Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Buttoning Buttons: the Gender Divide

   I have become self-conscious about buttoning the front of my shirt. The cause is that in most of the fingernails of my right hand the nail itself has become separated from the pink layer right under it, so that the nails have become a kind of off-white and a bit weaker than normal nails. (I haven’t figured out which name to pick from the long internet list of nail ailments, but I do know that my condition is neither a fungus nor some disease—but probably an age phenomenon. And, as a dermatologist told me, nothing can be done about it.
   I burden the reader with this account, because surely an explanation is needed as to why I should recently have become so aware of an activity that I have engaged in daily for well over 80 years without thinking about it. It is because, thanks to that imperfect thumbnail, buttoning those shirts has become just a bit slower and more cumbersome.
   This awareness also included the fact that I use my right thumb to push the button through the buttonhole; indeed, that in all the front closures of my clothes—sweaters, jackets, coats, etc.—the buttons are arrayed on the left side of the garment to be closed and the buttonholes are on the right, making it natural to use the right thumb to do the pushing, using any other finger would be somewhat more awkward.
   Now, as I thought about this, I dimly remembered that women’s clothes button up in the opposite direction of men’s, with the buttonholes on the right wing of a blouse and the buttons on the left.  Nobody seems actually to know how this well-entrenched opposite-sided custom arose; the various sites I checked out propose a rich variety of hypotheses. (Take this set as one example of such theories:
   Of all those suppositions I find one to be particularly plausible. According to it, the current pattern  for women’s clothes probably became set during the Victorian period when two practices were fairly widespread: first, the clothes worn by middleclass women (and up) could be quite elaborate, with plenty of buttons to push through their holes and, second, that a large proportion of those fine ladies had maids to help them get dressed. It makes sense, accordingly, to have those lady’s maids, facing their mistresses, to use their right hands to perform one of their important tasks.
   On the other hand, while no doubt there was a fraction of upper crust males who had a Jeeves to help get their garments on, far more did not use servants for that purpose but did the job themselves. So it makes sense for men’s clothes also to have the right hand take the lead in buttoning up.
   But times have changed since the reign of Victoria Regina. In those days and beyond even middle class households had at least one servant, so that there were chores that the lady of the house did not need to perform. Such households with servants are much rarer now, having  been replaced by countless labor-saving devices and practices.
   But nothing has changed a woman’s need to button her front with the left had doing the work. Moreover, a distinctly larger (if not much larger) proportion of women are right-handed than is the fraction of right-handed men, so that the current buttoning practices negatively affects a very substantial fraction of females.
   Specialty stores or websites could be created with wares for male lefties, as there are for oversize men, at least to the degree to which that is economically feasible. But there is no question that reversing the buttoning direction for women’s clothes will benefit the vast majority of right-handed  wearers.

   Two questions remain. While the economic cost to change manufacturing methods in Bangladesh, Vietnam or in New York’s garment district will be nowhere near as great as converting the US automobile industry to the metric system—which will probably never happen—it is a cost nonetheless.  Second, do a sufficient number of women care enough (or care at all) to follow someone who makes it her cause to rid the world of what I take to be a Victorian hangover. In short, is the gain to switch buttoning to the stronger hand great enough to be worth agitating for. While I don’t see it on the horizon, only a broad general discussion can provide the answer.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Chutzpah of an Eighteen-year Old
Here I announce without comment that I’m about to teach classes in music appreciation.

Dec. 1, 1945
Hello, youall!
   I was waiting for at least something to happen when I wrote again – so with great efforts, I made something happen.
   So listen:
      First of all – my permanent detail is now working in the Educational Services Office, telling boys to take courses help them fill out blanks & doing a little slow-speed typing. That is not however why the Lieutenant hired me. First of all: On Wednesday evening I teach my first class in Music Appreciation featuring especially Tristan & Ring – Liszt & Wagner) I will enjoy that. The chances are, that I get the course until I leave O.G.U. (The present teacher – a professional – leaves Tuesday.) Also the Lieuy is interested in German –  & I expect to do some work in that. Perhaps I’ll be temporarily assigned to him – but no one knows a thing yet. Of course the Music Job is what I really want & I’m afraid, that a regular musician might take charge. The course is outlined & is just up my alley – I could do it very well. Anyway it’s a nice change.
   Just now I finished developing my first film – can’t tell yet how they came out – but tomorrow I’ll print them. I’m at the Chicago S.M.C. [?] where the man in charge helped me a lot.
   I’ll have to stop now, but more tomorrow –
   Today, seventy years later, I have only a smudgy recollection of my teaching music appreciation—Tristan and the Ring no less!—in my temporary Navy home, just before being shipped off to China. I am actually amazed by the tone of the letter that takes it utterly for granted that I have the ability to take on this pedagogic task, though I had zero experience in teaching anything, not to mention teaching a subject matter I had never studied. Yes, I was what is called a music lover, and a passionate one; yes, besides listening to music and singing in choruses all my life--my main encounters with that art—I did some reading about music while in high school, even dipping into Ernest Newman’s biography of Richard Wagner, though not remotely did I plow through its four volumes.
   I read more as time went on, but never systematically and sat in on a couple of summer session courses at Columbia. But finding the required Music Humanities course beneath my dignity (probably wrongly so), I took the test that let me skip it. I’ve also written some about music, most notably for cd liners, one of which was actually praised in a review of Ellie’s Mozart and Brahms quintets disc. Plus a great many miscellaneous pieces and numerous op eds on various music topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (My favorite: For a while I reviewed concerts for Pittsburgh's WQED, one review phoned in from Tel Aviv when I went with the Pittsburgh Symphony to Israel. 
   The biggest thing I have tackled is a major analytic piece on the multiple attractions of music, but it remains uncompleted somewhere in my computer. It is not yet finished, because, eschewing technical language, which both reveals and hides, I find writing about music immensely difficult. I note without elaboration that just our vocabulary is vastly richer about things seen than pertaining to what is heard.

   All my life I have been friends with musicians, hung out with them, and became more formally involved, such as holding various posts at Chamber Music Chicago and serving for a decade or so on the board of the Pittsburgh Symphony. I did not become a professional musician, but I certainly spent a lifetime nibbling at the edges of that world.  It will not surprise the reader that my computer also harbors various sketches toward an essay about what it is to be an amateur.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

An Update

   At the tail end of July (grandson) Max and I left our temporary home at (son) Mark’s home in Los Angeles for a few days in San Francisco, where I was to meet old friends and visit old haunts. The train ride, mostly along the coast, was both pleasant and interesting, especially the varied plantings in huge manicured fields. I was in awe of the herculean work that had to be done to create table flatness where there had been natural wrinkles of all kinds and sizes. That our trip was interrupted near Salinas because the train had killed a person did not only lead to long delays, but turned out to be a kind of omen. Erstens kommt es anders, zweitens als man denkt. [In the first place things happen differently, in the second place, than one thinks.]
   I did see some of my old friends, if not in the ways that had been planned, but mostly, this—surely my last—San Francisco adventure got twisted into a quite different scenario. Later in our first full day, with the morning devoted to a San Francisco sightseeing bus, I was felled by an incident that turned out to be a gall stone that had to be removed. So, instead of San Francisco festivities, I was drowsy in the hospital until Mark picked me up and drove me through the night back to LA, as far as I could tell, mostly at eighty miles an hour.
   I think of my gall bladder as a time bomb. But more acute—and not about to go away—are urination problems that lead to nefarious doings in those nether regions. My visit this morning to the urologist for a more extensive examination led to a welcome reprieve from the surgery he had tentatively thought I needed—a good thing—but also to the conclusion that I would require what is rather innocently called self-catheterization until nature takes over again, if it ever will. Not so good a thing: I find the prospect scary and will soon get a taste (surely not the right word!) of the new  reality.

   I am today, August 12, 2015, exactly 88 ½ years old and quote, for the umpteenth time, Bette Davis’s (the actress) witty and accurate saying, “Old age is not for sissies.”

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

An Early Chapter in My “Career” as Photographer

November 22, 1945
Hello you all,
   Well, I did it – I found & bought a camera & am now ready to spoil rolls and rolls of film. Of course with the weather we have today (snow) picture taken would be pretty tough. Yesterday afternoon was our last Chicago liberty & I bought this camera after I had searched for one for weeks. It’s a new Kodak, takes 616 film & cost 18 bucks with leather case – according to the experts, I didn’t get gypped – anyway – the price came out of a Kodak catalogue, making things fairly koscher. Now to take pictures!
   Perhaps I forget to tell you, but last Friday I wrote a very long letter to Miss Mayefsky to which I had an answer yesterday in super-speed manner. I am enclosing it but would like to have it back at once since I wish to answer it then. I hope you can read the writing – it’s about as tough as mine.
   I think it would be an excellent idea, if some time in the near future, you would invite Miss Mayefsky, Mutts – she’s about the only person that I can think of that knows about conditions & has no selfish reasons for her judgment. Besides that, she can be very nice & I’m sure you’d get along very well with her. How about it? [Nothing came of that: parental diffidence.]
   Yesterday I also received your letter, Junior and am very sorry to say, that I could not follow all of it. Though I did know what a pH meter is, I hadn’t the slightest idea how it works and how it’s constructed, though I got the idea that it works in such manner comparable to radio electroplating and a combination of other principles Anyway, let me know how successful you’ll be – you can use the thing to test the comparative value of lemons and soap!
   I like the way you dramatically accuse me of quitting science! I don’t quite think that things are as melodramatic as that. It is just that I made my plans too early – that of becoming an engineer – before I knew what else there was. I agree with you, that culture, etc. doesn’t exclude science – but it also doesn’t make it the mainstay. You’re looking for hidden reasons, which I’m afraid I cannot find – if you were more explicit perhaps I could answer you more completely. Simple I do not want to spend my life 1) in an engineering school being fed science, and 2) hanging my neck over a drawing board the rest. But by now that’s an old story. (Read Miss Mayefsky’s answer to the business – especially the first sentence). By the way, I’ve cursed at this pen enough by now – how’s the other one. Please send it up – insured – as soon as possible (to O.G.U.) (I mean my old Waterman’s).
   For now – that’s all so

* * * * * * * * * * * *
   There is much talk throughout the Navy letters related to photographing, as in the opening paragraph of that of November 22, 1945, above. After an extensive search through myriad boxes that had been brought, unexamined, from Pittsburgh to Mexico, I found a small one that contained the snapshots I took while in the Navy. I don’t know whether they are all of the ones I took; I do know, having looked at them for the first time since I came home from decommissioning the LST 919, that most of them are not very good. That fact partially accounts for the small number that has been included in the Kindle book of the letters; the other reason not to include is irrelevance, such as shots of the mountains near the Puget Sound.
   Because I had to go through a great many boxes of photographs I got something of an overview of a lifetime of snapping away. To be sure, referring to any kind of overview is thoroughly misleading. The pictures are more or less segregated—by the way they are boxed or stuffed into manila envelopes—by the time and place where they were produced. But with shamefully very few exceptions, no information about any of them is provided, neither what is pictured nor when the deed was done. 
   I don’t know that I actually envy the temperament of my very good (and old) friend, Jim Scanlan, but I certainly wish I had it at least part time. Jim went through all the photos he and Marilyn have—and I am sure that there are a great many—labeling them and transferring them to a disc. Jim is thus enabled to present slide shows about the different times and places of their much-travelled lives. 
   That is not going to happen to the immense number of photos I have taken in the many places where I have traveled. A very few have escaped the fate of just being shoved into boxes, most notably the many I took during the Northwestern trip to China, in the summer of 1977. But while they made it into albums, my patience did not rise to the level of having me identify them as to what—or who—is pictured and when. Sets about trips to Italy, Germany, Sicily, Colorado and points north, south, east, and west have not made it out of their unorganized homes.
   Mind you, many of these photographs are very good and some of them are really excellent. I’ve had a variety of cameras through the years, mostly chosen with some care and after consulting knowledgeable people. My last camera that used film, in harness for many years, was a splendid Nikon FE2 (bought used, but in good shape), made particularly versatile by an excellent zoom lens. My current digital camera is a modest but very clever little Canon with a zoom lens said to be of the Leica family. 
   While I have lacked the patience to minister to the photos after they are done, I have a lot of patience taking the pictures in the first place. I was quite competent in getting the various settings right—and I won’t here insert a distilled course in pre-digital still photography—instead, I want to single out one trait of mine that I think is probably the most important condition for producing images that are better than just blah. I am talking about the ability to determine just what to take a picture of. Call it an aspect of what is called having a good eye.
  When I say “to determine just what to take a picture of,” I don’t mean the decision to snap this mountain rather than that one or the view to the East rather than that to the South. But much more precisely, just what portion of the mountain should be in the picture, just how much sky and clouds, with or without that tree in the foreground—and more. Much of what might be contained in that course on still photography can no doubt be taught. But while experience is likely to improve that “eye” and have it go from OK to good to better, I don’t think of such progress as readily induced by a teacher. To use overly-simple labels, that course consists of matters that are technical: in situations like this, that is what you should do. On the other had, progress from good eye to better is to become more capable in making aesthetic judgments.
   Assuming there is enough time—not always the case when travelling—I have the patience to seek out that good picture, from searching for the “right” position from which to “take” the object to be pictured to manipulating the camera’s orientation and zoom (and more), before pushing the button that will produce the picture.
   Clearly, I am here thinking of pre-digital photographing where what you get is what you’ve snapped, unless you continue the picture-creating work in the dark room, a very different realm into which I have never ventured. In digital photography, post-snap editing is readily possible, from relatively simple programs like iPhoto to more elaborate (and difficult) ones like Photoshop. While I have never fully shed the practices I acquired when photographing with film, I have used some of iPhoto’s and Aperture’s editing features, creating a darkroom, so to speak, on my computer.
   Today, photographing, you might say, has become more “bipolar” than ever. On the one hand, there are the endless “selfies” and other shots taken with ubiquitous cell phones, the vast majority of them without much craft and never to be edited. At that pole, the creation of really good pictures is mostly a matter of luck. The high end is impressively exhibited in a show at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, entitled “Perfect Likeness: Photography and Composition” [http://hammer.ucla. edu/exhibitions/2015/perfect-likeness-photography-and-composition/]. An immense variety of techniques, traditional and newly invented, are there on display in photographs that range from tiny to many feet across. An impressive exhibit of the ever greater versatility of the medium.

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