is a reason why the venture capitalist might want to talk with you.

We’ve discussed brevity as an essential component of a good “Elevator Pitch.”

Another is tailoring your message to your audience. You have to be able to anticipate what the venture capitalist is going to be interested in, and plan your communications accordingly, and this takes research. You have to assume that if they don’t see how it relates to them, they’ll tune out immediately. Many venture capitalists have narrow investment guidelines, and if you go in without understanding them, you’ll just make them feel like you’ve been wasting their time.

One of the most important elements of the good “Elevator Pitch” to a venture capitalist is being tangible. If you walk into a VC and say, “I have a piece of technology that is going to change people’s lives” – well, obviously that’s a little thin. For that reason, there are several subjects that should be covered in a VC “Elevator Pitch”:

What is your product or service?
As an introductory matter, you should preferably be able to get this concept out in one easy-to-understand sentence. There used to be a concept in Hollywood, when people would come in to pitch an idea for a movie, called “high concept.” This basically meant that you should be able to describe this movie in one simple sentence. “A big guy grows up in the North Pole thinking he’s an elf, but then he leaves for New York City to look for his real father. Think Jim Carrey, or maybe that Will Ferrell.” After grabbing someone with your one-line description, you can take some time to develop the idea for your listener, but if you can’t get the idea out quickly and concisely, some VCs will believe your idea is just too complicated to be workable.

Who is your market?
Your VC may be an expert in the software field, and you may be pitching a software idea, but if the market for your idea is just a thousand people living in Red Wing, Minnesota, then the VC isn’t going to be interested. You need to be able to demonstrate, preferably through market research or other statistical evidence, that there is a volume of potential buyers for your product or service that will justify a major investment.

What is your revenue model?
Plainly and simply, how do you intend to make money on your idea? It may be a great idea, but unless I understand how it is you’re going to get someone to pay for it, I’m not going to be interested in risking the capital on it.

Very importantly – who is running your company?
The general rule is that smart people invest in other smart people, and not so much in products or services. Generally, a VC is looking for a management team with a prior track record of success. Unfortunately, in this setting, it is rare for first-time entrepreneurs to obtain venture capital financing these days. If they do, it is because they have surrounded themselves with enough “grey-hairs” to give a VC some confidence that there is adult supervision in the company.

Who are your competitors?
An important rule of thumb here – you always have competitors. If not, then the venture capitalist is going to wonder whether there is even a need for your product. If the inventor of the telegraph walked in to some 19th century financier’s office, even he couldn’t say there were no competitors for what he wanted to fund. People were communicating back then, right? They were doing it with Pony Express, Wells Fargo wagons, shipboard mail. There was a real need for long distance communication, demonstrated by current methods. Be sure and remember this in your own presentations.

What is your competitive advantage?
Ah, see, now this is where you can show your confidence. "People use the Pony Express today, but I have the telegraph. Now we won’t have to worry about highway-robbers or lost letters or battle pay or thirsty horses. And it's 99% quicker. Think of the efficiencies." There is a concept in technology known as technology adoption, and it is often a difficult hurdle in getting your product accepted in the marketplace. The thing to remember here is that you’ve got to figure out the reason why people are going to switch from the old way and do it your way. Innovation is not it’s own end, in the eye of the venture capitalist.

And finally, what do you want?
You’ve got to make the ask. You want money, so tell them how much. Tell them what it’s for. But remember, you may want other things, so don’t forget to ask for them, too. Don’t forget to ask for a relationship – “look, I know we may not be at the right stage for your portfolio, but we really respect your opinion in this industry, and we’d like to know if we can come back in 6 months, as we’re developing this business and pick your brain.” People do like to be helpful, as long as they don’t think you’re taking advantage of them. Or what about referrals? – “if this isn’t something you’d be interested in, and we hope that it is, we would welcome the opportunity to talk with you about other groups that might be interested.”
Grab your listener’s attention, and show them how passionate you are about your product or service. No one wants to invest in someone who doesn’t have the fire in his or her belly. But be careful about being too cute – if your presentation is mostly about grabbing attention, a trained venture capitalist is going to suspect that your proposal is all flash and no substance. Make sure your mode of communication doesn’t overshadow your genuine proposition.

Practice. An “Elevator Pitch” is an oral presentation, and it is not simply a recitation of your business plan’s executive summary. A good executive summary is laid out in a certain way to attract attention on the printed page, and if you try reading that aloud, it is not going to have the desired effect. Practice your “Elevator Pitch” in front of an objective listener – even if they don’t know anything about your topic, by quizzing them and getting their reactions, you can often correct the simplest errors of emphasis or vagueness.

Finally, develop consistency among the members of your team. There’s nothing worse than having some member of your team speaking out of turn. Everyone needs to be “on message,” and that must be “the same message” across the board . . .

. . . What did we just do? We went through the elements of one type of “Elevator Pitch” – the kind you might give to a venture capitalist.

Again, I would suggest that during those rare opportunities when fortune shines on you, when someone else is willing to find you fascinating for a short period of time, the “Elevator Pitch” is a technique that you should be able to call upon to help you get what you want out of this life -- an opportunity to show your passionate interest in something or to express a thoughtful desire. Your challenge, I believe, beyond the realm of this classroom, is to be prepared for those little miracles – to treat them with the honor and respect they deserve, by being prepared to address your aspirations in a brief yet tangible, tailored and passionate way when the time comes.


Sunday, November 27, 2005

Miss Sherrington

Sir Charles Sherrington, physiologist and co-winner of the 1932 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (with Edgar Adrian) for his description of the human nervous system as an integrated, functioning unit, was born on this day in 1857 in Islington, London, England.

Sherrington received 134 nominations for the Nobel Prize, beginning in 1902. Better late than never. He also published a book of verse, The Assaying of Brabantius (1925), which caused one reviewer to hope that "Miss Sherrington" would publish more poetry in the future.


Top 10 Things You Don't Want to Hear Around Thanksgiving Weekend

10. "Well, we won't know for sure without an X-ray, but you probably don't have pneumonia."
9. "The water pump is making a funny sound."
8. "It looks like the blizzard should hit just about the time our guests are due."
7. "I'm not sure, but I think we've run out of water."
6. "Well, we won't know for sure without an X-ray, but your toe is probably not broken."
5. "It looks like there's a lot of smoke in the living room."
4. "What do you mean we can't flush the toilet?"
3. "Happy Thanksgiving. You have reached Water on Wheels. We'll be open again on Friday . . ."
2. "No, we can't deliver any water unless the outside temperature reaches at least 30 degrees."
1. "Wake up, dear -- it's 7 a.m., and you need to go to the store and buy more water."


Saturday, November 26, 2005

Willis H. Carrier

Willis H. Carrier (born on this day in 1876 near Angola, Indiana) has a lot to answer for, apparently.

Sociologists regard the introduction of air conditioning in the U.S. as a major turning point in the evolution of the American lifestyle, transforming this once gregarious, outdoorsy, collaborative, porch-sitting population into an isolative, flabby, suspicious, couch-potato race of snarling lone wolves. Then, of course, there was the revelation in 1984 that chlorofluorocarbons used in refrigeration systems were largely responsible for the receding of the Earth's ozone layer, leading to an increase in global warming (ironically), skin cancer, cataracts and suppressed immune systems. On the other hand, as Molly Ivins puts it:

"As anyone who has ever suffered through a brutal summer can tell you, if it weren't for Carrier's having made human beings more comfortable, the rates of drunkneness, divorce, brutality and murder would be Lord knows how much higher. Productivity rates would plunge 40% over the world; the deep-sea fishing industry would be deep-sixed; Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine chapel would deteriorate; rare books and manuscripts would fall apart; deep mining for gold, silver and other metals would be impossible; the world's largest telescope wouldn't work; many of our children wouldn't be able to learn; and in Silicon Valley, the computer industry would crash."

Whew -- even if some of that is disputable, it's hard to dispute the positive impact Carrier's ideas have had on our culture.

A Cornell engineer, Carrier went to work for Buffalo Forge Company, where within a year he had designed a pumped ammonia system for controlling temperatures and humidity in a Brooklyn printing company, where fluctuations in heat and humidity were causing the misalignment of colored inks.

Next Carrier turned his thinking to cooling the spindles of a Carolina cotton mill, and in 1911, after a flash of genius while waiting for a train on a foggy night, Carrier developed the "rational psychometric formulae" -- equations for determining the relationship between temperature, humidity and dewpoint -- which became the basis for all fundamental calculations in the air conditioning industry. Short-sighted Buffalo Forge dismissed its entire engineering department in 1915, leaving Carrier and 6 engineer friends to form Carrier Engineering Corporation, dedicated to achieving whatever temperature and humidity levels were required by its industrial customers.

In 1922, Carrier invented the centrifugal refrigeration machine, the first practical method of conditioning air in a large space, using non-toxic, non-flammable chlorofluorcarbon refrigerants. As he had early on predicted, Carrier's designs would soon be used for human comfort, not just for industrial purposes. In 1924 Carrier installed centrifugal chillers in the J.L. Hudson Department Store in Detroit, and soon thereafter put them in the Palace, Texan and Iris movie theaters in Houston, causing the box office receipts in those theaters to jump off the charts during a heatwave; some even suggest that Carrier indirectly fostered the rise of the entertainment industry, which had always been hobbled by slacking attendance during hot summers.

Weathering the Depression with the assistance of enormously patient bankers, Carrier unveiled the "Weathermaker" air conditioner for private home use in 1926, and in 1939 he introduced a system for air-conditioning skyscrapers. Although World War II interrupted the advance of air conditioning, by 1995, Carrier Corp. sales topped $5 billion, even as the company began to produce the first chlorine-free, non-ozone-depleting residential air conditioners. Carrier himself passed away in 1950, just as the great lurch forward in the propagation of air conditioning was occurring.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Scrapbook Mind of Laurence Sterne

"He had a scrap-book mind that collected diverting information regardless of its importance or its source." -- J.A. Work.

Laurence Sterne (born on this day in Clonmel, Tipperary, Ireland in 1713) took London and the literary world by storm in 1760 with the publication of the first two volumes of his ground-breaking book The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy -- a work which has been hailed as the first "modernist" novel in English. This lasting fame would have surprised Sterne, who did not set out to write a novel so much as a whimsical, extended rhetorical argument on whatever topics held his interest on the day he held his pen -- though Sterne would no doubt have accepted the honor grinning with pride.

He was the son of an English Army officer and lived his early years as an Army camp-follower. He went to Jesus College, Cambridge, following in the footsteps of his uncle (an Archdeacon of York) and his great-grandfather (an Archbishop of York). As he left Cambridge, the image he conveyed was one of an odd, unfocused man, tall and lean as a skeleton, pallid, without an ounce of harm in him -- a young fellow who had talent but was prone to misapply it.

One morning shortly after college he awoke to find his bed full of blood, the victim of a burst blood vessel in his lung -- an event which gave him a lifetime's fear of death hovering around the corner. Broke and unable to decide on a career, he entered the church, principally to take advantage of his family's contacts for preferment. For a time he roamed the city of York as a bachelor preacher and noted social wit, until marrying and settling down as the dilettante vicar of the sleepy Yorkshire villages of Sutton on the Forest and Stillington -- one who preferred painting, fiddling, farming and hunting to studying the scriptures. His rash enthusiasm with the absurd and the mildly bawdy led him to take up Luke 5:5 as his text for a sermon the week following his marriage -- "We have toiled all night," goes the verse, "and have taken nothing."

Though emotionally volatile and sentimental to the point of being considered "crack-brained" by his neighbors, his rhetorical skills made him a capable preacher and political operator. His flirtations with politics indirectly led him to write Shandy: in 1759 he wrote a political satire directed at a local church lawyer, The History of a Good Warm Watch-Coat, which he subsequently withdrew from publication because it might have proved embarrassing to the church in Yorkshire. Nonetheless, the reactions of his close friends to the work led him to believe he might be a writer, and he quickly began to scribble away at Shandy, publishing the first volumes in 1760, with subsequent volumes appearing until 1767.

There had been nothing like it: bastardizing John Locke's theory of the "association of ideas" as a rhetorical device, Sterne's narrator roams blithely from the history of fortifications to art theory to musical notation to reflections on Biblical tales, Shakespeare and Cervantes (he also drew heavily upon themes from Rabelais and Robert Burton) while ostensibly telling the story of the moment of his own conception -- a chronology which barely advances over several volumes -- occasionally employing such ludicrous, unorthodox devices as a misplaced preface, irregular typography and a missing chapter.

While Sterne became the celebrity of the moment in London society, a gangly, charming country preacher who had authored an irreverent book, he had his share of critics: Samuel Richardson, no doubt smarting over Sterne's veiled satire of Richardson's newfangled novels of morality, indicted Shandy as "incoherent" and "indecent"; poet Oliver Goldsmith similarly condemned the work as "bawdy." While resting in Europe for his health, Sterne wrote a memoir of his travels thinly disguised as a tale involving his fictional alter ego, the preacher Yorick, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768), his only other significant composition. Sterne died at age 55 on March 18, 1768.
Tristram Shandy, long loved as a work of literature but generally considered unfilmable, is the basis for a film by the controversial director Michael Winterbottom, released in time for the recent Toronto Film Festival; though I have not seen it yet, I note that in general the critical response has been one of bewilderment. No doubt that would have pleased Sterne as well.

Seen below is yours truly, taking time out from a day's cycling in the fall of 1983 to visit Sterne's grave at Sutton-on-the-Forest in Yorkshire, England.


Fine Disregard of the Rules

William Webb Ellis (born on this day in 1806) was nearly anonymous during his own lifetime. A native Mancunian and prep student at Rugby School who went on to gain an Oxford cricket Blue, Ellis became a clergyman, served as rector of St. Clement Danes in London's Strand, and ended his career in the south of France, passing away on January 24, 1872 in Menton.

Four years after his death, however, one of his fellow Rugby alums sent an account of his exploits as a 16-year old soccer player to the Rugby School magazine, an incident which the author claimed had been taken from an eyewitness account. It seems that in 1823, Ellis was playing in an intramural soccer game and, "with fine disregard for the rules of football" (in the words of the commemorative plaque which now resides at Rugby), Ellis picked up the ball, ran with it in his arms, and grounded it at the opposing side's area.

While Ellis was said to have been censured by the other players and by the school for his reckless act, apparently the idea of running with the ball began to seduce the hostile crowd, leading ultimately to the establishment of the Rugby School rules of 1846 which legalized running with the ball as the practice of "rugby." By the time Rugby School began to research the origins of the game in 1895, it had a hard time finding anyone alive who remembered Ellis.

The story is doubtful; in fact, author Thomas Hughes later credibly claimed he was the inventor of the game as captain of the Bigside club in 1842. Even as the story is told, young William Webb Ellis, chastised for a spontaneous act, could no more be the inventor of rugby than a Neanderthal tribal hunter who shared his kills with each according to his need could be considered to be the inventor of Communism.

Like the Abner Doubleday legend in baseball, however, Ellis' legend is persistent, and perhaps for good reason. If sports are "about" anything, then it is clear that football is "about" military conquest of territory, baseball is "about" leaving and returning to one's home (see my previous post, "A Casual Summer Romance") -- and rugby is "about" progeny. With players "giving birth" to the ball and propelling it through successive "bequests" to backs who carry the collective name forward, why shouldn't a hormonal, middle-class adolescent stumble upon the essential gesture of the game, the acquisitive grip from which the interrelated concepts of property, procreation and legacy emanate?

My good friend and business partner, a father of three young children, believes the story is quite credible on its face, all factual evidence aside. When kids get cranky, energy and hormones take over. The rules of the elder, more established game may say that you can't take the ball into your possession -- but if you've got a case of mean reds, taking possession is exactly what you're going to do. And if you are a coach, working with young boys at a boarding school, maybe you're going to look the other way or even encourage a little bit of on-field activism, because by allowing the boys to expend the energy within an environment of controlled chaos you might be getting your charges to sleep more soundly after the day is done.

This, I believe, should be considered to be a good secondary theory as to the meaning of rugby -- it's an outlaw game, played to mime excess and to exorcise frustration borne of conformity and submission to authority. It's probably no accident that even today, rugby players are fond of saying that rugby is played "in three halves" -- two on the pitch and one in the pub. Hell-raising is a key component of its appeal.

In 1997, Rugby School unveiled a sculpture of Ellis, paid for with donations from around the world.


Wednesday, November 23, 2005

'A Matter of Great Regret'

Physicist Henry Moseley was born on this day in 1887 in Weymouth, Dorset, England.

Oxford-educated, Moseley taught physics at Manchester under the famous Ernest Rutherford from 1910 to 1913 before returning to Oxford. In 1914, he began to study X-rays emitted by metals when bombarded by electrons. While Van den Broek had shown that wavelengths of X-rays emitted by metals varied in a regular manner from element to element, "Moseley's law" showed the precise form of the relationship, allowing for the determination of an "atomic number" for each element on the periodic table based on its nuclear charge. Moseley's discovery made it possible for the first time to create a meaningful ordering of the elements on the periodic table, and provided the tools necessary for physicists to look for previously undiscovered elements. Three new elements were discovered shortly after Moseley's law was unveiled: hafnium, rhenium and francium.

Within a year after his discovery, Moseley joined the British Army and was sent directly to the Eastern front of World War I, dying in the badly mishandled Battle of Gallipoli on August 10, 1915 at the age of 28.

Rutherford expressed his outrage. "To use such a man as a subaltern," he said, "is economically the equivalent to using the Lusitania to carry a pound of butter from Ramsgate to Margate." Even the Germans called Moseley's death "a matter of great regret."


Pope Clement I

A Roman of Jewish descent who was thought to be a follower of St. Paul at Philippi (although perhaps related to the emperor Domitian, which some have asserted explains why he avoided persecution during Domitian's reign), Clement succeeded Anacletus to become the 4th pontiff, reigning from 88 to 97 A.D. His feast is traditionally celebrated today.

He is best known for a stern letter he wrote to a group of young clerics in the Church at Corinth, admonishing them and reminding them to follow the teachings of their elders in the Church; the letter was the Marbury v. Madison of the young Church, establishing in practice the unequivocal authority of the bishop of Rome.

His ferocious diligence on behalf of the Church inspired a legend in which thuggish Roman soldiers, ordered to arrest Clement when the wife of the constabulary prefect converted to Christianity, were blinded by God and instead dragged away a stone pillar, thinking they had captured Clement. Clement's aura of indestructibility provoked Domitian's successor, Nerva, to exile Clement to the Black Sea at Crimea in 97, where he joined 2,000 condemned Christians as a slave in the marble quarry. While Evaristus assumed his duties back in Rome, Clement shouldered the burden of the suffering of his fellow Christian slaves at Crimea.

Around 100, according to legend, when Clement was called upon by his captors to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods, he refused, after which he was thrown into the Black Sea with an anchor around his neck. Although his relics were originally sealed in an underwater church, Saints Cyril and Methodius transported them to Rome in 869, where they were buried in a church consecrated to his memory.

As St. Clement, he is the patron saint of marble workers, and in paintings he is often represented as a pope with an anchor at his side.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Miguel Covarrubias

Miguel Covarrubias, one of the most original caricaturists and illustrators of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1904 in Mexico City.

Through the influence of his father, Miguel Covarrubias arrived in New York City as an attache to the Mexican consulate in 1923, but by the following year the 20-year old had published his celebrity caricatures in such publications as Vanity Fair and the New York World. D.H. Lawrence called his style of drawing "grim earnest hideousness," but to the New York literary elite, Covarrubias' caricatures were outrageously wacky and fresh; dispensing with the hard-edged contour lines commonly used by his peers in favor of shaded geometric shapes, he drew well-known faces like they were tribal masks, with the most primal elements of their personae whimsically stretched across them.

He published a few books of drawings (The Prince of Wales and Other Famous Americans, 1925; Negro Drawings, 1927), designed costumes and sets for Broadway and illustrated books before marrying dancer Rosa Rolanda and honeymooning in Bali, where he began the anthropological observations and sensuous oil and gouache paintings which formed the basis for his best-selling book Island of Bali (1937).

He also had a regular feature in Vanity Fair during the 1930s known as the "Impossible Interviews" in which he would pit two incongruously-paired celebrities together in dubious dialogue (i.e., Martha Graham vs. Sally Rand; Mahatma Gandhi vs. Aimee Semple McPherson; Sigmund Freud vs. Jean Harlow; or, seen above, Clark Gable vs. the Prince of Wales); but after the success of Island of Bali, he left New York and caricature behind to move to Mexico and to focus on painting and writing.

There he and Rosa were the center of an international salon which included Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kalho, Nelson Rockefeller (rumored to have been Rosa's some-time lover), Orson Welles and Dolores Del Rio, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Georgia O'Keeffe. In 1950, Trygve Lie invited Covarrubias to help select art for the United Nations headquarters in New York, but soon thereafter Covarrubias was banned from the U.S. for his alleged involvement in Communist causes.

While busy working on several books at once, he accepted a position as artistic director of dance at the National Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, where he developed a crush on a teenaged dancer named Rocio Sagaon. Rosa reacted by threatening the girl with a kitchen knife, then a gun; Covarrubias repudiated his civil marriage to Rosa and married Rocio in a Catholic ceremony shortly before dying, from either a perforated ulcer or a botched operation, on February 4, 1957.

Labels: ,

Monday, November 21, 2005

Shrewdness and Gumption

Younger readers of the Guinness Book of World Records during the 1960s and 70s probably reserved a special chamber in their tortured little psyches (one shared with that image of Margaret Hamilton riding her bicycle through a Kansas twister in The Wizard of Oz) for that photo of Hetty Howland Green, branded by the McWhirter brothers as the "world's worst miser" -- that one where she is marching through Manhattan cloaked in a drab black dress and hood, clutching greedily at some variety of commercial paper like Simon Legree clutches Little Nell’s mortgage.

While it is true that she achieved terrifying new extremes of avarice while preserving her investment corpus (letting her son go lame and suffer a leg amputation rather than taking him to a doctor, goes one example), undoubtedly inhabiting a pathologically compulsive plane, history has been unfair to the Witch of Wall Street.

"Her talk about things in general is full of quaintly original sayings, New England shrewdness and 'gumption.' She is 'down' on trusts, lawyers, professional reformers and 'new woman' fads. She believes in the bicycle but draws the line at bloomers." -- H. Tyrell, Demorest (May 1897).
Henrietta Howland Robinson was born on this day in 1834 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. At an early age she was given opportunities to understand and even control the flow of finance in ways for which most men -- let alone the fiscally-marooned women of her time -- had little appreciation. She was, to put it plainly, a financial genius. To be a little fairer than the McWhirters, perhaps her realization that men resented her control over her own finances not only drove her to dominate her own considerable wealth with a vengeance, but to hoard it as well.

Her Quaker father taught her to value plain living and profitable investments, getting her to read the stock market reports to him as soon as she could make out numbers. Finishing school in Boston did not break her spirit, and after inheriting the million-dollar fortunes of her parents and her maiden aunt, she spurned the attentions of fortune-seeking suitors, settling on a man of independent means, Vermont trader Edward Green -- but not before getting him to sign a prenuptial agreement whereby she would not be responsible for his personal debts.

She bore Green two children while wheeling-and-dealing in the London financial markets, favoring real estate and railroads rather than more ephemeral stock investments. Within a few years, Green had spent himself into penury, and Hetty separated from him, building her $5 million dollar inheritance into a fortune of $25 million by the time she left Green through reinvestment and providing high-interest loans to desperate entrepreneurs.

Taking plain living to an extreme, she wore the same shabby greenish-black dress, washing only the hem to conserve water and soap; conducted her business from the inside of a vault at the Chemical National Bank; stayed in dingy apartments; and heated her oatmeal dinners on radiators. While visiting a friend, at the age of 82 Hetty suffered a stroke arguing with her friend's cook over the merits of using skim milk in a recipe instead of whole milk, and died shortly thereafter, on July 3, 1916, in Manhattan.

Although her one-legged son Ned was a spendthrift and her daughter Sylvia was a financial neophyte, Hetty had resolved to keep her entire fortune in the family, leaving the two of them $100 million. When Ned died, Sylvia was the guardian of a $200 million estate, which she bequeathed "like someone throwing handfuls of money from a tall building" (according to one Time-Life writer), apportioning it among hundreds of charities, churches and universities.

Labels: ,

Sunday, November 20, 2005


To commemorate the 80th anniversary of the birth of Robert F. Kennedy, better known to the world as "Bobby," the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights held a panel discussion last Wednesday (with such leading lights as United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta, New Orleans ACORN's Stephen Bradberry, and Indian Dalit rights activist Martin Macwan) on the relevance of Bobby Kennedy's vision today. Such exercises are all very nice and appropriate, but if he were alive today, one might expect that Bobby Kennedy would have passed. Near the end of his life he seemed, more than any other American politician of his day, to stand for the proposition that talk is cheap.

The third son of Joseph Kennedy and younger brother of President John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy was perhaps the most complex member of the Kennedy family -- a moody creature of instinct whose internal demons and experiential sensitivities drew him to articulate a moral critique of American poverty and human rights issues unlike any mainstream American politician of his time. Few people would deny that had he not died in 1968, the American political landscape in the latter half of the 20th century would have looked very different.

While he was still young, Bobby's father was named Ambassador to Great Britain by Franklin Roosevelt, so Bobby moved to England with the rest of the family, attending a fine British prep school and parties with Princess (future Queen) Elizabeth. He followed his brothers into the Navy and Harvard, although he saw no action in the Navy and was not known to be a good student (despite his slight build, his bulldog determination earned him a spot on the Harvard football team, and a varsity letter -- something his older brothers never achieved). After reporting on the Middle East for the Boston Globe, he attended law school at the University of Virginia.

Following law school he stinted with various U.S. government jobs, worked on brother John's political campaigns, and toured Central Asia with Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas, and became counsel to the Senate subcommittee on investigations, first under Joe McCarthy and later under John McClellan. McCarthy was a family friend, and initially Kennedy supported his investigation of alleged communist infiltration of the State Department, but had parted company with McCarthy and his unprincipled accusations in 1953.

Kennedy later emerged as chief counsel to the McClellan's select committee on improper activities in the labor and management field. Kennedy gained notoriety as the Senate's chief interrogator of labor racketeers (ironically, using some of the same cross-examination techniques for which McCarthy was criticized), doggedly pursuing the illegal activities of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa and eventually landing Hoffa in prison for jury tampering.

In 1956, Kennedy unsuccessfully led the effort to have his brother John nominated as Adlai Stevenson's vice-presidential running mate, and was one of his brother's chief advisors in John's successful 1960 presidential campaign. Rather unexpectedly, President John Kennedy nominated his 35-year old brother Bobby as Attorney General over Bobby's objections -- a choice decried by many as unadulterated nepotism. Nevertheless, Kennedy distinguished himself as John Kennedy's closest advisor (some referred to Bobby as the "assistant president"), and as the administration's highest-placed advocate for African-American civil rights.

Following the assassination of his brother John in 1963, Bobby stayed on as Attorney General in Lyndon Johnson's administration for a time, but felt increasingly alienated and resigned to run for U.S. Senate from New York with Johnson's blessing. Despite charges that he was using New York and the Senate as a stepping stone for his own political career, Kennedy campaigned hard: with a longish mop of hair, an easy smile and a sense of humor and charisma all of which reminded the public of his late brother, Kennedy was mobbed at every stop, and despite the opposition of New York liberals such as Gore Vidal and James Baldwin, Kennedy won handily in November 1964. Still mourning John's death, he scaled Mt. Kennedy, a 13,900-foot Canadian peak named in honor of his brother, in the spring of 1965. While he found the climb arduous, he did it well (he noted that while he didn't like climbing mountains, he liked hanging around with guys who climbed mountains), and it seemed to pick up his spirits, as well as to reveal something of what fueled Kennedy.

Kennedy's desire for the first-hand, tactile experience became a theme in his political life for the last years of his life. After experiences among the shanties of South Africa and in the Mississippi delta, Kennedy visited the impoverished neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesent hoping to do something about poverty within New York. At first, he met with distrust among the largely African-American community, but eventually Bobby won them over. Few politicians in that day bothered to visit such blighted areas to listen to the disenfranchised inhabitants, but Robert Kennedy was part rebel, bucking the established patterns of public service and part missionary, having long before accepted his role as the privileged son of wealth honoring his obligation to minister to those less fortunate. He succeeded in establishing a cooperative project between Bedford-Stuyvesent residents and business which became a model for addressing inner-city poverty within the U.S.

As the Vietnam War escalated during the Johnson administration, Kennedy began to admit to himself the mistakes he and his brother had made with respect to Vietnam policy, and eventually made a violent public break with Johnson and his own past by coming out against further American involvement in the War. After Senator Eugene McCarthy made a surprisingly strong showing against Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire presidential primary as an anti-War candidate, Kennedy saw that Johnson's re-election was not a foregone conclusion, and within a month declared his own candidacy.

Thoroughly unprepared for a national campaign, Kennedy got off to a somewhat shaky start, but on his way into the California primary in June, he seemed to have momentum. By the late evening of June 4, Kennedy held a 3 percent lead over McCarthy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, taking 174 delegates and putting him within striking distance of the Democratic nomination. Moments after his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy was shot to death by Sirhan Sirhan -- only two months after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bobby Kennedy's assassination was possibly my earliest TV news memory -- apart from the daily barrage of Vietnam footage we could all expect at dinner time, and which even as a young child, I was beginning to take for granted. I was, however, just beginning to understand that the world was a big place. That jagged silence cutting through the middle of a night of regular broadcast television, followed by the somber intontations of the "breaking news" announcer, declaring that this man had been shot -- well, it was a terrifying thing for a little boy, but also an instantly maturational object lesson concerning the times in which we lived.

Bobby Kennedy was mourned deeply, in some ways even more deeply than his brother John, by American youths older than me at the time, who were mobilized by his fresh perspectives, and by the disenfranchised poor and African-Americans for whom he had battled . . . leading many to wonder what might have been.

Labels: ,

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Lakshmi Bai, Maharani of Jhansi

Much of India had fallen under British rule by 1853, beginning with Robert Clive's assaults in the 1750s. As a consequence of the decline of the Mughal rulers, the British continued their conquest of the Indian subcontinent on a piecemeal basis until 1858, picking off principalities at their weakest moments.

Manu Bai (born on this day in 1835 in Kashi, Jhansi) was a well-educated 7-year old girl from a high-caste family in the independent principality of Jhansi who loved riding horses and playing at martial arts, when she married into the conflict with the British as the second wife of Gangadhar Rao, the maharajah of Jhansi in 1842. The maharajah's first wife had passed away without providing an heir to the throne, but when Manu (or Lakshmi, as she came to be known) was 16, she gave birth to a boy. The joy was short-lived, however, as the child died 3 months later; and in an attempt to provide an heir, the maharajah and Lakshmi adopted his cousin Anand in November 1853. The day after the adoption, the maharajah died.

James Ramsay, the Marquess of Dalhousie, who was serving as the British Governor-General in India, saw his opportunity and asserted that the adoption was not valid (despite its unquestioned validity under Hindu traditions), and that since there was no rightful heir to the throne, that the British would annex Jhansi. Lakshmi petitioned Dalhousie to no avail; her special envoy, whom she sent to London, received a similarly cold shoulder.

Lakshmi retreated, but during the next 3 years, as the de facto underground sovereign of Jhansi, she quietly managed to recruit an army of 14,000 to face the British threat. In May 1857, the British faced a full-scale rebellion of Indian soldiers who had been serving in the British Army; they shot British officers at Meerut, marched to Delhi and re-installed the ex-emperor, Bahadur Shah, to the Mughal throne. The British recaptured Delhi 4 months later, and thereafter all but 3 independent states surrendered to the British. The state of Jhansi was among the defiant.

Lakshmi was already under suspicion by the British for having given aid to some mutineers, so the British laid siege to Jhansi in March 1858, but during the battle, Lakshmi escaped and rode to Kalpi. Received there as a great warrior, she was given armor and an army, and 3 months later, as Kalpi was falling, Lakshmi led her forces on a successful attack on the British fortress at Gwailor. When the British sent reinforcements, Lakshmi was the defiant leader of the defense, but a British Army soldier threw his sword at her, killing her on June 18, 1858 at the age of 22.

Hugh Rose, the leader of the British forces there, said that Lakshmi "was remarkable for her bravery, cleverness and perseverance; her generosity to her subordinates was unbounded. These qualities, combined with her rank, rendered her the most dangerous of rebel leaders." Gwailor fell shortly thereafter, and India would not achieve independence for almost 100 years, but Lakshmi remained an influential symbol of Indian rebellion against the British.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, November 17, 2005

A Boyhood Hero

In June 1975, my friend John and his grandfather took me to see a game at Dodger Stadium. It was a rare treat. John and his grandfather were most loyal Dodger fans -- 'O'Malley blue' flowed through their veins, and the name "Walter Alston" (the Dodgers' long-time manager) was something spoken only in hushed reverence. I, on the other hand, was a heathen, a Mets fan living in Southern California, and Tom Seaver was my favorite baseball player.

That night at Chavez Ravine, a night I'll never forget, Tom Seaver pitched a three-hit shutout against the home team, as Dave Kingman knocked in 8 of the Mets' 11 runs on three homers. There was 'O'Malley blue' caked on the walls before it was over. John didn't speak to me for weeks afterwards, and even his grandfather had a hard time mustering up his usual charm.

A former U.S. Marine and pre-dental student at the University of Southern California, Tom Seaver (born on this day in 1944 in Fresno, California) was a late bloomer who barely gained any notice from baseball scouts until he was in college. He was signed by the lowly New York Mets in time for the 1967 season, in which he won 16 games (a record for Mets pitching up to that time) and he earned the nickname "Tom Terrific."

Like Christy Mathewson before him, another righthander playing in the National League for New York, Seaver was a clean-cut college boy who radiated intelligence -- both in his thoughtful approach to baseball, as well as in his vocabulary and highbrow outside interests. But it was his coolness, control and 98-mph fastball (fueled by exceptional lower body strength and low-to-the-ground pitching silhouette) that endeared him to the New York fans.

Just two seasons after his rookie year, Seaver led the Mets to an unthinkable, "miraculous" world championship in 1969 (in spite of the glare of publicity he suffered on the eve of the World Series for pledging his opposition to the Vietnam War), winning 25 games and a Cy Young Award. The following year, Seaver tied a major-league record by striking out 19 batters in a 9-inning game (the last 10 consecutively). In 1971, despite the fact that he won 20 games and led the league in strikeouts (289) and ERA (1.76), he failed to win his second Cy Young Award. The nod instead went to Ferguson Jenkins, and Seaver, ever the trooper, named his cat after Jenkins in memory of the 1971 season.

Seaver returned to win the Award in 1973 as he led the Mets to their second NL pennant with 19 wins, and league-leading strikeouts (251) and ERA (2.08), and won it again in 1975. After pitching over 200 strikeouts in a record 9 consecutive seasons and upgrading his nickname to "The Franchise," in 1977 Seaver was traded to the Cincinnati Reds -- a move that broke the hearts of the New York fans like me, although for a time there was talk of trading him to the Dodgers, straight-up, for their ace Don Sutton. With the Reds, in 5-1/2 seasons, Seaver twice led the NL in win percentage and pitched a no-hitter (on June 16, 1978).

After one more season with the Mets in 1983, he was picked up by the Chicago White Sox in the American League, winning 31 games (including his 300th) in his first two seasons. He played one more season, split between Chicago and the Boston Red Sox, ending his 20-year career with 311 wins, the highest win percentage of any 300-game winner (.603), 3,640 strikeouts (3rd best all-time) and a career ERA of 2.86.

When he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992, he was named on a record 98.8% of all ballots cast. I went to Cooperstown for his induction into the Hall -- it was the most crowded of such events that I'd ever attended. Far from being disappointed about being so far away from the podium when he gave his thanks, I was just happy to be in the company of so many people who enjoyed Seaver's work as much as I did. Yes, it almost made up for getting snubbed by John's grandfather after that hallowed game in June 1975.


Charles Owen Rice, 1908-2005

Monsignor Charles Owen Rice, known as "Pittsburgh's Labor Priest," died Sunday in nearby McCandless Township at the age of 96, and I regret that I didn't get a chance to meet him.

From the 1930s through the 1990s, Msgr. Rice battled injustice -- not simply in the worker-vs.-bosses steel mill fights during the heyday of organized labor in Pittsburgh -- but against racism, intolerance and violence.

During the Depression, like Father Coughlin, Rice gave fiery radio sermons that mesmerized his parishoners -- but there the resemblance ended, for Rice's mission was to open his listeners' minds to grace rather than to inspire fear and distrust. Rice (whose Irish brogue was authentic, trained during his childhood in Ireland, where he lived from ages 4 to 11) not only used the radio pulpit to advance his cause, but was a front-line soldier whenever he believed the cause was just -- he marched in the picket lines; gave pep talks in the rain during strike rallies; urged the U.S. to aid England in its struggle against the Nazis; linked arms with Martin Luther King and marched with him to the United Nations in 1967; marched on the Pentagon in protest of the Vietnam War; and stood on the barricades as the steel plants were shut down in the 1980s. During much of that time, he also ran St. Joseph's House of Hopsitality, a Hill District shelter for the poor and homeless.

His columns for the Pittsburgh Catholic drew more mail than any other feature, much of it negative. One doesn't need to agree with Rice's advocacy of the union movement, however, to recognize the truth and integrity of his beliefs. His was the rare muscular moral voice of the Left, something today's Democrats still seem to struggle over finding for themselves:

'The Dynamite of the Encyclicals'

Last month some of the good Catholic people of Pittsburgh were startled to hear that a group of priests had been interested in organizing, of all things, a Catholic Radical Alliance. There was a general lifting of the eyebrows all along the line at the idea of Catholic Radicals . . . It might be reasonable to inquire, whom are we following? What prominent Catholics are radicals in this sense? Well, off hand, the first name that comes to my mind is that of Pope Pius XI, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, visible head of the Church. This program, by the way, is commemorating a radical document that he issued six years ago this very day; and it is commemorating another radical document that was issued forty years before that again: The Encyclical "On the Condition of Labor" by Leo XIII . . . The Popes issued these documents to the entire world, one of them forty-six years ago, and the other six years ago; but it is an annoying fact that the principles in them have not gotten around. Outside her fold the Church has the reputation, unfortunately, among all too many of being reactionary -- the friend of the rich rather than the poor; the friend of the bosses rather than the masses. And yet, if the plain facts of Christian principles and practice were known, it is just the opposite. The Church is the Church of the poor and must be. She is the friend of the oppressed against the oppressor . . . To be brutally frank, there are Catholics, many by no means obscure, who act not like followers of Christ, but like followers of the devil in their dealing with and attitude toward the problems of social justice . . .


'The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor! So should we.'

. . . Actually, there is a class war raging in this country, but it is being waged not by the poor, but against them. Those who would deny government relief to the poor but demand they find jobs, when all the jobs are hard to find and decent ones impossible, are waging class war.

Rice, PITTSBURGH CATHOLIC, July 14, 1995

More about Charles Owen Rice can be found in Fighter with a Heart: Writings of Charles Owen Rice, Pittsburgh Labor Priest, edited by Charles McCollester.

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


There's a TV commercial for a credit counselor that never ceases to make me laugh when I see it. Two women are standing near a water cooler, stationed incongruously in the middle of a green, placid field. One woman has a baboon on her shoulder, but she seems not to notice this. Instead, she is talking with her colleague about her beautiful, expensive jewelry. The colleague suggests that the woman should "do something" about the "debt monkey" she has on her back, but the woman merely blinks and says, "What monkey?"

OK, I'll admit it: I like seeing monkeys on TV. Let's face it, some people do. My wife, not so much -- but I truly used to enjoy those Tim Kazurinsky chimp sketches on SNL, as well as Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp and those ads for, featuring one poor guy working with a bunch of chimps in an office. Call it a weakness.
I was surprised to learn the other night, however, that one of our friends, who works for a local film/TV production company, actually helped to produce the "debt monkey" ad. Her "backstory" of the ad was slightly fascinating. Pennsylvania apparently has a law that prohibits commercial activities in which certain exotic animals (baboons included, I guess) have contact with people who are not animal training or zoo professionals. Since actors in commercials are not exempt from this law, it is pretty much settled that no monkey commercials can be filmed in Pennsylvania.
Casting about for a nearby alternative, our friend called authorities in West Virginia, who apparently confirmed that anyone can do just about anything they want with a monkey in that fair state -- so the entire production crew, along with actors, baboon and baboon wranglers, drove south to an unnamed West Virginia college campus, where the ad was shot. (There was no particular reason for the ad to be set in a green, placid field, other than the fact that this was the ad agency's conception. I'd still like to see them in the office, personally.)
It's not as easy as you might think to put a baboon in your commercial, in case you were thinking of it. There was a list of rules provided by the trainer that the entire production staff had to abide by in order to keep from irritating the baboon, including avoiding eye contact with the baboon. The shoot went off without a hitch, however, as the baboon was apparently able to size up the situation quickly, determine the "Alpha male" status of the ad's director and roll with the director's whims.
The baboon shoot was a piece of cake, however, compared to a recent ad that our friend helped to produce for a Florida real estate developer. Playing on the theme of being an "environmentally friendly" developer, the ad shows squirrels and deer in a "white-room" background. For this ad, our friend sent for two "professional" squirrels, Louis and Millie, that were recently featured in the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The squirrels, based in Florida, were flown to Pittsburgh in cages and brought to a South Side studio, ready for their close-ups. While they take direction decently enough, it has to be remembered that they are wild animals, a fact discernible in the scratches all over the neck and chest of the squirrels' professional handler.
Getting the deer for the shoot was a little more challenging. Apparently Pennsylvania has a law (of course they do) that prohibits the importation of live deer to the state, so our friend had to search around the state for captive, docile deer, and a sympathetic owner. In call after call, deer owners simply laughed at our friend, until one eastern Pennsylvania deer owner decided to step up to the plate, bringing her young bucks Robbie and Mikey to the South Side. Robbie and Mikey had never been in a commercial before, but acquitted themselves quite well under the circumstances, with some professional training help from the aforementioned scratched-up squirrel trainer. Our friend said they were as docile and friendly as puppies.
It does seem like a lot of trouble to get spokesmammals on camera, but I guess as long as dunderheads like me keep laughing at monkeys on TV, they'll be going to the trouble to do it.
Oh, and in case you are wondering, the squirrels stayed in a room at the Hilton before returning to Florida, but the deer had to be content to stay in a trailer in the parking lot while their owners stayed in a Greentree motel before making their return trip home.

Labels: , ,

Monday, November 14, 2005

Fred Cuny

I love hanging out with engineers. Recently, as the vicissitudes of New Orleans have played out in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I've listened to a number of engineers casually lay out their suggestions as to how New Orleans should be rebuilt with the aim of avoiding a similar catastrophe in the future. "Take down the levees, see where the water flows, rebuild only to the waterline," says one. "Keep the existing levees, lay out a greenspace just inside those levees, build another set of levees on the inside of the greenspace," says another. All the ideas make good sense, but when you introduce human desires and needs into the mix, the equation changes dramatically.

Frederick C. Cuny, born on this day in 1944 in New Haven, Connecticut, was an engineer who made disasters his life's work. In 1969, Fred Cuny took a leave of absence from a Fort Worth engineering firm to assist in an airlift of food to Biafra, the beginning of a career of relief work in which he exorcised his impatience with bureaucratic red-tape and waste by founding Intertect Relief and Reconstruction Corp., a relief mission technical assistance and training company. Through Intertect, Cuny designed and built refugee camps in Bangladesh in 1971; created a housing reconstruction and materials recycling program following the 1976 Guatemala earthquake; and helped refugees return to their homes in Ethiopia in 1985. He even argued with Mother Teresa over the viability of concrete housing in the mud-puddles of Calcutta, and was right.

After almost 20 years of working in disaster relief, Cuny assembled his experiences in his book, Disasters & Development (1983), and trained relief workers in the "Cuny approach" to disaster relief -- using disasters and violent conflicts as catalysts for economic development in the Third World, by figuring out how to reestablish and strengthen resource distribution systems following a disaster rather than merely encouraging dependent or combative behavior by handing out food and drawing able-bodied populations to the edges of airstrips.

Reading Disasters & Development today, one experiences an eerie sense of familiarity, as Cuny describes the chronology of relief and government action following a hypothetical Third World hurricane -- the cross-jurisdictional bickering, looting, corruption and the gradual tailing off of emergency relief, leaving lasting deficits in housing, food distribution, potable water and other necessities. Most interestingly, Cuny observes that disasters always hit the poor disproportionately -- not only because the poor live in sub-standard dwellings in areas where land is cheap and therefore often more vulnerable to the elements, but also because prior to a disaster, all resources are spent on maintaining a minimum level of development, with few resources being free for improvement. When a disaster hits an impoverished community, the effect is often epochal, setting back the meager advancements of decades of step-by-step improvements in matters of sanitation and construction. Were he alive today, no doubt Cuny would have said as much about Katrina.

After helping Palestinians in Kuwait and Kurds on the Turkish border following the Gulf War, Cuny went to Sarajevo in 1993, where he secretly built a water filtration plant (concealing it from hostile authorities in an abandoned highway tunnel) to meet the emergency need for potable water outside the range of sniper fire while the Bosnian conflict raged around the city. By 1995, Cuny had begun to articulate the need for the world's major powers to develop a systematic approach to dealing with regional conflicts, and to cease using well-intentioned humanitarian aid as a replacement for decisive political or military action.

In his last crusade, he visited Chechniya and returned to the U.S. waging a war of words against the brutality of Russian attacks; he returned shortly thereafter with a plan for a cease-fire, combined with recommendations to set up a medical center to deal with the cholera outbreak, distribution of repair kits to restore damaged homes and the establishment of an emergency radio station to help separated families find each other. Soon after his return to Chechniya, however, Cuny disappeared. President Clinton raised the question of Cuny's disappearance with Russian president Yeltsin, but it was later discovered that the Russians had been spreading false propaganda about Cuny (that he was anti-Islamic) which resulted in his being detained and executed by Chechen intelligence officials in April 1995.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, November 11, 2005

'Let's Face Facts About Flying Saucers'

That glib exhortation was the title of an alleged exposé on unidentified flying objects by Gabriel Green, who was born on this day in 1924 in my home town of Whittier, California.

A lean, articulate and intensely serious bachelor, formerly a photographer with the Los Angeles school system, Gabriel Green received some crackpot attention for his accounts of being greeted by 5'-tall humanoids from the planet Korender during the 1950s and 60s in publications such as Let's Face Facts About Flying Saucers (1967) and his own Flying Saucers International magazine.

Early on, he claimed he had seen over 75 flying saucers and had actually spoken with extraterrestrial beings. He stared down skeptics by pointing to history: "They didn't believe the world was round. They didn't believe we could crack the sound barrier, and we cracked it. The reporters wouldn't even believe the Wright brothers' early flights." He was also a self-styled economist, an exponent of "Universal Economics," a non-monetary system of economics allegedly used by people on other planets, and the "United World," a theocratic world government based on universal spiritual laws and principles. In later years, he referred to the mission of space aliens as one of raising human consciousness so that we can "recognize our own Godhood."

In 1959, Green organized a "peace convention" of the Amalgamated Flying Saucer Clubs of America (AFSCA) at the Statler-Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, announcing in advance of the event that an actual flying saucer from another planet would come and hover over the convention. When asked by reporters if the failure of a flying saucer to come to the Statler Hotel should be interpreted as good evidence that flying saucers didn't exist, Green replied, "Well, it doesn't prove you don't exist if you don't show up for work in the morning, does it?"

In 1960, Green decided to take his notoriety to the next level. At a press conference at the Biltmore Hotel -- attired in a conservative suit and bow-tie, albeit wearing bright red socks -- Green launched a candidacy for U.S. president as the nominee of the Universal, or "Flying Saucer" Party. Claiming to have been chosen to run for president by "space people," Green said that his advisors were from the Alpha Centauri system, but that they looked like ordinary Americans. During the campaign, he boasted: "With the help of space people, I believe I can carry millions of votes and many areas. They will help me, not necessarily at the precinct level, but by providing me with information." Although some reports indicate he later withdrew from his candidacy to support the ulitmate winner, John F. Kennedy, Green did manage to pick up over 170,000 votes in the general election. (If he did support Kennedy, I suppose that might mean that his space advisors were fairly effective, especially in certain Chicago precincts.)

Green ran for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate from California in 1962, campaigning against nuclear arms testing and placing third with 113,205 votes, but took a breather from politics (all the while continuing to publish his UFO magazines and building the membership of the AFSCA to 3,700 members) until 1972, when he managed to get himself on the Iowa ballot for U.S. president, again as the nominee of the Universal Party. That year, he received just 199 votes, all in Iowa.

After 1972, Green moved to the California desert and faded from the limelight, occasionally appearing at UFO conventions, and in Dan Curtis' documentary about the UFO sub-culture, In Advance of the Landing (1993) -- ever vigilant, watching the skies intently. He passed away on September 8, 2001 in Yucca Valley, California.

"They're watching us more carefully . . . Already they are becoming bolder, leaving imprints and other evidence of their landings on earth. When they are convinced that we can accept their reality they will formally make themselves known, and that will be fairly soon." -- Gabriel Green, on extraterrestrial beings, in 1966.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, November 10, 2005

One Bull-Necked German Priest

"I am the son of a peasant and the grandson and the great-grandson. My father wanted to make me a little burgomaster. I became a monk and put off the brown beret. My father didn't like it, and then I got into the pope's hair and married an apostate nun. Who could have read that in the stars?" -- Martin Luther.

A lot of parchment has been devoted to explication and debate about theories of history: Vico, Hegel, Marx, to name but a few, certainly had their own ideas of what causes far-reaching social change. Put them aside here; in the case of the Protestant Reformation, it was the imprint of personality on ripe circumstances, pure and simple.

The ideas which Martin Luther (the leader of the Protestant Reformation, who was born on this day in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany) preached in his alternately lyrical and barbaric tongue -- principally the notion that individuals could earn salvation through faith in God, and that good works and a relationship with God through the Roman Catholic church were not necessarily prerequisites to eternal life -- had been percolating in the minds of many dutiful Catholics during the Middle Ages. Luther initially thought of himself as merely a reformer, bringing the Catholic hierarchy back to the principles of early Christianity; but the more resistance Luther got, the more he pushed back.

It might be said that the "revolution" which ensued was in large part a result of Luther's hotheadedness and self-righteous belief in his own ideas. He came to religious life as a matter of impulse: while studying law at the University of Erfurt in 1504, he was caught in a thunderstorm and nearly struck by lightning, leading to exclaim, "St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk!"

Shortly thereafter, to the disappointment of his social-climbing peasant parents, Luther joined an Augustinian order at Erfurt and devoted himself to scriptural study. There he encountered the philosophy of the Humanists (who shouted "Back to the source!" into his tucked-back hippopotamus ears), and found himself particularly inspired by a passage from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans: "For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, 'The one who is righteous will live by faith.'" (Romans 1:17).

He became a theology professor at Wittenberg in 1514, a time in which the Catholic church had stepped up its marketing of indulgences (a kind of medieval "get out of hell free" card which permitted people to skip confession and in effect buy their salvation from the church) due to Julius II's costly renovation of St. Peter's in the Vatican, among other projects. The young Catholic theologian, disgusted by the materialistic abstractness of the church's program and its willingness to prey upon the fears of the underclass in search of a few bucks for the building fund, composed a letter to a few bishops outlining 95 Theses for public debate on the issue of indulgences -- it is fairly well established that he did not, as legend would have it, nail his arguments to the door of the Wittenberg castle church, but that he merely intended to start a dialogue.

Within a couple of months, however, his Theses were printed, and his arguments began to take on a life of their own, with many German Catholics celebrating Luther's boldness in publicly questioning the systematic abuses of the church. At first, the church in Rome was disinterested in the hoopla; Leo X merely called Luther a "drunken German" and was convinced that he would recant when he sobered up. Instead of recanting, Luther pushed on, with support not only from the embittered peasantry but also from regional princes who saw Luther's critique as a way of diminishing the influence of the papacy in political affairs.

Luther appealed to the sensibilities of the princes with his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, in which he called for the princes to use military force if necessary to engage Rome in the debate over faith. This time Leo X sat up and took notice: on June 15, 1520, he issued a papal bull ("Exurge Domine") in which he threatened Luther with excommunication if he did not recant. Feeling his power, Luther burned the bull publicly like it was a draft card, and on January 3, 1521, Leo X excommunicated Luther.

Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, was still caught between his princes and his sponsor, the pope, so he invited Luther to the unfortunately-styled Imperial Diet of Worms to get him to recant. Luther was defiant: "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason -- I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other -- my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right not safe. God help me. Amen." Declared an outlaw by Charles V, Luther lived incognito at Wartburg castle as the guest of Frederick the Wise, assuming the identity of "Junker Jorge" ("Knight George"), writing sermons, working on a German translation of the New Testament (which he completed within 11 weeks) and writing hymns, such as "A Mighty Fortress is our God."

Outside Wartburg, the Lutheran movement was developing into a church, in part through the activities of Philipp Melanchthon. He returned triumphantly to Wittenberg in 1522 with the Lutheran movement firmly rooted. Now, however, the danger was that Luther's activities would open the floodgates to new protests: other reformers, such as Huldrych Zwingli, began to argue with Luther about the role of communion in the new church; other rebellious priests, using Luther's behavior as their model, began the Baptist movement; and throughout Germany, peasants were revolting against the princes, with Luther's liberation from Rome as their inspiration.

By 1525 (when he married Katharina von Bora, a former nun who later bore him 6 children), Luther was circling the wagons. He denounced the peasants' revolt against nobles who had been his sponsors, declaring that "nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel." Luther had at one time expected support from the Jews, perceptively seeing early Christianity as an extension of Judaism, but naively expecting them to join his parade; when they did not, he turned on them with a vengeance, declaring 8 actions which should be taken against all Jews, including burning all the synagogues, destroying their homes, forbidding rabbis to teach on pain of death, and in case all that seemed insufficient, expelling them. Hitler followed much of Luther's program literally when on the 455th anniversary of Luther's birth the Nazis conducted their notorious Kristallnacht raid on German Jews.

By the end of Luther's life, although he was revered by the Lutheran faithful, the work of the Reformation had passed into other hands, who had only waited for one bull-necked German priest to draw the first sword. He died on February 18, 1546.