Thursday, December 29, 2016


Acapulco: Getting There
   It’s a very long hill down from Mexico City to Acapulco; it’s a mile high. We slid down that hill only a few days ago, Miguel in the driver’s seat, with me sitting next to him. It’s a great road. The terrain is rough, even if you have to pay some attention to notice that, since the tops of [1]both sides of the road are covered by trees, mostly pines and firs at the upper part and a variety of deciduous trees in the lower segment.
   But the trees and other vegetation are not the most remarkable thing about what makes it a great road. You don’t even have to look close to note that much of the well-paved path was cut out of high rocky mounts, having the well-paved ribbon move along curvy but gently downward toward the Pacific Ocean.
   What is striking about this remarkable path is the way in which the walls, when the cuts are deep, are held in place—that is, are prevented from slithering down on the road. More work was needed on the right, the uphill side, which was often just sliced to create sheer walls, almost perpendicular. These rocky walls were treated in a variety of ways to stay put, so to speak. At times they were covered by immense black, probably plastic covers, somehow held down; other such walls were kept from crumbling by having dark stones attached, making quite attractive patterns. What was striking, whatever method of any others, was used, is the immense labor involved to secure these rocky cites, calling for a lot of people to scramble on these almost vertical sites.
   Meanwhile (so to speak), the roadway was well paved and modulated (so to speak), so that the path from up a mile up down to the Pacific Ocean was a smooth and scenic voyage. Of course I did not have to do the driving, but thoroughly enjoyed my vantage point next to the guy who did the work. Miguel also told me that the road we were on was one of the most expensive ever built—at least in Mexico. It showed!
   Not long after we hit bottom, with the road having flattened out, we arrived at our vacation destination, The Princess, a large and splendid establishment right on the ocean, with the sky an undeviating blue. 
Acapulco: Being There
   I correctly said, “large and splendid.” There are quite a few buildings, more than ten stories high, a—to me—unnumbered pools, irregularly shaped, looking as if nature had created them. I don’t know how many restaurants there are, but I am sure that they are all staffed with pleasant and competent young men—those are the only kinds I have experienced. Our rooms, mine adjacent and opening to, Miguel’s and Ellie’s is large and airy and well furnished. Luxury for the middle class I would say.
   And that, I surmise, is where most of our fellow Princess-inhabitants belong.  Probably at least a third, maybe more, are families with mostly one child, most of them pre-teens. I see them frolicking in the pool below from the balcony of my room.
   We have breakfast in one of the restaurants. Lots of dishes seem to be available, though I stick to my small repertoire, delivered by a vastly more nimble Ellie. (I would not be in Purgatory, but in Hades without her!)
   The day’s highlight was to spend a good chunk of time under a shading canvas at the ocean—service available. I watched a lot of little kids doing their thing in the ocean, but got sufficiently bored not to return the next day. Of course, Spanish was the going language at this ocean conversation; but since it was not mine, it left me out for long stretches.  
      Now we are back home in Ciudad Mexico. Still warm if not hot, but a bright blue sky. If I could pick my climate, I don’t think I could do better than Mexico City.


Sunday, December 18, 2016

Greetings of the Season

The End of 2016 is in Sight
   There was a time when toward the end of the year I would get a hold of attractive paper and fill a page with a report of the year’s events. These sheets would have to be folded and stuffed into envelopes and then stamped and mailed to relatives and friends. No more all that. The internet and the existence of an established blog leave only the job of writing.
   While that report would of necessity be considerably shorter than those end-of-year letters of yore, since getting on to 90, I do much less than I did say twenty years ago and, especially, because  I am resolved not to discuss my various Wehwehs (German baby talk for hurts) of which I have my share—big nuisances, but none life-threatening, so far. Instead I’ll have some comments about activities by the two generations of my hosts.
   If it isn’t clear, for the last four years or so, I have been living with my daughter Ellie’s family in the Noche Buena district of Mexico City. Its noches don’t seem to me to be distinctive; what dominates the neighborhood, rather, are the close by Plaza de Toros, the largest bullring in the world and a bit further on an equally voluminous Estadio de Futbal.
  The house, vintage 1950’s, is commodious, with my room on the second floor, a decent size and bright, furnished mostly with things of mine that go way back, with the chair I had as dean, comfortable, easy on my back, now reupholstered. The desk, just right, came from a local Office Depot, but was assembled in the house by one of their experts.  
   I spend a lot of time in that room, which I keep warm with an effective little heater. Excessive sensitivity to cold is one of my old age symptoms. I seldom go out of the house without a sweater under my jacket. Since I’m not at all a dresser, I’m happily in tune with the informality of local sartorial practices.
   In the front of my desk sits my Big Mac, not edible, but the center of my attention for a good part of my day at home. Except for checking emails, much of my mornings is spent with the New York  Times, now on internet, for decades before on paper. It’s an addiction that goes way back. I actually worked for The Times for some months as a “copy boy” (now probably an extinct species), after I got out of the Navy, waiting for my start at Columbia College. 
   Besides the Times, I of course use that computer to write (and not only for my blog) and to be in email touch with numerous friends and relatives. I have previously sung my praises to email as a way of communicating. Here I just want to say that it is what keeps me to some degree in touch with my former life.
   There you have what I might call a steady state account of my life, but I have surprisingly little to add about day to day activities. I get in a walk almost every day, shrunken in size from earlier days and always accompanied by someone, since I’m too wobbly not to fear falling. But that has been working very well, with one of several English-speaking companions.
   Besides those walks, I get out of the house (forget about doctors’ visits) with the family, especially to restaurants: Mexico City is a great place for eating. I also get to concerts, now mostly to Ellie’s with the Sinfonica Nacional of which she has been principal clarinet for over a quarter of a century. They perform in the splendid Palacio de Bellas Artes. But I don’t get to as many concerts as I used to.
   There is always the sound of music in the house; I call it Hausmusik: Ellie practicing, and mostly advanced clarinet and oboe students of Ellie’s and Miguel’s who teach them here, one hour apiece.
   When my grandchildren were still at home, we had a lot of interactions (to use a term I dislike), but now we communicate mostly by email and phone, with Max in his third year at the Rhode Island School of Design and Eva at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Max’s chief interest is animation, a very time-consuming task. He emails his clever one-minute cartoons, convincing me that he will get a good job in that industry when he graduates. Eva, now a freshman, is working at  a variety of artistic products and told me that she will bring home a poncho she has made for her fiber class. Both kids are doing well, but of course they are mostly not here, giving me my second “empty house” experience.
   I’m of course in touch with (son) Mark and his wife Shannon. Right now Mark is in Paris, filming stage productions for a Korean company, supervising a huge crew making use of seven cameras. Shannon is at home in Los Angeles and has shifted her main occupation to selling entire businesses. That takes a lot of hustling.
   I want to conclude by saying that I’m remarkably fortunate to be in Mexico City, embedded in a family, rather than at some retirement place, however posh and expensive. Ellie, my daughter, has adopted me as her third child and is a great “mother” to me. I wouldn’t trade my present lot for any other.
  But now I want to convey the best wishes to all my friends and readers, in the hope that you all have a most pleasant holiday season and, Donald Trump notwithstanding, a very good 2017!

   Cheers to all, Rudy

Friday, December 16, 2016


   Herewith the first post on this blog in Spanish. It is a slightly augmented verion of the piece posted on November 30 under the title “Service.” It was translated by Mathias Ball who has lately accompanied me to the Gypsy Fish. There he joins me in a drink—though not in an alcoholic one like my martini. I’d be interested to find out how many readers find a post in Spanish useful. If there is interest, Mathias, I am sure, would be happy to translate future pieces as well.

liente regular de un restaurante de la zona

Recientemente me volví un cliente regular en Gipsy Fish[1], un restaurante de mariscos cerca de nuestra casa, a una distancia suficiente que puedo considerar la caminata de ida y de regreso como mi ejercicio diario. Más importante es que me gustan bastante los mariscos, especialmente los camarones. Es un buen restaurante,  grande y bien cuidado, tiene un menú extenso y de buen precio. Como bonus para mí, aceptan mi MasterCard, que no me cobra extra por compras en pesos.
Todo esto es de suma importancia, pero hace unos meses agregaron una característica que los destaca entre los restaurantes de la Ciudad de México que he visitado: aunque no hay bar, están completamente dispuestos a aceptarme a mí y a mi acompañante si llegamos y decimos que sólo venimos por un trago.
Y la razón por la que con frecuencia voy sólo por un trago a un restaurante de mariscos es que Patrick, mi acompañante por mucho tiempo (pero ya de regreso en Bélgica) les enseñó mi receta para preparar un Martini.
No es una bebida tan común en México, así que instrucciones de un yanqui como yo no caen mal. Mi receta es cuatro a uno, así que cuatro partes de ginebra y una de vermut, seco. (Hasta eso sí me gustan mucho los Martinis, así que me sorprendió una vez que me senté a almorzar en la barra de un restaurante concurrido de San Francisco, donde un mesero me dijo que los servían sin una gota de vermut, para que nadie se quejara de que no estaba suficientemente seco.) Así que cuatro a uno es mi preferencia, aunque también disfruto de una ginebra sola.
Regresando a Gipsy Fish... Anina, mi acompañante de ese día, y yo fuimos a comer y nos recibieron con saludos amistosos, como siempre. Era temprano, aún no era hora de la comida, y los meseros no estaban ocupados. Los meseros, hombres y mujeres, no están uniformados, pero claramente son profesionales; no son estudiantes haciéndole de mesero en su tiempo libre para ganar un poco de dinero, sino meseros de profesión.
El capitán, el señor Refugio Gudiño —lo considero el maitre d´— nos recibió con la cordialidad de siempre y se aseguró que un martini y una margarita (para Anina) estuvieran listos lo más pronto posible. Anina y él conversaron (él no habla inglés y yo entiendo muy poco español), y se me dio un breve resumen: le había informado a Anina que habían ordenado algo para mí, un cojín para mi silla.
Hace tiempo había preguntado si podían prestarme un cojín para mi silla. Sus sillas están perfectamente bien, mi trasero es el que no tanto: a mi edad me siento prácticamente sobre mis huesos. Ese día trajeron un cojín del restaurante cruzando la calle, Gipsy Grill. Pero el amigable maitre d´ había tomado nota de mi necesidad y de que frecuentaba semanalmente su restaurante.
Este detalle y servicio es más de lo que jamás hubiera esperado. Y es producto de un profesionalismo al que, en mi experiencia, no tendrías acceso en Estados Unidos hasta llegar a un establecimiento más caro. Pero en México (en mi experiencia limitada) la gente se enorgullece en hacer bien sus trabajos. Hay respeto a lo que el filósofo F.H. Bradley llamó “mi estación y sus deberes”
Estoy completamente consciente de que hay desventajas a esta visión clasista de la sociedad, pero es una simplificación suponer que es inferior a la cuasi-igualitaria de los Estados Unidos. En algún punto tendré que hablar más al respecto.

P.d. Unos días después de que empezara a escribir esta pieza, mi acompañante Mathias y yo fuimos de nuevo por un martini (sólo para mí) y a almorzar. Me presentaron un cojín, suave y azul, con una gran sonrisa y una reverencia. Mi duro trasero y yo le dimos las gracias, regresando la sonrisa y la reverencia.

[1] Se encuentra en la esquina de Holbein y Rodin, justo en los límites de la colonia Noche Buena.

Monday, December 12, 2016


A Further Activity of My Life

  So far I have reported on four activities I have engaged in during a good part of my life. “Activity” is the vague and somewhat arbitrary term with which, so far, I have referred to doing woodwork, pursuing the study and teaching  of philosophy, being variously involved with classical music and being engaged with writing. If you think—rightly, for sure—that I’ve treated these themes with cavalier sketchiness, that fate is about to befall in spades, to the last activity I want to take up, administration. That theme is, in a way, more multifaceted than the others, so just conveying what one does when administering, cannot be made reasonably evident in a couple of pages. Accordingly, what I will say here will be exceedingly sketchy.1
   I was involved with administration from the time that I was an assistant professor at San Francisco State until just before I retired, a span of more than three decades. I started at SF State soon after I got my PhD and not very long after I got there the philosophy department wanted to recruit as chairman a “visible” philosopher. He, Sidney Zink, agreed to come, provided he did not have to do the “drudge work of chairmen, such as make up the schedules of department members—course assignments, class-times, room assignment, etc. I was drafted to be “assistant chairman” to do what Sidney didn’t want to do. Alas, Sidney, by then a good friend, died not very long after joining us of a virulent cancer. Willy-nilly, I became departmental chairman, still only an assistant professor.
   That was the first of three such philosophy chairmanships, that at Vassar and the University of Pittsburgh were the next two. I never sought out to chair anything and never resisted when I became papabile. I don’t really know why I was picked for those jobs. Perhaps simply because I was willing to take them on. To be sure, I was rational, calm, and task minded and not ideological. Perhaps my modest successes were the consequence of lying low.
   At Vassar, besides chairing philosophy, I became a BMOC, Big Man On Campus—or a big fish in a small pond—serving on various “important” campus-wide committees. My proudest achievement was to rewrite and rationalize Vassar’s faculty housing policy: how Vassar-owned houses should be assigned to faculty members. I wonder whether some version of it is still in force.
   After a stretch of such activities, I came to think that instead of spending much time on quasi-administrative chores, I should try full time administering and, perhaps, accomplish more. Accordingly, I let myself be considered in searches for administrative jobs and, before long, was selected to be dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University.
   Parenthetically, I might add that Fannia, was delighted. While she had adjusted remarkably well to living in Poughkeepsie, she did not think that any place with a population of less than a million was really a city. Indeed, she soon became a valued staff member of the Chicago Historical Society and edited their magazine.
   I had two advantages going into that deanship, neither having to do with me. First, there had  been no stability in that office for more than a decade. The last proper dean had served only a short time before considerable Vietnam-related unrest propelled him to become Northwestern’s president. His elevation was followed by a couple of years of interim appointments that were, in turn followed by a year of Hanna Gray in her first job as an administrator, who, shortly after her appointment as NU dean was induced to be provost at Yale. [A quaint coincidence, Northwestern’ College of Arts and Sciences had two deans in a row—Hanna and me—born in Heidelberg, though she was quite young when she left for the US in 1934 with her father, the historian, Hajo Holborn.
   As a result of this very checkered history at Northwestern, just about everything concerning the dean’s office had for years been neglected—curriculum, personnel, organization, etcetera. Everyone, especially the college’s faculty, was ready for a steady, but active hand at the helm. The second advantage was the fact that the provost, to whom I reported, was, to say the least, not a “hands on” administrator. I would see him in his office to tell him what I was going to do (when that was not routine) and just about always I got the answer my parents gave when I told them, as a teenager, what I wanted to do: “if you think so, Rudy”—except the provost didn’t say that in German, but quietly in English.
   So, at Northwestern I became an administrator full time. That divides into two categories: means and ends. Both matter, but, emphatically, ends have undisputed priority. At all times—all times!—one has to be clear about what one wants to achieve. What’s the goal ? What are you trying to accomplish there? Administration—at least as I conceive it—is not getting the paper out of the in basket into the out basket; that’s “merely” managing which, to be sure, must be done. Administration, at its core, is making effective moves toward envisaged goals.
   Sounds simple? Well it ain’t. Those goals have to be desirable—it would it be a good thing if they were brought about—and feasible—the means can be mustered to accomplish them. It’s obvious that the means to be picked must aim to bring about the ends to be achieved, but when we are talking about administration, it should be equally obvious that what is to be achieved must be determined with knowledge of what’s possible.
   All of this is terribly abstract until you realize that administration is an activity in institutions that have a structure and a history and, above all, have been brought into existence to perform a certain set of functions. So, a college of arts and sciences has a faculty, mostly organized into departments, brought together to teach students and to engage in what is called “research,” that is additions to the store of knowledge in the world.
   But of course administration is not creation ex nihilo, but is essentially modifying, whether in small or large ways, a preexisting structure with a given organization consisting of a cadre of personnel, and a great many practices, both formally determined or created by institutional history.
  Enough of these quasi-philosophical abstractions. They are relevant, but they don’t tell you much of daily administrative jobs. I’d say that the most important trait on that “lower” action level calls for two mundane traits. One is the ability to listen and to determine what is actually happening and the second calls for the ability to persuade the relevant people to do what is wanted. In short, a large ingredient in the activity of administration is rhetorical.
  This disquisition has been at too lofty a level of abstraction and the reader might well complain that she has found out little about administration. That is certainly true and I apologize for misleading you. But the fact is that but I’m not really inclined to give a nitty-gritty account of what it is to administer a chunk of humanity—a very big job.       

  1 Fitting Form to Function:  A Primer on the Organization of Academic Institutions. Second edition, Rowman & Littlefield/American Council on Education, 2011.