Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015


   I say to all, whatever your faith or absence of one, whatever your country, since the holiday does not commemorate an American political event. It probably originated as thankstiving for the harvest, but is today noteworthy as a holiday at which families get together, boosting all branches of the transportation industry, just as the day after, Black Friday, is a shot in the arm of department stores and any other outlet that sells consumer goods. Thanksgiving is also the cause of the sale of zillions of turkeys, since that bird has long since become the traditional center of the day’s festive dinner. Through the years, my family has occasionally deviated by serving a goose instead, fatter, of course, but perhaps even tastier. 

Regular posts will resume next week, today I merely append the blurb for my Navy Letters.

Not very long ago I looked into a box that had been in my mother’s apartment when she passed away and found there a considerable batch of letters I had written to my parents during the year I spent in the Navy almost three quarters of a century ago. They have now been transcribed and put together as an ebook entitled, A Sailor Writes Home from His Time in the U.S. Navy: Letters of 1945-1946, Aftermath of World War II—from training at Great Lakes, to the wheelhouse of “my” LST in the China Sea, to the decommissioning in the Puget Sound—including of some photos of those days. The letters are not great letters nor are they profound, but they cover a lot of subjects, are surprisingly literate and often quite amusing. Because then my parents’ English was not at all fluent—we had emigrated from Germany only six years earlier—some chunks of those letters are in German, in the book of course immediately followed by translations into English.
To get this ebook, go to the Kindle Store or to Amazon books and type in the title:
A Sailor Writes Home from His Time in the U.S. Navy.
The price is $2.50. If, after you have looked at the letters and you feel benign, consider sending a Customer Review to Amazon. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Oh to be a Syrian Refugee

Why It Takes Two Years for Syrian Refugees to Enter the U.S.
1. Registration with the United Nations.
2. Interview with the United Nations.
3. Refugee status granted by the United Nations.
4. Referral for resettlement in the United States.
The United Nations decides if the person fits the definition of a refugee and whether to refer the person to a country for resettlement. Only the most vulnerable are referred, accounting for fewer than 1 percent of refugees worldwide. Some people spend years waiting in refugee camps.
5. Interview with State Department contractors. 

6. First background check.
7. Higher-level background check for some.
8. Another background check.
The refugee’s name is run through law enforcement and intelligence databases for terrorist or criminal history. Some go through a higher-level clearance before they can continue. A third background check was introduced in 2008 for Iraqis but has since been expanded to all refugees ages 14 to 65.
9. First fingerprint screening; photo taken.
10. Second fingerprint screening.
11. Third fingerprint screening.
The refugee’s fingerprints are screened against F.B.I. and Homeland Security databases, which contain watch list information and past immigration encounters, including if the refugee previously applied for a visa at a United States embassy. Fingerprints are also checked against those collected by the Defense Department during operations in Iraq.
12. Case reviewed at United States immigration headquarters.
13. Some cases referred for additional review.
Syrian applicants must undergo these two additional steps. Each is reviewed by a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services refugee specialist. Cases with “national security indicators” are given to the Homeland Security Department’s fraud detection unit.
14. Extensive, in-person interview with Homeland Security officer.
Most of the interviews with Syrians have been done in Jordan and Turkey.
15. Homeland Security approval is required.
If the House bill becomes law, the director of the F.B.I., the Homeland Security secretary and the director of national intelligence would be required to confirm that the applicant poses no threat.
16. Screening for contagious diseases.
17. Cultural orientation class.
18. Matched with an American resettlement agency.
19. Multi-agency security check before leaving for the United States.
Because of the long amount of time between the initial screening and departure, officials conduct a final check before the refugee leaves for the United States.
20. Final security check at an American airport.

Note: If such rules had been in force when my family and I immigrated to America from Germany in 1939, I would have been murdered in Auschwitz a few years later.  ----RHW
New York Times Insider, November 23, 2015

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

How We Address Each Other

   “A parrot interrupted conversations when it shouted Humboldt’s most common instructions to his servant ‘Much sugar, much coffee, Mr. Seifert.’” Johann Seifert, had been Alexander von Humboldt’s “devoted servant” “for three decades.”
   Parrots don’t make up words; Humboldt did not call his servant Johann, but addressed him by his surname. When I read this passage in Andrea Wulf’s recent book on Humboldt, I was reminded of noting the different modes of address in Germany, from which we had emigrated in 1939, and the United States where we had come. I was twelve at the time and didn’t take much notice of such niceties of address. As I became older and essentially “Americanized,” I too adopted the practice of addressing people by their given names, in most instances ab initio.
   Not so my parents, in particular not my father, whose given name was Jacob. He started a business located on Fourth Avenue (now gentrified as Park Avenue South) off 27th Street, where the books were kept and stock was shelved and shipped to New York area drug stores, after the three or four salesmen, of which my father was one when not minding the office, had placed an order. The office itself employed, as I recall, three or four people, most or probably all of them, German Jews. While English mostly was the language spoken at 381 4th, there certainly were lapses into German.  Never abandoned, however, was the practice of addressing everyone by their last names, prefaced by Herr, Frau, or Fräulein.
   The person who kept the books, for example, was a single woman who had come to New York from the same little town in Baden where my father was born and grew up. Nevertheless, at 381 Fourth she was Fräulein Bierig, so consistently that even though I was often in and out of the office, occasionally even doing some chores, that I don’t remember finding out her first name.
   One of the salesmen was Mr. Dukat whose first name, I believe, was Max, though I am not sure. Mr. and Mrs. Dukat, no children, also lived in “our” apartment house in Jackson Heights. Nevertheless he was Herr Dukat—always.
   Another salesmen was Hugo Blumenthal from Stuttgart who came to New York around the same time we did. He and my father met as bunkmates in the concentration camp in Dachau to which they had been sent the day of Kristallnacht in November 1938.  You’d think such a common fate would lead them to refer to each other as Hugo and Jacob. But no. I’m even a little surprised that I even know his first name—perhaps because his son and I became good friends.
   You can see that at least then in Germany the normal form of address was Herr, Frau, or Fräulein followed by the last name. Exceptions to that were essentially limited to close relatives—e.g. cousins of more or less the same generation. I suppose--though I don’t really know this—that young kids in school called each other by their given names and perhaps persisted in that practice if they remained friends into an older age. Boys often called each other by their last names without preceded by a title. Sag’ mal Schmidt. Was willst Du Müller?
   Another exception was a relatively big deal; but to explain it, I have to insert a short German lesson. There are two was of saying “What are you doing” and “How are you.” There is the formal way that goes with using the interlocutor’s last name: Was machen Sie? and Wie geht es Ihnen? (notice the required caps). If the exchange is between persons who are on a first name basis, it is Was machst du? and Wie geht’s dir?
   That relatively big deal I referred to occurs when two persons who had been addressing each other by their last names decide to become more intimate by changing to given names. They then—at least in my younger days—formally decide to Duzen, to henceforth address each other with the informal du.
   My parents didn’t do much Duzen and I think never wholly approved of the American practice of moving quickly to a first name basis. While that was many years ago, I am sure that German habits have changed toward the informal since then, though I very much doubt that formality, in Berlin or Heidelberg, has come as close to attenuating as it has in New York or New Orleans.
* * * * * * *
Note. I realize that I am flirting with a much bigger topic than I am actually discussing. Class differences should be taken into consideration and even different regions. But I am quite ignorant of those ramifications. Further, an analogous distinction exists in French and Spanish, as well as in other languages about which I know little or nothing. There is thee and thou in English that at one time signaled informality, though the story of those modes of address is also much more complicated.
Comments and additional examples are welcome.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Advertisements for Myself

   While I filch Norman Mailer’s title, I should really change the plural to the singular, since I have only a single theme in mind: my recent Kindle book, A Sailor Writes Home from His Time in the U.S. Navy: Letters of 1945-1946, Aftermath of World War II. As I mention in its introduction, I discovered those letters quite recently when I finally looked into a box that I had taken home from my mother’s apartment after she passed away. My father, a super-orderly person, had collected the letters I had written home from my year in the Navy and carefully preserved them in temporal order. He never told me that he had done this.
   I was delighted to find those letters, only occasionally typed, so, with some help, put them into canonical Word form and, with a few illustrations, brought them out as a Kindle book, now available on Amazon1. People who have dipped into my blog now and then are probably aware of all that.
   During the time between my discovery of the letters and the collection’s publication, I read them of course. But not really. I read them with a view to putting them into a book—to see what translation was needed, since chunks were written in German, to determine where identifying notes were called for, and the like. I did not really read them just for what they were, not to mention think about them or evaluate them as examples of prose.
   After the book was out, my friend David Brown suggested that I select some of the letters and follow up with brief accounts as to what happened to topics raised in 1954-46 in the years afterwards. To implement that idea, I read quite a few of the letters for the first time carefully. Somewhat to my surprise, that led me to gain considerable respect for those epistles, noting how varied were the topics taken up and especially about the quality of the prose of a kid just out of high school. I even wondered whether more might have been made of them had the set come out just after the end of the war, instead of as relics nearly seventy years later.
   What, in a way, I found out is that I already brought something to the writing courses I took in college. Besides taking the not-very-memorable required writing course from a not-remembered instructor, I signed up for an elective taught by Professor Quentin Anderson, then just an assistant professor. We had to write an essay every week, not a long one, on a topic of our own choosing. Anderson’s comments were often quite cryptic, pronounced in a basso profundo voice while he looked out of the window to his left rather than at our small class. You might say that Quentin didn’t teach us anything. Nevertheless, I think I learned a lot that semester, just in writing those weekly essays. That course was also my first conscious experience that you learn to write by writing, a message I have preached in my later role as teacher, together with the strong advice to think of several drafts of anything that matters—a maneuver greatly facilitated by the computer.
   As a college senior I took a seminar with Jacques Barzun on fin de siècle history that called for writing two major papers. I profited a lot from Jacques’ comments, quite a few of which were very practical writing suggestions. But I benefited even more from the fact that he arranged to get one of those seminar papers published, giving me my first publication!
   Now in my old age, I am prepared to say that writing is the only one of the activities that  I have been engaged in that I would claim to do at a professional level, and that just limited to expository prose. My computer contains more than one sketch on what it is to be an amateur. I have wanted to become clearer on that subject because I think of myself to be an amateur or if you prefer the less favorable label, a dilettante. I’ve been an amateur woodworker, especially in turning a great many bowls, trays, and candlesticks on the lathe; that activity was later transformed into a quite extensive career as a wood sculptor; I was an amateur art collector that led to a collections of prints by sculptors, an amateur musician as a member of quite a few choruses. I’m also inclined to say that I have been an amateur philosopher, since, in spite of my a doctorate in that subject, I did not exactly earn it—a long story. You might also include my role as academic administrator; fair enough. But I shudder when I think of what a professional administrator would be.
   So maybe I should stop claiming that I am a professional writer and just assert that I am a proficient member of the species of writers.


Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Topic is College

   In the middle of  March 1946 the LST 919 arrived in Shanghai after a trip to ports where no mail was delivered to us. But now “It finally happened – mail galore!” When we were settled, I sat down to answer all that mail with the longest letter I wrote while in the Navy. One chunk of it is in German, answering a letter from my mother in that language. The section here reproduced responds to my brother, Hans Martin. (He had always been called Hans until he changed it to H. Martin when, after coming to New York, classmates called him “Hans and feet.”  Martin was then 17 years old and a student, as I had been, at Brooklyn Technical High School. Of course he wrote in English.

March 18, 1946
. . . . Now there are still Hans’s (or better Martin’s) letters.  
   The first one’s from Jan 12th. We’ll start out with the college business. You seem pretty determined on Chicago U. It’s definitely, judging from the limited information I have, a good place. My objection – as mentioned before – is mainly its distance from N.Y. Don’t scorn the small college – look for them! Look for one with a good Chem course, and you will do well. The small college with high standards and small classes is the most advantageous by far. Individual attention is worth a lot. Don’t put all your irons on one fire – Garrett* is altogether right in telling you to apply for two more small New England colleges. Don’t neglect it.
   As far as I am concerned: Go ahead with Columbia – ie send for 2 blanks. Send one (by airmail only, otherwise I’ll never get it) and keep the other at home. The same system is to be used for all other colleges in question. just say that I’m in China, mail service is punk and you wish to keep one at home in case of loss in the mail. I’m also interested in both Harvard (especially so) and Yale. In my case the same holds true – a small college one I possibly haven’t even heard of – with a good reputation is also very interesting. Ask Garrett,* Miss Mayefsky* and Mr. Sayer*– he knows about the subjects I intend to study and go right ahead to send for applications as you see fit. I will write both Sayer and Mayefsky soon, they are high on my priority list. You don’t have to wait to act – mail takes too long – send for material and blanks – it can’t do any harm.
*Garrett and Sayer are Brooklyn Tech people whom I do not remember. Miss (Pearl) Mayefsky was an English teacher of mine who befriended me and became something of a mentor. I met with her a number of times even after I returned from the Navy. Moreover, I was not the only one who benefited from her ministrations; see

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
   Those who perused my letters from the Navy will have noted that the subject of college comes up with some frequency. There are actually three themes: [1] “I want to get to college” rather than stay in the Navy any longer than I have to; [2] discussions about my considering and applying to colleges; and [3] issues pertaining to my brother Martin’s plans for college. Brief samples of the latter two themes are contained in the excerpt above. I want now to give you a glimpse of what actually happened after all that college talk.
   Martin first. After a brief stay at Queens College in New York, he did get to the University of Chicago. But he did not major in Chemistry as he had intended. A Chicago professor told him that it was practically impossible for a Jew to get a job in Chemistry. [Younger readers of these comments may not be aware how much anti-Semitism there still was during the 1940’s and 50’s in the US. DuPont, to cite just one example, was famous for never hiring a Jew.] Martin followed this advice and shifted his major to economics where he could also make use of his mathematical bent.
   After an uneventful stint in the army, he enrolled in the PhD program at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University), writing a dissertation that won a prestigious national prize. After graduation, he taught economics at a number of business schools before accepting a named professorship at that of Vanderbilt University.
   As for me, I was discharged in July 1946, too late to get into college in the fall. I wanted to go out of town to get out from under my parents, with Kenyon—which I had never visited, a favorite. However, I took advantage of the fact that Columbia College was going to accept 200 veterans to start midyear, in February 1947. This was a big deal, because the several year-long required course had then to be taught “in reverse.” For me it meant not having to wait until the following fall. I applied, took a required test, and was admitted. I worked very hard, taking very full programs and took courses during two summer sessions, so that I could graduate in June 1950, 3 ½ years altogether.
   After a year’s travel in Europe on a traveling fellowship my best friend Carl Hovde and I had received, I returned to New York in the summer of 1947 and applied for a job at the Voice of America. When it turned out that the job disappeared, not having been funded, Professor James Gutmann, then the chairman of the philosophy department, who knew me from a couple of his courses I had taken, said to me, “Rudy, rather than shelving books in the library, sign up for graduate study in philosophy.” So, a couple of days before the start of classes I filled out a sheet of paper that was then handed to the graduate admissions officer through his window, since inside the building there were long lines everywhere, he signed it, admitting me to graduate school, followed by Professor Gutmann telling me that I would get a small graduate fellowship.
   After a year of taking classes, I was recommended to become a fellow at Mortimer Adler’s Institute for Philosophical Research. Prestigious but not educationally significant. However, by now married, it was great to live in San Francisco for two years (1953-55) and to hang out with my co-Institute fellows, a good bunch.
   On my return to Columbia I was appointed part-time instructor in philosophy, a forerunner of the teaching assistantship which did not yet exist at Columbia. That gave me a start in teaching. My dissertation writing was much helped by a year-long fellowship (1957-58) from the Social Science Research Council, so that early in 1959 I received my doctorate with a dissertation on Georg Simmel. It was published in 1962 by the Wesleyan University Press, minus a hundred footnotes that the editor rightly thought were not needed at all.

   Now you have a glimpse at what became of all those college discussions in my 1946 letters from the Navy.