Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Regular at a Neighborhood Restauant

    I’ve become a regular at Gypsy Fish1, a seafood restaurant, near our house, but just sufficiently far so that I can consider the walk there and back a reasonable portion of my (mostly) daily exercise walk. But even more important, I very much like seafood, especially shrimp and other mariscos. And the restaurant is decent, fairly large and neat, has a longish menu and is not overpriced.  Moreover, they take my MasterCard which does not charge extra for purchases in Mexican pesos.
   All of that is important, but since some months ago, a feature has been added that makes Gypsy Fish more unique than most Mexico City restaurants. (Forgive me, Great Grammarian in the Sky for positing what isn’t: degrees of uniqueness.)  Even though there is no bar, they are perfectly welcoming when a companion and I come by and tell them that we’ll just have a drink.
   And the reason for having a drink in a restaurant specializing in fish is that Patrik, my past companion for quite some time (and now back in Belgium) taught them my recipe for martinis.
   It’s not a common drink in Mexico, so instructions from a yanqui are advisable. I’m a four-to-one person: four parts of gin and one of dry vermouth. (I actually like martinis, so I was mildly surprised when I sat for lunch at a small bar in a busy San Francisco restaurant who filled one order from waiters for martinis after another, without using a drop of vermouth. “That’s how they won’t complain it’s not dry enough.”) Four to one is OK by me, though I also drink gin on the rocks.
   But back to Gypsy Fish. Anina, my companion on that occasion, and I went to eat there and were received with friendly greetings as usual.  It was earlier than the typical time for lunch here, so the waiters were not yet busy. They—men and women—are not uniformed, but they are clearly professionals. They are not students serving as waiters to make a buck, but people who seem to have chosen their roles as a career—perhaps faut de mieux.
   The capo, I think of him as maitre d’ or headwaiter, greeted us in his usual friendly way and made sure that a martini and a margarita (for Anina) would be promptly on its way. Anina and he then engaged in a lively conversation (he doesn’t speak English and I have only a trickle of Spanish) about which I was given a brief report. He informed Anina that he was waiting for an order he had placed in my behalf—a cushion for my chair.
   A while back, I had asked whether I could get a pillow on my chair. The chairs are fine, but my behind is not, just about lacking all padding. A cushion was soon produced, borrowed from a sister restaurant across the street. My friendly maitre d’ had taken note of my need—or, at least, desire—and that I came often to their establishment.
  This is service beyond anything I would ever expect. But it is in no way a function of servility. Rather, it is a professionalism that, in my experience, is unlikely in America until you get to a “higher”—read more expensive—establishment. In Mexico (understand always “in my limited experience”) people take pride in the fact that they perform their jobs well. There is obeisance to what the philosopher F. H. Bradley called “my station and its duties.”
   I am fully aware that there are very serious disadvantages to this essentially class-ridden picture of society, but it is a great oversimplification to suppose that it is inferior to the quasi—as well as often phony—egalitarianism of the United States. At some point I’ll have more to say on that subject.

   P.S. A couple of days after I began a draft of the above, friend Mathias and I went again for (martini—just for me) and lunch. At that time I was presented with a soft blue cushion, with a broad smile and a deep bow. My unpadded behind and I thanked him, reciprocating smile and bow.

1It’s on the corner of Holbein (pronounced Holbayne) and Rodin (spoken as Rodeen), in the heart of a district in which the streets have the names of artists from everywhichwhere.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Meanings of "Menu"

This piece was written in Marcch 2011 for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but I don't think it was ever printed. Alas, its message is not outdated.

The Decline of the Menu

            Menus aren’t what they used to be.  They once were just the information handed to us after having been seated in a restaurant—anything from a couple of pages wrapped in plastic to an elegantly bound book, depending on the rank of the establishment.  In either case, that menu told us what there was to eat and what it would cost.
            Those were the good old days.  The meaning of this benign term has expanded and what else it has come to mean is not succulent.
            Make a telephone call to a bank you do business with; call a telephone or cable outfit that serves you; call an insurance company, an airline, or, for that matter any business—even a quite little one—and what you get is a menu.
            For the lucky ones who have not had this experience, herewith a quick explanation.  You dial that 800 number, knowing that the call will not cost money, but a good deal of your time.  There won’t be a person answering the phone, it will not be somebody quite like you, the caller.  Instead, the respondent will be a voice, often quite mellifluous, generated by an all-too-well programmed computer. 
            In effect, the voice asks you why are you calling by suggesting a set of possible answers: to get your balance (press one), to make a payment (press two), to change your address (press three), and on and on to as many as six or more alternatives. 
            All’s well, or reasonably so, if the menu offers a dish that you want to consume.  So you press four and get done with your business.  Or so you think.  The odds are great that at four, the computer voice will propose another menu—just how do you want to pay your bill: by credit card, (press one) by check (press two).  If you are lucky you will get a person when you have made that selection.
            Note how much more time this took than would have been the case in the good old days, had you reached a human being in the first place.  Someone who understands what you want, deals with your business or transfers you to someone (another human being) who takes care of you.  The preliminary score: you’ve spent a lot of time dealing with a company whose customer you are, while they’ve saved time. Since time is money, it’s fair to ask whether our time and their savings reduce the price of their product.  What do you think?
            But that’s only the beginning.  Menu-mania has gone well beyond giving callers a multiple choice exam. With great progress in computers’ ability to “understand” what is told them, a scheme is becoming more and more common that is both remarkably sophisticated and thoroughly annoying.  After courteously greeting you, the computer voice begins to interrogate you concerning your business.  “Do you want to make a new reservation or change an existing one?” You answer via vocce, pressing no buttons.  Smoothly, apparently all-knowing, the voice asks further questions about your business and patiently repeats its questions until it—the computer!—finds your answers satisfactory.  The process can be quite extensive before you hear the announcement that you will be referred to a person. 
            But don’t celebrate as yet. Another voice, issuing from a different computer may well tell you that “all of our agents are busy” and that you will have to wait so many minutes.  You do wait because your time investment has already been great and finally a human voice greets you. But don’t count on the fact that she already has the information you had previously provided; you may well need to start again da capo.
            It is an unfair match: the caller is required to be as patient as the computer.  I, for one, am usually reduced to extreme grouchiness by the time that human voice speaks to me.  That’s unfair to her; it was not she who tormented me.
            And yet, what I have just described is the favorable scenario.  It describes a case where you actually want to pick one of the alternatives the computer offers you, which is certainly not always the case.  No, I don’t want to place a new subscription, pay for the one I have, enter a vacation stop, and more.  I want to place a death notice in your newspaper.  I have often experienced analogous, if less drastic, cases.  On some occasions I succeeded in getting to a person by again and again screaming “agent” into the phone or by pressing nine.  At other times I had to give up—Computer: one; Client: zero.  I then have either abandoned my business altogether or found some other way to conduct it.  By mail, maybe.
            The wonderful progress I have been describing has converted the entire population into unpaid employees of countless organizations.  Protesting is not futile.  It is impossible.  To whom complain?  How exert pressure, how threaten?  We are victims of what is called progress and this plaint, this lamentation is a voice in the wilderness.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Highways in Mexico City

   Before posting the piece I had planned for today, I want to say a few words about Gwen Ifill who died just over a week ago. I did not know her and except for a few pieces she wrote in the NYTimes some years ago, I know her only from her role on the PBS Newshour which I have watched fairly regularly. When recently she was out for some time it did not occur to me that she was deathly ill. Hence I was shocked that she had died of cancer at a very premature age. I have since read many accounts of her career and many tributes. I have no competence to add to them. I merely want to say that I am very moved by her death, more than for most deaths of persons not my friends or relatives. She was not only an outstanding journalist, but she was clearly an outstanding person. You had to be pretty remarkable to convey that while retailing the news five nights a week. I will certainly miss her.

The Puzzle of Dual Highways   
I love living in Mexico City, but of course I don’t love everything about it. I’ve complained before about the sidewalks. They are mostly a mess and clearly contemptuous of mere pedestrians, not to mention of elderly walkers or handicapped ones. I’ve now discovered another oddity, though I don’t know who profits from the city’s crazy policy.
  Throughout the city and well beyond it are newish modern highways that cut through the local traffic. They are without lights while you are between entrances and exits. A real boon.
   But even these modern throughways get traffic-logged, with progress much slowed down. What to do to improve the flow?
   The answer is easy, but not adopted. Parallel to most of those throughways—parallel above them, surely built at greater expense than those on ground level, are roads that take people to the same places as do the lower ones. In principle, a good idea to relieve ground-level traffic. In practice, it doesn’t work that way.
   When I asked why people preferred staying in the traffic below, the answer was very simple. “It costs too much to pay the fees of the upper road, even considering the savings on gas in the smoother flow above.
   To me, that makes no sense at all. Clearly the pricing of access to the basically unused upper road is way off. It’s obviously not even a trade-off or the traffic on the two roads would be more or less evenly divided. I don’t know what would change that situation nor am I optimistic that there will be a change at all. Given Mexico City’s reputation, one surmises that somebody benefits. But I can’t figure out who that might be.


Tuesday, November 15, 2016


President Obama 

   The election is over. In my view, the good guys lost, though unlike what the winner would have claimed had he lost, I don’t think that the election was rigged. But it was skewed by the fact that so many states run by Republicans have instituted practices that reduce the number of putatively liberal, that is, Democratic, voters. I’ll let those who follow discussions of polls more assiduously than I do to figure out just how these measures affected the outcome of Trump vs. Clinton.                      
   What’s for sure is that the constitutionally mandated creation of the electoral college can lead to a divergence between the actual number of US voters and the number of delegates to the electoral college, as it did this time around. So, live with it, buddy.
   But Barack Obama successfully went against the system and was elected. There was nothing obvious about that first victory. He was the first one in quite some time to show up on that top-level scene who was articulate, indeed, eloquent, and obviously brainy. Give American voters credit for propelling that kind of person to the country’s highest office. Not to mention that he was African American!
  And now, in not many weeks, he will step down and return to civilian life. He accomplished a lot, considering that he was none-stop combating an establishment that was not ready to accept a president the color of whose skin was not white. (My pessimistic prediction is that racial prejudice will not disappear in any foreseeable future.) Considering the odds stacked against him, he did very well, indeed. It’s always mostly a guess as to what future historians might say, but mine is that they will list him among the better president.
   He might “rate” higher if he had been more successful in persuading other politicians, in the House and the Senate, to push his goals, prodding in the style of Lyndon Johnson. That would have taken more than eloquent speechifying. Rather, more arm-twisting and pressure tactics not excluding blackmail. For that, Obama was too professorial, to blame my  own genre.
   As for the real world, Obama accomplished a lot, though too many of the good things he brought into existence are not protected from future wiping out by his successor. But before Obama disappears into history—and into a job, I hope, with an income greater than he has ever had, I want to salute him as one of the better US president, if not of the very top layer. By way of brief PS, I don’t know that conditions (weasel word) are such that at this time it is at all possible for someone to rise to the level of a Lincoln or an FDR.
   With strong feelings about the past eight years, I say, “well done” under very tough circumstances and best wishes for you and your wife’s future. Barack Obama has been a scholar and a gentleman. Now a rare characterization of a politician.


Sunday, November 13, 2016

Another Activity of my Life

Here is a parochial version of the end of Voltaire’s Candide. After all the horrendous events of that tale, it ends with “. . . we must cultivate our garden.” So much for the Trump election—for now.

On Writing
   I have said more than once that I am addicted to writing. There is lots of evidence in support of this claim, but the existence of my blog is probably the best. I started it just three years ago, prompted by an annoying event. I had submitted an essay for publication to the magazine, Granta; it was of the kind they frequently publish. One year minus one week after they received it they let me know that they were not interested. Mind you, a rejection doesn’t upset me; it wasn’t the first one in a long career of submitting articles. But the time they took to say “no” was excessive.
   That rejection was the stimulus for me to create my blog. The first blog ever only goes back to 1994 with its label shortened from weblog in 1999. But the invention  of that medium came in plenty of time for me to indulge my desire to write. That is actually somewhat more urgent than my need to be read, especially when being read doesn’t also lead to a conversation. The creation of my Home of Strong Opinions took place three years ago and I quickly came to appreciate not only that I would be “published” whenever I wanted to be, but that I could post items of any length, within reason, and on just about any subject. The result, as of the time of writing this draft of a future post is 175 posts on a considerable variety of subjects or one post about every six days. Surely, addiction is the correct diagnosis.
   This “disease” manifested itself early. I can’t say about high school. The only thing I remember about writing at Brooklyn Tech is that in the middle of an assigned paper, I inserted a totally irrelevant sentence about George Washington. No notice was taken of that “trap.”
   I wrote a lot during my  year in the Navy, after graduating from high school. To my surprise, I found a packet of 145 letters I had written to my parents. They were in a box in my mother’s house, packed in temporal order and neatly labeled by my father. Those letters home are mostly in English, but they do include longish patches in German, mostly when I was replying to my parents’ German letters. Those letters home, most of them while my ship was in Chinese ports are moderately interesting and are now collected as an e-book.1
   At Columbia College, after I had been discharged, I chose an elective writing course that called for handing in one assignment a week. The instructor, Quenton Anderson, scrawled a few words at the bottom of our assignments, and in class made oracular statements in a basso profundo voice while looking out of the window—instead of at our small class. I did indeed learn something, primarily because I had to write quite a bit and on a variety of subjects. And so with the rest of my courses. The professors’ comments taught little, but the practice was valuable. Jacques Barzun was a notable exception. Even though he was a professor of history, he taught me writing tricks that are still with me. I was very proud when he took a seminar paper of mine to get it published. It became my first publication; the subject was Gebrauchsmusik, associated above all with Hindemith. Look it up if you are interested.2
   There was much more writing in college, but after my dissertation—that was turned into my first book—came a sprinkle of articles and a couple of books, mostly in philosophy. But since I got into administration quite early, as assistant chairman of philosophy at SF State College even before I was tenured, I started an (almost) life-long career of writing memos. Added to these were columns for the Arts and Sciences magazine we started at Northwestern. But before then, in September 1968  I published what I believe to be the longest letter ever in the New York Review of Books about the Sixties problems at SF State.3
   Much of the above refers to writing done in performance of a job and says nothing about an addiction. So, to get back to that theme, I had forty-nine op eds published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I don’t think that John Craig, the paper’s editor and a good friend expected to be so inundated when he agreed that I could do an occasional op ed.
   Well, my blog is a continuation of that streak. Lots of prose, but no fiction. My imagination doesn’t go in that direction. The closest I came to fiction is my invitation to have others do the work, my odd-ball book entitled What’s the Story? Again, all I can say is that if you are interested, check it out.4        
  There’s lots more: lots of autobiographical stuff. But it’s also a good time to quit.
Bon soir, mes amis.
1A Sailor Writes Home from His Time in the U.S. Navy: Letters of 1945-1946, Aftermath of World War II,
    an ebook. Kindle Direct Publishing, 2015.
2 "Gebrauchsmusik as a Reaction to the Nineteenth Century," American Music Teacher 2 (1953).

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Election of Donald J. Trump

A Brief Comment on Trump’s Election to the Presidency
   Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. My immediate comment was that “the improbable has happened; the unthinkable has to be thought about. I’m glad that I’m old.” Garry Wills replied with a deeper insight, “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad."
   There is nothing phony about this victory; Trump got those millions of votes. But why wasn’t it anticipated? My perhaps oversimplified answer is that few members of the squadron of opinion writers actually talked to many members of the class who made Trump the next president. These folks were not a significant part of those writers’ audience and probably few looked at the journals in which they appeared. That white working class population was probably under represented in those polls by virtue of unresponsiveness. While relying on the polls told those pundits a lot, it was not enough to enable them to predict what this white working class population was able to do. They were able to elect Donald J. Trump to the presidency. Pray for the country.

  I now want to add a further point. The above aims to summarize a view as to why Trump's victory was not predicted. I now want briefly to add a substantive proposal as to why Trump actually won. The truth is that the establishment of the past years has not done much, if anything, for the minimally educated white class who are hurting from the loss of jobs. The cause of that loss is complicated, but if you are the butt of it, you blame whoever is in charge. In charge was the Democratic establishment that has now been swamped. Change, was the underlying cause; anything is better than what we have. Of course, that's to be seen.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Another Activity of My Life

[2] Classical Music
   I discovered music around the time I was thirteen.  I listened to WQXR (“the classical music station”) while doing my homework; this was facilitated by the fact many of my homework tasks were mechanical drawings required by Brooklyn Tech classes. But early on, I went to live musical events, notably a Ring des Nibelungen at the Met with Melchior, Traubel, and Lotte Lehmann in her last Sieglinde. I persuaded my father to buy a war bond from WQXR to gain admission to a quartet concert at their studio, I got into a Bruno Walter Mozart rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic and still remember his staying, in a voice that seemed very sad, “Let’s go again from letter F, Frederick.”
   I also recall going to concerts at Town Hall, for which discount coupons were available in school. Two come to mind. One was an all-Schumann piano recital; but I can’t come up with the name of the pianist. But I do remember two things about the concert. A little boy (maybe ten) sitting with his mother near me beaming when selections from the Kinderszenen were being  played and Vladimir Horowitz sitting by himself in a kind of box at the front of the balcony. The second was a concert of Jewish music in which a well known cantor from Brooklyn participated. That was the tenor, Richard Tucker of whom I then said, “he ought to be at the Met,” which is where he was a year or so later.
   If I went on giving an account of all the concerts I attended—and remember!—this piece would be very long and surely boring. But I cannot resist telling about a selection of them. I heard Schnabel play Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto which he had rescued from obscurity; I went as regularly as I was able to get a ticket to hear chamber music at the Frick museum. A memorable one was the Budapest Quartet, with my sitting close enough to be able to follow the music, sort of, over the shoulder of Mischa Schneider, its cellist.
   When I was at Vassar, I subscribed to the Philharmonic, driving down to New York on Thursdays, killing two birds with one stone by first having dinner with my parents. That subscription was prompted by a concert I heard Boulez conduct with the BBC Symphony, including an uncannily transparent Petrushka. When Boulez was then appointed in New York, I subscribed, writing to them that I was subscribing because of the Boulez appointment, unlike many of their subscribers who gave that as the reason for bailing out. Boulez was famous for doing contemporary music, while the NY Phil audience, like that of most orchestras, preferred hearing what they had already heard before. (See, on this blog, my post of June 28, 2014, “Art that is Heard is Not like Art that is Seen.”)
   When we lived in Evanston, we subscribed to the Chicago Symphony, where before every Thursday concert the two of us had dinner at the Berghoff with the Garry Willses and the Larry Lipkings. Many splendid concerts during those Solti years, though the concert everyone who attended will never forget was Abbado conducting a semi-staged Wozzeck. He stood in front of the orchestra and conducted without a score, giving cues with elegant gestures, evoking an outstanding performance of that masterpiece. More generally, the Chicago programming was fairly interesting if not exactly adventurous. Their playing was consistently superb.
  Before I turn to the last orchestra to which we subscribed, a paragraph about my attendance at various operas. I never became a Feinschmecker of voices, so bel canto was not my thing. When asked, I would say that I was not an opera-lover, but a  I music-lover, with Mozart, the later Wagner, and such “contemporary” operas as Moses and Aron (of which I saw two splendid performances) at the center.  Two more Rings (one of them in Bayreuth) and lots of Mozart, but never a Magic Flute quite like my earliest record purchase, the Beecham Berlin recording of the early thirties.
   That brings me to the last orchestra with which I was involved: the Pittsburgh Symphony. There I was not only a subscriber, but a member or the board of directors and a member of the chorus that sang at its concerts. I’ll take these associations in order. As a subscriber, I always enjoyed their playing—which was truly first class. At the same time, I was disappointed by their conservative—stodgy, “safe” programming. They remained a provincial outfit. That was driven home to me during my decade on its board. I went to an endless number of meetings of the board and, more importantly, of a variety of board committees. I made many suggestions, I wrote a large number of memos (it was a big pile that I threw out when I “dissolved” our house.) But nothing that I ever put forward, mostly mild stuff, was ever adopted. I was not at all bitter, just—big sigh—disappointed.
    My other relationship to the orchestra was vastly more gratifying. As a member of the Mendelssohn Choir, I sang in many of PSO concerts of a variety of choral works, mostly when Mariss Jansons was its conductor. He took our Mozart Requiem to Carnegie Hall. I was placed in the top row smack in the center. When Mariss and I ran into each other in the hotel lobby after the afternoon rehearsal, he came over to me, grinning, “I heard you, I heard you.” All I could say was “I hope not.” The hardest piece—for me—that I sang in was the wonderful Symphony of Psalms. No intuitive intervals, at least for the basses, or at least this one. I “engaged” a pianist friend to help pound it into my head. The cost: a large bottle of gin.
   Briefly, how did I get to sing in the Mendelssohn choir? It started with my membership in the chorus at Brooklyn Tech, while I also sang in (and actually conducted) the Friday night choir of the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights. The singing continued in the chorus of a zillion at Great Lakes while in boot camp. After an hiatus of some years, I became the only administrator in the Northwestern and then Pittsburgh choruses. A lot of rehearsals and a lot of concerts. When Frank Miller conducted us in the Verdi Requiem with the so-so Evanston Symphony, he made a very short speech at our first rehearsal together. “I’m sure that you are well prepared; I will not call for anything special. We’ll just do it the way we did it under Toscanini. Sure. Before becoming principal cellist in Chicago Miller had been principal cellist of the NBC Symphony (conducted alternately by Stokowski and Toscanini). You see that singing in a chorus was how my unschooled musicality would find active expression.

   Now I go to concerts in Mexico City, especially to those of the Sinfonica Nacional of which my daughter Eleanor has been principal clarinet for more than two decades. It’s a very decent orchestra with programs more interesting than most to be found in the US. I know of no other orchestra that would program all fifteen Shostakovich symphonies in a single season!