Friday, June 23, 2017

Expo 67: 50 Years Later

Memories of Montreal

“We are witnesses today to the fulfilment of one of the most daring acts of faith in Canadian enterprise and ability ever undertaken. That faith was not misplaced. But Expo is much more than a great Canadian achievement of design and planning and construction. It is also a monument to Man. It tells the exciting and inspiring story of a world that belongs not to any one nation but to every nation.”

Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson
Part of the Remarks at the opening of Expo ’67, 
Montreal, April 27, 1967

Expo 67: I was nine years old when Expo 67 took place (April 27 to October 29) in Montreal, the city where I was born and where I lived most of my life. It was Canada’s centennial and I remember receiving, along with the end of year report card, a silver dollar on the last day of school (Friday, June 23, 1967) from my Grade 3 teacher. My family went to the world’s fair a number of times that summer, where admission was $2.50 for adults and $1.25 for children. What I remember most was riding on the blue-and-white monorail, seeing the cool pavilions (there were 90 in total) from around the world (“Man and His World“ was the theme), and enjoying the many other attractions (including La Ronde, the amusement park), that moved the imagination of a young mind. It was all so wonderful and hopeful, which explains why so many Montrealers still can recall the days of the summer of 67 when 50-million visitors took part in some fashion in Expo 67, “the monument to Man.” For another old-time memory, you can listen to the theme song, “Ca-na-da” [here] in both English and French, which I and my class-mates learned in school that year. This catchy tune was written by Bobby Gimby [1918–1998].
Via: Youtube:

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

George Harrison: Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)

Via: Youtube

George Harrison [1943–2001] and his band perform “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” which is found on his 1973 album Living in the Material WorldHarrison’s personal confession of faith and love. You can hear an earlier version of the song [here], and a later version at a November 29, 2002 tribute evening, “Concert for George,” [here] at Royal Albert Hall in London, one year after his death.

Do such words as love and peace carry the same meaning as when this song was written and sung? I say this for a reason, because I would think that they do, but so much I see and read argues against this romantic sentiment of mine. Forty years is now a long time, with so much changing so quickly; during this period, but notably in the last 15 to 20 years, there have been so many changes in language and in meaning of words and in how we tend to view words such as love and peace today.

A whole generation has grown up under a dark cloud; a whole generation has grown up with the normalization of hate, fear and violence. A whole generation has grown up without any belief in hope. Think not? Look at what the culture today values and enjoys in TV, film, music and artistic expression. It is not that the past is necessarily better in all respects, but at least it had some comprehensive and deep abiding ideas on how to live as a human being. People were also both more serious and more humorous and unafraid to be this way.

Now, we have become ignorant and blithely ignore real concerns, including helping the very people who need the most help. Now, the politics of division, which finds clarity offensive, also finds peace and love less desirable than hate and conflict, serving the interests of the few. This is carried on the wave of self-indulgence, self-aggrandizement and self-entitlement. Self. Self. Self. Turning inward. Whose Self is it anyway? Where does it end? Self-fulfillment. Self-entitlement. Self-destruction.

It is easier to manipulate people when fear fills the air as a kind of toxic pollution that makes it hard to breathe. The bad air is heavy with anxiety and will weigh you down in depressive defeat. Down. Down. Down. Yet, for me these universal words of light have the same meaning. The music tells me so. Listen to the music of love, hope and peace, my friends. It will help you breathe; the mind requires oxygen to think clearly, to look beyond selfish interests, which has become another barrier. It will lift you up. Up. Up. Up.

Give Me Love
by George Harrison

Give me love
Give me love
Give me peace on earth
Give me light
Give me life
Keep me free from birth
Give me hope
Help me cope, with this heavy load
Trying to, touch and reach you with,
Heart and soul

Om m m m m m m m m m m m m m
M m m my lord . . .

Please take hold of my hand, that
I might understand you

Won't you please
Oh won't you

Give me love
Give me love
Give me peace on earth
Give me light
Give me life
Keep me free from birth
Give me hope
Help me cope, with this heavy load
Trying to, touch and reach you with,
Heart and soul

Om m m m m m m m m m m m m m

M m m my lord . . .

Summer begins with the summer solstice (in North America) today at 12:24 A.M. EDT.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Reading Now (June 2017): A Jew Grows in Brooklyn

Being American

First Generation American: I picked up this book at a second-hand shop; I paid 50 cents, a wonderful bargain. A Jew Grows in Brooklyn (2010), by Jake Ehrenreich, the son of immigrant parents from Poland, was born sometime during the 1950s in Brooklyn during post-war America. Both his parents survived the Holocaust, and both his parents came to America after spending time in a displaced-persons camp. They did the best that they could, considering the circumstances; perhaps better than most. These salient facts are important, since these facts intruded into the lives of their children, unintentionally of course but they most certainly did. This book gives some insight on how these facts, birthed in trauma and tragedy, shaped the lives of Jake and his two sisters. The stories within the book’s pages are as much as his parents as they are about Jake and his sisters. He tells the stories with a mix of seriousness and humor. Life is serious, but it is also funny with moments of absurdity, that become evident after taking some distance from the subject. I marvel at persons who can laugh at, or make light of, their personal losses and misfortunes. Very uplifting.
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Finding ‘The Comforters’

Pain: 1:17
“Happy is the man…”

Photo Credit: ©2017. Eli Greenbaum

“It is not in our power to understand either the suffering of the righteous 
or the prosperity of the wicked.” 
Pirkei Avot 4:15

This is a serious post. I hate to see people suffer; I hate to see animals suffer. I can never work in healthcare; I can never work with animals. I have had pets and I have seen them die. Heart-breaking. I am too sensitive for it. Sure, I can brace myself, as I have done with seeing both my parents suffer before succumbing to death. I have also been to a good number of funerals. I can’t say that these were happy events, no matter how eulogies often make it a “celebration of life.” Many of these persons suffered before the illness took their lives from them.

This is the way that I view it; life is precious and suffering is a scourge on us, an evil visited on humanity. I do not see any reason for it, although I understand why people throughout history have attempted to find reasons for pain and suffering, including C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain (1940) and in a more personal confessional, A Grief Observed (1961), first published under a pseudonym. Both books are well written and argued, but along with others on the subject, they fall short in providing closure to a difficult question. I am not surprised, since there is no satisfactory answer to the question of suffering.

For example, Christianity views suffering as a problem of original sin and, also, of personal sin. Such was the view of Job’s “friends” and “comforters, who despite Job being “blameless and upright” (Job 1:1), concluded that he must have committed some horrible sin to suffer the way that he did. Job maintains his innocence in the face of tragedy and the accusations of wrong-doing from his comforters. They could not have known of the cosmic wager between God and Satan (1:8–12), the true and only reason for Job’s change of fortune and suffering.

Later on, we read that God spoke out of the whirlwind in anger (Job 38:1–42:6), but made no apologies for his capricious actions. He also offered no explanation. We are left with the idea, however uncomfortable, that God’s ways are mysterious—and thus are not completely known to man. Such is the general view of Judaism today, yet Maimonides [1138–1204] (also called Rambam), the great Jewish medieval thinker takes the position in his Guide for the Perplexed (1190) that suffering can be attributed to human failings, in line with contemporaneous Christian thinking.

There is no sense in this medieval argument that Job, who was a pious man, might have learned more about God without causing him to suffer unjustly, especially since God’s speeches do little or nothing to explain himself, his intentions or his cosmic wager with with Satan, the adversary. Rationally, it would follow that there was no need for the suffering, except for God to win the bet. This does nothing to place God in a majestic position.

Such thinking, however, is still prevalent today among both evangelical Christians and orthodox Jews, usually among the more fundamentalist sects who view the bible (or Torah) as a literal unchanging document that is timeless. Such people, who tend to cling to past traditions, including those of dress and mannerisms. have no problem making judgments on the failings of others, but not their own. Such is a weakness of mind, a failure of the heart.

Yet, modern man views pain and suffering as cruel, chiefly because it is; it is for this reason that modern man, in his decency and dignity, tries to find ways to alleviate suffering. I am, of course, applying human standards and I make no apologies for it. I expect better of God, notably since it says in the Bible, “God created man in His own image”(Genesis 1:27). I also make no apologies for condemning as cruel and barbaric the suffering that humans too often inflict on each other and for the suffering that humans often inflict on animals. One such act is too much, but we know that such acts are multiplied by numbers far higher than this. Very large numbers that numb the senses.

This is tragic; and the real tragedy is that those of us who are sensitive are incapable of preventing suffering and pain. We can’t understand the purpose of suffering, but we can act as true comforters, which is what I view as the chief theme of a movie I recently viewed on Netflix. You’re Not You (2014). It is about a young woman, a classical pianist dying from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which ravages her body and takes away who she was/is. In the end, she receives human comfort from another. Predictably, it received mostly negative reviews for being overly sentimental.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

George Harrison: What Is Life (2016)

What is Life by George Harrison
©2002. G.H. Estate Ltd.
Via: Youtube

In this music video, Emma Rubinowitz, a member of the San Francisco Ballet, dances simply beautifully to an equally beautiful simple love song by George Harrison [1943–2001], “What is Life,” recorded for his triple album, All Things Must Pass, which Apple Records released in November 1970. George Harrison, “a spiritual man” died from cancer on November 29, 2001; he was 58. It is more than appropriate that a good part of this video, artistic in nature, is shot outdoors showing the beauty of human love against the permanence of nature in the free and unrestricted expression of movement and dance. Nature endures; it is undeterred by what man does, by what man throws at it. It was around then and will be around later. Humans, however, are different; humans need things, humans need emotion and feelings. If you have lived a life in the presence of love, both in the giving and in the receiving, then you have succeeded in living a life well-lived. This is a rare achievement no doubt, making it all the more precious. Before I forget to mention it, and I must get back to the dancing, the male dancer is Esteban Hernandez, who is also marvelous. Well done, all around.

What is Life
by George Harrison

What I feel, I can’t say
But my love is there for you, any time of day
But if it’s not love that you need
Then I’ll try my best to make everything succeed

Tell me, what is my life without your love
Tell me, who am I without you, by my side?

What I know, I can do
If I give my love now to everyone like you
But if it’s not love that you need
Then I’ll try my best to make everything succeed

Tell me, what is my life without your love
Tell me, who am I without you, by my side
Tell me, what is my life without your love
Tell me, who am I without you, by my side?

What I feel, I can’t say
But my love is there for you any time of day
But if it’s not love that you need
Then I’ll try my best to make everything succeed

Tell me, what is my life without your love
Tell me, who am I without you, by my side
Oh tell me, what is my life without your love
Tell me, who am I without you, by my side?

What is my life without your love
Tell me, who am I without you, by my side?

Oh tell me, what is my life without your love
Tell me who am I without you by my side?

Monday, June 12, 2017

Baseball as Art

America’s National Pastime

This is a continuation of a blog series on baseball, first starting with Ken Burns’ Baseball (1994), posted in April, Baseball by the Numbers posted in early May and Baseball is Beautiful to Watch posted in late May. In this last post on baseball, I combine two of my interests: baseball and art.

“Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. 
And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona.”

 —George F. Will, Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball (1990)

Babe Ruth Farewell at Yankee Stadium on June 13,  1948, might be the most famous baseball photo ever taken, artistically valuable. Ruth died of cancer on August 16, 1948; he was only 53. Not at all surprising, this photo won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949. Michael Palmer does a wonderful job—the best I have read thus far—in describing the power and poignancy of this photo; he does so by applying the theory of Aesthetic Realism, a way of seeing: “Nat Fein, a staff photographer for New York Herald Tribune, was looking for a picture that would convey the meaning of that day. He left the other photographers and went to the back of where Ruth was standing, where he saw the elements of the story in one composition—Ruth in relation to his former teammates, to the Stadium, to the fans. He saw Babe Ruth in a moment of great triumph and in a tremendously sad moment as well.”
Photo Credit: © Nat Fein

When you are a longtime fan of anything, you know all the iconic images. Baseball is no exception. There is one of Babe Ruth Farewell (1948) shown above, and another of Lou Gehrig Day (July 4, 1939). Then there is one of Mickey Mantle and The Helmet Toss (June 1965) and yet another of Joe DiMaggio and His Swing (June 29, 1941). Yes, it is true that all played for the New York Yankees, the greatest franchise in major league baseball, which dominated the sport (along with the Brooklyn Dodgers) in the 1940s and ’50s.

Even so, there are so many more iconic photos, such as the fierce Ty Cobb Stealing Third (July 23, 1910), the Bobby Thompson Home Run (“shot heard round the world;” October 3, 1951), Wille Mays and “The Catch” (September 29, 1954 in the 1954 World Series); Jackie Robinson and his Third Base Dance (Game 3 of the 1955 World Series) and Sandy Koufax and his Perfect Game (September 10, 1965). Such are only a small select sample of photos that tell the story of baseball in an artistic way, depicting the players who made the game what it is, depicting in its simplicity both its victories and its defeats.

One of the aims of “the artistic” impression is to show the humanity in the human, and these photos do so in a way that captures the imagination, the spirit that ruled the age. The times change, and even if we were around during these times, our memories aren’t as reliable as we would like or think. Memories fade like the photos themselves. Yet, we return to these photos to provide a physical record of not only the history, but also to sense (and recapture) the feelings that then permeated the air.

To see how the two intersect—fine art and baseball— go to [FineArtAmerica] and [Christie’s].

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Second-Guessing Experts

Certainty: 1:16

“Happy is the man…”

Photo Credit: ©2017. Eli G. Greenbaum

Don’t trust all experts; don’t trust everyone who calls himself an expert; experts, notably TV pundits, are often wrong, particularly when it comes to predicting financial and economic news (e.g., the stock market, the housing market, etc.). Such is the chief take-away from a documentary that I recently viewed on CBC’s show, “Hot Docs” with Anne-Marie MacDonald, The Trouble With Experts, written and directed by Montrealer Josh Freed, which was first broadcast on March 26, 2015.

Research following the predictions of so-called experts showed that many fared no better than a person guessing randomly or a chimpanzee throwing darts. In another case, non-experts were better than experts in predicting certain economic outcomes. One way of deciding whether to trust an expert is the level of certainty that he outwardly shows. The greater his certainty the greater the possibility of him being wrong; so much of his blunder is replete with bluster.

The Trouble With Experts (2015),
a CBC documentary produced by Josh Freed.
Via: Youtube

Such is considered confidence, equated with certainty. But it is hardly so, which is instructive. As much as weather forecasters or meteorologists are often publicly maligned, they do give forecasts with a level of certainty, such as 30% chance of showers. It might be good for those who make financial and economic predictions to follow suit and do the same, but somehow I have my doubts that they could do this, since so much of their predictions are no more than hot air coming from an over-sized ego.

As for political pundits, most of us know that this is (bad) entertainment, not to be taken seriously—no more than one would take seriously the words of a king’s jester. There are serious experts, no doubt, found in all fields of human endeavor, but something happens to their ability to think clearly and rationally when they decide to go on TV or on other forms of visual social media. They perform, not unlike actors, because this is what is “expected of them.”

They, that is, the TV experts, might not be aware of this process, or they likely might. This requires a level of self-awareness and a high degree of doubt, which is not easy to obtain. This generally takes work and deep introspection and access to understanding and knowledge that is often only found in books, some of them old and dusty. Ideas of goodness, truth and beauty. Might it not be time to blow off the dust?

Perhaps this “belief in experts” is an outcome of the persuasive power of mass media, and also in our inability to easily understand/perceive the world for ourselves. By trusting experts, particularly those in the mass media, we hand over to others an ability to think, notably on what is good and beautiful and true; this is a fool’s game. Marshall McLuhan [1911–1980], a Canadian philosopher and communication theorist, says as much in Understanding Media (1964):“All media exists to invest our lives with artificial perception and arbitrary values” (199).

If such is indeed the case, then it is up to us to find the (moral and ethical) values that we wish to live by. By no means is this an easy task, but it is a necessary one.  

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A Early June Day in Toronto (2017)

The Seasons

G. Ross Lord Park on June 2nd: After parks’ employees completed some rock landscaping on a section
of embankment of the Don River that winds its way through this urban park near where we reside.
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

We don’t typically associate the month of June with the season of Spring, but most of the month is before the summer solstice (in North America), which this year is Wednesday, June 21, at 12:24 A.M. EDT—two weeks away. Is warmer dry weather on its way? There is good reason to ask, since a majority of the spring here in Toronto and in many parts of Canada has been cool and rainy, with above-average rainfall and below-average temperatures. So far, June has been cool; the silver lining is that this year air conditioners might not be necessary (not that we use one, anyway), thus saving people from high electricity costs. Another silver lining: I do not know if there is a correlation or it is pure chance, but I have already seen five monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) this year. The temperature when this photo was taken was 20°C (68°F) and sunny clear blue skies, which was slightly cooler than the normal daytime high of 23°C (73°F). Such days might be rare this summer, so it’s good to go out when they do occur.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Favorite Books (6): Daniel Deronda

Reading for Enjoyment

Here I briefly discuss one of my favorite books; this is part of a continuing series.

“Deronda’s heart was pierced. He turned his eyes on her poor beseeching face, and said, “I believe that you may become worthier than you have ever yet been—worthy to lead a life that may be a blessing. No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from.  You have made efforts—and you will go on making them.” 

― Daniel Deronda to Gwendolen Harleth 
in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (Book VII; “The Mother and the Son”)

Daniel Deronda: First published by W. Blackwood and Sons in 1876, this Penguin Classics edition was published in 1995; it has a fine introduction by Terence Cave, who writes that Eliot’s final novel, her most ambitious, reveals the prejudices of British society by bringing these into the light of day: “By shuttling between the different settings of the plot, the title-character weaves together the principal threads in what Eliot called the ‘web’ of her story. The notion that the Jewish strands can somehow be cut out is untenable as soon as one perceives that Deronda is deeply attracted both to Mirah and to Gwendolen. Or that. just as Gwendolen needs the shock of Deronda’s Jewish identity in order finally to break out of her social and psychic prison, so too their painful conversations, his encounter with her moral predicament. are necessary to his spiritual odyssey” (xxxi).
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Daniel Deronda (1876), by George Eliot [1818–1880] is the final and seventh novel of the British writer, known outside writing circles as Mary Anne Evans; she employed the male pen name to be taken seriously as a writer, which says much about the times in which she lived, or at least how she viewed them. Having read all of Eliot’s novels, I don’t doubt her knowledge of, or her insights into, the human condition, most notably about the redeeming qualities of love and goodness. That she is an exceptional writer is not in doubt by critic and public alike.

A writer of the Victorian era, she is viewed by many one of the finest novelists of the 19th century. I agree. Eliot is exceptionally good at speaking to the reader, both directly and indirectly. Once you get used to her voice, you quite enjoy it, finding it not only charming but necessary. This provides not only information, but also knowledge and wisdom, contributing to the writing’s moral clarity and force. You will find her humane certainty in these matters a breath of fresh air in our cynical and nihilistic age, where the air is heavy with grayness and despair.

Although her previous novel, Middlemarch (1871–2), is considered a far superior novel by most critics today, I view “Daniel Deronda” as at least equal to the task, if not more so in some respects, in matching Eliot’s artistic and moral vision. The story resonates strongly with me in that it is not only an old-fashioned love story, it is not only about reconciliation and redemption, but it is about justice and finding one’s true and right path, despite the difficulties this presents. The esoteric parts, such as the book’s delving into Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, are intelligent and always important in that they delve into the recurring problem of evil and what options humans have in the face of it.

Yet, one should be careful in viewing evil as only a rational item on a discussion list. Paramount are human relationships, such as is found between Gwendolen Harleth and Daniel Deronda, a Moses-like figure who helps bring about a change of heart in her. This stands out because it took a combination of self-recognition and courage to do so. She plays a prominent part in the story as does Mirah Lapidoth, who becomes Daniel's wife and comapnion; Ezra Mordecai Cohen, her visionary bother; and Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, Gwendolen’s cruel husband, whose death leads to Gwendolen’s self-awareness. 

What also stands out is that the novel is sympathetic to the Jewish people, without being overly sympathetic, and to the cause of their national and cultural aspirations, which today fall under the heading of Zionism, at a time when both were rare in Britain. Not surprising, this novel was published when Benjamin Disraeli [1804–1881] was prime minister of Britain (1874–1880). Although Disraeli was born into a middle-class Jewish family, he was baptized at age 12 into the Anglican Church. He was also a novelist, publishing among others Tancred in 1847, which Eliot read.

Disraeli’s baptism into the Christian faith increased opportunities for him, since non-Christians, by virtue of having to take an oath of allegiance to Christianity, were effectively excluded from Parliament, that is, until 1858. His father could not have anticipated this progressive change at the time that he made such an important decision on how to raise his children. Hindsight is a power that few have.

Even so, some like Eliot are highly sensitive to the times and the social norms that ruled the lives of persons. This makes her novel unique in many ways, in that she advocates for a minority people not her own. This also makes Eliot a prescient and courageous writer. But, then again, she showed courage by openly living with a married man, George Henry Lewes, for more than 20 years (Eliot also used the name of Mrs. Lewes socially). Although affairs and extra-marital relations were common in Victorian England, displaying a lack of discretion was uncommon. Therefore, their relationship was met with moral disapproval.

This might explain the sympathetic reading that Eliot gives the Jewish people in this novel; they too were met with suspicion and disapproval, so what better way to counter this than by writing a novel that shows Daniel Deronda, raised as a member of the British upper class who discovers that he’s Jewish, as the hero and the novel’s moral force. This too speaks about the great debt of gratitude that Christians owe Jews, one that was hardly acknowledged then. Yet, while this is sometimes shown today, it is done in a pretentious and insincere way. One wonders if this is better.

This novel must have caused a stir in England at the time, and it still causes a stir today in some circles. As would any novel that uses literary characters to try to make right a historical wrong. Some historical wrongs have never been properly and seriously acknowledged and in today’s political climate will not receive the fair and proper treatment they deserve. Ignorance and ignoring or twisting the facts seem to work in short measure, as does silencing the moral voices of good. But the problems do not go away.

Old prejudices don’t die an easy death, if at all; sometimes they get resurrected a century later in a new body, a new grotesque form. This novel spends a lot of time revealing how societal prejudices easily turn into lazy habits, but also how a few courageous people can change their “love of evil ways”—such is the basis of a moral life. Some, perhaps more than a few, will appreciate this sentiment, yet, when morality can be cast aside in the name of expediency, we can see what happens. A morality missing love and kindness is hardly good, hardly worth pursuing.

But then again the chief problem today is not so much a lack of morality but a lack of deep and abiding interest in the subject, including on the problem of evil. When social media becomes the source and arbiter of morality, our society is in serious trouble. Opportunistic morality is no morality at all, but a cheap veneer that demeans human beings and human relations; it also makes light of human victims. This is already evident today; reading this exceptional novel in its entirety will bring some clarity on this subject and to the beginnings of a change of heart.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Appreciating Beauty

Aesthetics: 1:15

“Happy is the man…”

Photo Credit: ©2017. Eli G. Greenbaum

Beauty — be not caused — It Is —
Chase it, and it ceases —
Chase it not, and it abides —

Overtake the Creases

In the Meadow — when the Wind
Runs his fingers thro’ it —
Deity will see to it
That You never do it —
Emily Dickinson [1830–1886]
Beauty — be not caused — It Is,” 1929

It is said that “beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” that beauty is subjective, that it is particular rather than universal. This might be true for our soul-mates, our spouses, our loved ones, but I disagree to this claim when it comes to generalized beauty. There are some natural scenes that everyone finds beautiful: a well-tended flower garden, a bubbling brook, a clear mountain view and a large orange sunset. A bouquet of flowers.

I add to the list a beautiful smile from a beautiful face. Seeing this can improve anyone’s bad day, better anyone’s disposition, lift anyone’s spirits.  This works for me. Much of what we find beautiful has to do with symmetry, the right proportions, the ideal order. While some argue that this is unfair, that this is a learned “social construct,” this is a wasted effort. One can hardly argue with mathematics. A beautiful woman is a beautiful woman according to everyone’s understanding and tastes. 

This has been proven countless times. See what happens when a beautiful woman enters a room, or walks down the street. 

There are valid and well-understood reasons that designers put their expensive creations on equally beautiful models; there is a relationship between the clothes and the model. The eye looks at both the model, more often then not female, and the clothes that she is wearing. There is a connection, creating a visual sense and flow of beauty. This works; if it didn’t, we would see high-fashion models that are not beautiful. I doubt that this will ever happen on a big scale.

Beauty works without much effort, giving pleasure to the brain through the windows of the eye, which take it all in: a beautiful face, a beautiful painting, a beautiful photo, a beautiful scene in general. There is a different effect when we hear a beautiful piece of music; it causes us to tear up, to cry—an emotional release to what troubles us, the beautiful acting as a counterpoint to it. It is as if our ears are telling our brains to “have hope,” that goodness still exists.

Birthday Flowers: I gave these bouquet of cut flowers to my wife for her birthday. Are they not beautiful?
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

This explains one reason why humans remain attracted to beauty, even during the direst of circumstances, even during the bleakest of times? The simple (and beautiful) answer is because it is necessary, even if we don’t completely know or immediately appreciate its virtue. It makes us feel (however briefly) right about the world, that all is in order, or could be, if only.... This is important, and becomes more so when so much is (or appears) in disorder.

While some artists, particularly in the last 40 years, resist this assertion, and purposely make ugly art, I doubt that the majority of people appreciate it or find it appealing, since this goes against the aesthetics of beauty that have been with us forever.  While nihilism and anti-beauty ideas have an audience, and there are patrons willing to pay for their representation, its time is limited, because it offers no hope, only a continuation of the same bleakness and despair.  

While it is true that ugly gets noticed (e.g., a dilapidated building, a trash-filled park, a yard overrun with weeds, trash talk), these are noticed for revealing what is lacking; and in contrast beauty gets attention for the right reasons, chiefly for what its presence adds to its surroundings, such as a public garden in a urban square. This might explain why a colorful flower growing through the cracked asphalt of otherwise grey city streets gets noticed, its symbolism palpable. 

Besides, beauty is the easiest and quickest aesthetic to judge; it is before us.  Functional cities devoid of beauty are to a large degree despairing cities; sadly, there are too many cities in Canada and the United States that fit this description. If the will is present, it is never too late to change the way a city looks. But, for this to be considered, beauty has to be seen as more than an add-on, but as necessary for public good. This is a hard sell today, particularly the idea of “public good,” which now sounds out of place, foreign, and overly virtuous. 

Yet, virtue is precisely what is missing in today’s public discourse; virtue ethics is foundational to moral philosophy and it contains an important argument on beauty. For reasons that are both societal and biological, beauty and goodness in the mind of the beholder correlate well. Beauty. no doubt, confers an advantage to an individual. Even as this is true, if we go beyond the superficial level, we know that not all beautiful-looking individuals are necessarily good, but that they are initially perceived as “good.” 

Greater moral lesson: Goodness is always beautiful, and nothing increases an unattractive (or plain) person’s beauty than the quality of goodness. 

The opposite is also true, in that badness (in all its variations, including vulgarity) decreases beauty in an otherwise beautiful-looking individual blessed with fine physical attributes or form. A beautiful person who acts with goodness and grace is in a special category; such are rare individuals and noticed for a reason, a good reason. I think of women like Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, Ingrid Bergman and Audrey Hepburn. There are others lesser known, no doubt, but we like to raise a few to the heavens in our “perfect offering.”

I suggest that this has to do with our ideas and ideals of perfection, which are transcendent ideas, likely hard-wired into our brains. So, yes, beauty is linked with goodness which itself is linked to perfection. While we know that the ideal of perfection is unobtainable, it does not follow that we don’t find appealing the idea of perfection. It is in our language for a reason; we can say that beauty has a purpose, which is not the same as saying beauty exists solely for a practical reason.

It might be unfair that ugly is not appealing, but such is the way our brains work. It might also be unfair that some are intelligent, while many are not; that a few are blessed with athletic abilities while most are not. People are born this way, with certain abilities and physical traits. There is another idea related to physical beauty, however, that needs mentioning, that requires emphasis: beauty reminds us of what is above us; beauty reminds us of higher thoughts. Monuments to beauty have a purpose, even if we have forgotten them.

Emily Dickinson alludes to this connection in the poem above: the transcendent thought implicit to beauty and its outward expression. In the Jewish Bible, the Song of Songs (Shir ha-Shirim in Hebrew; שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים), in particular Chapter 4 where the man describes his lover’s beauty, there is a long descriptive passage on female physical beauty. It is a homage to romantic love, which, in the best poetic tradition, always lifts us upward.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Baseball is Beautiful to Watch

America’s National Pastime
This is a continuation of a blog series on baseball, first starting with Ken Burns’ Baseball (1994), posted in April and then Baseball by the Numbers posted in early May. In this post , I discuss a few of the baseball films that have been produced, which tell the story of America, not only as it was but also as it ought to be.

“I love baseball. You know it doesn’t have to mean anything, 
it’s just beautiful to watch.”
Woody Allen in Zelig (1983)

Photo Credit: ©2017. Eli G. Greenbaum

There have been many films made in Hollywood that have baseball as its central theme. There are, of course, the best-known Hollywood films, including Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), The Natural (1984), Eight Men Out (1988), Bull Durham (1988) and Field of Dreams (1989). 

Then there is The Phenom (2016), which I recently viewed on Netflix, a little gem of a movie about the relationship between a father and a son and how this negatively affects the son’s mental abilities as a pitcher. It is filled with psychological insights. Such were generally absent from the older films that I have seen over the years like Pride of the Yankees (1942), The Babe Ruth Story (1948), The Stratton Story (1949) and The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). 

Psychology was present, however, in Fear Strikes Out (1957), based on the life story of Jimmy Piersall [born 1929], who when the movie was made was playing for the Boston Red Sox.  (The role of Jimmy Piersall was played by Anthony Perkins.) Piersall’s erratic behavior on the field during the 1952 season was later diagnosed as a mental illness, in this case bipolar disorder. He received treatment and returned to the game in time for the 1953 season. The relationship between father and son is an important part of the movie; Karl Malden plays John Piersall, Jimmy’s father.

You can view the various lists of all baseball films [here], [here] and [here], which number almost 300 films. The field is uneven, no doubt. If you are a die-hard baseball fan, however, you will enjoy them, just for the ballpark scenes, such as the one blow showing Roy Hobbs hitting ball after ball into the bleachers with his home-made bat. Hobbs calls the bat “Wonderboy,” which has a bolt of lightening carved into the barrel. 

Batting Practice: A scene from The Natural (1984) of Roy Hobbs (played by Robert Redford) showing his phenomenal hitting abilities. Every ball is hit out of the park, landing in the empty bleachers.  There is something beautiful in viewing an athlete swinging a bat just right, that in the best of them it is done so with grace. There is something beautiful in the sound of the crack of  the bat, which indicates that the hitter has hit the sweet spot. Ah, the sweet sound of baseball.
Via: Youtube.

It is true that one of the appeals of sports, which includes baseball, is that it doesn’t require meaning outside of its domain. It is what it is. Sports is entertainment, and as such its chief purpose is enjoyment, viewing the athletic abilities and exploits of professional athletes. Some people like baseball, some don’t. Some people like films about baseball; some don’t. This does not say anything about a person other than his personal preferences or tastes in entertainment. 

To a large degree, baseball films of a certain vintage told the story of America, as it ought to be, in an idealized form, by addressing issues of race, ethnicity, class and national identity, among others. This was thought necessary as a means to bind the nation together through measures that were overtly less political and less nationalistic. Watching a game or a film idealization of a team sport can provide the distraction necessary from what is viewed as bleak around us.  It has a good purpose, even if it seems corny or cheesy today.

Baseball has been a constant in America; and there have been hundreds of films about baseball since the first one, Mike Donlin’s Right Off The Bat, in 1915, one of the 25 silent films produced between 1915 and 1928. Sadly, there is no extant copy of this film, but 10 baseball films from this period have survived. For various reasons, including intentional destruction, many such films are considered lostThe oldest surviving film is Shut Out in the Ninth, which dates to 1917. 

This is extraordinary, considering that this is higher than the survival rate for all silent films (around 25 percent), which were all produced during what is called the nitrate era (approx 1890 to the early 1950s) for their use of nitrate film stock (i.e., nitrocellulose). Nitrate film, however, is prone to decomposition but also to catching on fire and causing explosions due to its chemical instability. As a result, there have been a number of fires, including the famous one, in 1927, at Montreal’s Laurier Palace Theatre. 

In the early 1950s, nitrate film was replaced by cellulose triacetate or “safety film.” Older films that were not destroyed, either for economic or safety reasons, were transferred to safety film. Such is the reason that we can watch old films today, including some of the baseball films made before 1950. Some conclude that nitrate films have aesthetic qualities lacking in modern 35mm films. Yet, its showing today requires taking exceptional safety precautions and only three venues in the U.S. are so equipped.

Baseball no longer has the same unifying appeal it once did, yet it has helped lead to social changes in America in a way that politics could not. Roger Kahn, who followed the Brooklyn Dodgers as a sports writer, in 1952 and 1953, after Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier” in 1947, writes in The Boys of Summer (1972): “By applauding Robinson, a man did not feel that he was taking a stand on school integration, or on open housing. But for an instant he had accepted Robinson simply as a hometown ball player. To disregard color, even for an instant, is to step away from the old prejudices, the old hatred. That is not a path on which many double back.” 

True enough.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: The Individual

Personhood: 1:14
“Happy is the man…”

Photo Credit: ©2017. Eli G. Greenbaum

“The argument for collectivism is simple if false; it is an immediate emotional argument. The argument for individualism is subtle and sophisticated; it is an indirect rational argument. And the emotional faculties are more highly developed in most men than the rational, paradoxically or especially even in those who regard themselves as intellectuals.”

Milton Friedman [1912–2006] in the “Introduction”
to the 50th anniversary edition
of The Road to Serfdom (1944) by Friedrich von Hayek

“Thus very far from there being the antagonism between the individual and society which is often claimed, moral individualism, the cult of the individual, is in fact the product of society itself. It is society that instituted it and made of man the god whose servant it is.”

— Émile Durkheim [1858–1917], Sociologie et philosophie, 1924;
Trans. D. F. Pocock, Sociology and philosophy (1953)

The history of ideas shows that it is individuals working toward a worthy goal who have produced the greatest discoveries for humanity, and the nations that valued and rewarded individual achievement were the ones that achieved and benefited the most. The individual has an essential place in western civilization, in democracies and in societies that value human thought and human life.

I think that most people will generally agree with this last statement; the disagreement often lies with the particulars, the details. It’s always about the details, isn’t it? How one goes about making the rules of society, which basically revolves around how much freedom the individual ought to have; this aspect of human relations could be seen with children at play and with adults in boardrooms and backrooms.

In this sense, the individual also acts as a prophet who voices “the dangers of authoritarianism,” common when the powerful state denies all dissent, often (but not always) done in the name of consensus. It can also happen when resentment among minority groups (the powerless) seek violent solutions to social or economic differences, hence the revolutionary approach, unleashing the fury of the mob and, as a result, the installation of a dictator to restore law and order. Dictators rarely leave on their own volition.

This leads to order, but not to freedom and often to the suspension of human rights, and to greater unhappiness at the loss of such freedoms, now hard to regain. Few benefit under such a political system, despite the promises made. What is lost is never easy to regain. Despite its faults, democracy remains the best political system, requiring give and take, a tricky balance, but a necessary one. This is the only system where the individual is free to be an individual.

Collectivism has its appeal, a beguiling one, but not for the individual who is also the contrarian. He sees in collectivism a danger of “the mob” acting in intolerant if not tyrannical ways. You can see such things happen today, both in small form and in large form, notably at secular university campuses, but also at unexpected places, like Silicon Valley, which views itself as libertarian and yet has its particular in-group thinking.

It’s a brew available to everyone, and it often goes down easy. Do we really want a society where everyone thinks alike, at least publicly? What is the value of consensus if it is forced, not given or agreed to willingly and thoughtfully? Conformity and consensus comes at a price. Not found in such ideologies, including the current emphasis on “national identity” in some quarters and identity politics in others, is that disagreement and disparate points of views are safeguards against totalitarianism.

Worst-case scenario: North Korea; historical lesson: the former Soviet Union and Maoist China.

The call for the regulating or curtailing of speech is an early sign of repression, but this does not take place overnight and does not happen in a vacuum. Typically, this takes place as a countervailing force to a long period of “hate speech,” to what is often viewed as the normalizing of aggressive use of speech, often anonymously and shamelessly, to marginalize original ideas, common on the largest free-for-all known as the Internet. Yet, it is also true that the term “hate speech”is used too often for what is often offensive and unpleasant language, for speech of resentment. Or, lately, for ideas that a group does not agree with, as a means to shut down debate.

Personal attacks and troll tactics, although often effective in curtailing certain kinds of speech, are not without consequence over the long term. The public square becomes smaller and possibly less tolerant, often an unintended consequence of self-censorship, since only certain ideas deemed acceptable by the mob are allowed. What is acceptable today might not be acceptable tomorrow. Who decides? What are the criteria? Unpopular ideas (and unpleasant ones, too) need airing as well as popular ones, otherwise speech is no longer free for everyone. Speech and language reveal the health of a nation.

But then again, we are also here talking about how speech has become passionate and inflamed to the point that it has become unpleasant and ugly; we are here talking about things like manners and etiquette and the importance of these when delivering the message. As someone once said, you counter bad or hate speech with good speech. You attack not the person but his ideas, doing so by marshaling not opinions but facts; one is not the same as the other and the distinction is essential. Such is the hallmark of a literate society; such is the importance of language.

Here is a curmudgeonly reminder: As much as the individual is important, historically, he does not stand alone outside society (in contrast to the Cartesian model of the Self), but, instead, acts as a contributing member of it. In other words society comprises many individuals residing together, not necessarily agreeing on everything, but agreeing that at least disagreement has a purpose and a meaning, including arguing on the benefits of the “common good.” We have to remember what is the importance of good; it is not the opposite of bad, but a force of its own.

In the best of circumstances, such an individual brings forward ideas to improve the lot of his fellow man; he brings forward ideas that lead to real benefits and opportunities for all individuals residing within its borders; he builds the nation with inclusive language. He uses encouraging language that welcomes outsiders, language that makes the invisible more visible. Such is an individual who is also a leader.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Favorite Books (5): Invisible Man

Reading for Enjoyment

Here I briefly discuss one of my favorite books; this is part of a continuing series.

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”

Ralph Ellison, “Opening lines to Prologue,”
Invisible Man (1952)

Invisible Man: This book, as first published by Random House of New York City, in 1952, was hardcover and 439 pages. Random House, since 2013, has been part of a conglomerate called Penguin Random House, which the photo of this particular book cover shows. This is a business partnership between the German company Bertelsmann and the British company Pearson, one in which the German company is the majority owner with 53 percent controlling interest. Random House was founded by Bennett Alfred Cerf [1898–1971] and Donald Simon Klopfer [1902–1986], when two young Jewish businessmen purchased the complete works (109 volumes) of Modern Library for $200,000 in 1925. Modern Library published inexpensive reprints of classic works of literature, chiefly European modernists but also a few contemporary Americans. Two years later, in 1927, the Modern Library site says, “finding that they had time to spare, they started Random House as a subsidiary of the Modern Library. Random House enabled them to publish, ‘at random,’ other books that interested them. It soon was a major publishing force in its own right, and the Modern Library would become an imprint of its own offspring.” Now, that’s quite a story of success.
Photo Credit & Source: Greg Tucker

Invisible Man (1952), by Ralph Ellison [1913–1994], is a novel that has many interwoven strands. It is at first about a young southern black man’s search for identity in New York City of the 1930s, finding out that truth is so malleable that it eventually turns into a falsehood, which is what keeps relations between people going. It is also about the desire to join a group, because when you are not part of a larger cause, you find yourself without any acceptable social identity, and thus you are effectively invisible. It is also about the larger issue regarding the place of the individual in greater society, and in this particular case American society.

The novel’s opening lines grab your attention and you are hooked. When I read this book for a university course on American literature a quarter of a century ago, I was immediately drawn into the world of its main character.  Like me, the unnamed narrator in the novel says a lot of things, because he has a lot of time to think. What he’s essentially revealing is that man’s capacity for cruelty is unlimited and it takes on many forms, including a denial of the human being. Indifference to others has always been an acceptable part of modern society.

Much like Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground (1864), the narrator uses irony to describe his situation, most notably his living situation, which is less than ideal, as seen by his need to jerry-rig a lighting system of 1,369 light bulbs powered by electricity stolen from Monopolated Light & Power Company. It is by all accounts horrible and bleak, but it is this way until the narrator decides that he’s had enough of being invisible, which he does decide in the end. We do not know what his decision leads to, but the reader is left with an undefined and unredeemed hope for the future.

This is an American book, no doubt, but its story can be understood outside this nation. It could be understood when it was written; it could be understood outside its time. The reasons for saying so are universal, as man is universal in his needs. One can easily mistake the particulars for the universals and arrive at the wrong answer, the wrong conclusion. One can make the practicalities of life and of living the whole story.

Accordingly, it is also about determining the cost of deciding to become an individual, which is a diminishing sight at a time when there is so much confusion on what is essential to the human being; people are splintering off into smaller and smaller groups, driven by despair to identity politics and the safety of the group. Nothing has changed in this regard. This is the hard truth, and it is hard to accept without becoming cynical or hiding in an underground hole of your own design. Or to begin to wonder about your sanity.

This story also makes me think of why and how. How does a person become invisible? Is it only a result of mental illness? Or of actions? We know that each person has a story; this is what the writers of long ago tell us. It is also about how such persons can make poor choices, both through a lack of knowledge and a willful stubborn stupidity—in their desire to become individuals, and how poor thinking can make these ones bereft of the rich social pleasures of friendship and community. One of the sad outcomes, an undesirable one, is that such ones become “invisible.”

There are those who will always fall through the cracks of normal society into the darkness below, where the light of day hardly finds its way in. They live but are not known; they fail to reach their human potential for reasons that are not always known to us. We mourn the loss of potential, a very modern idea, even as we move on, making our own preparations for another day. This is the crux of the matter, whether everyone and anyone can be saved from “himself” if this is not what he wants.

One can make the effort, but it will likely end in vain. Even so, the effort must be made, even if success is not apparent. It is in the making of the effort that the rules of society are changed.