Semi-random thoughts on what I enjoy reading. Less coherent, perhaps, than usual around here:
Dante famously ratchets his storytelling up through the course of his travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven by how he shows things. In Hell (and I’m not going to Google the exact quotes, nope, not going to do it!) he starts his description of the horrors of the damned by saying: O Memory! Here thy shall show thy worth! or something like that. In other words, he is relying on his merely earthy and human mental faculties as the sources of his vision. However fantastic the tortures and dooms of the damned may be, they remain within the grasp – and experiences, poetically understood – of anyone, really. Reason in the person of Virgil is perfectly competent to see and explain the poetic justice that is at the core of Hell.
Once in Purgatory, among the saved who have been judged by a judgement they willingly embrace to be unready to endure the full glory of the Face of God, Dante can’t rely on his merely human faculties to describe and understand what he sees. Virgil seeks guidance and instruction from the souls whose understanding has been expanded by the Light of Christ denied simple human reason by the Fall. There is a lovely medieval symmetry in climbing through various stages of purgation to get back to the state of original human innocence at the Garden of Eden atop a mountain. Yet the penances here, and the Mercy and Justice of God that have degreed them, are not something Virgil can completely grasp unaided.
Dante the poet invokes the aide of the Muses in order to be able to describe what he sees, and points frequently to the substantial mystery of salvation that falls outside their ken. As a reader, in Hell you are having terrifying things pointed out to you, a terrible justice, and told to see. It is in your power, you know, your reason can work it out, that the punishments of the damned are chosen by them, and are just. The tone changes radically in Purgatory, where grace is asked for to aid our understanding. For we are walking on sacred ground.
Finally, in Heaven, we leave mere human reason behind. Virgil is left standing in Paradise. The message here is not that reason is wrong and that we should abandon it in favor of some murky idea of God’s direct infusion of divine grace. Instead, we use the grace of reason – the blessing of being made in the image of God – to seek His guidance. With His help, delivered through a hierarchy of secondary causes – other penitents, the prayers of the faithful, the teachings of the Church, the very penances assigned to the particular sins, the whole world around us – we can climb back to a state of innocence.
Which is not enough.
In Heaven, Dante the poet seeks the aid of highest Heaven, and acknowledges his inadequacy. While Hell is described via definite statements – here I saw, there they lay – Heaven’s glories are couched in doubt – I think I saw, it appeared to me. It works. The reader gets the awe and wonder through sharing Dante’s feelings of inadequacy in the face of the Divine. By not describing anything in Heaven with definite certainty, he manages, paradoxically, to describe Heaven in its awe and wonder and love. The Lover is compelled to praise the Beloved, and words fail, and in that failure succeed.
In this sense, Dante succeeds by neither showing nor telling.
From the sublime to the not as sublime: in The Night Land, Hodgson gives evocative names to the horrors of the Night Land and consistently resist any temptation to describe them in any detail – you get gigantic, imperceptibly slow-moving, cold, eerily lit – but that’s about it. They’re just Out There, full of malice and inhumanly patient.
Way scarier than any detailed description could ever render them.
As a counterpoint, was thinking of Jack Vance’s The Moon Moth. In this classic story, Vance creates with a few deft strokes an incredibly vivid and alien world, and fills it with amazing cultural detail. One the one hand, he, like Dante and Hodgson in their very different ways, leaves a lot to the imagination. Yet he also dumps a huge amount of information on the reader, which is critical to the satisfactory resolution of the protagonist’s problems.
As a reader, I never even noticed the info dumps at the time. Only in retrospect are the fairly frequent passages of explanation in Vance’s short stories apparent. Part of the trick, I think, is spooning it out over time so the individual chunks aren’t too big, and leaving plenty of mystery. In Moon Moth, it is only in the last couple paragraphs that all the pieces come together, and only after you’ve reached the point where the protagonist is surely doomed – by the same social conventions that end up saving him! In The Dragon Masters, he pulls a related trick, where only at the end are you able to piece together the large number of clues he’s left lying about to reach the shocking conclusion.
Asking how he does this – how he manages on the one hand to be very spare in his descriptions while on the other packing the exposition with what often seem like asides but turn out to be critical information – and yet writes as gripping a story as just about anyone, is, I suppose, where the genius lies.
Now somebody who writes tell me it’s just planning and hard work.
Finally, there’s Cordwainer Smith, who, even more than Vance, drops you in the middle of the action and only gradually throws you a lifeline but never quite gets you feet back on solid ground. It feels like he never explains anything, although a moment’s reflection – thinking of Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons (I spelled that wrong in the right way, before looking it up! And I can’t spell ‘amatuer’ right 9 times out of 10.) shows that he, indeed, does. It’s a weird morality play, where Smith breaks the wall to talk to the reader on a number of occasions, yet still maintains an air of mystery, surprise, and inevitable horror.
Most of his stories leave me a bit awed and scratching my head – what was THAT? Where did that come from?
I’ll be 60 in 2 months. This is cause for self-indulgent navel-gazing self-reflection. Also, I’m feeling a bit better, let’s see if I can write anything.
The only things in my life I’m unequivocally happy about are my marriage and our children. Work? Nah. Grim necessity that is made worthwhile by the just mentioned wife and kids. I’m a stone expert in certain arcane corners of equipment finance. Not a great conversation starter. I dread answering the question: what do you do for a living? I tend to say ‘sell software’ because it’s true, although not really the heart of the story – which no one wants to hear anyway.
Got a boatload of hobbies that have evolved over time. Love to make things out of wood – our house is full of bookcase, tables, shelves, and boxes I’ve made.
Giant pizza peel
our patio table, seats about 10
Archery rack, drawer for arrows. It has since had a few swords added.
Bar-b-que table made from old signposts
giant toy box on wheels
For the last few years, it’s been bricks:
Pizza oven, rear
Pizza oven, front, with it’s oak door
front walk with planters and bench
front walk in progress – the fun part: actually laying bricks!
Pouring concrete – a necessary evil.
The woodworking I’ve been doing since I was 5. The first thing I remember trying to build was a boat, out of scraps of paneling left over from redoing the garage. Remember cutting a piece into a gothic arch sort of shape, and trying to attach sides with finish nails – yikes! Didn’t get real far, but kept at if for a good while, as my handsaw chops were, I imagine, only slightly better than your typical 5 year old. Realized it would never work because I could never get the seams closed enough to hold water. I remember sitting in it and pretending, though.
My proudest childhood achievement was a total remake of a 4′ x 8′ playhouse my older brothers had built earlier, when I was 11:
Added a 2nd floor, which required reinforcing the ceiling/roof;
Repurposed a ladder from a bunk bed into a super-cool retractable ladder hinged to a board that fit into the ceiling – the whole thing was balance by a series of pulleys, nylon cord and a coffee can full of rocks, so that when you lifted it, it just rose right up into the ceiling;
Added a door and windows that could be closed.
Added some railing around the top floor so kids wouldn’t fall 60″ to their deaths.
Ended up converting the playhouse into a workspace for balsa wood models, of which I made maybe 3-4.
Also, at age 5, my mother let me plant some pansies in a little spot by the front porch. I was fascinated by them, watched them grow. I have no green thumb, but do love growing things. Put in an orchard this past spring:
Peaches on the left, apricots on the right.
Pomegranite. This little bush – and I’m trimming it to keep it a bush – is one vigorous, undisciplined little guy – trimmed it twice already!
Dwarf fig, on the walk to the front door.
I’ve tried and mostly failed to grow stuff over the years, in the sense that, for example, the few tomatoes I’ve grown are very expensive even if I value my time at next to zero. I can’t even grow zucchini. But I keep trying.
Back to my wasted youth. Then we moved. At age 12, started working for my dad on Saturdays and eventually summers at his sheet metal fabrication shop, sweeping floors and cleaning up the scrap metal. Eventually learned to do most activities except welding (a failure I regret to this day) and set up of the fabricators and presses. (I was pretty good with a blowtorch – 35+ years ago!)
Dad had a heart attack at 59 that nearly killed him, and turned him from a high-energy maniac into a more plodding and easily-tired maniac. His doctor told him he had to sell the business. Neither of my older brothers was interested in working with my dad, I was all of 18 at the time – and so, after a 15 year run, Astro-Fab was sold, and my parents and youngest brother moved to Newport Beach.
Skipping over the boring basketball/drama/choir combo that occupied my time in highschool (and made me the oddest of ducks even before you factor in my reading habits – V-II docs, Plato and Asimov’s non-fiction, for example. Fit right in!), we get to a possibly odd little fact: I grew up in a blue-collar household, where achievement meant making something you could see. There was no value placed on what might be called intellectual achievements.
This bias toward stuff you can, as Ted Nugent says, bite and away from less concrete achievements I absorbed with my mother’s milk. It just is. College was, in some sense, baffling to me: unlike high school, which was filled with students who could have hardly cared less (or were careful to project that image) about intellectual stuff, here were all these people my age who, for example, kept papers they’d written! Like the written word was some sort of achievement to be proud of!
I could not imagine. Intellectually, I get it, but even now there’s a part of me that whispers: writing is not work, it’s not worth anything. (This same voice tells me in the same way that I, likewise, am not worth anything. Package deal.)
I try to battle on. When I decided to write music (left out the part about taking piano at age 15 – bless them, the folks were cool with it), I developed a beautiful music script, even going so far as to get some calligraphy tools to make sure it was pretty. This, despite my handwriting being all but completely illegible. See, I think I needed to make it pretty to look at in order for me to think it was worth anything. Or something – all I know is that, when I wrote music, I compulsively wrote it out again at least once, to get the spacing right and clean it up. Pretty sure I spent as much or more time writing it out as I did composing the music in the first place.
Had one musical triumph: got a composition teacher in Santa Fe when I was maybe 23 who also directed the Santa Fe Women’s Ensemble. After a few lessons, she told me the Ensemble would perform a piece if I wrote one for them.
Wow. So I threw myself into writing something, decided to go ultra traditional and set the Kyrie. The first part was very much inspired by traditional polyphony; she told me to make the Christe part contrasting – which I overdid, a little harmonically adventurous, let’s say. Anyway, it was OK – I spent hours writing out a beautiful copy, even got a calligrapher friend to do a cover page – and they sang it, people paid to go to that concert, even got reviewed (favorably – the reviewer compared my piece to Victoria – I blush!) .
And – can I find that review? Can I find that recording? I can lay my hands on the music, I think, because I made a bunch of copies for the Ensemble – in a accordian folder somewhere.
Was I thrilled? Did I go on to be a composer, at least as a hobby? No, and pretty much no. Have a small pile of pieces, almost all incomplete, almost all 35+ years old. They molder.
Around this time I decided I actually enjoyed writing. This is pre word processor, and I don’t know how to type (this self-indulgent dump is brought to you by fast hunt & peck). Don’t know why I liked it. But here we are: half a dozen years, 1200+ blog posts and a million words later. Got piles of mostly unfinished stories and parts of maybe 3 novels accumulated over the last 30 years doing the electronic equivalent of moldering.
So: can I spend the years left to me overcoming a lifetime of failure to follow through and complete intellectual things, and get some stuff finished?
The issue that triggered my research is this: the idea that people have a right to the quiet enjoyment of their lives. English common law recognized that right, breaking it into two parts: common, where some activity or failure to act impairs the ability of the people in general to quietly enjoy their lives in public, and private, where some private persons are deprived of the quiet enjoyment of something, such as leased property, to which they have specific, privately contracted rights.
Thus, the office of Inspector of Nuisances. Somebody has got to check out claims that, for example, somebody is making too much of a racket in the commons or that the neighbors are burning trash upwind.
Inspectors of nuisances eventually became public health inspectors, charged with dealing with sewage and slums and trash. Wonder if this delightfully named office could be resurrected and repurposed to deal with the messes people make when they dump their personal garbage on the intellectual and moral landscape?
That the modern intellectual and moral landscape more and more is a dump and open sewer only becomes an issue for our newly-commissioned Inspector of Nuisances if it infringes on our quiet enjoyment. While it is still conceivable that a private person might simply ignore what goes on in public, never opening a browser or newspaper or turning on a TV, the situation is such that that they’d need to shield their eyes whenever out and about. If one were generous and dedicated enough, that might work, for now.
But, we are told, politics is everything. Part of the dumpster fire we’d be attempting to ignore is the claim that we can’t ignore it, that there’s no such thing as a private life. Thus, even if we were determined to not let the garbage into our private lives, there are demonstrably those unwilling to let us do so, that even our claim to have a private life is wrong and must be crushed.
Examples: Private businesses are now subject to the rules of modern intolerance; social media are increasingly censored for politically unacceptable speech; schools are used (as designed) for inculcation of the latest, most modern ideas, and attempts to free our kids from this outrage are treated as practically treason, which, under the rules of the champions of education, they are.
(This gets back to the problem of toleration discussed briefly in the last post – a ‘consensus’ that includes the idea that the state always knows better than the parents cannot tolerate dissention, while the old pseudo-convention could. The Supreme Court in Pierce v. Society of Sistersagreed that, while parents have the ultimate duty and consequent right to educate their own children, the state also has a duty and right to see to it that those children are educated. I fear it is not in the nature of things for the state to settle for having shared rights whenever it could have sole rights.)
If my business, my conversations and my decisions on how to educate my children are not private, the sphere of ‘private’ has shrunk drastically.
Chesterton repeatedly makes the point that the only place one can truly be free is with family and friends. In public, you are only free to conform. Even protests are conventional. By trying to make all things political, victims of post-modern ideas insist on public and private (because those are the same thing!) acceptance of those ideas. The very idea of quiet enjoyment, where what I do is my own business for my own pleasure but only on the condition that I honor the same rights in others, is an outrage, and in any event cannot be tolerated – it is a threat to the whole post-modern house of cards.
I can’t shake this, but I also lack time to do the level of research to even make it a good working theory. So take this as the speculation it most certainly is:
When looking at the history of Chicago for the last century or so, one thing is clear: it has been run by the Mob. Much of the time, such as under ‘Bathhouse’ John Coughlin in the early 20th century or Fred Roti in latter part, the Mob’s running of the city was quite overt – these men were both well-known criminals and elected officials, and you crossed them at your very real peril.
Other times, the Chicago Outfit has been more subtle – not a lot more subtle, but at least the guys in charge weren’t widely known to be made men. But any way you slice it, Chicago politics has been Mob politics for generations now.
And it still seems to be. I’ve looked in vain for the reform moment, the point where somebody cleaned house, threw people in jail, and made a fresh start. Nope. When Fred Roti, a made man dying of cancer, was ‘caught’ by somebody wearing a wire – a wire that, oddly enough, never caught anybody else doing anything illegal – he went to jail in 1993 without too big a fuss, and left a ‘legacy’ of having launched the careers of dozens of current and former Chicago politicians.
At what point, then, did political control of Chicago pass from criminal hands? It never did seems to be the only viable answer.
I have friends and acquaintances who are proud Chicagoans. They seem to more or less consciously make the self-fulfilling assumption that all politicians are crooks. Certainly, nothing in their immediate experiences would prove them wrong. Therefore, all that really matters is that the crooks keep enough of a lid on their criminal activities so that it can plausibly be maintained that it isn’t *that* bad, and keep the pork rolling to the constituents.
You think this is too harsh, maybe? Consider the Boston Southies, who treated Whitey Bulger as a hero because a) he was one of them; and b) he sometimes played Robin Hood and threw around a little cash. His willingness to support his brother Billy Bulger’s political career was standing up for his brother, like any good Southie would do. Only when he was tried for murder as an old man did it seem to dawn on people that the guys getting murdered and the families left behind were most often ones of them, too. It might even have been them getting murdered or left widowed. But, like retractions in the New York Times, their changes of heart were relatively muted.
Coughlin and his partner and fellow alderman Michael ‘Hinky Dink’ Kenna were generally thought very kindly of by the people of Chicago. True, under their management the perhaps less lovable but vastly more, shall we say, efficient Italians took charge – Johnny Torrio & Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, who in turn more or less handed off much of the leadership duties to the Roti clan. Fred, the youngest Roti, seems to have handed off leadership to a committee. I suspect Rahm Emmanuel runs it now, or at least is the designated figurehead (although Rahm’s intelligence and ego would appear to make him a poor choice as a figurehead. Unlike a certain former president, who would seem to have the perfect skill set for the job. But I digress.)
The Untouchables famously got Al Capone. While the Mob works hard and with considerable success at making sure it has control of local law enforcement, the FBI has, as in the case of Capone, proven on occasion more difficult. The FBI got Roti, but under conditions that make it pretty clear Fred was taking one for the team. I’m pretty sure – and here’s where I should stop and do some research, but I just don’t have time right now – that the FBI has been deeply involved in the endless stream of Chicago politicians and mobsters (but I repeat myself) who have been caught and convicted.
So here’s my little conspiracy theory: one of the goals of the Obama presidency was to reign in the FBI. Not that Obama himself would get involved in this – he seems to be the Warren G. Harding of this age, except without Harding’s self-awareness – but he brought essentially his entire team with him from Chicago to the White House. In that team were certainly people that the likes of Roti knew they could work with, as it were. A key guy here, an informant there, a guy in position to put the brakes on over there – and, voila! While you may not be able to stop the rank and file agents from doing their jobs, you can make sure nothing much comes of it.
All this is brought to mind, of course, by the items in the news describing how, shockingly, a number of people in the FBI seems to have their loyalties first to Obama and then Clinton, and only second, if at all, to their duties. This is exactly what I would have expected, and is one of the reasons for the clear panic that seems to have gripped many in Washington with the election of Trump. I’m guessing – and here, again, is mere speculation – that there’s a lot of agents with a lot of dirt, starting just below the head honchos.
I suppose we’ll see. Or, if the Outfit is still at the top of its game, maybe we won’t.
Here are two not-quite-complete yet compelling to me thoughts that haunt the windswept hallways of my head. Or something like that. When I consider history, especially the history of philosophy, it seems that certain ideas fall into stages: somebody forcefully, if not particularly logically, takes a position that sticks it to a particular concept of The Man. Then, thinkers come along who like the earlier forceful statement or its consequences, and they back-fill and scaffold it so that it can claim some respectability. Finally, the respectable-ish philosophical positions get reduced to slogans or New Think or something like that. Sets like this – old, forceful idea; philosophical back-fill; slogan – occur to me regularly. Of course, now that I sit down to type, I can only recall this one Triad. More later as events warrant.
I think that, for the people who believe them, these thoughts occupy the same strange emotional landscape, even if the logical connections are hidden (they’re there, but hidden).
Lot of drivel for a 3/4 baked idea. Anyway:
Post-Modern: You don’t understand because you aren’t woke.
Hegelian: The Spirit is not constrained by the rules of traditional logic.
Luther: Reason is a whore.
Ponder. There really is a subset of people who get things done – leaders, we often call them – whose defining intellectual and emotional trait is defining and fixing on a goal, and then backing into the steps needed to achieve it. You see this, if it is the sort of thing you notice, at every level of life: the business and political worlds, certainly, but also the school meeting and church cleanup committee, and everywhere in between.
Many people, most people, it seems, rarely if ever notice what leaders are doing, but rather just notice who it is they’re following. They hear a heavily abstracted version of a goal – affordable health care, a great America (again) – and that’s all. Only a minority ask how, in detail, we are to achieve the goal, or even for a clear definition of what the goal is. All they do is decide which heavily abstracted vision they will accept. It has taken me, a very small ‘l’ leader, a lifetime to understand this, and has caused me a lifetime of frustration – I want to explain, people don’t want an explanation. But they will follow.
Weird. I wouldn’t and don’t follow in that sense. Odd duck, me.
The constant regurgitation of Hillary’s popular vote ‘victory’ by her, I suppose, shell-shocked supporters is getting almost as pitiful as it is telling. They just don’t understand how Trump & his team would do what they obviously did: simply back into what steps were needed to win according to the rules in place at the time, and then execute the hell out of them. So, for a fraction of the money Hillary spent, they won. And Trump’s claim that, had the rules called for a popular vote victory instead, he’d have won that, too, ring true in light of the evidence at hand.
This state of things is, I think, simply inconceivable to a large number of people. They want to believe, and therefore do believe, there are essentially magical forces at work, forces that reward Right Thinking on the Right Side of History. These are the mental processes needed to be a socialist True Believer – the concepts break down at every step once you consider the real world so the true believer never considers the real world. Every failure is the fault of some other factor – not True Socialism; every success, however problematic upon examination, is conclusive. Sweden must be a paradise; Venezuela is not Real Socialism.
What to do about the resistance of the real world to beautiful theory? We’ll just make New Soviet Men to replace the recalcitrant and unwieldy people we actually have, and everything will be wonderful! This seems practical and doable to certain people.
That such thinking is common would be even more panic-inducing if it weren’t for the mitigating grace that such thinkers don’t lead. On the flip side, it is terrifying to realize the people who do lead in this direction don’t think this way – they merely want power, which includes the power to eliminate those persistently recalcitrant and unwieldy people.
Many years ago, my wife worked at a law firm that employed a man I’ll call the Popcorn Guy as an office gofer. He was slovenly and grossly overweight, but laughed a lot, and so seemed to get along, more or less, with the staff. They even gave him so sort of employee award at some company dinner or other. Management had nice things to say about the Popcorn Guy’s cheerfulness as they awarded him.
Being nearly as low on the totem pole as the Popcorn Guy, my wife had a different perspective. To her eyes, the Popcorn Guy was always angry about something, had a very difficult time taking even basic instruction, and was all and all not a pleasant person. Once, they got some sort of office popcorn maker to which one added oil as well as popcorn (hot air evidently not having been invented yet). The Popcorn Guy asks – doesn’t look at the instructions, just asks – how much oil to put in. Several people say some tiny amount, along the lines of a tablespoon or two. Popcorn Guy proceeds to put in several times that amount of oil, pops a bowl and eats the greasy results with no fear anyone else will want any.
Management wanted him to be some sort of jolly fat guy, a colorful and lovable character, and so they pretended he was and failed to see he wasn’t. A little while later, he was let go. Don’t know what precipitated his firing, but it seems management’s view of the Popcorn Guy caught up with the understanding of those who actually worked elbow to elbow with him.
No profound insights or anything here, just an observation: not only are we sorely tempted to see what we want to see, we tend to understand people’s behaviors against whatever slot we’ve put them in. We’re able to reinterpret away behavior that would otherwise contradict our pre-judgement. At least, until we can’t.
My own interpersonal skills and impulse control, while within ‘normal’ ranges for a 20th century man, are not particularly good, probably below the mean (pretending here that we could measure such things numerically in some non-farcical way. But you get the drift.). I seem to function OK. But I sometimes wonder if my role isn’t something like the child who points out the Emperor is naked, not because I have any superior insight, but just because a lot of the posturing goes right over my head. Or I’m just kidding myself – it would be hard for me to tell, wouldn’t it?
Saw that our president was catching flak over having misspelled “Philippines” in a tweet, complete with grave ponderings over what it means that such a careless person holds the reigns of power. As a somewhat spelling-challenged person, I’ll point out that Philippines is not only a tricky word to spell, but it’s one of those evil words that doesn’t look wrong when you misspell it. Anyway, I have a difficult time extrapolating from misspelled tweets to Apocalyptic Danger. Spelling errors in informal communications don’t shake the foundations of my world, even when the president makes them.
This brings to mind Dubya’s constant mispronunciation of “nuclear”. For people who assumed, contrary to all evidence, that Bush the Younger was singularly stupid for a politician, this common mispronunciation was maddening proof – a moron stole the election from Gore the Brilliant!! Woe and Ruin!! I, not really caring much beyond being happy that with Bush as president, at least the arrogant hypocrite tool wasn’t (I take comfort where I can), saw an Old Money Blue Blood Yankee with elite Ivy education playing a calculated card: my supporters, for most part, either mispronounce “nuclear” themselves or have loved ones who do so. Therefore, it will make me seem more like them (along with the fake-ish Southern accent and cowboy boots). That it will only infuriate those who would never support me anyway is also a plus – makes my opponents look like petty weasels to my base. Win-win!
As far as intelligence – an admittedly hard to define idea – goes, seemed to me that, of the presidents during my adult life, Reagan and Dubya were similarly intelligent – pretty darn smart, Bush the Elder was a little smarter, Clinton was very, very smart – and Carter and Obama were clearly less smart. I say this based on their actual achievements and having heard them speak *off the cuff*. Let’s take them one by one:
Carter seemed completely overwhelmed as president from day one, like all it would take is a well-timed ‘boo!’ or a stiff breeze to cause him to collapse in a heap. What came out of his mouth off-script was often sheer nonsense. We – I include my 18-yr old self, who voted for him – tended to overlook that because he seemed like a good man with his heart in the right place. But objectively? A muddle-headed do-gooder (a dangerous type to have in power!) who was way over his head as president. His post-president role with Habitat for Humanity seems much more suited to his skill level.
Reagan got his big breaks by being tall, good looking and having a super-sized dollop of ah-shucks boyish charm. The intelligence kicks in when he played that hand to stardom, presidency of the Screen Actor’s Guild, governor of California and then the Presidency. Because, frankly, that’s just not that good of a hand. Thousands of people who never made it in Hollywood had that hand, and more. Reagan was also able to express himself very well on or off script. He seemed to have a deep understanding of where he stood on things, and was able to get it across. That’s no mean skill.
People loved or hated Reagan because he consistently said the big ‘No’: No, this whole Progressive thing isn’t on the Right Side of History, but on the murdering, impoverishing, enslaving side – as history itself shows. And they knew, in their hearts, it was true. Can’t get any more heroic/hateful than that! And then he went and succeeded, pretty much. And the Soviet Union fell.
So Reagan has his own wing on Mt. Olympus or bolgia in Hell – take your pick.
Bush the Elder is by all accounts a very smart man, and an honest to goodness war hero for which he will always have my respect. His big break was being born into the Bush family. At least early on, there seems to have been a strong kicked-out-of-the-nest go-do-something-with-your-life ethic in the Bush tribe, with of course the advantage of old money being able to kick down doors. Again, as in the case of Reagan, that’s a good start, but not enough, at least at the Bush family’s level of wealth. That’ll get you opportunities and maybe promotions, but won’t make you a lot richer or get you elected to Congress. Bush played the hand he was dealt quite well.
Unlike Reagan (or even, to some extent, his own son), H.W. doesn’t give the impression of a clear-headed True Believer. One always suspects he’s not saying what he really thinks. I think that’s part of the reason he seems to babble off-text. All in all, I have the least clear impression of Bush the Elder than of any other presidents on this list, except that he’s not stupid by any stretch.
Clinton is the clear intelligence winner on this list, it seems to me. Very smart man. I will here mention what should be obvious: intelligence doesn’t equal goodness, or in fact have all that much to do with it. I don’t like smart presidents any more than less smart ones for that fact alone. It’s just one item in a mix.
Clinton got few breaks aside from being very, very smart, and charming as all get out, which gifts he played to the hilt. He gets the Don King ‘dug myself out of the damn ground just to reach the starting line’ award here. Both his academic achievements and the way he managed his political career speak of one very sharp dude. Greedy, unscrupulous, dishonest, manipulative, self-destructive – sure. But way smart.
Dubya seems like a pretty typical Ivy dude trying hard to pass as a normal human being. As the ‘nuclear’ story illustrates, I think there’s a calculated side to him that his critics seems to always miss. You have to be pretty smart to carry that off convincingly enough to get elected president, which he did twice. Plus the stories about him assigning nicknames to everyone shows a man with a clear grasp of how one reinforces Alpha-male status. You are what he says you are, no matter how playfully it may seem. Frat bro trick.
As hinted at above, I think Dubya really truly believes – something. If he were clear-headed enough to allow the thought to crystalize, probably something along the lines that he and his kind really, really need to be in charge – for our own good. Nothing scares people accustomed to generational leadership and control more than the idea that we don’t actually need generational leadership and control. But I’m not sure how Bush understands this, just that he seems motivated by convictions of some sort.
Aside: politics comes from culture which comes from family, so nothing could be more natural than for an old family to suppose that they must be in control, since 1) they and their peers are families; and 2) they are cultured and carriers and transmitters of culture. But a good, solid culture coming from good solid families doesn’t need for some elite to be in control of politics generation after generation. Politics exists as an expression of the need to protect and promote family and the community life that results from family. Once personal rights got severed from family and community rights and duties, we were doomed. How we reestablish those connections, if they can be reestablished, is the big question. Onward:
If it weren’t for Trump, Obama would be the president with the widest chasm between what people think of him – project on him, really – and what he really seems to be. My take is tainted, perhaps, by having spent far too much time in and around colleges and schools. What I see, and saw the first time I watched O in action, was every star pupil, every teacher’s pet, I’d ever known rolled up into one.
What I see is the Warren G. Harding of this generation, except without Harding’s humble self-awareness. Harding, it seems, was aware on some level that he had no business being president, that his wife and friends and cronies had put him up to it because, frankly, he looked and sounded like a president:
Obama strikes me as what happens when a kid has been patted on the head his whole life and told what a smart boy he is. He comes to believe it. Coupled with his good looks, photogenic family and decent (wildly overrated, IMO) oratory skills, all he lacked was Harding’s big break – somebody else to decide he’d make a good president. Good for that somebody else, at least.
O is no better than Dubya at speaking off script. It is very telling how Dubya’s mistakes off the cuff were reported as harbingers of the End Times, while O’s equally goofy mistakes were nothing to be alarmed at. If we were honest, we’d know it’s very, very difficult when speaking off the cuff to keep it clean and clear. Most of the time, such stumbles should carry little if any weight. It’s a rare gift to not stumble around when put on the spot like that. (Netanyahu seems to have it, or just rehearses very, very thoroughly. Small sample size.)
The praises heaped upon Obama’s oratory and brilliance have seemed wildly hyperbolic from the start. This is a brilliant man and orator for the ages? Truly, projection in the service of wish fulfillment has no bounds.
Nope, nothing in O’s history or performance suggests anything above a high-normal intelligence – right about where I’d place Dubya. He’s a smart man, but nothing special, EXCEPT he grew up in an academic world, with an academic for a mom and grandparents, and academic aspirations and expectations.
Just as Dubya’s family expected him to get through school – Ivy, of course – and then get out and get on with making something of himself, O’s family expected him to do well in school – Ivy, of course – and then aspire to something approved of by academics. So he became a professor, then, after the degenerate hopes and dreams of modern academia, a community organizer.
As mentioned above, I’ve spent a lot of time around academics, both as a student and socially (I even stepped in to co-teach a college class once. I should tell that story sometime.) Since I got out of highschool, I’ve routinely signed up for classes wherever I could – my transcripts look insane! I’ve gotten credits from at least 7 institutions (off the top of my head). Hung around with a Stanford crowd for a couple years – choir – including a number of elite professors. And:
Academics – and there are of course exceptions – are among the most hypersensitive egomaniacs I’ve ever run across. This is in inverse proportion to the ‘hardness’ of their specialties: Math professors are comfortable in their skins, accounting profs can be. They know that their positions depend on objectively verifiable and valuable expertise. Business ethicists? (Yes, I had to take that class.) My sample brooked NO challenges, while of course presenting as laid back, open-minded and above all FAIR. Comp Lit? Right. These types know that, really, there are a lot of people who could do the part of their job of any value, and that they got that job only due to luck or the fact that they gave the hiring committee the most boxes to check off.
And don’t even go there with various ‘studies’ professors. Yikes. They know deep inside that not only did they get their job to fill some quota, nothing they know or teach has any intrinsic value to anybody. That’s why they’re so loud – can’t give the small quiet voice any chance to be heard.
So: when I meet academics – and, let’s be clear, I tend to like academics, they’re often very interesting if you get them talking – I start wondering. I don’t immediately go to: this is a member of the intellectual elite, to whom I owe some obsequious bows. I think: here’s a guy who might know something interesting about some narrow field or other, and, to paraphrase Chesterton, was smart enough to get the degree and dull enough to want it.
So, back to O. I’m not impressed that he was a professor of constitutional law. Of all the areas of law, that’s the one closest to philosophy and farthest from real life. Thus, susceptible to conquest by posers. Show me something. Second, give me a guy who has run a corner store in a iffy neighborhood over a community organizer, if I want someone who understand the downtrodden. So, not impressed. O would not dominate the faculty lounge, nor could time in the ‘hood be expected to teach him anything – he expects to teach them.
But what O did do, like Harding, is attract the attention of ambitious people. The people who run Chicago. People who know how to get things done. People who know *ahem* how to get people elected. Unlike Harding, O seems to believe his own PR.
Finally, Trump sure polarizes people, so that folks like me, who don’t think he’s either some glorious savior nor the the new He Who Shall Not Be Named, have to explain, it seems, why we don’t love or hate him the proper amount. Because, ultimately, he’s just a guy? Who will be president for at most 8 years? Who has given no indication he has any plans for internment camps nor mass deportations? (Unlike Antifa, which has announced its deep hope for a chance to kill a few tens of millions like other good Communists. But I digress…)
Cunning is the word that springs to mind when considering Trump. He’s certainly no dummy, as he will happily tell you. I worry more that he’s a true believer – in Trump. As mentioned in other posts, he went from old school New York liberal to crusading conservative with whiplash-inducing suddenness. What gives me the most hope: his ultimate agenda seems to be to stick it to the people who pooh-poohed him – and, frankly, I’m on board with that. As also mentioned elsewhere here, he seems to make the right heads explode.
And, if we accept spite and vengeance as the operative premise, the dude is very, very cunning. As far as intelligence goes, there are many different flavors, and looking to the one Trump is working with here, he’s a genius. He wouldn’t, and doesn’t, get any respect in the faculty lounge, but as a wheeler-dealer street-brawler type huckster, he’s absolutely brilliant.
The above opinions are worth what you paid for them.
Bach is good. I just know you were all waiting breathlessly for me to tell you that. But really, Bach is good in so many ways. Trying to play some Bach on the piano focuses and calms the mind. Even fairly simple Bach – all I’m ever likely to try – occasions that lovely combination of real learning and humility one gets, often, from reading Great Books – on the one hand, you have the thrill of learning new and beautiful things, while on the other, a growing certainty that you’re missing even more, and more profound, stuff, so that if you kept at it for the rest of your life you might not plumb the depths.
The side benefits include improved technique – I don’t know if I’ve ever tried a new piece of Bach’s without running into some requirement that I’d never run across before, framed up so that you’re dying to get it down. Also, the thrill you feel the first time, however haltingly, you play one of those little pieces all the way through – hard to describe, other than ‘satisfying.’
Bach may be the poster child for Chesterton’s quip that whatever is worth doing is worth doing badly.
I am a terrible piano player. No false modesty here – I suck. But, like Jack Sparrow being a pirate, I am a piano player – just not a very good one. To put it generously.
Over the last decade or so, I’ve been hacking away at the Well-Tempered Clavier off and on. It’s Just So Good. My playing would cause good musicians to cover their ears or leave the room. I’ve hacked through maybe half a dozen of the preludes and fugues so that I at one time could kinda play them all the way through without cratering too obviously, and a dozen more where there’s at least a few spots, often more, where, as they politely say of Rolls Royces, it fails to proceed.
The pattern: I get all enthusiastic, have my 40 year old copy of the WTC open on the piano, and start hacking away. My reading sucks – I look like a nearly blind man deciphering hieroglyphics as I stare at the mysterious black squiggles, and sound almost that good. Painful. But after a few tries, my one musical talent – I can memorize, at least short term, like a boss – I’ve uploaded the music into RAM. (This talent, not coincidentally, contributes to why I’m such a poor reader. That, and my squirrel-level attention span and focus. And lazy. Always figure lazy into it.)
So I start pounding away. Bach is very unforgiving of poor fingering, and of course my default fingering sucks, so I start in with the pencil, writing little numbers next to notes, circling them, arrows, stars – whatever it takes to remember I need a ‘1’ there or my left hand will look like a knot by the end of the phrase. And it won’t sound very good.
Hack hack hack. After a hundred times through, the fingering starts to feel natural, things start to get a little smoother. And –
Ever seen a little kid playing basketball start throwing up 30 ft shots? Because his idol Steph Curry throws up 30 ft shots? The little kid ignores his own inability to make a layup and the couple of decades Curry spent honing his ungodly natural talents. The kid doesn’t make very many Curry style.
Invariably, right about the time I start getting it down at a nice slow pace, I go all Glenn Gould or Vladimir Ashkenazy, playing it way too fast for me, because a lot of these little pieces sound good real fast, and that’s how the big dogs play it.
Here’s Daniel Berenboim playing the C# Major Prelude. This isn’t even particularly fast for this little piece.
I can play it that fast. Kind of. Even sounds OK about every third try if you don’t listen too hard. But at about 75% of that speed, I can play it so it’s not horrible – where the two hands mostly stay together, and the little turn-arounds Bach puts in about every 2 measures (anybody who’s tried this knows exactly what I’m talking about) where there are fingering landmines and just awkward bits (like notes that need to be crisp, fast and played with the 4th and 5th fingers of the left hand) – well, still working on getting those right at pro speed.
Anyway, the next step, after a few weeks, couple months, tops, is I get frustrated, bored or distracted and wander off to the next shiny object in view, with another 2-3 preludes and fugues almost down, not quite – and the memory bleed-off starts.
A year or three later, after ignoring the piano or playing blues and lame renditions of jazz and ‘free improv’ (to give a hoity-toity name to just futzing around to see if I can make something pretty), I’ll see that WTC sitting there, and maybe try to play one of the now half-forgotten pieces, and maybe remember how much fun it was, spend most of the time trying to relearn what I forgot, then add maybe another piece or two…
So, I’m in maybe the second or third week of another Bach WTC obsession. Got the E-Minor fugue nearly down (at light speed, with brio, because I’m weak – I do not play it nice and restrained and tidy as in the following video)
and the C# Major prelude, but still need (need?) to get it ever so slightly faster than Berenboim’s tempo above (Why? Don’t ask that!). I’d almost had these 2 down last obsession cycle. Then, need to dust off/relearn the four preludes and fugues in C – the 4 part C–Major fugue it the hard one, for me, about as hard as anything I’ve ever played. Fingering from hell, and trying to play so it’s 4 lines, not just a bunch of notes. And the D-minor set, which I had pretty cold at one point years ago, but has bled away…
Then pick a couple new ones to learn (I’ve hacked through 90% of them at some point, so I have ideas.)
And get this done while I’m still hot to trot. Because, if history is any indication, in a few more weeks something will distract me…
Bach remains good, even when I abuse or ignore his little masterpieces.