Innovation Lust

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Back in the 1970s, I began to wonder just how much longer we humans could continue to produce things without the world becoming saturated with those things. I am not speaking here of pollution—which presents its own problems—but of the possible end of ingenuity. At first I thought I was probably alone in my concern because I had never heard or read of such a potential issue. However, in 1977, while waiting in a company’s break room for a job interview, I saw in a magazine an article concerning product saturation. Unfortunately, the interview began after I had read only a couple of paragraphs, and the magazine was not my own so I could not take it with me. I have occasionally wondered that the author’s thesis and conclusion were.

Since that time, I have been observant of any new products and trends in product changes, curious what they imply for my country’s economic future. What I have seen has been a fascinating historical arc. But before I get involved here in modern innovations, I want to share an anecdote I recently read about a much older start-up: the Pony Express. I see in that story a very evocative pattern for what has happened since the Pony Express was inaugurated in April 1861.

According to the Pony Express Museum’s website, the mail service was started by three men—William H. Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors—as one response to the threat of the Civil War; the purpose obviously was to speed up communication between the East and the West. The acceleration of mail delivery would not be very impressive by today’s standards: the first westbound ride, from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, took 9 days and 23 hours, while the eastbound journey clocked 11 days and 12 hours, almost a day and a half difference. The service lasted only 19 months, until Oct. 24, 1861, when completion of the Pacific Telegraph line ended the need for it. Despite its usefulness in providing Californians with relatively contemporaneous news of the war’s progress, the Pony Express was not a financial success, and it founders ended up filing for bankruptcy. On a positive note, however, only one mail delivery was lost.

The main reason I mention the Pony Express, beyond its romantic history, is to provide a fairly simple, clear example of how an innovation develops and how ephemeral it can be. The express was fairly quickly perceived as a solution to an urgent problem; it was started by a small group of men willing to risk their livelihoods on its success; it was reliant on the energies and bodies of men and animals; and it lost out to a mechanical innovation. (The Pony Express was not unique, however. Marco Polo reported that, during his trip to China, he had witnessed a mounted mail service created by Genghis Khan.)

Over the roughly fifty-five years of my adulthood, I have witnessed various innovations come and go.

While employed at my first journalistic job—publications manager for the Texas Electronics Association in Fort Worth—I noticed that home repair of television sets had died out (or was dying out). The people who sold TVs in the past had usually also visited homes to work on roof antennas or replace tubes in the sets. Now all they did was sell TVs; and it was usually more expensive to repair a TV set than to buy a new one. Also, the number of American TV manufacturers had dwindled from about twelve to four; the Japanese were winning the TV set war. Moreover, American electronics retailers were reliant upon a new popular product: the CB radio.

In less than a decade, another innovation was on the market: the “beeper”. Originally and perhaps more descriptively known as the “pager”, a beeper was a little plastic box with its own phone number by which a person could be alerted that he or she was needed to call the number shown by an LED on his pager. The beeper is pretty much passé now, although a group of “entrepreneurs” was reportedly working last summer on a prototype for a more sophisticated version of the beeper.

There seems to be an unbalanced emphasis on electronic innovations, particularly in the field of communications. Every year, Microsoft or Apple or one of the other electronics giants has a show where they display the latest gadget, usually some added feature for the ipad. And within a few months, huge lines develop outside stores where eager customers have waited since the wee morning hours to buy the latest gadget.  We have all noted, too, how many of us consumers seemingly cannot drive down a road or sit through a movie or share a meal out with a friend without one of those cell phones in our hand. This madness has called forth innumerable cartoon satires as well as warnings from health officials.

But the TVs have not been entirely neglected: they have gotten wider, thinner, more inundated with channels, and more definitional. They and streaming FM radio channels have pushed the old juke boxes (which I miss) into the cubicles of flea markets. The saturation of TVs in many bars (I counted five in one of our local hangouts) has caused the description of those venues to be changed to “sports bars”.

Movie houses have become sparser because people can view films, initially on VHS tapes and then on DVDs, through their home-based big screen TVs within six months after their initial showings in the movie houses. For a couple of decades, many cities and towns could boast at least one “video store” where the tapes and DVDs could be rented, but the entrepreneurs who established those stores made the common entrepreneurial mistake of expanding too fast and too far, and then their businesses became threatened by the innovation of online movie rentals.

And this mad race to “build a better mouse trap” and replace the proverbial “buggy whip maker” presents a scene of a very nervous humanity racing not just to “keep up with the Joneses” but to out-pace, even supersede, them. It constitutes a prospect of a not very healthy, integrated community, very different from the cohesive communities of the days when buggy whip makers prospered

All of these major innovations have occurred within the span of the last fifty years. I witnessed them. A fellow named Alvin Toffler published a book back in 1970 titled Future Shock. In that book, Toffler described “‘future shock’” as “‘too much change in too short a period of time’”. (I confess that although I was aware of Toffler’s book when it came out, I never read it because I had read a review describing its thesis—with which I agreed—and saw no need to read it. What I have quoted here is derived from the Wikipedia article on Future Shock.)  “He believed the accelerated rate of technological and social change left people disconnected and suffering from ‘shattering stress and disorientation’—future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems are symptoms of future shock.”

Toffler’s book was published thirty-five years ago. I have witnessed much of the changes he wrote about and can attest to his veracity, for I feel “‘disconnected and suffering from ‘shattering stress and disorientation’”.

Finis

Corners

1311285-Henri_Fantin-Latour_Un_coin_de_table

“Un Coin de Table” by Henri Fantin-Latour (1836 – 1904). At this gathering of some of the literary lights of late 19th century Paris sit the scandalous couple in the left corner of the painting: Paul Verlaine and his young protege and lover, Arthur Rimbaud. It was not a very convivial group; notice how no one is looking at any other member of the bunch, and that the vase of flowers has been stuck in at the last stage of composition as replacement for Albert Merat, who refused to pose for the same painting with Rimbaud. The painting was shown at the Paris Salon of 1872. (Source: Google Images/Encyclopedie Larousse)

©Text Only: 2015 By Bob Litton 

I don’t know why it is that topic ideas come floating into my brain at the oddest times, especially just after I have concluded that there is nothing left for me to write about; I have, after all, virtually written my autobiography through most of the pages in this blog; and I have drained the well of my accumulated knowledge and wisdom, dispersing it all to an invisible world. But there it was at 2:45 in the morning: Corners!!!

At first, it was just a reflection—as I lay in bed, gazing at one of the corners where two walls and the ceiling collide—on a Hank Ketchum “Dennis the Menace” cartoon I had viewed the day before, one showing Dennis in one of his frequent panel scenes, sitting in a corner and hugging his teddy bear. Dennis complains to his mother as she walks away, “Confession may be good for the soul, but it sure is taking away from my playing time.” Is that supposed to be punishment—a substitute for spanking? I wondered. Hardly severe enough! She should at least have carried off his teddy bear!

Then more reflecting: Many of the “Dennis” scenes are of him sitting in the corner.. And the same is true of Wagner and Dunagin’s “Grin and Bear It”, where a bruised boxer is sitting on the stool in his corner, but he is recovering, briefly, from punishment. (I couldn’t locate a recent panel to illustrate the kind of complaining remarks the boxer usually makes about his over-sized or more adept opponents.) His corner is the boxer’s retreat, his only safe zone.

Then, of course, many of us are acquainted with that old analogy about “painting ourselves in a corner”. In this case, we are not discussing self-portraits but rather our figurative manner of saying we have inadvertently created a dilemma for ourselves from which there seems to be no way to extricate ourselves without developing it into even more of a problem.

Even Wall Street has its share of shady corners. Surely you have heard of major plutocrats such as the Hunt brothers, who “cornered the market” in silver in 1980. They borrowed heavily to buy as much silver as they could, and they wound up with about a third of the world’s supply. When reaction set in, they were unable to meet a $100 million “margin call” (basically a demand to surrender collateral). The price of silver dropped from an inflated high to less than 50 percent of its “bubble” value within days and led to a panic. The Hunts’ estimated $5 billion fortune declined to about $1 billion by 1988 and eventually they filed for bankruptcy.

Another popular phrase occurs to me: “Cutting corners” to get one’s way despite the legal risks. Although I have heard and read that said about others, particularly in the business and political worlds, I don’t recall having ever tried to “cut corners” myself: probably not enough imagination to venture into it.

Awful lot of negative stuff there about corners. Their self-image must be depressing.

Let us return to art works and try to be more positive. Consider the painting below:

Luncheon_of_the_Boating_Party__85799.1395676758.1280.1280__39347.1405477724.1280.1280 (1)

“Le Dejeuner des Canotiers” (1881) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Now, this crowd is definitely more congenial–nay, convivial–than the set depicted above by Latour. Almost everyone is at least glancing at another person. And again, we have corners being accented: the two men in boaters’ shirts and hats, the table’s end, and, oddly, the pole in the center rear that seems to divide the composition in half. I love this painting!!! (Source: Google Images/The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.)

I have perhaps said all I know to say about “The Boating Party’s Dinner” in the cutline under the reproduction above. One could draw an “X” across the canvas and reveal the compositional structure.

Notice that the same is true of Latour’s painting. The  men’s varying heights (which I guess are actual) and their positions allow them to form two rough diagonals across the canvas. And as for corners, the literary gentlemen are not only crowded at one corner of the table, they are also squeezed into one corner of the room. Even the Impressionistic landscape painting on the back wall helps to accent the corner motif. I suppose Fantin-Latour was just trying to be economical, but all he has accomplished is to cram eight staid portraits into a single frame.

“X”es are in fact basic at least to representational art. Another great artist who bears out my assertion here (if any bearing out is required) is N.C. Wyeth. The compositional strength of his bold, muscular illustrations can be immediately grasped by the viewer who imagines a large “X” penciled across most of his works. To me, they are very pleasant to look upon. I suppose that it is not too far-fetched to claim that the “X” in art is kin to the “X” in home-building: they both support their creations. In fact, perhaps I should have titled and developed this essay as “X”es and corners.

Ah, corners and “X”es, how would we ever get along without you?

Finis

POSTSCRIPT:  For another treatment of basically the same subject—mundane motifs in art and literature—check out my April 19, 2013, essay Secular Epiphanies on this blog site.

NOTE TO NON-BLOGGER READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to read any comments or helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page above the title of this post. Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it. Thank you for reading. BL

A Little Shop Talk, or A Meditation on My Native Language

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

And then Elise—certainly that was her name—told us, merrily, that the brown spot on her waist was caused by her landlady knocking at the door while she (the girl—confound the English language) was heating an iron over the gas jet, and she hid the iron under the bedclothes until the coast was clear, and there was a piece of chewing gum stuck to it when she began to iron the waist and—well, I wondered how the chewing gum came to be there—don’t they ever stop chewing it?                                                

                                                       — From O. Henry’s story, “The Fool Killer”

Now, I realize that looks like clumsy prose, dear readers; but it is not; it is just O. Henry getting settled into a character who is also the narrator in one of his tales. William Henry Porter—a.k.a. “O. Henry”—was in fact a gifted writer, with a vast, exact, concise vocabulary and a vibrantly rhythmic sentence flow. It is just that not all of his characters were similarly gifted.

But the reason I have quoted such a long sentence from one of O. Henry’s less successful stories is to bring to your attention the phrase I have underlined, for it frequently fits my own perspective on my native tongue, both when I try to compose in prose and in poetry. The rest of this essay will be a somewhat wandering description of the trials and tribulations I encounter in writing, sometimes reaching the point—as currently—of wanting to ditch the whole effort. I have not yet figured out why I cannot do so.

The problem with which the narrator quoted above is wrestling concerns the grammatical issue of pronoun reference. The poor fellow is faced with a sentence in which he is discussing two women and wants to limit referring to them more particularly as much as possible. He wants to employ the feminine pronouns, but that puts him in the uncomfortable predicament of needing to clarify to which “she” or “her” he is referring. Okay, it is not a major issue, but it is that very minimal value that is most frustrating for any writer because of the time it takes to rectify; if the troublesome question had been grander, then he would not have minded toiling with it so much. I find myself in similar grammatical choke-holds way too often.

A similar problem involves repetition of words in adjoining sentences. The irritation is not due to any inappropriateness in a particular word—the term might be perfectly exact. No, rather than an lexicographical or grammatical problem, it is an aesthetic issue. Boy howdy! I discover much too frequently that I have repeated the same word in two adjacent sentences, and very often the discovery occurs after I have already published the blog post or sent the email: after the fact, it jumps right out at me as with a protruding tongue. Part of the annoyance results from the fact that I cannot quickly think of a synonym with which to replace the second use.

We also have some words the replicative forms of which I cannot explain. The only ones I can think of are “filibuster” and “cataract”, although a few others could probably be located by a really diligent searcher. I looked up both terms in an online dictionary and found these definitions:

Filibuster: (1) the use of irregular or obstructive tactics by member of a legislative assembly to prevent the adoption of a measure generally favored or to force a decision against the will of the majority. (2) an irregular military adventurer, especially one who engages in an unauthorized military expedition into a foreign country to foment or support a revolution.((Aaron Burr is a good example of that sort of fellow, I think.)) Now those two words are spelled the same, but for the life of me I cannot perceive any similarity between them other than the adjective “irregular”.

Cataract:  (1) a descent of water over a steep surface; waterfall, especially one of considerable size. (2) an abnormality of the eye, characterized by opacity of the lens.

Now, we have many shorter words—such as “lie”—which are laden with unrelated meanings; and that is natural, I think, because there are only so many syllables available to us; but “filibuster” and “cataract” are not at all short: what is the connection?

Then there is the matter of orthography—or, as it is more commonly known—spelling. Do not take this pronouncement as authoritative, for my acquaintance with languages is limited to English, Spanish, French, and Chinese (in none of them, except perhaps English, am I fluent); but I have heard and I believe that English is the most difficult of all modern languages to learn. Even the Asian languages come in second in terms of difficulty, despite the complexity of Chinese characters. But that comparison topic is fodder for another essay. In this place I want to note some of the spelling hurdles learners of our language face. There are two basic ones: (1) the descent of much of our vocabulary from classical Greek and Latin (e.g., psychology, February) as well as borrowings from more modern languages such as French and Spanish (e.g., boulevard, rodeo); and (2) the effect of nationalistic pride that caused us Americans to alter the forms of some words from their Franco/British originals (e.g., theatre to theater, savour to savor).

The same nationalism affected American punctuation rather stupidly, as I noted in the “Preface” to my CD-ROM book A West Texas Journalist, (which is not included on this blog site): our use of quotation marks in the United States differs significantly from that in the United Kingdom, and not in any positive way.

Anyway, all these factors have impacted on English writing. In some aspects I prefer the American mode; in others, the British. Of course, there are other hazards related to prose-writing, but I will leave those for some possible later essay.

As for poetry, it presents its own problems. I haven’t written what I classify as “poetry” in more than a year. I think that probably my poetry-composing days are over. Here are a few of the reasons why. Rhyme is out-of-style right now. In fact, even meter is ignored often enough, gauging by what I have seen in the New Yorker magazine the past few years. Many of our modern “poets” appear to favor what has been defined as “prose poems”. They are prosaic pieces that often enough do not say anything, and when they do say something it might be vulgar (like two lovers caressing each other’s tongues) or it might be almost as vapid as “the wind and sun have dried our clothes, you see”. (That is not a direct quote; it’s just something I threw out for you to note the way even iambic pentameter can be employed to dramatize the dully mundane.)

When poets using English do venture into composing something with rhyme, they are almost always forced into at least one weak rhyme match. It’s a wonder I still have as much hair on my head as I do, because, so many times, I have faced that intransigent line that has no perfectly fitting word to even approximately sound like the end word of a previous line. Of course, a perfectly acceptable way to avoid this issue is to write in blank verse, which Robert Browning employed quite marvelously. However, even when I have done that, I have encountered the ironical situation of the exact word that fits also rhymes with some word in the previous line; I rhymed when I had not intended to do so. For the purist, I tell you, poetry is a pool of quicksand!!!

There is much more I could say about the tribulations of prose and poetry, but I will save them for, perhaps, another day.

Finis

NOTE TO NON-BLOGGER READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to read any comments or helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page above the title of this post. Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it. Thank you for reading. BL

“Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette”

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette
Puff, puff, puff and if you smoke yourself to death
Tell St. Peter at the Golden Gate
T
hat you hate to make him wait
But you just gotta have another cigarette.
                      — From “Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette” (1947)
by Tex Williams and Merle Haggard

I inherited about a dozen LP albums from Mother. One of them is “This is Glenn Miller”, released in 1956 by RCA Victor. The record is slightly scratchy, but not too bad. The cover has been repaired with Scotch® tape. All of that is understandable and acceptable, considering the album’s age.

What is not acceptable is the photograph on the cover: it shows Glenn Miller walking, at night with no visible scenery, toward the camera. Hidden overhead is the source of the circle of light that allows our view of the man. He is wearing an overcoat and thick gloves, and carrying in his left hand a small bag or case which presumably contains his overnight toiletries or a small musical instrument. In his right hand, which covers the lower half of his face, is a cigarette from which he is drawing a lungful of smoke. We just have to take the album title’s word for it that this really is Glenn Miller.

And there is that posed studio photo of Errol Flynn on the cover of his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, which my regular readers might recall seeing on the blog post about Flynn I published last January 23rd.  Flynn is sitting there, well-dressed, well-coiffured, with his left hand resting nigh his torso, a cigarette between his fingers. Couldn’t the fellow even do a studio portrait shoot, to autograph for his fans, without hoisting a stick of nicotine as a prop?

I tell you, folks, I get exasperated when I see such uncouth photos. It is not because I am a crusader against smoking; I don’t care if other people smoke, as long as they don’t do it around me. Also, I played around with puffing back in my youth. On a couple of occasions in my pre-teens I even bought small pouches of tobacco and papers (kids could do that back then!) so that my friend and I could play cowboys and “roll our own”. As a teenager I smoked cigarettes a few times until I realized that, not inhaling them, I got no pleasure from them and was smoking only for show. And, as a still fairly young adult, I would get a hankering during the fall to try a pipe—to keep my hand warm and sniff the smell of Cherry Blend, which I liked, although others did not—until I became annoyed with the mess the tobacco residue was making in my coat pockets and the pipe began to stink; scraping it helped only a little. Can’t recall when I finally eschewed tobacco for good, but it was more than three decades ago.

But back to my central theme. A few years ago, while watching old 1930s and 1940s movies on TCM, I began to notice how frequently the films’ characters “lit up”; and I wondered why. What do the actions involved in lighting a cigarette, cigar or pipe contribute to the storyline? None that I could imagine.

Do the tobacco companies own a lot of stock in film studios? I wondered. A humorous sidebar is pertinent here. One old film I enjoyed was Topper (1937), which starred Constance Bennett and Cary Grant as a married couple of ghosts who haunt Topper’s home, and Roland Young as the title character. A TV situation comedy series with the same title and characters, starring Leo G. Carroll as Topper, and Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffreys as the ghostly couple, was on the air from 1953 to 1955. Intrigued enough by some now forgotten motive, I read the Wikipedia articles on both the film and the TV show. A very curious paragraph in the article on the TV show revealed that the show’s sponsor, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, stipulated in their contract that the three main characters would be shown—at the beginning of every episode—seated at a table smoking Camels. Also, commercials during the episodes would be integrated into the narratives, just as Carnation concentrated milk commercials were integrated into the “Burns and Allen Show”.

But the tobacco industry’s investment apparently was not reserved to movies and musical productions. I have already referred to the book cover photo of Errol Flynn dangling a cigarette. If you can locate some old novels or poetry volumes in your attic or at your local library, you will likely find portraits of the authors on the backs of the jackets; and chances are good they will have cigarettes between their lips or fingers. And if the author or poet had any pretensions to academic notoriety he will be sporting a pipe. Such photo portraits of the late British mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russell usually do have a pipe bowl prominently displayed in his hand. I used to admire ol’ Bertie, but he lost some of my admiration when I read a quote attributed to him about how he had smoked a pipe all his adult life and never suffered any ill health due to the habit. And this guy was a logician?

Smoking is not allowed in many public places these days. That helps. I remember when tobacco smoke was almost inescapable, particularly in places were alcoholic beverages were also consumed. I recall waking up in the mornings after nights of drinking in Dallas pubs and being unable tolerate my shirt or coat because they reeked with the foul stench of stale tobacco smoke.

But I want to return to my wonderment at all the incidental references in the media to tobacco consumption. Were all those images paid placement ads? Were they intended to entice the movie star’s fans or the authors’ readers into emulating their heroes even in the small matter of puffing up nicotine?

I am sadly bemused to recall the last days of movie stars Yul Brynner and Robert Mitchum and how they spent their last breaths urging their fans not to trod down that tobacco road that had led them to their own cancerous deaths. Same held true, most ironically, of the famous “Marlboro Man”.

Finis

Obama Among The Best

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

I am a pessimist when considering humanity’s future. I believe the chance for our survival for even another century is less than fifty percent. Therefore, I will acknowledge before writing any further that the assertions in this letter will probably be moot in a few decades or less. I simply want to argue that future historians—if there are any—will reach a consensus that Barack Obama was the greatest American president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Here are the reasons why:

Obama faced an extremely antagonistic Congress when he was first elected in 2008, yet he tried to negotiate and compromise with the Republicans in the beginning. At the outset, Speaker John Boehner declared he and his henchmen would insure that Obama’s first term would be his last. The Republicans in general “pulled at his pants legs”, placed stumbling blocks in his way, continuously. They blocked or stalled his appointments time after time. They sought out every little flaw in his proposals and, instead of taking rather simple steps to rectify them, used them as excuses to toss out the entire proposals. (I am thinking specifically of the Affordable Care Act here.) It was classic racism from the get-go.

Nevertheless, Obama, in his first year on the job, went so far in accommodating the Republicans that he began to worry me and other liberal supporters, including New York Times columnist and Harvard economics professor Paul Krugman: we felt Obama was “giving away the store”. However, the President grew out of that mindset before his first term was over and began to hold his ground more firmly until, in his 2015 State of the Union address, he really became feisty. Many people, including some TV commentators, thought he went a little overboard there, espousing goals that they viewed as a “bucket list”. I did not. I saw it as a range of desirable goals we all should work hard to achieve.

Obama and his team managed to track down and kill Osama bin Laden, a task which George W. Bush shunted not many months after a blustery vow to subdue the master terrorist. Over an eight-year period, the George W. Bush apparatus never caught or killed Osama bin Laden. The terrorist was killed during the night of May 11-12, 2011—the third year of Obama’s first term.

Obama patiently led the nation during a long and frustrating campaign to dig us out of the worst recession since the 1930s. Our economy is generally healthier now than it has been since Bill Clinton’s presidency. Unemployment has declined to a manageable level, our trade deficit has improved, and our national debt has begun to recede. Obama worked against strong resistance and great technical difficulties to create a national health program. Similarly he struggled to solve the immigration problem while Congress deserted Washington, heading for the hinterland to fight for their continuances. These were tasks several past presidents and Congresses promised to address; but, except for Clinton’s failed effort, none of them ever did.

We still have problems with social class and wealth disparities, low wages, and an increasing number of homeless people. However, these are problems Obama—and to some extent even Bush—inherited; the difference is that Obama has tried to push Congress above sloganeering and into practical actions to eliminate those problems.

I am not claiming that Obama is perfect. I have read and heard reports that he is aloof, even arrogant, but so was Lyndon Johnson. (Hell, for that matter, so am I.) He has been criticized for indecorous moments—such as saluting with a cup of coffee in his hand and wearing denims in his office. I think his aides should have prevented the first, and the second complaint is silly: I don’t care if Obama works in his office in his pajamas, as long as he is not engaged in an official meeting there. Now, the third such incident—his entering an international conference room while chewing gum—did strike me as uncouth. But then I recall Tom Jefferson’s two-faced conniving, bankrupting spending habits, and slave-ownership; and Obama’s little peccadilloes don’t seem worth noting.

But the most admirable of Obama’s achievements has been what I perceive to be his unflappable patience. After having read about and witnessed the endurance of most of our Black folk over the centuries, I have reached the point of believing endurance and patience are part of their genetic makeup.

Although I recognize and try to accept that we do not have enough future left for any potential historians to agree with the above remarks, because too many of us humans—everywhere—are ducking our heads in the sand, I feel some gratification in having this opportunity to share my applause for Obama with the community.

Finis

NOTE TO NON-BLOGGER READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to hear any helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page (see button above the title of this post). Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it.
Thank you for reading.
BL

The Crazy Quest for Extended Lifespans

NOTE TO READERS: At ease, folks. This is not another of my ancient newspaper pieces. It is, instead, a letter I mailed recently to Tom Ashbrook, host of WBUR.org’s radio program “On Point”. I listen regularly to “On Point” because Mr. Ashbrook does, I believe, an excellent job of moderating discussions of issues I consider significant, so please do not get the impression from my initial remarks that I negatively view his program. Some of you might think it peculiar that I would employ a letter as a blog post. Well, all I can say to that is that I feel very strongly about this subject, and I see what I wrote to Mr. Ashbrook as sufficiently appropriate and well enough composed to fit this space.

∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗

Hi, Mr. Ashbrook:

I called this morning shortly after your discussion of the quest for extended lifespan began; held on for more than thirty minutes before being told by a lady that you wouldn’t have time for me today. More than the lost time on my phone minutes allowance at Consumer Cellular, I regret missing the opportunity to express my disgust with the whole notion of extending life beyond the rounded-off figure of “three score and ten”. So, I opted for this alternative method, even though I realize it won’t go any further than your and your staff’s eyes.

First, let me render the requisite “disclosure”: I turned 75 last December 29th. How I managed to pass into year 75, I have no idea, for I exercise little and have led in my youth a slightly dissolute life. Also, I have been in several accidents of various sorts and have been threatened a few times because of my opinions. And I suffer from a low-level but nearly constant type of depression known as dysthymia. But enough of that; let’s get to the issue before us.

I have no problem with people wanting to make their lives more healthy, active, and joyful. Nor am I against trying to ameliorate the pains of those dying of cancer and other gross diseases, although I suspect that a plausible philosophical case might be made for viewing that as a negative goal; it is something I have not considered much and is not really pertinent here.

My main issue with extending lifespans is that I believe the intelligent and prosperous among us have a duty to birth and a duty to die. I have to plead guilty to violating the first part of that principle, since I never married, never had a child. However, I see myself as partly excusable in that my father was a lousy male role model, and I doubt that I would have been any better father than he.

Now I fear that I might violate, unintentionally, the second part of my principle as well. Although I walk with a cane’s help and have a deteriorating memory, I don’t feel incapacitated in any other way. Is Alzheimer’s around the corner?

In 1984, Richard Lamm — then-governor of Colorado — sparked a controversy when he said, “We’ve got a duty to die and get out of the way with all of our machines and artificial hearts and everything else like that and let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life.” He earned the nickname “Governor Gloom” over that remark, but I agreed with him then and I agree with the substance of his comment now. Our young people are having a hard enough time of it finding jobs, so the debate is developing over whether a college education is really worth the money and time spent in classes.

Moreover, recently I saw a TV news report (don’t recall what network or the exact date) which showed a graph of the increasing gap between lengthened lifespans and the decline in birthrates. Odd that a few decades ago we were concerned over the “population explosion”; but that explosion, apparently, is due to extended longevity, not entirely to increases in births. At the rate we are going, retirement residences, medical facilities, and Social Security will certainly become exhausted.

And then there is the situation with our declining resources. The ocean is becoming a death trap for most of the sea life, the Amazon forest is being cut down for gold, silver and oil, our top soil is blowing away, prime agricultural land is being developed so people can escape the smog in our cities. Cosmologist Stephen Hawking reportedly said recently that we must find a home on another celestial body within the next 1,000 years or humanity will become extinct. People with the money are lining up to buy one-way tickets to Mars.

I think it is selfish as well as foolish to hanker after the moonshine called “extended lifespan”. Well, there, at least I got it off my chest, even though I couldn’t get it onto the airwaves. By the way, lest I leave you with the false impression that I am antagonistic to you or to your program, be assured that I gain much from listening almost every day. You are very competent at following through with the mode suggested by the name of the program, keeping interviewees focused “on point”.

Best regards,
Bob Litton

Finis

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Thank you for reading.
BL

On Seeing Music

©2015 By Bob Litton

Synesthesia: Ever hear of that? It has been defined as “sensation produced in one modality when stimulus is applied to another modality, as when hearing a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain color”.

The conjunction of sound and sight fascinates me. Usually, the term “synesthesia” is applied to programmatic musical compositions such as Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” and Sergei Prokofiev’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”; but nearly the same principle can be seen, I believe, in some individual words evoking phenomenal sounds, classified as onomatopoeia: “honk”, “whisk”, “boom”, et cetera. However, I want to restrict my discussion in this essay to sounds/images in musical compositions.

It is really odd, in a way, that I am engaged here with music, because I was a weak student in elementary school music class. I enjoyed the class as far as singing the American folk songs, Stephen Foster’s pieces, and armed forces’ anthems: that time, immediately after World War II, was really a chauvinistic period in our nation’s history, particularly in the South, where I lived. However, the part of the brain which grasps the mysteries of musical composition is also the part where arithmetic is learned; and arithmetic was my Achilles heel. Also, and this is something I still do not understand, I could not match my voice tone to the ones our teacher plucked on the piano when testing us individually.

What makes the odd even more strange is that I was the lyricist for a song that won a district-wide contest co-sponsored by the Dallas School District and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. After I was named the winner of the lyrics contest, my teacher helped me compose some music to accompany the words, I humming, in bits, a pseudo-melody and she jotting down the musical notes. That part of the contest I did not win; a little girl from a school across town did. The loss did not surprise me; I did not like my music either, while I did enjoy hers and now wish I had obtained a copy of her score. Still, I was on stage with the girl when maestro Walter Hendl introduced us during the annual children’s concert.

Other than that, I never ventured far onto the music scene. Oh, I did take a few guitar lessons when I was very young, since I wanted to be like my hero of the time, Gene Autry: I cannot recall now why I gave that up.

Yet, as I became a teenager I naturally shared my peers’ enthusiasm for popular and rock-‘n’-roll music; but I also liked to listen to some classical music then available on station KXIL (now a religion station) in Dallas. I was acquainted with only a few classical  works: “William Tell Overture” (of course), Rimsky Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee”, Camille Saint-Saens’ “Omphale’s Spinning Wheel”—that just about covers it. Radio adventure dramas of the time—“The Lone Ranger”, “The Green Hornet”, and “The Shadow”—were obviously the lead-ins for that stage of my musical education. Actually, radio dramas did much to foster knowledge of classical music for many of us in those years.

About that same time, my mother took me to see Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”. I do not recall how I responded emotionally to the entire film, only that I enjoyed “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and admired, slightly fearfully, Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”—or at least Disney’s animated rendering of them. Many years later, I guess it must have been in my 30s, I read an article in which the author disparaged “programmatic music”, that is, music which describes a scene. His thesis was that music should be “pure”, not reliant upon association with anything visual. That view is now quite widely held, I believe, and probably resulted in the current tendency to name compositions in mathematical terms or simply the name of the instrument(s) to be involved, as in most of John Cage’s so-called musical compositions. (This movement away from “association” or “meaning” in music was contemporaneous with an equivalent notion among poets: Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens are notorious in this manner; and Archibald MacLeish, in his poem “Ars Poetica”, asserted that a poem “should not mean but be”.) Ever since I read that music critic’s article I have been pretty much “straddling the fence”, not feeling competent enough to assert whether the critic was deluded or whether I am just a fossil stuck in some historical stratum. Frankly, though, I simply prefer music I can visualize…create a mental scene for…even if it isn’t accompanied by some background narrative.

After giving all that bio-historical stuff as background—as a sort of “disclosure”— I will now return to the topic with which I started: synesthesia.

A few years ago, I happened upon a clip on YouTube that fully engaged me: it was a rendition by Stephen Malinowski playing, on a piano, Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”[1]. The fascinating aspect of that clip was that it was accompanied by a video showing rows of animated rectangles of various colors; the intensities of the colors changed as the rows moved along, visually indicating touches on the keyboard. It reminded me of a lava lamp my mother gave me while I was at the university. I also watched and listened to Malinowski play, on an organ, J.S. Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”[2]. Man! That was a pleasure and a half.

Malinowski (also listed as “Smalin” on YouTube) has several other musical pieces for which he has arranged animations—some rectangles, some circles with connecting lines. And, just recently, I saw a blog post by a group of British art historians collectively known as “ArtLark” on WordPress.com (the same host where I publish) about Oskar Fischinger[3], the German abstract painter and animator. In the early 1930s, Fischinger experimented with the same manner of musical animations as Malinowski, only without the aid of a computer. Fischinger reportedly created a portion of Disney’s “Fantasia” but later repudiated it after discovering that other Disney artists had altered his work.

Now to my main point. While watching several of Malinowski’s renderings, I began to wonder what passes through a composer’s mind as he touches piano keys and makes notations on sheet music paper. I wondered if he, or she, visualizes something like Malinowski’s rectangles and circles or if he/she imagines a sun rising, then a bird chirping, then single drops of rain, then clouds rolling, then horses galloping through a Swiss valley as we listeners can visualize the setting for the “William Tell Overture”. In some way or other—either in abstract forms or in representational figures—the composer must visualize while creating, just as we do while listening.

At least I think so.

[1] Debussy: Clair de Lune:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlvUepMa31o

[2] Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipzR9bhei_o

[3] http://artlark.org/2015/01/31/oskar-fischinger-an-optical-poem/

Finis

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