Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Down But Not Out

July 18, 2013 Leave a comment
Chris Froome and Richie Porte finishing in Alpe d'Huez

Chris Froome and Richie Porte finishing in Alpe d’Huez

[Bryn Lennon/Getty Images]

Ron’s View seems to have vanished. Sorry about that. In the four years and ten months of its existence, there’s never been a month of such limited activity like this. Where have I been?

Right here. Doing what I always do in July. Getting up early every morning for the last twenty days to watch live coverage of the Tour de France. Sitting outside in the evenings enjoying our beautiful Pacific Northwest evenings.

But a few other duties seem to be getting in the way. For instance:

1. If I haven’t blogged much all week, I usually do some catching up on Sunday evenings. Not the last few weeks. Three Sundays ago, I spent the late afternoon and evening on campus hosting the opening of a summer program I run. Last Sunday we were at a friend’s 60th birthday party. This weekend won’t be much better, with a wedding rehearsal and dinner tomorrow, a wedding Saturday, and still another wedding Sunday.

2. I began the month by assuming new job duties, duties that are keeping me busy all those hours between the end of the day’s Tour de France coverage and the beginning of my evenings outside. In past summers, I might get some blog posts written outside using my laptop, but now I sit outside catching up on all the days news and other people’s blogs.

3. And then there’s our remodel. What are we in now? Month four? Plans to review, products to look at, emails to write, contractor and subs and architect to talk to.

4. I already mentioned the Tour, but perhaps I haven’t been sufficiently clear about how much mental space it occupies. If I had had more success writing posts this month, they would all have been about the Tour. And you don’t need my daily reports. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re better off heading to the Guardian’s sports pages and turning to William Fotheringham’s daily piece. Or follow him on Twitter, as I’m doing.

Oh, and that crucial first week of the month, when Ron’s View went quiet, there wasn’t just the Tour to watch. There was Wimbledon. I mean really, what is one supposed to do on a day like Saturday, July 8, when Chris Froome is tearing up Ax 3 Domaines in the Pyrenees to grab the yellow jersey while Marion Bartoli is winning the women’s championship at Wimbledon? Is there a better week in sports?

As it turns out, the answer is yes. This week. Just today the Tour featured a historic double climb of Alpe d’Huez and the men’s golf Open Championship began at Muirfield, just outside Edinburgh. It’s impossible to watch both simultaneously. Cycling won. I couldn’t take my eyes off the race for 2 1/2 hours, at the end of which I had no interest in watching golf. What a day!

What happened? William Fotheringham explains, though no short article can do the day justice. Ever since we rented a car in Grenoble in 2009 in order to drive up Alpe d’Huez ourselves, when the Tour returns there, I have an added sense of familiarity on seeing the sites.

Meanwhile, the blog isn’t the only victim of the shift in my attention to other matters. My book reading has gone to hell as well. It’s almost a month since I wrote about The Blackhouse, the first book in Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy. I wrote at the time that its “portraits of island life are marvelously rendered gems, lifting the book well above whatever expectations one may have of crime novels.” A few days later, I anticipated writing a second post about how the book had stopped being a crime novel at all. The precipitating crime had faded into the background as we focused with steadily increasing intensity on Fin’s past on the Isle of Lewis before moving away to Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Increasing intensity indeed. So much that I had to take a breather, and once I did, I stopped reading the book altogether. Just as with Ron’s View, I return home each day feeling pressure to get back into the book, The more pressure I feel, the more stubbornly I resist. Hence, no new posts and no progress in the book, which I’m beginning to resent, since it’s keeping me from moving on to all the other books I hoped to read this summer.

At least I’m doing my job. And at least the remodel is progressing. And at least the Tour continues, though I suspect it might do so even without my daily devotion.

Maybe I’ll yet produce a post on life without Google Reader. (Another change in my life this month.) The posts I had in mind on the Supreme Court’s closing decisions last month are probably a lost cause.

What else? I was halfway through a second post on the book I first wrote about in early June, Lucas Mann’s Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere. Just as The Blackhouse isn’t about crime, this isn’t about baseball. I was going to say a few words about its depiction of the decline of an economic way of life in Iowa, and its reflections on fandom. This in turn was to lead to a post on the pain of fandom, as most recently experienced in Phil Mickelson’s crushing loss at the US Open and Mark Cavendish’s surprising failures at the Tour. But then Phil went and won the Scottish Open and Mark picked up another stage win the day after a shocking loss at the line.

Several other items have piled up in addition to these. But other duties call. I don’t know when I’ll write all the missing posts. I hope I do.

Categories: Life

Harry Parker

July 4, 2013 Leave a comment



Rowing great Harry Parker died nine days ago at the age of 77. Not knowing he had been ill, I was stunned to learn the news (via a tweet by WSJ sportswriter Jason Gay that night linking to Harvard’s news release), all the more since Harry always seemed ageless.

Like so many others, I view him as a major influence on my life, although I’ve had no contact with him for decades. As it happens, this week marks forty years since I accompanied him to the famed Henley regatta, where a Harvard crew won the Ladies’ Challenge Plate. That brought to an end my days as a member of Harvard crew.

Some facts, from the Harvard release:

Parker began his storied coaching career in 1960 as Harvard’s freshman coach. After the sudden death of head coach Harvey Love, Parker was promoted to the role which he would go on to hold for 51 seasons. Parker’s efforts also reached outside the Harvard rowing community, as evidenced by the 2008 dedication of Community Rowing, Inc.’s new boathouse in his honor.

During Parker’s tenure, Harvard crews enjoyed spectacular success at the Henley Royal Regatta in England. It began with the 1973 JV win of the Ladies’ Plate followed by the 1985 varsity win of the Grand Challenge Cup, its fifth and most recent title in Henley’s most prestigious race. Harvard went on to six more varsity victories in the Ladies’ Plate. The victory in 2012, beating Leander by one foot, was one of the most thrilling victories of his career as the crew overcame a three-seat deficit over the final 50 meters. Harvard also won three times in the Britannia and Prince Albert fours events. The Crimson owns three course records at Henley, more than any other university.

The Crimson also won the 1965 Lucerne International Regatta, took second at the 1967 world championships, captured the 1967 Pan American Games and claimed the 1968 U.S. Olympic trials before taking sixth in the Games at Mexico City. Additionally, a total of 52 Parker-coached Harvard oarsmen have rowed at the Olympic Games over the past six decades.

From 1964 in Tokyo until 1984 in Los Angeles, Parker regularly coached U.S. Olympic crews, leading both men’s and women’s entries to strong finishes in the eights and handling the sculling at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. He coached the 1972 Olympic men’s eight, which featured five Harvard oarsmen, to a silver medal and led the first U.S. women’s national team to compete in the world championships, earning a bronze in 1975. Parker later coached the U.S. women’s eight to a bronze medal at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal.

In 1980, Parker coached the U.S. men’s Olympic eight, which ranked second in the world prior to the boycott of the Moscow Olympics. In 1985, he coached single sculler Andy Sudduth ’83-85 to an astonishing performance in the World Rowing Championships, during which Sudduth finished second and defeated four-time world champion Peter Michael Kolbe of Germany.

Parker began rowing as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was part of victorious crews in 1955 at Sprints and the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley. After graduating, he took up single sculling and won the gold medal at the 1959 Pan American Games. He then placed fifth in the single at the 1960 Olympics.

The most prestigious event in rowing is the Olympic eights competition. For much of the twentieth century, the US entry was our best collegiate crew, and it would win the gold medal. (There’s a current bestselling book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown, about the University of Washington crew that won the eights that year.) But in 1960 a German crew won, suggesting that the rest of the world had caught up and we couldn’t continue to win with college kids. In 1964, we reclaimed the gold with a crew of older rowers from Philadelphia’s Vesper Boat Club. Harry’s 1968 Harvard crew was the last college crew to represent the US. They won the Olympic trials, went to Mexico City, qualified for the final, came down with intestinal illnesses, and finished sixth.

The time had come to send not our best crew among competing boats but our best oarsmen. Harry was picked to run the 1972 Olympic team alluded to in the quote above. He established the model, setting up a camp, inviting the top oarsmen in the country, and selecting the eight best for the Olympic boat. At its heart was two pairs of brothers who had been the heart of Harvard’s best crews in the preceding years. The boat won the silver medal, behind New Zealand.

It’s during this period that I showed up, going out for the freshman crew in the fall of 1969. My father had rowed at Penn, like Harry some years later, and I loved the sport, but I wasn’t very good. Sophomore year, by happenstance, I returned to the boathouse as a manager. Junior year I became what Harvard called the “varsity manager”, the #2 staff member, assisting the “undergraduate manager” in arranging trips and attending to other needs. Senior year, I was the undergraduate manager. In that role, I spent countless hours around Harry.

Harry coached until the end. Just a month ago, his crew finished second to Washington in the IRA Regatta, the unofficial national championship, and beat Yale a week later in the Harvard-Yale Regatta, the oldest intercollegiate event among all sports.

The Harvard-Yale race is distinctive because it continues to be rowed at its traditional distance of 4 miles, on the Thames River in New London, Connecticut. The standard distance for international and intercollegiate rowing now is 2000 meters, or about a mile and a quarter. The switch from this to 4 miles is challenging. To prepare, the Harvard and Yale crews built separate camps decades ago on the Thames upstream of New London, each complete with boathouse, primitive housing, a cafeteria, and a small house for the coach. It falls to the undergraduate manager to run the camp, which I did for two weeks in 1973.

In those days, Harvard and Yale never competed in the IRA, because it conflicted with their race. I don’t know the arrangements now, but I’m guessing they have shortened the time they spend at the camps. Indeed, in 1974, the year after I graduated, Yale moved its own graduation date up and decided not to compete with Harvard, since doing so on the usual date would have forced the oarsmen to stick around for weeks. (Harvard went instead to Madison to race Wisconsin and on to Seattle to race Washington, a rare dual race of crews representing two historic rowing traditions.)

The two weeks at Red Top—the Harvard camp—were an intense time. We would head down right after final exams. Or maybe it was even before finals ended, with finals proctored at the camp as needed. The race would be on a Saturday, with graduation on Thursday two days before. One consequence is that graduating seniors didn’t attend graduation. Not in Cambridge, that is. Instead, Harry would run an unofficial graduation ceremony after dinner on graduation day. The undergraduate manager would drive up to Cambridge in the morning to pick up the diplomas.

That’s me. And that’s what I did. Instead of attending morning graduation in Harvard Yard, I arrived at the boathouse to pick up some supplies, headed to the registrar’s office to pick up the diplomas, was told that they couldn’t release one diploma because one of the senior co-captains owed some funds, then dashed over to Mather House, my residential house, for the post-graduation lunch and house ceremony. My parents had flown up for that, so I got to spend a little time with them, then headed over to Quincy House to say goodbye to a good friend, and back to the registrar’s office to sort out the diploma problem. A well-timed emergency phone call to Red Top, the writing of a personal check to cover the balance, diploma in hand, I drove back to Red Top.

I missed a lot that day. But I had the honor of receiving my diploma from Harry, who spoke a few words about each of the graduating seniors. I had no doubt I was in the right place.

The NYT obituary gets close to capturing Harry’s mysterious essence and why receiving my diploma from him was an honor.

Beyond the innovations in equipment and training, Parker was known as a personality. Like Rockne and Wooden, he became legendary in his sport and something of a cult figure on campus. A taciturn but highly competitive figure, he imbued in his athletes a sense of purpose and dedication that helped his crews cohere and endure both the anticipated and experienced agony at the finish of a close race. And his influence was lasting, some of his former rowers say.

“The standards Harry set were there long after you stopped rowing,” said Kip McDaniel, a financial writer who rowed varsity crew for Harvard from 2002 to 2004. “Before a race, you knew the pain was unavoidable. But one of Harry’s great gifts was for creating crews. They were communities where there was simply no doubt that everyone was going to live up to Harry’s expectations, and as a result you were probably going to win the race.”

As news of Parker’s death spread, similar sentiments were expressed by others from previous generations.

“Working with him, you saw that as you applied yourself, you could apply yourself a bit more,” said Dr. Paul G. Ramsey, who rowed for Harvard from 1967 to 1971. Now chief executive of UW Medicine, which operates hospitals and clinics in Washington State, and dean of the University of Washington medical school, Dr. Ramsey added, “He was the best teacher I ever had.”

Rockne and Wooden! That’s rarefied company. I overlapped with Paul Ramsey. Years later, i would find myself at the same university, and even joined him as a dean for a while. Small world and all that.

One of my favorite memories, from that 1973 stay at Red Top, was of an afternoon when everyone else was napping following morning practice and lunch, before the afternoon practice. It was hot and humid, a good time to be asleep. But I was up, as was Harry, so we started up a croquet game, soon to be joined by our varsity boat’s stroke, Al Shealy (later to stroke the 1975 world champion crew and 1976 Olympic silver medal crew). Harry was competitive as always. The focus was on winning, not chit chat.

A few weeks later, we were in Nottingham for a new international regatta, which we were using as a tuneup for the Henley regatta. Harry and I took an after-dinner walk, with a low sun shining in our eyes as we crossed the River Trent. A beautiful evening. And the first time that he asked what it was I planned to do now that I had graduated, despite all the time we spent together. It was all about crew. Nothing personal. But that made sense. We had work to do, races to win. That was the focus.

Another memory: the weekend in Annapolis that May for the Adams Cup, the annual race between Harvard, Penn, and Navy. Winds were expected, the races should have been moved up, but the admiral wanted to come out and watch, and the starting times went unchanged. That was the story anyway. The winds picked up after the freshmen rowed, the remaining races were postponed to the next day, and suddenly I had to re-book 50 people for either a later plane that day or a plane the next day, plus figure out how to feed them Saturday lunch and dinner and make meal arrangements for Sunday.

Won, the JV coxswain had been unable to make the trip because of a Saturday exam. In the pre-cell-phone era, I somehow got word to him while he was seated in a theater Saturday to get on an airplane to Baltimore. My varsity manager Bill and I dropped off the freshman crew, then awaited the incoming plane to see if Won made it. He did. Sunday morning his boat awoke to the surprise that he was there to race with them. That was fun.

When we got back to Logan Sunday evening, while Bill and I were handing everyone cash as they came off the plane so they could take the subway back to Cambridge (in lieu of the rented bus we had set up for Saturday), Harry walked up to us and said words I thought I would never forget. Alas, I have now, but I was sure then that they were the highest praise I would ever receive from anyone, given that until then I had never heard words of praise from him at all.

The next winter, Harry decided everyone on the crew should take up cross country skiing as cross training for rowing. I was in graduate school at that point, but still had some friends on the crew, especially Won and Bill. Prompted by Won, I went out to the suburbs with him to Harry’s house so we could go skiing with Harry at an adjacent golf course. A couple of days later, I went to Eastern Mountain Sports in Boston with Won to buy new skis, practicing around the boathouse and the athletic fields the next day. With that as my total experience on skis, I joined a caravan of crew members the next weekend to drive up to Vermont and compete in a Washington’s Birthday weekend race. That’s a story in its own right, and this isn’t the place. Suffice to say that my accomplishments were sufficiently notable that I led the NYT coverage of the race the day after.

I realize that none of what I’ve written conveys Harry’s essence. Sorry. I don’t know how. He was unique. When my parents came up to Red Top two days after flying to Boston for my abbreviated appearance at graduation, I was thrilled that I could introduce them to Harry, before abandoning them one more time to jump in the launch with Harry so that we could head downstream to the start of the four-mile race and follow the two boats up to the finish. It’s hard to believe now how much crew dominated my undergraduate years, but it did. Which means, inasmuch as Harry was the center of Harvard crew, he dominated my life. In some sense anyway. Which is why his death comes as such a shock.

Categories: Life, Obituary, Sports

Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere

June 11, 2013 Leave a comment


A week ago I finished Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, Nick Reding’s account of life in Oelwein, Iowa, in the first years of this century. This morning I finished The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game, Edward Achorn’s account of the 1883 season in the American Association.

What next? Why not combine the two themes? A book that recounts a season of baseball in Iowa in the early years of this century would be in order. And what do you know? Such a book appeared five weeks ago: Lucas Mann’s Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere. Perfect timing. I’m now a few pages into it.

I learned about the book last month at the Harper’s blog, where Jeffery Gleaves had six questions for Mann. (A week later, the NYT ran its own online Mann interview.) Of course, the book isn’t simply about baseball. It’s about life in Clinton, Iowa, and about the author’s own travails. Here’s the blurb:

An unforgettable chronicle of a year of minor-league baseball in a small Iowa town that follows not only the travails of the players of the Clinton LumberKings but also the lives of their dedicated fans and of the town itself.

Award-winning essayist Lucas Mann delivers a powerful debut in his telling of the story of the 2010 season of the Clinton LumberKings. Along the Mississippi River, in a Depression-era stadium, young prospects from all over the world compete for a chance to move up through the baseball ranks to the major leagues. Their coaches, some of whom have spent nearly half a century in the game, watch from the dugout. In the bleachers, local fans call out from the same seats they’ve occupied year after year. And in the distance, smoke rises from the largest remaining factory in a town that once had more millionaires per capita than any other in America.

Mann turns his eye on the players, the coaches, the fans, the radio announcer, the town, and finally on himself, a young man raised on baseball, driven to know what still draws him to the stadium. His voice is as fresh and funny as it is poignant, illuminating both the small triumphs and the harsh realities of minor-league ball. Part sports story, part cultural exploration, part memoir, Class A is a moving and unique study of why we play, why we watch, and why we remember.

In the Harper’s interview, Gleaves asks, “Why not write this book as pure journalism? Why insert your own story?” To which Mann replies:

So much of how I write is wrapped up in voice. I write personally; that’s how it comes out. I like essays and nonfiction that try to do a lot of things at once, that investigate and report on subjects but never shy away from showing how all that observation affects them. I’m terrified of omniscience, both as a writer and a reader. Lawrence Weschler, the great New Yorker writer, has a quote along the lines of, “I like to insert a strong I into what I’m writing not out of some sense of egomania, but precisely the opposite.” I agree with that. I don’t have the hubris to traditionally report on something, then step back, remove my personality, biases, memories, and screw-ups, and speak with authority. I’m the neurotic, often-confused dude who is trying to figure out why all this stuff is important to him, and that crucial, intimate honesty isn’t something I’d ever want to remove from the work.

Mann’s bleak description of Clinton in the opening pages is redolent of Methland‘s Oelwein and Ottumwa, Iowa.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Clinton was the center of a lumber empire. Millionaires were made here. … Though the industry and its spoils have long since disappeared, some mansions are still here. …

A lot of things are gone. Things downtown closed; some collapsed. Things burned. In 1968 the sociopathic hippie son of a local businessman set fire to nine buildings …

That hippie boy set the most famous fires, but not the last ones. Fans have told me that it feels as if something were always aflame now. When buildings are old, when nobody’s watching, anything can be tinder. Some of the fires are on YouTube. The dilapidated apartment with the mother and her two toddlers inside. The ancient white house without smoke detectors. The Lutheran church with flames dancing in the stained-glass windows. Old homes with no life in them, no care for them, so eventually they burn. …

… Allied Steel, back when steel, along with paper, along with wood, along with plastic, along with corn, catalyzed the town. But Allied left with a lot of other businesses, and left behind 100,000 tons of coal tar blocks down from the riverfront stadium, not cleaned for decades.

As for the baseball, two players have been introduced so far: shortstop Nick Franklin, of whom great things are anticipated, and Nicaraguan pitcher Erasmo Ramirez. Clinton is a Mariner farm team, and Franklin was big news here in Seattle two weeks ago when he was called up to the majors for the first time to replace one-time-can’t-miss second baseman Dustin Ackley (the second overall selection in the 2009 draft, behind Stephen Strasburg). In his fourth game, Franklin hit two home runs. Ramirez also made it to the majors, pitching in 16 games for the Mariners last year with mixed success, but is back in Triple-A Tacoma this season.

I don’t yet know what to expect from the book. And I’m not yet committed, having downloaded only the free opening pages to my Kindle. I suspect I’ll keep going. Certainly Boston Globe reviewer Adam Langer would have me do so:

Watching Clinton’s star pitcher, Erasmo Ramirez, strike out 12 on the road in Quad Cities, Mann wryly notes that the performance was watched by more people than will ever watch Mann do anything.

But he is being overly modest. For if there’s one surefire big-league prospect among the has-beens, might-bes, and never-will-bes who populate this memoir, it’s Mann himself who, in his first trip to the plate, knocks it out of the park.


The fate of most writers may ultimately be not all that different from that of most ballplayers. Decades from now, the vast majority of the names currently seen on the spines of books will probably seem as unfamiliar as those found in a pack of random 2013 baseball cards. But I’d be willing to wager that Lucas Mann is one of the names that will endure.

Categories: Baseball, Life

In the Queue

May 30, 2013 Leave a comment
Edsel Ford, detail from Diego Rivera's murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1932.

Edsel Ford, detail from Diego Rivera’s murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1932.

Limited posting lately. Sorry about that. It’s not just that there are things to do at work. Also, our house is a disaster area, as we’ve emptied out the kitchen and assorted other rooms for remodeling, and Gail is at it almost full time, going through decades of collected stuff. When not at work, I should be helping, not sitting here writing posts. Hence, I haven’t written about the following topics (and more):

1. Our experience in the Diamond Club at Safeco Field last Saturday. I wrote about the Mariners game only in the context of getting a Felix Hernandez bobblehead doll. But much more happened.

2. The two books I thought I would read once I finished Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (only to read Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers instead), the two books I decided to read on finishing The Flamethrowers, and the book that I surprised myself by turning to two nights ago after watching the first episode of the TV series Breaking Bad.

3. The new train from Boston to the Cape, a photo of Michael Dukakis walking off the train, and some thoughts.

4. Guantánamo and Obama. Words and actions.

5. A fabulous new result in number theory, the rare mathematical theorem that gets coverage in the national press (NYT, NPR). I don’t usually write about mathematics, but this story is too wonderful to pass up. If I ever get to it.

6. The selling of Detroit. News that Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager of Detroit put in place in March by Governor Rick Snyder, is considering selling off the multibillion-dollar collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

7. The Masters. It may seem that I abandoned the plan for a second post on attending the Masters golf tournament last month. In my first post, I talked about everything but the course and the golf. I reserved that, and photos, for the second. I hope still to write it.

8. The NYT Sunday Vows feature and brilliant commentary on it that Russ introduced me to and that I’ve meant to write about for months.

Stay tuned.

Categories: Life

Birthday Time

February 28, 2013 1 comment


Those of us born on February 29 find ourselves having to answer the question, “When do you celebrate your birthday?” Our plight puzzles people.

My answer—on non-leap years, that is—used to be that I celebrate on both days: February 28 and March 1. After all, I was born on the last day of February. And, I was born the day after February 28. Hence, I get to celebrate on both days. I don’t miss out. I get twice the fun. And indeed, growing up, I did celebrate on both days.

However, in recent years I’ve had a new answer. There’s a clear instant in time (in non-leap years) when one’s age changes: that moment at midnight that separates the 28th and the 1st. But which midnight? Well, midnight in New York, of course, since that’s where I was born. And midnight in the Eastern time zone is 9:00 PM on February 28 in the Pacific time zone. So, when do I celebrate? At 9:00 PM on February 28, that’s when.

It’s just an hour away. I better get ready.

Categories: Life

Chabon on Anderson

February 3, 2013 Leave a comment


I don’t see all that many movies, so naming my favorite moviemaker is akin to naming my favorite West Indian cricketer. Nonetheless, if pressed to do so, I would say Wes Anderson. Rushmore. The Royal Tenenbaums. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Genius. And last year’s Moonrise Kingdom.

Gail and I watched Moonrise Kingdom at home on Thanksgiving Eve, courtesy of iTunes and live streaming. Not ideal, I should add. There was a problem with the stream, leading to a series of two-to-three minute interruptions while we waited for the buffer to refill. Even so, the film’s brilliance shone through.

My favorite novelist? Well, that’s silly. How does one even compare, say, Lee Child and Michael Chabon, both of whose books I love? I suppose one could observe that the day a Lee Child book appears, I begin reading it. The day a Michael Chabon book appears, I do nothing. That might have significance. But it’s misleading. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is among my favorite novels ever. No Child book is on the list. And I’m going to get to Telegraph Avenue soon. Really.

Let’s just go out on a limb here and call Chabon my favorite novelist. Imagine, then, how cool it is to see that Chabon has a blog post at the New York Review of Books on Wes Anderson!

It doesn’t disappoint. Here’s how it starts:

The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken. We call this period of research “childhood.”

There follows a program of renewed inquiry, often involuntary, into the nature and effects of mortality, entropy, heartbreak, violence, failure, cowardice, duplicity, cruelty, and grief; the researcher learns their histories, and their bitter lessons, by heart. Along the way, he or she discovers that the world has been broken for as long as anyone can remember, and struggles to reconcile this fact with the ache of cosmic nostalgia that arises, from time to time, in the researcher’s heart: an intimation of vanished glory, of lost wholeness, a memory of the world unbroken. We call the moment at which this ache first arises “adolescence.” The feeling haunts people all their lives.

Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness. The question becomes: What to do with the pieces? Some people hunker down atop the local pile of ruins and make do, Bedouin tending their goats in the shade of shattered giants. Others set about breaking what remains of the world into bits ever smaller and more jagged, kicking through the rubble like kids running through piles of leaves. And some people, passing among the scattered pieces of that great overturned jigsaw puzzle, start to pick up a piece here, a piece there, with a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again.

Two difficulties with this latter scheme at once present themselves. First of all, we have only ever glimpsed, as if through half-closed lids, the picture on the lid of the jigsaw puzzle box. Second, no matter how diligent we have been about picking up pieces along the way, we will never have anywhere near enough of them to finish the job. The most we can hope to accomplish with our handful of salvaged bits—the bittersweet harvest of observation and experience—is to build a little world of our own. A scale model of that mysterious original, unbroken, half—remembered. Of course the worlds we build out of our store of fragments can be only approximations, partial and inaccurate. As representations of the vanished whole that haunts us, they must be accounted failures. And yet in that very failure, in their gaps and inaccuracies, they may yet be faithful maps, accurate scale models, of this beautiful and broken world. We call these scale models “works of art.”

From Rushmore to Moonrise Kingdom (shamefully neglected by this year’s Academy voters), Wes Anderson’s films readily, even eagerly, concede the “miniature” quality of the worlds he builds, in their set design and camera-work, in their use of stop-motion, maps, and models. And yet these miniatures span continents and decades. They comprise crime, adultery, brutality, suicide, the death of a parent, the drowning of a child, moments of profound joy and transcendence.

Read it all.

Categories: Life, Movies

Landfill Harmonic

January 2, 2013 Leave a comment

I realize that once a video shows up on Andrew Sullivan‘s blog (via David Haglund at Slate), it has gone viral and beyond, so my pointer to it is pretty much redundant. Nonetheless, here it is, for those few of you who may have missed it. Be sure to watch at least until the 51-second mark and a bit beyond, in order to watch Bebi play the first measures of the prelude to Bach’s first cello suite on an oil can.

From an AP article:

The sounds of a classical guitar come from two big jelly cans. Used X-rays serve as the skins of a thumping drum set. A battered aluminum salad bowl and strings tuned with forks from what must have been an elegant table make a violin. Bottle caps work perfectly well as keys for a saxophone.

A chamber orchestra of 20 children uses these and other instruments fashioned out of recycled materials from a landfill where their parents eke out livings as trash-pickers, regularly performing the music of Beethoven and Mozart, Henry Mancini and the Beatles.

A concert they put on for The Associated Press also featured Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and some Paraguayan polkas.

Rocio Riveros, 15, said it took her a year to learn how to play her flute, which was made from tin cans. “Now I can’t live without this orchestra,” she said.

Word is spreading about these kids from Cateura, a vast landfill outside Paraguay’s capital where some 25,000 families live alongside reeking garbage in abject poverty.

And from a BBC report:

This is Cateura, the main rubbish dump of Paraguay’s capital, Asuncion, where the conductor of the country’s symphony orchestra, Luis Szaran, has established a music school.

“I came here once and saw a woman holding a newborn child with one hand and picking up rubbish with the other, and told myself this could not go on, this is how everything started,” recalls Mr Szaran, who is of Hungarian and Polish origin.

He launched the Sonidos de la Tierra (Sounds of the Land) initiative six years ago to bring classical and folkloric music to the poorest children with the help of the Swiss non-governmental organisation, Avina.


The children in the programme are not only taught to play music. They also learn how to build and repair musical instruments in an adjacent wooden workshop.

They are granted credits to buy materials like strings and other specialised music components for their instruments. When they have sold or repaired an instrument they can earn money that allows them to make a living and maintain their studies.

Recently, they have even started building high-quality instruments made of rubbish.

Also see the Facebook page for the landfill harmonic documentary.

Categories: Life, Music