Gradatim Ferociter

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This past Saturday marked the 31st anniversary of the Challenger disaster, and it’s hard to resist the urge to still be depressed about it.  73 seconds after liftoff, the ship exploded, killing the seven astronauts including teacher Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first civilian in space. Later analysis revealed the likely cause to be an O ring failure as a sealant due to unusual freezing temperatures before the launch. I’d like to think that the disaster led to new, safer ways to explore space or a determination to solve scientific problems in ways to benefit us all. But thirty years in, I’ve come to realize some of that is probably fantasy, and the reality is a mix of pessimism and pragmatism.

I remember exactly where I was: at the office on Montgomery Street in San Francisco, only six months into a job with a company I would eventually support for decades. In those “yuppy” days, we still wore suits and heels and spoke in hushed tones, as if every discussion were of utmost importance. In the middle of an intense debate over something on a spreadsheet, we noticed that everyone was suddenly going into the big conference room with the television, and on the screen was this odd blotch of smoke flowering outward. Whoever had been in the room first – to watch the launch initially – had to retell the story over and over as more people came out of their offices and cubicles to join the crowd. All you could see for several minutes was smoke blossoming further and NASA Houston mumbling something about “waiting to see,” until finally the news generated some kind of replay. Then, the announcers explained what had happened, and started replaying it over and over. We’re now used to that instant replay on a loop, but that was the first time I remember seeing it put to use. Continue reading “Gradatim Ferociter”

The End is the Beginning

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Barbara in Montana likes my endings. From the time I started writing my weekly posts, she’s told me that she finds the endings are often the best part and reads them first.

Can you imagine how much pressure that adds to the process? Now, not only do I want something equally entertaining and interesting, thought provoking but not too heavy, words to make you go hmmmmmm and ho ho ha ha, but now ALSO the ending has to be Barbara-WORTHY.

I don’t really know where the endings come from.

Writing, inspiration, requires priming the pump which is why you have to be disciplined to do it every day or in a routine.  Usually, it’s a pretty rusty pump. You have to start with a few vigorous thrusts of whatever quality, to get it going and get the brown stuff cleared out. Then, it just goes. Not all of the words will be funny or insightful but enough of it will get you started. And then you don’t really know where it “came” from.

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Holiday Traditions Don’t Come Out of a Book

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My aunt Viola warbled like a cat in the rain. Uncle Casmir’s voice was raspy from fifty years of cigars. My grandmother’s voice was reedy and full of thick Polish sighs. My dad had a booming basso profundo that wasn’t exactly on key but nearer to the notes than his mother and sister. My mom was a wayward soprano but what she lacked in pitch, she made up for in enthusiasm, and she conducted us as only a former high school drama teacher turned speech professor could do.

In 1967 at Grandma Chmaj’s house, the Christmas Eve tradition was to sing Christmas carols. She had little books that were handed round with all the words, even to verses three and four which had to be sung. Everyone was allowed to pick their favorite, even us little kids. All religious carols, of course, none of your Holly Jolly or Rudolph. My mom’s pick was O Little Town, my dad’s was God Rest Ye Merry. My pick was We Three Kings. To this day, as soon as I think of it, I always hear:

We three kings of Orient arrrre…
Tried to smoke a great big cigar
It was loaded
It exploded….
God rest ye merry gentlemen…

Such was the humor of 1967. We didn’t sing the words that way — you would “get in trouble” such as that was. We sang the right words and without accompaniment. My cousins Pat and Barbara, ten years older than my brother and I, had choir-trained voices. One of them would bring an accordion and after the regular singing, they would do two special duets that sounded truly angelic, especially in contrast: The Little Drummer Boy and O Holy Night. Truthfully, O Holy Night is still a favorite because I can hear their harmony every time the song plays.

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Baryshnikov reads the phone book

I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov dance last week in Berkeley because art is a balm to the soul in troubled times, and last week was some troubled times. Baryshnikov is 68, though he doesn’t look a day over 59. Actually, he looks darn good and can still cause a swoon with a flick of the wrist.

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Baryshnikov in Wilson’s Letter to a Man

The performance was a collaboration he did with Robert Wilson, who created works with Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. You can tell by those names that Wilson likes it modern and likes it surreal.  Which is fine except that surrealism turns out to be better if you have context.

Modern art has that feature. For example, I have always found cubism more interesting if I can discern the original model – a woman’s face, a guitar, a mountain. When the shapes become completely random, I lose the ability to appreciate what the artist was trying to achieve. The Salvador Dali with the melting clock is easier to think about than the Salvador Dali with the melting oblong blob. Labelled Untitled #4.  My reaction becomes Untitled #5.

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The Death of Civilized Debate

A documentary is making the rounds, in the theaters last spring and now on PBS and On Demand, that is a reminder of how politics used to be different. This is not by way of a discussion of the current political season or any commentary on the campaigns or their positions. I will not drag us there; I have promised. But this historical  view, “The Best of Enemies,” which chronicles a series of debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, hearkens back to the days when the tone of debate could be intelligent and civil. What a concept!

The popular notion is that America does not like intellectuals. Our tall tales and folk heroes are often about simple men who get the better of the fellow  with book-learnin’ through common sense and American knowhow. Conventional wisdom is to disdain “eggheads” and to embrace the Common Man.

But Americans do enjoy – or used to enjoy – the intelligent presentation of political opinions that they themselves hold dear. In 1968,  when ABC decided to host a series of conversations between two intellectual giants who held very different views, America watched and embraced – individually – their beloved smarty-pants of the Left and the Right. Continue reading “The Death of Civilized Debate”