Saturday, February 28, 2015

Urban Hiking

I don't own crampons, so the easiest winter hike is literally a walk in the park.  I can force myself to do a single loop (3.35 miles) even if I'm not in the mood for it, and I've learned that I can eke out another 3.35 miles if I reverse directions at the end.  (Going around a second time in the same direction seems all too boring, even though I'm listening to an audiobook or podcast the whole time!  Go figure - it's all about psychology.)

Something has caused this pine to lean in...

Pine tilting toward three-quarters moon
Just beyond the pine, there are two trees that are simply dazzling in winter.  (I'm always surprised that no one else stops to ogle them as I do.)  I think the effect may be due to the color of their bark; it's silvery white, and yet it seems simultaneously to glow gold in the afternoon light.  On a sunny day, against the bright winter sky, with snow on the ground, the quality of the light is arresting.

Trees luminous in the late afternoon
The overall scene

Thursday, February 26, 2015

"Rain" by Somerset Maugham

On social media, or even in conversation, I've noticed that my acquaintances tend to be primed and ready to point out certain kinds of weaknesses in people who claim to be Christian, using labels such as self-righteous or sanctimonious; narrow-minded or bigoted; and -- above all -- hypocritical.  It is not uncommon for such labels to be applied reflexively, and with a sneering assumption that some hidden and warped sexuality underlies expressed moral principles or aspirations.  (Particularly true with labels such as sadistic or puritanical, for example.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of "Rain" is that Maugham manages to describe the medical missionary Mr. Davidson -- and his many failings -- without resorting to labels.

These labels have such power in our culture that it is almost difficult to summarize Davidson's character in neutral, non-stereotypical terms.  Here's my best effort: Davidson is revealed to us as controlling, vindictive, and utterly lacking in compassion.  Indeed, it becomes increasingly clear that he is not distressed by the suffering of others, nor merely indifferent to it, but is instead grimly pleased by it. 

Maugham shows us all this, and more, through Davidson's words and conduct, and through the reactions of Dr. Macphail and others -- not through labels.  The author trusts us to read between the lines and make the necessary inferences.  When Davidson's hypocrisy blossoms (off-stage) into a physical form that even he himself cannot mistake, it destroys him; largely because his own personal version of "Christianity" lacks mercy, pity, and the opportunity for redemption.

This strikes me as a powerful way to tell a story; it does not have the sweeping effect of generalized ad hominem attacks (all Christians are bad unless proven otherwise), but it brings to life a very particular, individualized danger which Christians ignore, perhaps, at their peril.

As for the Macphails, I will probably need to meditate further on the story before I fully resolve their characters to my own satisfaction.  They start, of course, somewhat dazzled by the Davidsons' relative social standing: "Mrs. Macphail was not a little flattered to think that she and her husband were the only people on board with whom the Davidsons were willing to associate, and even the doctor, shy but no fool, half unconsciously acknowledged the compliment."  Dr. Macphail's attempts to intervene are sporadic and ineffectual, and I'm left thinking of the Yeats line ("The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.").  But there may be more to it than this. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Music, Miscellaneous

St Olaf Choir in its 2015 Winter tour (2/6/2015) at Carnegie Hall.  I absolutely loved The Battle of Jericho (arr. Moses G. Hogan Jr.). Other highlights included Veni Creator Spiritus by Anthony Bernarducci, Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying by Philipp Nicolai (setting by F. Melius Christiansen), Kala, Kalla (Five Hebrew Love Songs) by Eric Whitacre, and  Lullaby (Three Nocturnes) by Daniel Elder,

Park Avenue Chamber Symphony's Fifteenth Anniversary Celebration (2/22/2015) at Jazz at Lincoln Center.  They did Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Maazel's The Ring Without Words. Maazel's son, a cellist, recently joined the symphony, and his widow read a piece about the constraints Maazel followed in synthesizing Wagner's Ring Cycle: no composing fillers or bridging; include all leitmotifs; everything in chronological order.  She said Maazel "did not want to write a single note" that was not in the original, a curious statement, when you think about it.  It's like saying you want to write a synopsis of Hamlet without writing a single letter that is not in the original -- but presumably all 26 letters appear in the play, so that leaves the field wide open for total revision.  In either case, I think it would be more accurate to speak of an intention not to use a single phrase that was not in the original.  But that's just me. 

With respect to the Rite of Spring, I'm not very familiar with this piece, but at the very beginning I thought certain phrases sounded like Looney Tunes cartoons. The first movement also made me think of Chaucer's Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, particularly the line about smale foweles that "slepen al the nyght with open ye."  I also noticed a slight nonconformity in the music, as if the notes were slipping or slightly slippery; but they were played very precisely. 

After a slow beginning for the second movement, a percussive pizzicato jolted me into attention. My eyes snapped open and I had a moment of cognitive dissonance: a glowing Arabic script writing itself in mid-air above a pool of ink soon resolved itself into the musicians' illuminated faces and bright bows raised and bouncing in boisterous pizzicato over a sea of dark clothing. The music soon became wide and brash, ocean waves crashing into a crescendo.  A female bassist put her whole body into playing each note. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Ray of Sunshine!

It's very sunny, and I was thinking about whether to go for a walk or just enjoy my last day of freedom over the weekend by staying home.  (Cf. Lem's "Omnipotence is most omnipotent when one does nothing.")

And then I remembered: It's a three-day weekend!  I don't have to choose!!!

I'm off to enjoy the great outdoors.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Hindsight: Re-Thinking an Awkward Conversation

I don't know what made it come to mind, but this has been bugging me for the past week or so:  Some years ago, my male boss asked me to talk to a young female employee about her choice of attire.  Although her attire didn't bother me personally, I knew what he was talking about.  The way she dressed made her come across as very, very young and somewhat professionally naive.  She was wearing nice new suits and nice new buttoned shirts, which were perfectly appropriate -- except that the shirts were just a touch too tight, with the opening just a touch too low.  The clothes were just a touch too form-fitting.  (And come to think of it, the effect was possibly made worse because the shirts were typically in very delicate, feminine colors that were just a little too close to the color of her skin.)

I reluctantly attempted to have the conversation, and it was very awkward.  I could not figure out any way to describe the issues that I knew my boss was concerned about with any degree of delicacy (although I tried).  I knew what I was saying would likely come across as personal criticism, or possibly an unhealthy attitude on my own part, or both.

Looking back on it now, I think I see a way I could have approached the topic - not foolproof, but it might have been marginally better for everyone concerned.  My goal was to open her eyes to an issue that she might want to address, in a way that did not leave her feeling "objectified" or unduly worried that she had made a really bad impression.

The approach I've been thinking about would go something like this:
So-and-so has asked me to speak with you on a topic that may be a little sensitive.  I hope you'll understand that our intentions are good, and take what I say with a grain of salt.  When you're thinking about how to present yourself in a business environment, there's a fine line sometimes between what is professional and what is perceived (whether correctly or not) as alluring.  You're on the right side of the line, I want to make that clear.  But when you're new to the profession, it's sometimes helpful to move another few centimeters back from the line; it reassures everyone around you that you know where the line is.  It's totally unfair, but a shirt that is closely tailored can be interpreted as tight when you're young; and I personally find even at my age that buttoned shirts can be tricky when the placement of buttons makes me choose between "too close for comfort" and "too buttoned up".  Again, I don't think you're on the wrong side of the line; you're clearly not dressed for a club.  And you certainly don't need to be dowdy or shapeless - we're talking a slight ratcheting down or a slight stepping back from the line, rather than a wholesale transformation.  I hope you'll take these comments in the spirit they're intended, which is to help you put your best foot forward while you're cursed with the "problem" of youth and beauty.  It's a good problem to have, and I can actually assure you that it will work in your favor as you establish yourself in the profession.  
It still might have been better to refuse to have the conversation at all (which is what I would probably do now), but a speech along those lines might have at least had a reasonable shot at communicating what my boss hoped to communicate.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Chipping Away at an Apocryphal Artist's Quote

That last post made me think of the story about a sculptor who revealed that his secret was simply to chip away everything that didn't look like a rabbit.  Or at least that's the way I remember it.

In a google search for "chip away everything that," I found several variants - and the most popular ones seem to feature either David (as in Michelangelo) or an elephant.   The earliest instance of that phrase that I could find on google scholar dates to a book published in 1979.  Here is the excerpt:
That has a nice flavor, doesn't it? It's from Like a Thousand Suns: The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living, by Eknath Easwaran (1979).

But on google books, I found an even earlier (albeit less exotic) instance of the phrase from 1964:

And it seems to have been a reader-submitted joke in the December 1963 issue of Boys Life:

Of course, then I got curious about whether the word in the quote should be "everything" or "anything".  It turns out that "chip away anything that" gets about 95,200 hits on google, vs. a measly 4,560 hits for "chip away everything that."

With the seemingly more popular formulation, I found an instance as early as 1975:

Again, this is relatively prosaic - it's from A guidebook for evaluating programs for the gifted and talented: working draft, by Joseph S. Renzulli (Office of the Ventura County Superintendent of Schools, 1975).

Things get more mysterious, however, when you add another word:

"chip away anything that"                        95,200 hits (total)
  • "chip away anything that" elephant        61,600 hits  => most popular formulation is with the elephant!
  • "chip away anything that" david             18,300 hits
  • "chip away anything that" horse             10,900 hits

"chip away everything that"                        4,560 hits (total)
  • "chip away everything that" elephant        180,000 hits  => most popular formulation is with the elephant!
  • "chip away everything that" david             93,100 hits
  • "chip away everything that" horse             79,600 hits

So it turns out that the everything formulation may be more popular, after all, when you add up the subcategories?  But the order of popularity of the subject of the sculpture remains (1) elephant - presumably the original, (2) David - presumably because everyone loves Michelangelo!, and (3) horse.  I don't have an explanative theory for the horse.

Alas, no one seems to like my rabbit formula.

Postscript: After mucking around with the tense of the verb "to chip," I've found an instance as early as 1960 on google books...