Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Second-best Sculptor

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne (1622-25)

So a guy walks into a bar, sizes up the crowd, and then calls out to no one in particular, “Praxiteles was the greatest sculptor who ever lived.”  Several patrons turn away from the PBS programming on the bar’s big-screen TV to have a look at the intruder.  One pushes his chair back, gets up and stares the Praxiteles fan square in the eye.  “Unless you’re looking for trouble, friend,” the rough-looking customer says, “you’d better take that back.  Everyone knows the world’s greatest sculptor was Michelangelo.”  At that, a third patron jumps to his feet and yells, “No way!  It was Auguste Rodin!”  In an instant, someone else shouts, “Donatello”, and an antiquities-admiring patron comes to the defense of Phidias. 

You can imagine the fracas that ensued, with tables being tipped over and chairs flying.  The man who got the worst of it had insisted that history’s greatest sculptor was Constantin Brancusi, so all the other patrons turned on him, with good reason.

This whole ugly incident might have been avoided if someone had had the presence of mind to say something to the effect that picking the best of anything is subjective; that all of the names mentioned (except Brancusi) are worthy of consideration for that honor.  And that no matter who one thinks was the greatest, there is a sculptor we certainly all agree belongs in the conversation as perhaps the second or third-best ever.  That would be Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

In all likelihood he was the richest artist of the 17th century, because Bernini (1598-1680) received papal commissions for well over fifty years.  He was also supremely talented, and evidence of that fact can be found all over Rome.  In a church around the corner from the Grand Hotel is one of Bernini’s most famous works, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa.  The centerpiece of Piazza Navona is his enormous Fountain of the Four Rivers.  A highlight of the interior of St. Peter’s is the baldacchino (canopy) over the papal altar, created by Bernini.  Outside the church, the massive colonnades that frame St. Peter’s Square were designed by Bernini while he was wearing his architect hat.

There are other sculptural gems by Bernini elsewhere in Rome, but my personal favorite is found in the Borghese Gallery:  it is the statue of Apollo and Daphne.  You may be hazy (as I am) on the details of that Greek myth.  She was a nymph, I believe, and Apollo was interested in hooking up with her, but the attraction wasn’t mutual.  During his pursuit of Daphne, she prayed to — I’m not sure, one of the gods — who saved her just in the nick of time by turning her into a laurel tree.

It’s sort of a dumb story, but the statue Bernini crafted from it is incredible.  In typical Baroque style, he captured that “peak of the action” moment:  Apollo has caught up with Daphne, but she is starting to sprout branches and leaves and bark.  You can’t help but admire — well, at least I can’t  — the degree of technical skill that combined with inspiration to produce this magnificent art work.

You are welcome to proclaim your favorite sculptor as the best ever, but for those of us who are Bernini fans, we proudly say, “We’re Number Two!  Or Three… I don’t know, somewhere in there.  Five?  Sure, whatever.”

What Do You Do?

Words, not what, from long ago

A friend of ours is a Biochemical Geneticist.  That’s a very impressive job title, don’t you think?  When you hear it, your first reaction is, “She must be smart.”  And then, if you’re like me, you wonder what a Biochemical Geneticist does all day.  I’ve asked her about that a time or two and I think I have the general idea, but I certainly wouldn’t be able to step right in and fill her shoes if a biochemical and/or genetic emergency arose.  I’d know enough to put on rubber gloves, but after that I’d be stumped.

There are other occupations that don’t require much explanation.  If someone tells you they’re a realtor or a fireman, your next question probably isn’t, “what the heck is that?”  When I became a television writer, I assumed my job description was similarly obvious.  Turns out I was mistaken.

At some function at which a bunch of strangers were attempting to make small talk, a guy asked me the inevitable, “So what do you do?”  “I’m a television writer,” I replied.  “Oh,” he responded, “You write the words, or what?”  I’ve often wondered what he thought “or what” might include.  I imagine myself saying, “Yes, I write the ‘or what’.  Specifically, I write the elegant costumes the actors wear.”  But the truth is, I specialized in writing words.

I’ve also been asked on several occasions if I just write for one character on a show.  People who ask this evidently assume that I was responsible for putting words in the mouth of, say, Colonel Potter, while another wrote exclusively for Hawkeye, someone else thought up clever remarks for Father Mulcahy, etc.

It is true that there are multiple writers on every television show and that there is a good deal of collaboration involved, but at some point a writer (or two) goes off and turns out a script.  Alone.  That script includes not only the words that all of the actors are supposed to say, but brief descriptions of the action as well.  It’s necessary, for example, to indicate that Cliff walks into the bar before you have him start talking.  And all of these words are supposed to mesh in such a way that they tell an entertaining story.

Once the script is submitted, the other writers offer suggestions for improvements, and many changes to the original are made during the production week.  For some reason, the altered pages of the script are printed and distributed to cast and crew on different-colored paper.  Every show has its own pattern for that, but it’s usually something like: original pages are white, first revision pages are blue, and second revision is pink.  Pages that undergo a third revision might be green.  It’s been a while, but I recall that sometimes even more colors were used; by the time pages were printed on goldenrod, the writer of the original script was sighing deeply and shaking his head in despair at having chosen this career.

That may be more than you care to know about the mechanics of television writing, but if you run into a TV writer at some gathering, now you won’t have to ask whether they write the words or the what.  Oh, and if you’re ever in one of those awkward social situations and find yourself talking to a meteorologist, do me a favor and ask him or her why meteorologists study weather and not — excuse me — meteors!?  I’d love to hear what they say about that.  Are they just trying to confuse us, or what?

Name That Illness

Dr. Alois Alzheimer (1864-1915)

Having a street named for you seems like an honor.  Having a scholarship named for you — that’s definitely an honor.  But having a disease or a body part named for you?  That doesn’t strike me as a fitting tribute to a lifetime of achievement.  That seems like the sort of honor that has your kids wailing, “Thanks a lot, Dad.  Now all the other kids will tease me.”

But doctors must find it flattering to have their names associated with gut pain or palsy or dementia; there certainly are a lot of diseases that are on a last-name basis with their discoverers.

How this tradition began is unclear, but it’s been around for several hundred years.  Parkinson’s Disease, for instance, is the namesake of Dr. James Parkinson (1755-1824), who observed some patients in Britain and wrote a treatise about his findings entitled “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy”.  He also wrote papers about gout and appendicitis, but those ailments had already been named, I guess.  It was over sixty years after Parkinson wrote about the shaking palsy that a French doctor referred to the illness as Parkinson’s Disease, and it has been called that ever since.

Alois Alzheimer was a German physician who studied the pathology of the nervous system.  In 1906 he presented a paper at an academic symposium that described a single clinical case of dementia.  It was another doctor, Emil Kraepelin, who included that study in a 1910 edition of his textbook Psychiatrie; that was the first time it was referred to as “Alzheimer’s disease”.  Kraepelin conveniently ignored the fact that doctors in other countries had also been doing similar dementia studies.  Alzheimer happened to be Kraepelin’s colleague at Munich University, so connecting Alzheimer’s name to the disease was probably motivated by Kraepelin’s interest in increasing the prestige of the University.  It seems to have been Doctor Alzheimer’s destiny to have his name forever associated with something unpleasant; he might just as easily have gotten the naming rights for the subject of his doctoral dissertation, which had been on the wax-producing glands of the ear.

Burrill Crohn was an American gastroenterologist who wrote a paper about a form of GI-tract inflammation in 1932.  Two other colleagues also participated in the study, but Crohn’s name appeared first alphabetically, so doctors Ginzburg and Oppenheimer don’t get included in the diagnosis — it’s just called Crohn’s Disease.

You may assume that “Heimlich” is the sound a choking victim makes, but no — the maneuver is named for Henry J. Heimlich, who apparently was eager to take credit for it.  He published an article about the life-saving technique in 1974, omitting the name of another doctor who may also have a claim.  Heimlich has four grown children, including a son Peter, who does seem to find the association embarrassing.  Peter has a website on which he denounces his father as “a spectacular con man and serial liar.”

I never considered a career in medicine, and although I admire the work doctors do, I wouldn’t be comfortable with the way honors are bestowed in that field.  All things considered, I think I’d rather have a burrito named after me.  Or a blog.


Black Forest Cuckoo Clock, Germany

Perhaps there are corners of the Black Forest that are indeed black, but the parts we saw were a gorgeous emerald green.  Fog was hugging the mountains in the chilly morning air when we arrived, but sunshine broke through to illuminate stands of trees and open fields. 

The Black Forest is in southwestern Germany, with a range of mountains that are not particularly tall compared to other places in the world.  Its highest peak is not quite 5,000 feet.  The region is dotted with villages and hamlets and farms, and — apart from its natural beauty — the Black Forest is principally known for two things:  a delicious chocolate-and-cherry cake is one of them.  The other is the production of cuckoo clocks.

Since the Black Forest is the cuckoo clock capital of the world, we made a pilgrimage to a factory there that assembles them.  The building that houses the factory is itself a giant cuckoo clock, and we paused outside to watch it announce 11:00.  Then we went inside to expand our knowledge of this unique timekeeping device.

It turns out that cuckoo-clock making, at least in the Black Forest, is truly a cottage industry.  In a chalet on the side of the mountain somewhere, one craftsman specializes in bellows.  Another family down the road makes the pendulums.  A workshop elsewhere in the woods generates gongs and pipes; someone else makes the gears.  Then all of these parts made by subcontractors are brought together, assembled, and put into their ornately carved cases at the “factory”.

Following his lecture, the man who worked there pointed out the obvious:  the clocks that surrounded us were for sale.  I nodded pleasantly and smiled, looking for an exit.  My wife turned to me and quietly said, “Talk me out of it.”

This was not a plea, like an addict needing emotional support during a moment of crisis.  It wasn’t a challenge, either; no gauntlet was being thrown down.  Sally was inviting me to have a rational conversation about the pros and cons of cuckoo-clock ownership — but I’ve been married too long to fall into that trap.  I merely replied, “If you want one, you should get one.”

I knew that she did want one, even though a cuckoo clock doesn’t… how shall I put this?  It doesn’t seamlessly fit the overall decorating scheme of our home.  My general preference is for accessories that don’t make startling noises.  Sally had fallen in love with cuckoo clocks as a little girl, though, because her grandfather had one that she admired.  So, since it made her happy, I was happy for her to buy one.

I was even happier that she didn’t have her heart set on the ultra-deluxe model that sold for 6,000 euros.  She picked out a classic (relatively small) one that our cuckoo-clock budget could accomodate.  So that’s how we happen to have something in our home that reminds us of our enjoyable visit to Germany’s Black Forest.  And it faithfully reminds us of that journey every half-hour of every day — even at three o’clock in the morning.

The Patent Office Legend

U.S. Patent No. 559,345

Before the invention of the internet, it sometimes took weeks for falsehoods to travel around the world.  Now, a rumor that gets started by nine a.m. can circle the globe and have a veneer of plausibility by lunchtime.

Back in the days before people typed with their thumbs, a story circulated that in the late nineteenth century, the head of the U.S. Patent Office advised President McKinley to close the office because “everything that could be invented has been invented.”  Somehow this story found its way to Ronald Reagan’s speechwriters, who incorporated it into an address the president gave to graduating high school students on May 19, 1987.  It appeared in print elsewhere, and got passed around in conversation as accepted fact.

But it didn’t happen.

The man to whom the quote is often attributed, Charles Duell, was the head of the Patent Office in 1899, but I can’t find any evidence that he urged McKinley to shut it down.  And I wanted the story to be true, because I was then going to track down the last invention — the one that convinced Duell that civilization had reached its apogee.  Wouldn’t that have been cool, to find out that he thought there was nothing more to be achieved since (let’s say) the zipper had been invented?  No such luck.

I got a brief flutter of hope when I discovered that in 1843, Patent Office Commissioner Henry Ellsworth made a report to Congress in which he said, “the advancement of the arts, from year to year, taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end.”  But let’s face it — that was rhetorical gas, not a serious proposal to close down the Patent Office.

It turns out that patents have been churned out continuously since July 31, 1790, when someone named Samuel Hopkins was granted the very first U.S. patent.  It was issued for his “improvement in the making of Pot ash and Pearl ash by a new apparatus and process.”  Potash, as you may know, has been used for centuries in the production of soap, glass, and fertilizer.

Hopkins’ patent, by the way, was not listed in the official records as #1, because until 1836, patents were listed by names and dates.  A renumbering process began that year, because a fire in the patent office destroyed most of the records.

Patent numbers are now in the multiple millions.  In 2008 alone there were over 185,000 patents granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, as it is now known.  It receives 400,000 – 500,000 applications every year, but the majority — for things like goggles that can “see” invaders from outer space — are rejected.

I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you that the story you heard about the Patent Office nearly being closed isn’t true.  But aren’t you glad it wasn’t?  If it had been shut down, inventors might have said, “oh, what’s the use?”  And then some genius might have been too discouraged to come up with humankind’s finest accomplishment:  the karaoke machine.

Local Delicacies

"And is this bottled right here on Easter Island?"

As I may have previously mentioned, we try to have a taste of regional specialties when we travel.  While on Easter Island several years ago, the proprietress of the tiny restaurant in which we found ourselves asked, “What would you like for a drink?”  Sally responded, “Well, what do the people here usually have?”  Mariel paused thoughtfully for a moment and then replied, “Coca-Cola.”  Since we’d already sampled that elsewhere, we went with a Pisco Sour instead.  For dinner I had something which was a local favorite:  chorillana is a mélange of scrambled eggs, onions, chunks of what may have been beef, and cheese — all served on a bed of french fries.

However that may sound, I found it tastier than the kangaroo meat I managed to choke down in Australia.  But you have to try the local fare, right?  If you’re in Scotland, you have to try the Scotch.  And if you’re in Pennsylvania or Delaware, I recommend you order the smallest portion of Scrapple you can get and split it with as many diners as possible.

In case you haven’t encountered Scrapple yet, you should be forewarned that it is made from pork scraps, in combination with corn meal, spices, and (I suspect) pillow ticking.  That mush is allowed to solidify, and then is tossed into a frying pan.  Mmm, just like grandma used to make, until her coronary thrombosis.

A more delicious way to clog your arteries can be found in New Orleans.  Beignets (pronounced, more or less, “bain-yays”) are a staple of the diet in Louisiana — so much so that in 1986, they became the official state doughnut.  They lack the holes we traditionally associate with doughnuts; New Orleans beignets are typically triangular or square pastries, deep-fried and smothered in powdered sugar.  Inevitably the powdered sugar migrates, so the floor and tables at Café du Monde in the French Quarter appear to have a light dusting of snow.

Opinions are divided on ribollita, a Tuscan specialty.  It can be quite good, or it can be… something for which you won’t want the recipe.  The reason is that the recipe varies widely depending on what last night’s leftovers were.  Basically, ribollita is a thick soup, originally devised by Italian peasants.  They reheated yesterday’s minestrone, and embellished it by adding leftover bread, as well as beans and carrots and onions.  The trick, I suppose, is getting the consistency right — I had some ribollita in Florence that could have been used to patch plaster.  On another occasion, though, I had some that was quite good.

A waiter in Paris once informed me that there are four hundred varieties of cheese in France, and I’ve tried only a tiny fraction of them.  Perhaps that’s a challenge I’ll pass along to you:  go to France and experience them all.  Some will undoubtedly taste like sweat socks (or Scrapple), but some will make you exclaim, “oh, yeah!”  In the meantime, I welcome your comments about local delicacies you have tried — where were you, what did you eat, and how was it?