Monthly Archives: December 2013

What Is a Swan Song?

OK, Johnny, "I Did it My Way" in the key of G."  (Photo by Sally Reeder)

OK, Johnny, “I Did it My Way” in the key of G.” (Photo by Sally Reeder)

It’s a shame that the writers and philosophers of long ago didn’t have access to the internet.  They could have saved themselves a lot of embarrassment by checking the facts before they wrote noble words based on nonsense.

Consider this snippet about swans from Plato’s Dialogues, written around 360 B.C.:  “For they, when they perceive that they must die, having sung all their life long, do then sing more lustily than ever…”

The myth that swans save their best singing for last was perpetuated down through the centuries, altered along the way to the notion that the only singing the swan does is at the end of its life.

Shakespeare wrote this line for Portia in The Merchant of Venice:  “…Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end, fading in music.”  Lords Byron and Tennyson, among many others, associated that last-gasp musical attribute to swans as well.

There isn’t any scientific evidence to back up that romantic notion, although there is a common variety of the genus Cygnus known as the Mute Swan.  However, it isn’t silent during life, as the name suggests — it makes grunting and snorting noises — and it doesn’t burst into a glorious rendition of “Ave Maria” during its final hour, either.

No one knows exactly how the legend began, but “swan song” is now used metaphorically to mean the last great work of a painter or author or musician; in other words, a final or farewell appearance.  It implies that the artist or performer or athlete has saved his best for last, ending his or her career with one final glorious effort.

That being the standard, this doesn’t qualify as my blogging swan song.  Having written several hundred thousand words over the last five years, though, I’m going to be posting at an even more leisurely pace than I have been.

You’re welcome to rummage around in the archives; in fact, please do.  I hope to find occasional inspiration to write new stuff that I’ll put up here, like why a muscle cramp in the leg is called a Charley Horse and not, say, a Marjorie Horse.

Hmmm… excuse me, I have to look up something.  See you later.

Tom Tries Again: 2013 Bowl Picks

Andre Williams of Boston College runs for short gain against USC.

Andre Williams of Boston College runs for short gain against USC.

Last year my predictions for the college football bowl games were based on careful research and statistical analysis.  The results were mediocre, which is why I’m going with wild guesses this year.

Oh, I’ll be citing some numbers in support of my delusions, but if you’re planning on wagering, you’d probably do just as well by basing your picks on which team’s mascot is cuter.  So here are my hunches about some of the more interesting games…

Las Vegas Bowl          Fresno State (11-1) vs. USC (9-4)

Fresno State led the nation in passing; they averaged over 400 yards per game, and QB Derek Carr threw 48 TDs.  USC has lost their second coach this season, so I’m taking Fresno State even though the oddsmakers make the Bulldogs underdogs.

Russell Athletic Bowl           Louisville (11-1) vs. Miami (9-3)

It might surprise you that Louisville was 2nd in the country in total defense and in turnover ratio (+16).  The Cardinals’ offense was good, too — QB Teddy Bridgewater completed over 70% of his passes.  I like Louisville’s chances.

Holiday Bowl          Arizona State (10-3) vs. Texas Tech (7-5)

Texas Tech surrendered an average of 31.2 points per game, while Arizona State ran up 41 points per game.  This one could get ugly:  ASU in a rout.

Advocare V100 Bowl           Arizona (7-5) vs. Boston College (7-5)

The two best running backs in college football are featured in this game.  BC’s Andre Williams (see photo) gained over 2,000 yards rushing.  Ka’Deem Carey of the Wildcats averaged 156 yards per game.  Arizona’s defense is marginally better, so I give them the edge.

Sun Bowl          UCLA (9-3) vs. Virginia Tech (8-4)

Which is cuter, a Bruin or a Hokie?  Who knows what either of those things are?  Since Virginia Tech has an excellent defense, I’ll go with the Hokies.

Chick-fil-A Bowl          Duke (10-3) vs. Texas A&M (8-4)

The Aggies are heavy favorites, but I think Duke’s opportunistic defense just might deflate Johnny Football in what will likely be his final college game.

Gator Bowl          Nebraska (8-4) vs. Georgia (8-4)

Before the season began, some of us thought Georgia could be a top-5 team.  The Bulldogs didn’t live up to expectations but should be good enough to eke out a win over the Cornhuskers.

Rose Bowl          Michigan State (12-1) vs. Stanford (11-2)

Statistically, Michigan State has the best defense in the country, but Stanford is solid, too.  Neither team’s offense is what you would call spectacular.  Expect a low-scoring battle, with Stanford edging the Spartans.

Fiesta Bowl          Central Florida (11-1) vs. Baylor (11-1)

Let’s give Central Florida its due:  the Knights are a good team.  Baylor, however, is an outstanding team:  first in total offense (624 yards per game), first in scoring (53.3 points per game).  The Bears had over 60 points in six games this season.  They might not score that many against UCF, but Baylor wins going away.

Sugar Bowl          Oklahoma (10-2) vs. Alabama (11-1)

Alabama shouldn’t need to try a 57-yard field goal in the final second to win this one.

Orange Bowl          Clemson (10-2) vs. Ohio State (12-1)

Both teams averaged over 40 points per game and might do it in this game, too.  I give a slight edge to Ohio State because of their superior ground game.

Cotton Bowl          Oklahoma State (10-2) vs. Missouri (11-2)

If the Oklahoma State team that pounded Baylor (49-17) shows up, the Cowboys should win.

BCS Championship          Florida State (13-0) vs. Auburn (12-1)

Hardly anyone expected Auburn to have a winning record in 2013, let alone be in the championship game.  It’s worth noting that the Tigers had 5 wins this season by 7 points or fewer.  The Seminoles are strong all around:  #2 overall in scoring (53 points per game) and #1 in scoring defense, yielding only 10.7 points per game.  Auburn’s luck runs out as Florida State claims the national championship.

Expensive Souvenirs

Canaletto, Piazza San Marco (1720s) -- Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Canaletto, Piazza San Marco (1720s) — Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

“My uncle did the Grand Tour and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”

No one actually wore that, since the custom of printing slogans on clothing didn’t exist in the 18th century.  Besides, for the individuals who went on the Grand Tour, coming home with reasonably priced mementos would be considered disgraceful.

After completing their formal education, young aristocrats went off to see the sights of the European continent, a journey that could last from several months to several years.  The general goals of the Grand Tour were to get a closeup look at the cultural treasures of western civilization, improve language skills, make contact with fashionable society in other countries, and spend a big chunk of one’s inheritance.

Grand Tourists eventually went home with trunks full of books, ancient coins, furniture and artwork.  Among the most prized souvenirs of the Grand Tour were paintings of Venice by an artist known as Canaletto.

His real name was Giovanni Antonio Canal, which is fitting for a man born and raised in Venice, a city famous for its canals.  You might say Canaletto painted portraits of places: the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s, the Rialto and other landmarks of Venice.

There was a lot of architectural detail in his scenes, but his paintings were more than just giant postcards.  Canaletto had an eye for cloud textures, too, and the effects of shadows and daylight.  As an art dealer in 1725 said of his work, “you can see the sun shining in it.”

Demand for Canaletto’s work grew quickly, and he did his best to accommodate it.  At that point he didn’t have any real competitors, which may have been a factor in his reputation for being difficult.  A patron named Owen MacSwinney wrote in 1727 that anyone who wanted to commission a painting by Canaletto “must not seem to be too fond of it, for he’l (sic) be ye worse treated for it, both in the price and the painting too.”

Canaletto may have had to adjust his prices downward in 1740, because the Grand Tourists abruptly stopped coming.  Something called the War of the Austrian Succession had most European countries fighting on one side or the other.  The rich guys thought it prudent to confine their touring to the manicured grounds of their own estates.

By 1746, Canaletto succumbed to a suggestion by a British consular official that, since the buyers weren’t coming to Venice, he should go to them.  Canaletto stayed in England for ten years, cranking out paintings of bridges and buildings and grand houses.  In general, these works aren’t as admired as his Venetian views, partly because an artist whose strength is painting the effects of sunlight might be hampered by the comparative absence of sunlight in England.

Upon his return to Venice Canaletto continued painting his favorite subject until his death in 1768.  By then he had inspired other artists to adopt his style, notably Francesco Guardi, who presumably made a nice living when the Grand Tourists returned.

Canaletto sold well over 500 paintings in his lifetime.  King George III of England bought a bunch of them in 1762; the Royal Collection has over 50 paintings and 140 drawings, making it the greatest collection of Canalettos in the world.

My travel souvenirs do not include any Canalettos, but I do have a pretty nice collection of coffee mugs from airport gift shops.  What treasures have you brought home from your “Grand Tour”?