Monthly Archives: May 2009

Just Say “I Do” and Keep Smiling

Wurzburg, Germany  (photo by Sally Reeder)

Wurzburg, Germany (photo by Sally Reeder)

June is upon us — a month traditionally associated with weddings.  I have no statistical evidence to support this claim, but it seems to me there aren’t as many June weddings as there used to be.  If true, it may be because the NBA Playoffs now drag into June, and no prospective bride wants to risk asking the prospective groom, “C’mon, you love me more than the Lakers, don’t you?”  Even if that question gets asked and he gives the prudent answer, the bride’s joy is diminished if all the male guests at the reception have retreated to the bar and are screaming “That’s a foul!” at a big-screen TV.

No matter what month the festivities take place, a wedding is a wonderful thing.  It is an affirmation of love, a public declaration of life-long commitment, and — very often — good theater.  After all, it’s an emotional occasion anyway, plus all the planning and preparation have further frayed the participants’ nervous systems.  So, as a guest, you sit on the edge of the pew and watch the drama unfold:  Will people pushed to the limits of human endurance prevail, or will a bridesmaid faint from the agony of not being able to hike up her strapless bra while holding a bouquet?  Will the ceremony proceed smoothly and serenely, or will some bitter guest snort derisively in response to the officiant’s question, “If anyone knows any reason why these two should not…”

Oh, stuff like that happens, believe me.  A few years ago I was at a wedding reception that took an abrupt departure from the script.  The tension-filled bride said something harsh to one of her guests, who happened to be the wife of the groom’s Best Man.  The woman pulled her husband out of the banquet room and into their car moments before he was supposed to offer the toast.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment in which I’ve been directly involved was at a wedding reception a couple of decades back.  After the bride and groom had their traditional first dance, the plan called for a sort of Cash Dance with the bride.  Male guests were expected to ask her for a few moments on the dance floor, in exchange for which they would slip her some paper money.  It was said that this was a way of enriching the happy couple, but it struck me as being a bit primitive, along the lines of trading your marriageable daughter for a cow.

Against my better judgment, I was goaded into joining the line of gentlemen waiting for a faceful of her veil.  My turn came; I tapped the guy on the shoulder, slipped some cash to the bride, and then tried to pretend that I knew how to dance.

I was not well-acquainted with the bride, so mere seconds with my arm around her waist felt like an awkward eternity.  To break our silence, I offered this lame conversational gambit:  “So.  Is this the wedding you always dreamed of?”

The bride burst into tears.

Apparently things had not gone as planned; she blurted something about “pictures”.  That was pretty much the only word I could make out through her sobs.  I gave her a couple of feckless pats and mumbled what I hoped would be comforting words as I continued to guide her around the dance floor.  At that point I would gladly have given her another $20 bill if I’d thought it would make her stop crying.  I smiled nervously at the other guests, who probably assumed I had said something disgusting to her.  Thankfully, the next guy in line cut in soon thereafter.  He may have thought he was rescuing her, but he was really rescuing me.  Come to think of it, I should’ve given him twenty bucks.

And you?  Do you have a memorable wedding moment you’d like to share in the comments section?  For those of you who attended my wedding and want to bring up the car fire across the street from the church, go ahead — I can take it.  Just don’t mention it to my wife if you happen to be dancing with her.

Take Me Out To The Billboards

Yeah, but what's the score?

Yeah, but what's the score?

There was a time, my young friends, when people went to baseball stadiums to watch baseball.  Sadly, franchise owners no longer assume that is the ticket-buyer’s objective.  They believe the reason you come to the ol’ ballpark is to put your dainty butt in a $100 seat and drink $10 beers.  They also helpfully provide many distractions to keep you from noticing that a game is taking place on the field.

After all, if you’ve forked over that kind of money — not to mention what you paid for parking — why would you want to be annoyed by something as mundane as a game?  So what if it’s a 2-and1 count and the hit-and-run may be on — who cares?  “Look all around you, fans,” Major League Baseball now says, “there are many shiny signs all over this facility that will tell you when to clap and when to ‘make noise’.  We even have electronic pictures of the players’ faces that are fifty feet high!  That’s better than watching them from far away, isn’t it?”

I’ve been following baseball for many years, but it wasn’t until a recent visit to Yankee Stadium that I became aware for the first time that French’s is the official mustard of the New York Yankees.  But there it was, on multiple message boards — a dietary preference that any true fan should know.  As I bowed my head in shame at having been so ignorant of baseball lore, I missed seeing Mark Teixeira hit a three-run homer. 

Electronic cannons thundered and millions of light-emitting diodes flashed.  The runs were registered on the tiny part of the scoreboard that is actually devoted to keeping score.  Hidden in all the advertising for soft drinks and other chemicals, the numbers were posted — but in tiny print, as though management was merely complying with a legal requirement, like that tag on your mattress.

Amid all the visual clutter and the racket from the multi-megawatt sound system, I could hear my inner voice whimpering, “I just want to watch the game.”  These days, a stadium is a lousy place to do that.

Time To Remember

 

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery

Washington, D.C. must have more monuments and memorials per square inch than any other city in America.  There are the famous shrines to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, of course — but there are also tributes to more obscure historical figures, such as George Mason, Robert A. Taft, James Garfield, and (so help me) Sonny Bono.  “With all those memorials,” I reasoned, “D.C. might be an interesting place to be on Memorial Day.”  A little research confirmed that there would indeed be many activities in Washington over that holiday weekend last year.  The following paragraphs were taken from my travel journal for May 21, 2008:

Near the Washington Monument is the World War II Memorial.  Soon after we got there, a couple of busloads of WWII veterans arrived, accompanied by their “guardians”.  Many of the old men were in wheelchairs; some even had portable oxygen tanks.  As they made their way to the Memorial, onlookers spontaneously applauded them.  One old guy made eye contact with Sally and said, “Thank you.”  She responded, “No, thank you.”  It was an emotional moment for her, and I suspect for him as well…

At the other end of the Reflecting Pool is the Lincoln Memorial.  Even though I’ve seen it several times, I’m always struck by its majestic simplicity.  Even the hordes of school kids who were swarming the Memorial were momentarily muted in Mr. Lincoln’s presence.

Our next stop was the adjacent Vietnam Memorial, which commemorates men (and women) of our generation who died in that dreadful war.  Sally paused and shed a tear or two at the place on the wall that included the name of Kent Anderson, whom she had known.  It was a melancholy experience for me to be here, but I chose not to seek out the names on the wall of guys I knew.  I had done that in the past and knew roughly where the names of Don Bruckart and Mark Robinson and Les Sloan had been chiseled into granite — for some reason, I chose to see the memorial in its totality this time, rather than to seek out specific names.

After leaving the wall, we took a minute to sit quietly on a nearby bench.

As I sat there, I ruminated on all the individuals who had fought in our country’s various wars since 1775.  What motivated them to serve?  What did they want from life?  What did they hope to be when the war was over?  Some were fools, no doubt, and some proved to be heroes.  Whatever their differences of opinion, many of them literally found common ground in a graveyard.  I didn’t dwell on the policies that provoked the wars in the first place; for me, Memorial Day isn’t primarily about politics.  It’s about people.  Whatever their hopes or fears may have been, these were human beings whose life paths abruptly intersected with the flight paths of bullets or bombs.  I’ll be taking some time to remember them this weekend.  I hope you will, too.

Poll Results

"Come on in, the water's fine."

"Come on in, the water's fine."

In response to the question “If you were another species would you choose to be a _______,” no one selected koala.  Perhaps that’s because you don’t want the annoyance of constantly having to remind others, “I’m not a bear, dammit, I’m a marsupial!”  You have to admit, though, that there’s a certain appeal to being cute and getting to sleep 16 to 18 hours a day.  “Pelican” got 6% of the vote.  As it happens, I have a lot of admiration for pelicans.  I’d love to be able to glide mere inches above the surface of the ocean the way they can.

Placing third, with 12%, was the leopard.  In second was Golden Retriever, scoring 24%.  The clear winner was dolphin with 59%, suggesting that even if you were a different animal, a substantial majority of you would want to keep the same characteristics you have as a human:  smart, athletic and playful.

The Whiskey Rebellion

Nine cents a gallon!?  That's an outrage!

Nine cents a gallon!? That's an outrage!

It surprises me that some restaurant chain hasn’t seized on the name for marketing purposes.  Maybe it could be something like half-price drinks before noon, promoted with the slogan, “Screw your responsibilities — join the Whiskey Rebellion!”

The actual uprising by that name occurred in the 1790s.  The Puritans and Quakers who had arrived in America a couple of centuries before had brought with them an abhorrence of strong drink, but their descendants apparently didn’t share those moral qualms.  In fact, throughout the colonies, distilling whiskey had become a thriving business by the end of the 18th century.  Along the western frontier, farmers found it more convenient to get their surplus grain to market in gallon jugs than in bushel baskets.

Meanwhile, the infant U.S. government was struggling with a mountain of debt it had incurred by assuming the states’ expenses for fighting the Revolutionary War.  (Budget crises of this sort are no longer a problem; as you know, the federal government has been in robust financial health for many years.)  Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, hit upon the idea of generating income for the U.S. by taxing booze.  Hamilton persuaded Congress to pass the Distilled Spirits Tax of 1791, which, as you might imagine, was not popular with citizens who produced distilled spirits.

This was especially true on the frontier; acts of rebellion broke out almost immediately and escalated over the next couple of years.  Federal revenue collection officers were tarred-and-feathered, homes were burned, court proceedings were disrupted, mail carriers were robbed — a few people even got killed.  Tax collectors were not exactly volunteering to relocate to Western Pennsylvania, which was the focal point of the rebellion.  The rebels were, figuratively speaking, thumbing their noses at the U.S. government.  Or pretty much any kind of government, for that matter.

After attempts at negotiation failed, President George Washington invoked martial law in that region on August 7, 1794, summoning militia from several states to knock down the insurrection.  He personally commanded a force of almost 13,000 men, marching them from Harrisburg to the vicinity of Pittsburgh.  “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, also commanded troops, and not wanting to miss out on the action, so did Alexander Hamilton.  Troop maneuvers went on until mid-November, but almost no resistance from the whiskey-tax rebels was encountered.  A few were rounded up and charged with treason; only two were convicted, and they were eventually pardoned.  That particular tax on whiskey was quietly repealed in 1802.

The historical significance of the Whiskey Rebellion was that it was, in effect, an early test case that established federal authority within states.  It also helps explain why Alexander Hamilton’s picture is found on U.S. money, but not on whiskey labels.

Psst. Hey, Buddy — Wanna Buy a Rembrandt?

Cellini's salt cellar (c. 1540)  Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

Cellini's salt cellar (c. 1540) Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

Scaffolding had been erected on the exterior of the Kunsthistorisches, Vienna’s famed art museum, to facilitate sandblasting of the facade.  The scaffolding also provided a convenient way for an art thief to enter a second-story window at 4 a.m. on May 11, 2003.  His break-in triggered a motion-sensing device, alerting a museum guard to get out of his chair and shut off the alarm without investigating further.  The thief, who perhaps coincidentally was a security-alarm salesman, smashed a glass case and removed its contents:  a gold and ebony sculpture valued at approximately $50 million.  Crafted in the 1540s by Benvenuto Cellini and known as the Saliera (salt cellar), it’s the last surviving work in gold by that artist — over the centuries, the others had been melted down.

It was feared that might be the fate of this sculpture as well, but Robert Mang seemed to know that the object was worth far more than its salvage value.  He kept it for a couple of years under his bed; eventually he buried it in a lead box in a forest outside Vienna.  Mang then sent a ransom note to the museum’s insurance company, demanding 10 million euros.  A cat-and-mouse game ensued; Herr Mang used cell phones to send text messages to set up a clandestine meeting.  He was eventually caught because an electronics store security camera recorded him buying a cell phone that was used by the thief to send text messages.  The Cellini salt cellar was recovered, relatively unharmed, on January 21, 2006.

In this instance the motive for the theft was financial gain, but that hasn’t always been the case with stolen art.  In August, 1911, the Mona Lisa — yeah, the world’s most famous painting — was taken off a wall in the Louvre.  The thief had gotten in on a Monday, when the museum was closed to the public.  He seems to have blended in with cleaning crews and other staff, then snatched the painting, leaving its frame in a staircase.  As you might imagine, a frenzy of police investigation ensued, and among those questioned about Mona’s disappearance was a young Spanish painter named Pablo Picasso.

He had nothing to do with it; the thief turned out to be a former Louvre employee of Italian descent.  In 1913, Vicenzo Peruggia made contact with an art dealer in Florence, admitting that he had stolen La Gioconda (as Mona is sometimes known) in order to restore to Italy what had been stolen from it by Napoleon.  The art dealer met with the thief, who produced the painting from a trunk in his hotel room.  The art dealer was a bit of a con man himself, apparently.  He (and the director of the Uffizi Gallery, who was with him) convinced the thief that they would need to compare the painting to other known works by Leonardo to verify its authenticity.  Peruggia let them walk out the door with the Mona Lisa, and he was apprehended by police soon thereafter.  The Louvre got its star attraction back on December 30, 1913.

The motive behind the biggest art theft in history remains unclear because the case remains unsolved.  In the early hours after St. Patrick’s Day, 1990, two guys in police uniforms pounded on the door of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.  They told the museum guard that there had been reports of a disturbance on the grounds and that they needed to investigate.  Within minutes that hapless guard and his colleague were both in handcuffs and gagged.  The thieves spent over an hour gathering loot, which included a masterpiece by Vermeer and three works by Rembrandt.  One of the latter, “Storm On The Sea of Galilee”, is his only known seascape.  Other art works were taken as well; the value of the total haul is at least $300 million.  

There have been occasional leads in the case, but as of this date they have all proven to be dead ends.  So if you happen to be invited to the mansion of an underworld titan and notice an original Rembrandt seascape over the mantel, you might want to slip out and call the FBI.  The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is offering a $5 million reward to get its artwork back.  Just think — for that kind of money, you could make a down payment on your own Rembrandt!

Ockham’s Razor

No, this isn't it.

No, this isn't it.

One of the many dumb things I did in college was to take a philosophy course at eight o’clock in the morning.  My mind doesn’t function at peak efficiency at that early hour anyway, and my ability to receive knowledge may have been further impaired by the occasional hangover.  Frankly, I thought I was doing pretty well to be even semiconscious when a professor was intoning, “Many idealists from Plato through Hegel reject extreme subjectivism.  They regard the organization and form of the world, and hence knowledge, as determined by…”, which my brain translated to:  “Sleepy, Tom.  Go to sleep now.”

Occasionally my head would jerk up from my chest and a fact would force its way in.  One of those that got through is a concept known as Ockham’s Razor.  Postulated by a 14th-century Franciscan friar named William of Ockham, it states that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.  In other words, of two equivalent theories — all other things being equal — the simpler one is to be preferred.  This is also sometimes expressed as KISS:  Keep It Simple, Stupid.  Ockham’s razor trims away, in effect, that which is unnecessary.

Here’s an example.  Suppose we’re going to drop a grand piano from a helicopter and we’re trying to figure out which way the piano will go.  (Let’s stipulate that there’s this thing called gravity, so I don’t have to bluff my way through some blather about Newtonian Physics.)  OK, so our experts present us with two hypotheses…

1)  The grand piano will plummet to the ground due to gravity.

2)  The grand piano will plummet to the ground due to gravity.  Gravity is a force controlled by alien beings from the planet Quondor, who are the sworn enemies of grand pianos.

Now, it may very well be true that there is a planet called Quondor and that there are alien beings on it, and they may hate grand pianos.  But that’s a different discussion; none of that has any bearing on the flight path of the piano.  The first hypothesis is to be preferred — Ockham’s razor trims away the stuff that isn’t germane.  A medical school professor expressed a variation of it to his students this way:  “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.”

A couple of years after that early-morning struggle through Big Ideas, I took another philosophy class.  This time it was Aesthetics.  (And this time it was in the afternoon.)  The professor, Dr. Harwood, was brilliant; he led us through some deep water, so to speak.  We delved into Aristotle’s views on symmetry and harmony.  We explored Immanuel Kant’s insistence on the a priori.  We learned how to pronounce Schopenhauer.

And one day, without calling it by name, Dr. Harwood gave a pretty good example of Ockham’s Razor.  One of my classmates, who was probably enrolled in college as a time-filler while he waited to inherit the family fortune, was bored with all these philosophies of art and beauty.  When the professor had momentarily paused, this kid blurted, “Why do we have to learn all this stuff?”

Dr. Harwood was perfectly capable of holding forth on the importance of absorbing the enduring values of Western Civilization; he could have expounded on our need to broaden our intellectual horizons; he could have extolled the virtues of being rational, literate, erudite human beings.  Instead, when that guy questioned why we had to learn all this stuff, Dr. Harwood, making no effort to conceal his contempt, replied, “So you can make interesting conversation at cocktail parties.”

Can’t state it much more simply than that.