Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Poetry of Pasta

Jozsef Tornai (1927–) is a Hungarian poet and author whose work I first learned about this morning. The manner of learning is worthy of note. The medium was Twitter, where gifts of knowledge are tossed from person to person like bridal bouquets.

The path to Tornai began with Twitter friend @drmstream (on Twitter people's names or nicknames are preceded by the "@" sign). He mentioned "Average Waves in Unprotected Waters," a story by Anne Tyler first published in the February 28, 1977 issue of the New Yorker. When another friend, @Kcecelia, looked up the story in the New Yorker's online archives, she noticed and mentioned two wonderful poems by Hungarian authors that appeared within the Anne Tyler story's pages.

And so I came to read and love this poem. It is too fine to languish behind the New Yorker's subscribers-only wall and doesn't appear to be available anywhere else, so I offer it here.

Mr. T. S. Eliot Cooking Pasta
by Jozsef Tornai
Translated from the Hungarian by Richard Wilbur

That crackle is well worth hearing.
He breaks in two the macaroni tubes
so as to make them fit the pot,
then casts them with both hands into the water
above the white electric range.
The water bubbles, seethes, the pasta
sinks to the bottom of the pot.
Mr. Eliot casts a glance
through the wide kitchen window toward the park:
it is raining there, and water
pours down the trunks of trees in substantial quantity,
tousling the lawn into a poison-green
Sargasso Sea.
Which reminds him of the pot.
Just so much contemplation has sufficed
for the rising of the pasta
to the water's surface.
He fishes out the bouncing ropes
with a colander, American-made,
and runs cold water on them from the tap.
"One is obliged to do so; otherwise
they will stick together." So Mr. Eliot writes
to a friend, later that evening.
"Still, the most gripping moment
comes when the macaroni
are broken in two with a dry crackle:
in that, somehow,
one recognizes oneself."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Mysterious City

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious."
~ Albert Einstein

Samuel Herman Gottscho (1875–1971) got his first camera when he was just out of his teens, but he didn't become a professional photographer until he was 50 years old. Fortunately, he lived to be 96, so he had plenty of time to create tens of thousands of images. Among them are some of my favorite photos of New York City.

Gottscho portrays Manhattan as I prefer to imagine it — mysterious, complex, majestic, fascinating, dangerous. A place where anything might happen. Or so it seems in my mind's eye. 

All of the photos that follow are part of the Samuel H. Gottscho collection of the Museum of the City of New York. The first, taken in daylight, is Gotham — a city where superheroes and rocketmen hover just out of camera range. In the remaining images, Gottscho has captured the mysterious soul of the city at night.

Aerial view of midtown Manhattan looking south 1931
Central Park 1930
East 59th Street 1933

Around City Hall Park 1930
Empire State 1930
Midtown 1930
Times Square 1930
Times Square at 46th Street 1932

"The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."
~ Oscar Wilde

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Mindless Menace of Violence

"Among free men there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and those who take such appeal are sure to lose their cause and pay the costs."
~ Abraham Lincoln
On April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated and just a month and a day before he himself was murdered, Senator Robert F. Kennedy spoke about the "mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives." I have listened to that speech again and again in the past view days as I've tried to process the shootings in Arizona. For me, Senator Kennedy's words tell us everything we need to know in these troubled times.

You can listen to Robert Kennedy's speech below. To read the transcript, visit the John F. Kennedy Library website.

"Some looks for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear; violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul."
~ Robert F. Kennedy

Thanks to David Murray of Vital Speeches of the Day for making this his speech of the week.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Battle of the Sexes Goes Retro

"Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote."
~ Grover Cleveland, 1905

Gentlemen, it's time to round up the womenfolk and put them back in the kitchen. Don't forget to take their shoes. Because if you believe what you read in the newspapers — or science journals — the feminist movement was just a big misunderstanding.

Exhibit A: Monkey on a Stick. A few days ago, a report in the journal Current Biology claimed "Young Female Chimps Treat Sticks Like Dolls." That headline was inspired by a research study of play behavior among young chimps by Harvard's Richard Wrangham.

The study's old-school gender bias is revealed in the first paragraph, which includes this statement: "Chimpanzee youngsters in the wild may tend to play differently depending on their sex, just as human children around the world do." Well, excuse me, but when human boys and girls choose different toys, it is not the result of a biological or neurological imperative.

"The emotional, sexual and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, 'It's a girl.'"
~ Shirley Chisholm

Other, better research involving actual human children has shown that even two-year-olds are aware of social expectations about gender. Because of those expectations, boys play with trucks and girls play with dolls, and children who deviate from the rules are corrected — by other children. Change the rules — for example, tell the children that both boys and girls play with trucks — and guess what? Everybody wants to play with trucks.

But back to the Harvard study. "Wrangham said they had seen stick-carrying from time to time over the years and suspected that females were doing it more than males. Their detailed behavioral investigation has now confirmed that suspicion. 'We thought that if the sticks are being treated like dolls, females would carry sticks more than males do and should stop carrying sticks when they have their own babies,' Wrangham said. 'We now know that both of these points are correct.'"

I'd like to offer a different interpretation: Once females have babies, they are too damn busy to carry sticks around. Before that, they carry sticks in case they run into gender-biased Harvard researchers and want to smack them upside the head.

"There are very few jobs that actually require a penis or vagina. All other jobs should be open to everybody."
~ Florynce Kennedy

Exhibit B: Gold Diggers of 2011. In its pink-hued "Femail" section, Britain's Daily Mail boldly reports that "women want rich husbands, not careers." The paper cites a study by Catherine Hakim of the London School of Economics, who claims, "The idea of most women wanting to be financially independent is a myth." Said another way, most women want to luxuriate in the insecurity of financial dependence. Sure they do.

Hakim continues, "Women’s aspiration to marry up, if they can, to a man who is better-educated and higher-earning persists in most European countries...Women thereby continue to use marriage as an alternative or supplement to their employment careers." So, to sum up, most women want to go from being daddy's little girl to sugar daddy's little girl. The typical European woman has no interest in being able to support herself; instead she prefers to depend on the devotion of a guy she married for his money — a guy who will never divorce her, replace her with a younger model or demand a prenup agreement. Yep. Sounds like a plan.

"Woman will always be dependent until she holds a purse of her own."
~ Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Reinforcing the case for women staying the hell out of the workplace, the article links to another Daily Mail story with this curious headline: "Equality Drive Harms Women's Chances in the Workplace." The point of the story: "Critics argue that generous maternity provisions make employers wary of taking on women of childbearing age." Those of us who were in the workforce before the feminist movement forced changes in the mid- to late 1970s — a time when maternity provisions were virtually nonexistent — can tell you employers in those days were also wary of women of childbearing age. In fact, many companies routinely refused to hire them. Cognitive dissonance much?

The research that inspired both articles was sponsored by the Centre for Policy Studies, a center-right think tank founded by that famous anti-feminist Margaret Thatcher, who once said, "I owe nothing to Women's Lib."

I want to be clear here: Staying home to raise one's children is a valid choice, whether the stay-at-home parent is a woman or a man. But it is a choice that exacts a financial penalty. Pretending otherwise is a lie.

"There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women."
~ Madeleine Albright

I wonder what Catherine Hakim would make of this article in Salon by a journalist who opted to stay home with her kids and work part-time and now finds herself divorced and miles behind the career curve.

At least these gold diggers could sing in Pig Latin.

Monday, January 3, 2011

You Never Can Tell

When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep...

~ William Butler Yeats, "When You Are Old"

The first Monday of the new year is a time for looking forward, but this morning I find myself looking back and forth. It started with a song, "Old Man," and a video of its composer, Neil Young, singing it forty years ago when he and I and so many others were young.

Mr. Young has been a favorite of mine from the moment I first heard his warbly voice in a Buffalo Springfield song in 1966. I know he's not for everyone, but give this video of "Old Man" a chance anyway.

In "Old Man," a young man believes that loneliness creates a common ground with an older one. He sings,

Look at how the time goes past 
But I'm all alone at last
Rolling home to you

In happy contrast, Neil Young's own life is notable not for loneliness but for a solid thirty-plus-year marriage to his talented wife Pegi. And that's my message for today. As the great Chuck Berry put it, "It goes to show you never can tell."

Old man pushing seventy,
In truth he acts like a little boy,
Whooping with delight when he spies some mountain fruits,
Laughing with joy, tagging after village mummers;
With the others having fun stacking tiles to make a pagoda,
Standing alone staring at his image in the jardinière pool.
Tucked under his arm, a battered book to read,
Just like the time he first set out to school.

~ Lu Yu, "Written in a Carefree Mood"

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A New Year Begins

"New Year's Day: Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual."
~ Mark Twain

This 1932 photo by Samuel H. Gottscho has nothing to do with New Year's Day except that it shows the city where I will be spending 2011 as I like to imagine it, and imagining is really the best we can do for a new year.

The start of a new year brings out great, gooey gobs of false cheer in some people and maudlin wallowing in others. To me it's a good day to hang up a new calendar and spend a little while — by which I mean no more than 30 minutes — assessing.
"Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man."
~ Benjamin Franklin

This song by the Kinks sums up my wish for all the good people out there.

"It wouldn't be New Year's if I didn't have regrets."

~ William Thomas

I am not looking forward to the year in politics, when the new, GOP-dominated Congress tries to hand over what's left of our country to corporations and special interest groups. To those who are bought and paid for, I'm putting you on notice: I stand with Tom Petty.

Happy 2011, everyone. Make it the best year you can.

"Good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account."
~ Oscar Wilde