The Most Interesting Man in the World.

Greetings, friends.

If you look closely at the gent in this picture, you’ll see a scar over his left cheekbone. He had a matching one on the right side, the result of a Somali spear driven through his cheek and coming out the other side, knocking out four teeth and splitting his palate, but staying lodged in his jaws as he ran for his life through the African jungle in the dark of night, pursued by angry Somalis.

For most of us this would be a shattering experience. But after reading of the exploits of this man, you’ll realize it was just a bump in the road.

After all, if you had been the first white man to pose as a Muslim Arab and make the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina and come back alive, and were the first white man to enter the barbarous city of Harar in east Africa and come back alive, and knew 28 languages and a total of 15 dialects, and had succeeded in being indoctrinated into secret Hindu and Sufi cults, were the best swordsman and horseman and pistol shot in all of Europe, had translated the Thousand and One Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra, had written 43 books, most of which are still in print,, and for most of your life, in your spare time, were a spy for the British Government, well, a spear through your head would seem, as the British like to say, “a mere spot of bother.”

The chap who owned this extensive curriculum vitae was Sir Richard Francis Burton. One of his many biographers, Edward Rice wrote,

“If a Victorian novelist of the most romantic type had invented Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, the character might have been dismissed by both the public and critics in that most rational age as too extreme, too unlikely. Burton was the paradigm of the scholar-adventurer, a man who towered above others physically and intellectually, a soldier, scientist, explorer, and writer who for much of his life engaged in that most romantic of pursuits, undercover agent.”

Numerous tomes have been written chronicling the exploits of this man, so a brief blog post can’t hope to do him justice. All that post can hope to do is show the contrast that exists between a nineteenth century figure of genuinely heroic accomplishment, and the paltry heroes of our own age.

Burton was born in 1821 and died in 1890. His childhood was a tale of wanderings with his retired-soldier father and mother of noble birth, parents whom Burton referred to as “professional invalids.” His family lived all over Europe, during which time Burton accumulated languages, learned customs, engaged in bad-boy behavior and, along with his brother Edward, brought scandal to the family and endless frustration to the poor souls engaged to educate them. By the age of nine, Rice states, “Burton was a confirmed juvenile delinquent.”

His father was determined that Burton join the clergy, and returned the family to England so his son could attend Oxford in preparation for a comfy career as a vicar. Never was a man born who was less suited to the clergy than Burton, but few men have been born with his intense interest in religions. Confirmed and dedicated sinner as he would be throughout his life, he managed to penetrate the deepest secrets of Islam, Hinduism, Sufism, Sikhism, and a list of other cults he refers to in his many books.

Of course, Burton’s career at Oxford was brief, his parting caused not only by rebellious behavior but also by disagreements with the Oxford dons over the proper pronunciation of ancient Latin and Greek.

Burton at Oxford.
Burton at Oxford.

So, what is a parent to do with an upstart son whose passions in life are fighting, studying languages, exploring exotica, and living the life of a sybaritic roué of the first order? Buy him a commission in the military, of course, and wave goodbye to him as he sails off to India.

No place on this earth could have suited a man such as Burton more perfectly than mid-nineteenth century India.

From the moment his ship landed, he was repelled by the squalor and stench, the bizarre customs of the natives and the slovenly behavior of the British. and entranced by the sights and smells and exotic mores, the strange other-worldliness of India. Tropical heat, fever, bad food, silly military customs, all of it served to frustrate and inspire him, and he thrust himself into Indian life with his typical passion, immediately taking up the study of Hindi, Persian, Urdu and various dialects, absorbing the native customs, taking mass quantities of port wine to wade off fever, opium to ease the aches and pains that Asia can heap upon the white man, and enjoying easy sex with native women. After easily passing the regimental exam for Hindi, Burton had immersed himself into Indian life so thoroughly that he became known to his fellow officers as “The White Nigger.” It was this talent for disappearing unnoticed and living among the natives that made him so valuable to his superiors, and which created an unbroachable gulf between him and other Englishmen. To the end of his days, Burton, though idolized by the British public, would never again be considered, a “perfectly proper chap.”

But that life of immersion would lead to his future role as invaluable agent. Rice writes,

“What Burton was heading for, unaware and naively, was a role in what came to be called, “The Great Game,” a game of secret intelligence that was as deadly as it was sporting and was one phase of the shadowy war between England and Russia over native territories in Central and west Asia.”

For six years, between stints of regimental duties, Burton periodically slunk off among the natives, disguised as a variety of native types and castes, gathering information, delivering messages, negotiating with potentates and mass murderers until, despite his iron constitution and iron will, he broke down physically and mentally.

According to Rice, Burton, “seemed to be shriveled with some unknown disease, perhaps a fever, He was confined to quarters in Karachi, isolated, a ‘White Nigger.’ By the beginning of 1849, he decided to go home; seven years behind him, work, sport, women, languages dangerous expeditions into places where no white man had ever ventured before, among people who flayed enemies alive, put out the eyes of brothers, sons and fathers in their dynastic quarrels, kept women in a kind of prison, (and where women were given captives to castrate, slowly), all part of an experience no man had ever had before, and so far as anyone can tell, no one has repeated or is likely to.”

Burton’s friends in India feared he was dying. But on the long voyage home his immense recuperative powers brought him back to life, and by the time he reached England he was somewhat restored. But he felt his years in India had been time wasted.

Edward Rice writes, “He had achieved prodigious feats, but had gained no rewards. Daring, intelligence, talent, and a cool head in danger had been negated by Burton’s own sensitivity to and scorn of army politics.”

To rise in every military and political hierarchy, a certain amount of bootlicking is required. Burton just never got the hang of it.

So, despite his immense service to the Crown in The Great Game, none of his work helped him departmentally. But his experiences would enable him to write numerous books, and most important, Edward Rice says, “he had gained a vision of Islam through personal experience that was to lead him to Mecca.”

For the next four years Burton lived mostly in Italy. He wrote books, studied, honed his swordsmanship, lapsed often into the black depressions that haunted him his entire life, and chased women, eventually in Bologna meeting his future wife, Isabel Arundel. But marriage was not on his mind. He was honing his Arabic and his knowledge of Islam, and after those years of what he termed “effeminate living,” he approached the Royal Geographic Society with a plan that would have been, for any other man, suicidal. Burton proposed to disguise himself as an Arab dervish and travel with other Moslems on the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina known as the Hajj. His purpose, or so he stated to the Royal Society, was to survey, “the huge white blob which in our maps still notes the Eastern and Central regions of Arabia.”

The Pilgrim’, ‘The Pilgrim’, lithograph by C. F. Kell from a drawing by Richard Burton. Frontispiece of ‘Personal narrative of a pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah’, one of three volumes, by Sir Richard Francis Burton, London, 1855-56. Burton made his famous journey to Mecca and Medina, disguised as a Pathan, in 1853, Saudi Arabia, 1800. (Photo by Richard Francis Burton/Royal Geographical Society via Getty Images)

However genuine Burton’s motives to study the inner life of the Muslim and to gain geographic knowledge may have been, it is the humble opinion of this writer that Burton’s primary reason for this adventure was simply to prove to himself that he could come out of it alive.

We must consider for a moment what this entailed. First, he had to speak Arabic like a native. Arabic is a language on par with Mandarin in it’s difficulty. but Burton had mastered it completely. He had steeped himself in the study of Islam so successfully that, when his fellow travelers suspected him of being an imposter, he overwhelmed them with his vast knowledge of their religion, forcing them to drop their suspicions.

So he set off on what remains to this day one of the most epic human adventures, recorded in minute detail in his two-volume account, “Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah & Meccah,” It’s impossible to appreciate what an accomplishment this journey was without reading these two volumes. At peril of his life, Burton made copious notes on tiny slips of paper, wanting to assure the accuracy of his account of the journey.

After accomplishing this tidy little jaunt, what could such a guy do to get his adrenal glands pulsing again? Well, why not go to East Africa and try to enter the ancient city of Harar? According to Rice, “It was a holy and forbidden city, No white man was ever believed to have gone there, though many had tried. The bigoted ruler and barbarous people threatened death to the Infidel who ventured within their walls.” After gaining entrance to Harar, Burton was detained by it’s vicious Amir, but after securing the Amir’s friendship with the British government, Burton escaped and made his way to safety.

But all along, he had another adventure in mind; since already in Africa, why not head into the jungle and search for the source of the Nile river?

This epic journey nearly destroyed Burton’s health, and his unfortunate alliance with traveling companion John Henning Speak would lead to years of vicious public disagreement. When Burton returned to England he was a walking cadaver. Months of vile food, tropical heat, insect bites, protracted bouts of high fever and living with death only inches away had worn him out.

Burton after Africa.

He would later write blithely of the spear-through-his-face episode, and list the hardships of the journey with the usual British stoicism, but not even a man such as Burton could come out unscathed. One strange note; Burton had been examined by doctors before his African trip and was diagnosed with secondary syphilis. But when examined on his return to England, the syphilis was gone. Weeks of intense fever had killed the bug, but not Burton.

Once again, his health still dangerously decrepit, Burton wrote more books, argued publicly and in journals about the accuracy of his arch-enemy John Speke’s account of their Africa journey, and tried desperately to persuade Isabel Arundel’s family to allow him to marry her, but they refused.

So, what does a chap such as Burton do to get healthy again and forget his frustrations? He sails to North America and boards a stagecoach in St. Joe, Missouri, for a bone-jarring ride across America, to see and record in detail the sights, hoping to engage in some idle fighting with Indians and also to see the Mormon settlement in Salt Lake City and interview Brigham Young.

Burton’s sketch of himself, from the cover of City of the Saints.

While on this journey, Burton wrote. “The City of the Saints, and Across the Rocky Mountains to California.” This 577 page, detail-packed tome, is considered to this day to be the definitive text describing the conditions in the American West just before the Civil War. One has to wonder, reading Burton’s books, how he could possibly have written in such detail while enduring so many hardships.

After he reached California, Burton hoped to cross Mexico but was unable, due to circumstances beyond his control, to do so. A man bent on exploration hates to leave any stone unturned. Burton writes;

“For this disappointment, I found a philosophical consolation in various experiments touching on the influence of Mescal Brandy upon the human mind and body.” (p. 501)

When Burton returned to England he finally succeeded in marrying Isabel Arundel, and after all his years of service to the Crown, hoped to be appointed consul to Damascus, but as Thomas Wright says in his biography of Burton, “Those mysterious rumours due to his inquiries concerning secret Eastern habits and customs dogged him like some terrible disease.” Burton was appointed consul to Fernando Po, a dismal graveyard for white men in Spanish West Africa.

Burton was bitter about this lowly post, saying, “They want me to die, but I intend to live to spite the devils.” So after saying goodbye to his wife Isabel he left for Africa, and during his tenure wrote four more books on African customs, used his free time for constant explorations of the African interior, picked up a few more languages and further cemented his place as the founder of the science of ethnology.

Burton was eventually posted to Damascus and served there from 1869 to 1871, then sent to Trieste. During these years he travelled ceaselessly when he could escape from his consular duties, piling up more manuscripts and translations, writing more poetry and sending frequent dispatches to the Crown.

Burton and Isabel spent their final years in Trieste, and in 1886 he was knighted by Queen Victoria. He died in 1890, his 69 year-old body finally giving out.

At the time of his death, Burton’s workroom contained twelve large tables, each piled high with works in progress on archeology, language studies, geology, bizarre customs of little-known tribes, and a collection of erotica gathered over his decades of travel.

Soon after his death, his wife Elizabeth, being a strict Victorian Catholic and eager to protect her beloved husband’s reputation, burned nearly all of this material, committing to flames a priceless treasure of information that no other man in history could have compiled, and making herself, to this day, one of the most excoriated females in British history.

As noted earlier, this is but a brief sketch of Burton’s life, but this overview suffices to show how meager are our modern heroes. The human race doesn’t make guys like Burton anymore, and most likely never will. His personal code was best expressed in a stanza from The Kasidah, an Arab poem he translated;

Do what thy manhood bids thee do, from none but self expect applause.

He noblest lives, and noblest dies, who makes and keeps his self-made laws.

The tomb of Sir Richard and Lady Burton, Mortlake Cemetery, London

Sources:

Fawn M. Brodie, The Devil Drives. A life of Sir Richard Francis Burton, W.W. Norton, 1967

Edward Rice, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, Charles Scribners & Sons, 1990

Thomas Wright, A Life of Sir Richard Francis Burton, two volumes, London Everett & Co. 1906

R. F. Burton, City of the Saints, and Across the Rocky Mountains to California, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, 1862

Isabel Burton, A Life of Sir Richard F. Burton, Chapman & Hall, 1893

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You’ve Been Conned.

Greetings friends.

In the history of high finance there’s no shortage of stories about stock frauds and rip-off schemes.  One of the biggest in recent years was the Bernie Madoff scandal. For months we heard tales of the victims he defrauded through his investment Ponzi scheme.

Bernie Madoff

 

We might think that most of Bernie’s victims were relatively unsophisticated investors, but surprisingly, among his marks was Morton Zuckerman, a billionaire New York attorney and real estate investor. Other victims include movie mogul Steven Spielberg and a slew of European banks.

If fat-cats like Mort, Steven and the Euro-bankers, who have access to all the relevant data, can end up getting screwed big-time, we have to wonder what kind of magic Bernie Madoff must have possessed to hoodwink them.

Morton Zuckerman

There are plenty of theories about how con men work their schemes on us, and one recent book, The Confidence Game,   Why We Fall for it…Every Time, by Maria Konnikova, chronicles the many studies that attempt to pinpoint the traits of both the con man and his victim.

In her introduction she recounts the story of Ferdinand Demara.  Eventually known to the world as The Great Impostor, his story was dramatized in a 1959 film by that title, starring Tony Curtis. Demara managed to con the U S Navy into believing he was a surgeon, and after he was unmasked, Konnikova writes,

Ferdinand “Fred” Demara

He would go on to impersonate an entire panoply of humanity, from prison warden to instructor for mentally retarded children to humble English teacher to civil engineer who was almost awarded a contract to build a large bridge in Mexico.

Demara was such a successful con that he nearly persuaded his biographer, Robert Chrichton, to let him oversee the birth of Chrichton’s daughter. It was Chrichton’s wife who said no to this, but four years later she was so trusting of Demara that she allowed him to babysit that daughter.

Now that’s a con artist!

The author lists the three attributes that seem to make up a successful con artist. These attributes have been given the title, “The Dark Triad.” The traits are psychopathy, nonchalance (lack of empathy) and Machiavellianism.

There is actual evidence in brain scans of these traits, but the problem is, a person can have all these brain symptoms, be actually psychopathic, and never become a con man or be a threat to others. As proof of that, the author notes a study conducted by a neurologist who found that his own brain scan revealed that he himself was a psychopath.

A disturbing fact revealed by the listed studies is that many Dark Triadists often gravitate to somewhat less sleazy professions than the con game, becoming lawyers, stock brokers, and, surprise… politicians.

The conclusion is that it’s a combination of factors, genetic and environmental, that will determine if someone becomes a con artist. It is nearly impossible to clearly determine an exact set of conditions that will predict future behavior.

The focus of the book then turns to studies hoping to reveal the personality traits of the typical “mark” or victim of a con scheme. This is where things get really murky. As the author notes, we must keep in mind that,

The confidence game is an exercise in soft skills. The true con artist doesn’t force us to do anything; he makes us complicit in our own undoing. He doesn’t steal. We give.  

There are several case histories in the book of con-game victims, but the wide variations in their personalities, and in their life  circumstances at the time they fall for the cons make it nearly impossible to pinpoint a specific set of traits that make up the ideal victim. There are certain weaknesses that expert con men can spot; they have an inborn talent for spotting the gullible. That tendency to gullibility, however, is something we all share, no matter how sophisticated we think we are. Bernie Madoff’s victims were educated and by no means financially desperate.

As the author points out, “Our need to believe, to embrace things that explain our world, is as pervasive as it is strong.”

Studies listed in the book imply that the more trusting we are, the happier we are. After all, if we spend our lives constantly on the lookout for “the evil that lurks in the hearts of men,” our lives would be pretty grim.

But this tendency to trust also makes us vulnerable. Our vulnerability to the con springs from our desperate need for something or someone to believe in.

This basic human proclivity has led to what is known as The Guru Culture. Bookstores are crammed with advice and self-help books and we are barraged with T V ads, telling us how we can be thinner, more attractive, wealthier and just all-around better. All this is based on the unconscious assumption that we are desperately lacking in something, and that we need someone who knows better to help us.

Doctor Oz, Anthony Robbins, Dr. Laura Schlessinger and a host of other advisers produce endless streams of information in various formats. But… if these guys know all the answers, why is it necessary to keep buying so many of their books and programs? Surely the truths they impart can’t be all that complicated.

There is a saying in the literature of Zen Buddhism,

                 “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

As with many Zen sayings, this is not to be taken literally. It simply suggests that if we meet someone who appears to have all the answers, we should avoid them.

In his book by the same title, psychologist Sheldon Kopp states the longing we all seem to share.

Unwilling to tolerate life’s ambiguity, its unresolvability, its inevitability, we search for certainty, demanding that someone else provide it. Stubbornly, relentlessly, we seek the wise man, the wizard, the good parent, someone else who will show us the way.

Surely someone must know. It simply cannot be that life is just what it appears to be, that there are no hidden meanings, that this is it, just this and nothing more. It’s not fair, it’s not enough! We simply cannot bear to live life as it is, without reassurance, without being special, without even being offered some comforting explanations. Come on now! Come across!  You’ve got to give us something to make it all right.

And, sorrowfully, it seems that time and again our chosen wise ones turn out to be ordinary examples of human frailty, just as we ourselves are. This is a constant refrain in our society, as icon after icon is exposed as just another “Great and Powerful Oz.”

But history shows that despite the apparent weaknesses of our chosen wise ones, humans will go to great lengths to maintain the illusion that the wise one is above criticism.  The twentieth century was a long dreary drama of millions “following orders” and marching side by side into mass slaughter. We tend to put the blame on Dark Traidist leaders, and we dub them monsters. But we must keep in mind that Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot etc., did not, as far as we know, murder anyone. All these guys ever did was…say stuff. It was their true believers, those who sought in them their salvation, who perpetrated the crimes. As Konnikova reminds us,

The true con artist doesn’t force us to do anything. He makes us complicit in our own undoing. 

So, if we can become more aware of our dangerous proclivity to put our trust in fallible human beings and do as we are told, will that knowledge of our weakness keep us from being scammed, or following false prophets, or doing what The Great and Powerful Oz orders us to do?

No way!

Life is just too scary, and the truth is simply too awful. We’re human beings, and we gotta believe in something or someone. Otherwise, we’ll go crazy.

That’s all for now, my friends. Keep a firm grip on your wallets, and always remember that the only person in this cold cruel world that you can ever really trust is, of course… me.

Sources;

The Confidence Game, Maria Konnikova, Penguin Random House, 2016

If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Kill Him  Sheldon B. Kopp  Bantam Books, 1972

Trycycle: The Buddhist Review Clark Strand, March-April, 1999

Why Johnny Can’t Disobey, Liberty Magazine, July 1999

 

 

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200,000 Lunch Pails

Lunch Tiffin

Greetings friends,

If you asked a Silicon Valley techno-geek to devise a program that would organize the delivery of around 200,000 lunch pails, picked up from individual homes daily before 10 A M and delivered to the customers at work, then, hours later, picked up again and returned back to their homes before 6 P M, with a failure rate of less than one percent… well… we can only imagine the complicated algorithm this project would generate.

Adding to the difficulty, these lunches must traverse Mumbai, India, a city of nearly 12 million people, by bicycle, train, and sandaled foot, often delivered to the tenth or twelfth floor of an antiquated office building that has no elevator.

Another minor issue is that the train system in Mumbai is among the most dangerous in the world. Every day, 7.5 million people commute in incredibly cramped coaches that ride over broken down rails. In 2015, 3304 people were killed. Most train stations are equipped with morgues to handle the bodies.

Mumbai train.

This lunch delivery work has been done since 1890, without input from time-and-motion experts or computer geeks, by a group known as dabbawalas.  The Hindu name, roughly translated, means “One who carries a box.”

Dubbawala loaded with tiffins. Getting on a Mumbai train with this load could be…challenging

The service is necessary because Mumbai office workers leave home so early there is nobody awake to cook their meals, and they are so loaded with work stuff, and their ride to work is so treacherous, that they can’t carry another item.

Tiffins marked with delivery codes.

Eating out at lunch is too expensive for most, and they consider office cafeteria food to be of inferior quality. Many are vegetarians with strict dietary requirements. So the meal must be prepared at home, picked up by the dabbawalas, grouped together at various checkpoints around the city, and routed from there  to their destinations, some more that 30 miles away.

“The dabbawalas use a complex system of collection teams, sorting points, and delivery zones and a completely manual system of routing the right meal to the right destination.”

This task is carried out mostly by men who can’t read, so the entire process is done without a shingle sheet of paperwork. The lunch pails, known as tiffins, are color-coded to direct their delivery and return, all with a system that has been studied by business biggies in America and Europe who hope to learn from the system’s efficient simplicity.

The world’s biggest meals-on-wheels business.

The dabbawalas pay is around 8000 Rupees (roughly $131 per month). Their jobs are handed down over generations and require a six-month apprenticeship. Although the system has an official hierarchy, the dabbawalas work without supervision and consider themselves to be free men, relishing the fact that they work without bosses.

Though their work provides an essential service to Mumbai residents, the dabbawalas are guided by a deeply-held spiritual tradition.

“The Tiffin delivery system is not only supported by a complex logistics system. but also by a specific moral code. Their code is an expression of the interrelationship between a specific manifestation of the Hindu faith, which can be traced back to the Varkari Sampradaya Sect, and India’s unique cultural philosophy. The sect places food at the center of its philosophy, considering it to be a metaphor for life and its primary material impulses and aspirations.”


The dabbawalas believe that delivering food is much more that just a way of making a living. Their mantra is,

                                               “Food is God. Work is worship”

In an age whose primary gods are money and shallow fame, it’s gratifying to know there are people guided by such noble views.

Wouldn’t it be nice to look this happy on our way to work?

 

Sources;

3304 Deaths On Mumbai Locals. thehindu.com, Jan 27, 2016

Dabbawala: Ethics in Transition. Open Book Publications. openbook.org

In India, Grandma Cooks, They Deliver. NY Times, May29, 2007

Dabbawalas: Mumbai’s Lunchbox Carriers. Financial Times, June 31, 2015

 

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Three-Legged Love.

Greetings, friends,

The world of classical music has certainly known its share of neurotic geniuses, but few have ever reached the level of other-worldly genius and sheer neurotic goofiness as the great Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould.

Glenn Gould
Glenn Gould

Recognized at an early age as a musical genius, Gould was gifted with an astonishing memory, allowing him to memorize a musical score after one or two readings. He had a perfect sense of pitch and an audial acuity that allowed him to differentiate between the slightest variations in tone.

But along with these gifts came character traits that were both endearing and frustrating to those he dealt with. He was annoyed by the stuffy formality and conservatism of the classical music world. In one of his debut concerts, he was instructed by an imperious conductor that all musicians in the orchestra must have their sheet music present during the performance. Gould knew the music four ways from Sunday, but to placate the conductor, Gould walked on stage carrying the musical score, dropped it on his chair, sat down on it, and ripped through the concerto as if he had written it himself.

The Pygmy Chair
The Pygmy Chair

And that chair he set the music on is a story in itself. Known as “The Pygmy Chair” it was given to Gould by his father when he was a boy, and Gould carried it with him around the world. He was so admired by his fellow musicians that he had to have the chair guarded when he went to the restroom during rehearsals, for fear they would snip off a bit of it as a souvenir. He used this chair to the end of his life, and for decades, long after the upholstery had worn away, it was held together with wire and spit. Gould loved it because it swayed and rocked as he did while playing, and it made such loud creaks and crackles it gave recording engineers fits trying to edit out the noise.

imagesBy the age of thirty Gould was not only a world-renowned genius, but one of the best loved performers on earth. His concerts were sold out months in advance. Women sent him letters pledging undying love. But Gould hated the concert scene. A raging hypochondriac who suffered from insomnia, he took numerous pills, including tranquilizers. His pillheadedness was well known. He once replied to a newspaper article about it. “The press claim that I travel with a suitcase full of medications. This is a gross exaggeration. It is merely a small briefcase.”

All great artists suffer frustrations, but it may be that Gould’s lifelong search for a suitable piano that could allow him to manifest his colossal gifts was his greatest burden (aside from his wacky personality, of course.)

Part of the problem is that a genius such as Gould hears music in his head that he is constantly trying to bring into the world of sound. But he is always hampered by the physical limitations of the mechanical device he uses to make that sound real. Gould had such delicate touch, such lightening-fast, “butterfly” fingers, and such a sublime technique that he doubted he would ever find a piano that could suit him.

As with all concert pianists, dozens of Steinway Grands were always at his disposal. Gould tried hundreds over the years, but like a man searching for the perfect woman, there was always frustration.

He had already resigned himself to the limitations of the Steinway, a piano built to create the resounding volume required to deliver the Romantic composer’s music to the concert audience. But Gould thought the Romantics were narcissistic and showy. He was a Bach man all his life, and had only one goal – to interpret as faithfully as he could the great Johann Sebastian’s intentions.

For those of us who haven’t dedicated our lives to music, it may be difficult to understand the intensity of the relationship between the musician and his instrument. A superb account of Gould’s frustrating search is chronicled in Katie Hafner’s book “A Romance on Three Legs.”

CD 318 and the Pygmy Chair
CD 318 and the Pygmy Chair

She does a brilliant job of elaborating the inherent problems of a concert Grand piano. Built of 12,000 parts, made of wood, wire, felt, cotton and iron, “these massive, seemingly robust, even indestructible instruments could be orchid-like in their fragility, prone to any assortment of ailments”

And the variations among the instruments themselves is immense. Two Steinway Grand’s, built in Astoria by the exact same technicians, one after the other, using the exact same techniques and materials, will be completely different in their personalities.

But Gould relentlessly  continued his search. Then one day in June of 1960, in the basement of Eaton’s department store in downtown Toronto, while wandering among the dozens of Steinways in the basement, he pushed back the keyboard cover of a dinged-up ebony grand, played a few notes, and instantly he knew…this was the one.

It was Steinway # CD318, a beat-up old warhorse of a piano. It had been  hammered on since 1945 by dozens of concert artists, and had been shoved aside, awaiting shipment back to the Steinway factory for rebuilding.

But CD 318 was in such bad shape that it would require the ministrations of an unusual piano technician to revive it, and such a man was Charles Verne Edquist, known to those in the piano world simply as “Verne”

Edquist’s road to prominence in his field was as rutted and rocky as Gould’s was fortunate. Born into implacable poverty in rural Saskatchewan, he had lost 90% of his vision in early childhood, and at the age of 11, having never been outside his village, he boarded a train that would carry him across Canada to a school for disabled children. Piano tuning was a common trade for the sight impaired, and Verne took to it immediately, spending decades working his way up to the top.

Tuning a piano is only one aspect of the repertoire of skills required by a competent technician. Verne had the ability to completely disassemble the piano, go over every part of it, and reassemble it. One of the most difficult skills is the “voicing” of a piano, which involves the kneading and sanding of the felt hammers that strike the strings. Verne was as gifted as Gould in his ability to distinguish tone and pitch, and he was also synesthetic, meaning that to him, sounds had a color component that were as real to him as the reds and blues and yellows that sighted people take for granted. But Verne – he saw them in his head.

Of Verne’s reaction to CD 318, Katie Hafner writes,

“…the first few chords he played on 318 got his attention. He was well accustomed to the different qualities of fine instruments, but in 318 the tone and the featherlight, fast-repeating action stood out. This was a piano with a soul.”

Though Verne Edquist and Glenn Gould were different in many ways, when it came to producing the music, they were brothers under the skin. Gould had long since given up performing in concerts and had dedicated himself to recording the works of the Baroque Canon. At each recording session, Verne was nearby listening intently, and when there was even the slightest slippage in CD 318, Gould would stop playing and nod to Verne, who often had heard the problem already. Verne descended on the old piano with his tools, and when the problem was solved, the recording continued.

This collaboration resulted in some of classical music’s greatest recordings, and no doubt would have continued until one of the men died. But it came to a tragic ending in September of 1971. The beloved CD 318 had been shipped to Cleveland for a rare Gould concert appearance, and on its way back to Toronto, the crate that contained it was violently dropped. To his day, what happened has remained a mystery. No one has come forward to own up to the tragedy.

Gould and Verne tried desperately to restore the piano, but no matter what they and the experts at Steinway attempted, the magic of CD 318 had been lost forever.

Gould refused to give up. He continued to urge on anyone who would attempt to restore the piano’s greatness, but nothing worked. His response to this loss mirrored his reaction to his failed relationship with the painter Cornelia Foss. They had a torrid love affair, and for years after she left him, Gould tried desperately to get her back, to revive the glory of their time together.

It often seems that those who strive hardest for perfection have the greatest difficulty dealing with the fact that nothing lasts.  In the world of classical music, Glenn Gould was a towering giant, but when it came to dealing with the vicissitudes of life, the guy was sadly inept.

Glenn died unexpectedly at the age of 50 in 1982, with a long list of musical projects planned. Had he lived, there’s no doubt that he would have further enriched his already great legacy. Though his premature death was a tragic loss, his many recordings, most notably those of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, are musical gifts that the world will cherish forever.

That’s all for now, friends. So long, and thanks for listening,

B.

Cellist Yo Yo Ma, conversing with Glenn Gould's statue in downtown Toronto
Cellist Yo Yo Ma, conversing with Glenn Gould’s statue in downtown Toronto

Sources;

Katie Hafner, A Romance On Three Legs, Bloomsbury, 2008

Kevin Banzana, Wondrous Strange; the Life and Art Of Glenn Gould, Oxford University Press, 1994,

Tim Page, The Glenn Gould Reader, Vintage, 1990

 

Posted in All, Steinway Pianos, Uncategorized, Verne Edquist | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Once And Forever King

 

untitledGreetings, friends,

At Dodger Stadium out on L A, back in 1967, they held an exhibition game. Six of baseball’s reigning heavy-hitters lined up to go to the plate. History doesn’t record whether they were prepared for the humiliation they were about to endure, but it does record the outcome.

One by one, in consecutive innings, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Brooks Robinson, Willie McCovey, Maury Wills and Harmon Killebrew were each, ignominiously, struck out.  Later in the game, the great Pete Rose suffered the same fate…twice.

The pitcher who performed this amazing feat said afterwards, with a hint of understatement, “It was a mismatch.”

Though he was basically a modest man. this guy was never afraid to show off his skills. He went on the Johnny Carson show and persuaded Johnny to kneel down facing the audience with a cigar in his mouth. The pitcher paced off the distance, then hurled a pitch and knocked the cigar out of Johnny’s mouth. Now, that’s quite a stunt, and you gotta hand it to Johnny for having the guts to take part in it. But then, Johnny didn’t know that the pitcher was blindfolded.

If you’re trying to remember who this guy was and can’t, don’t feel bad. Though he remains relatively unknown, in 1972 Sports Illustrated named him “The most underrated athlete of his time.”

In 2000 the same magazine named his team as the United States’ eight-greatest team of the 20th century. And a 2002 ESPN.com list named him among the top 10 pitchers of all time, in a list that included Walter Johnson and Sandy Koufax.

His name was Eddie Feigner (pronounced “FAY-nor”) and he was the greatest fast-pitch softball pitcher of all time.

Eddie Feigner
Eddie Feigner

 

In an era when big-league pitchers made 100k a year, Feigner made that much in a month.  In an athletic career that spanned six decades, he and his team, the King And His Court, barnstormed around the world, playing in all 50 States and 104 countries, performing before 20,800,00 fans in 4405 cities, sometimes playing three games in one day in three different stadiums. enabling Feigner to compile the following outrageous record:

Total Games Pitched In………………………….11.125

Total games won…………………………………….9,743

Games tied……………………………………………… 310

Total strikeouts……………………………………141,517

Total No-Hitters………………………………………930

Total Perfect Games…………………………………238

Total Shut-outs……………………………………..1.982

That’s quite a list, but apparently Eddie Feigner’s favorite statistic was,

Total Batters Stuck Out While Blindfolded………8.698

But Feigner didn’t just strike out batters pitching blindfolded. He did it behind his back, between his legs, and kneeling down. If he wanted to humble the hitter, he struck him out from second base, and if he really wanted to get fancy, he did it from center field.

One batter, quoted in The Orlando Sentinel, described what it was like to face Feigner. “I was waiting for a pitch, heard a noise, watched the catcher throw the ball back. It was incredible. There was no way to get the bat off my shoulder before the ball got there. I don’t know how anybody ever hit the guy.”

The previously mention baseball greats probably wondered the same thing, after they faced his repertoire of 103 mph fastballs, curves that broke 18 inches, interspersed with sliders and change-ups thrown at five different speeds.

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His record is all the more impressive considering that The King And His Court consisted of only four players. Feigner believed he could get by with just a catcher and first-baseman, but if he and his teammates came to bat and were all walked, they’d be screwed, so he added a shortstop.

Though he became one of history’s greatest athletes, Feigner’s life did not get off to a good start. Left as a newborn at the door of an orphanage in Walla Walla, Washington with a note pinned to his blanket that read. “This is a Protestant baby”, Feigner step-mother named him Myrtle Vernon King.

Mrs. King raised him as a Seventh Day Adventist, a religion that did not allow baseball playing, but had no admonition against softball, so Eddie went to work teaching himself how to pitch, and by age 16 was humiliating batters in men’s leagues, becoming so proficient that one league banned him from the mound.

He was a troublesome youth. He was expelled from school and drifted for years supporting himself at menial jobs till joining the Marine Corps. then had two nervous breakdowns, got married and divorced twice and twice attempted suicide, after which the Corps locked him in the X-Ward.

Feigner said. “The X-Ward was a place for wackos and I belonged. I was wacky and wanted to die.I was a pitiful screwed-up person with no home and no father and no real mother I knew about. I was also an uncouth, uneducated, arrogant, belligerent, no-good miserable excuse for a human being. I was bent on destroying myself. A psychiatrist told me I’d never straighten up until I found my mother. When I did, I completely changed my life.”

After a search that began in the Walla Walla library, Eddie located his birth mother in December of 1945, in a reunion that, if his account of it is accurate, was reminiscent of a 40’s Hollywood tearjerker  Her name was Naomi Feigner and she lived in the same town and had often hired Eddie to mow her lawn, never realizing that he was her son.

And so Myrtle Vernon King changed his name to Eddie Feigner, a name that would make athletic history.

Eddie Feigner pitched actively well into his sixties and died in 2007 at the age of 81, but long before that he voiced his opinion of his place in the world of sports. “I’m a pipsqueak.” he said, “because I’m caught in a nothing game. It’s like being a world champion nose blower.”

Though Eddie may have thought little of his relative place in athletic history, we can be sure he drew consolation from knowing that, though in every sport there are endless arguments about who was the greatest at what, in his chosen field of endeavor Eddie Feigner was, is now, and forever will be, indisputably…The King!

Keep swingin’ for the fences, friends,

Bruce

Sources:

The News Tribune, Believe it or not, there was a strikeout king before Felix,  John McGrath, August 4, 2014

The Wayback Machine. Fast Edie Feigner, August 19, 2004

The New York Times. Eddie Feigner, Hard-Throwing, Barnstorming Showman Of softball, Dies at 81. Feb 12, 2007

From An Orphan To a King, Eddie Feighner, Sheridan Books Inc, 2004

 

 

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Sex In Church

Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Greetings, friends.

Way back in 1644, they staged an opera in Rome.

Not such a big deal, but in this case, the scenes were painted, the statues were sculpted, the music composed, the comedy written, the engines of the special effects were designed and the theater itself built by one guy, the Italian art-stud, Gianlorenzo Bernini.

Historian Kenneth Clark writes that, “At Bernini’s productions, people in the front rows ran away, fearing that they would be drenched by water or burned by fire, so powerful was the illusion he created.”

But staging dramas wasn’t the only trick Gianlorenzo had in his bag. He was an accomplished painter, a skilled architect. and arguably the greatest sculptor of any age.

Guys like that are a dime a dozen, right?

A devoutly religious man. Bernini had a temperament that often clashed with his religious zeal. Though he was highly disciplined and always delivered work on time, he was a party animal of the first order and of course a ladies man. He had a ribald sense of humor and was devoted to the pleasures of this earth. Though he was popular and had the support of the rich and powerful, whom he skillfully manipulated, he had an ego the size of Mount Vesuvius and a temper just as volcanic.

This nasty temper would prove to be his greatest fault.

Bust of Constanza Bonarelli by Bernini
Bust of Constanza Bonarelli by Bernini

Around 1637, inspired by both romantic love and passionate lust, Bernini carved a bust of the object of his desire, the hot-blooded Constanza Bonarelli.

Of this piece of work, art historian Simon Shama writes.

“What gives this bust its sensual vitality is the frankness with which Bernini has depicted his lover, not as passive recipient of his adoration, but, on the contrary, as spitfire.”

And the fact that she was another man’s wife?

Well, that didn’t matter a bit to the love-besotted Bernini.

But these things never seem to end well, do they?

As Simon Shama writes, “…there came a day when someone approached Bernini and whispered in his ear (doubtless nervously, given the Cavaliere’s reputation for hot temper) that his mistress was, alas, also sleeping with someone else”

Bernini went to his lover’s house and saw a man leaving, obviously after a session of love.

And who was that man? Well, he was Bernini’s own most trusted brother, Luigi.

Lapsing into a fit of blind rage, Bernini chased his brother down and tried to beat him to death with a crowbar, succeeding only in breaking a couple of Luigi’s ribs. Luigi managed to flee into a church, leaving Bernini vainly kicking at the barred doors.

But Bernini wasn’t finished.

“That same afternoon, a servant was sent to the Bonarelli house. He found Constanza in bed and there, fulfilling the orders he had been given by Bernini, he cut her face to ribbons with a razor. So the same hand that had fashioned the most beautiful head in the history of sculpture had, through a surrogate, mutilated the living flesh it had celebrated.”

And the outcome of this sorry episode? The servant was sent to prison for his assault, Constanza was imprisoned for adultery and fornication, and poor Luigi was banished from Italy.

And our hero? He got a 3000 scudi fine, which the pope waived. and was henceforth sentenced to enter into holy matrimony with Caterina Tezio, who was said to be the hottest babe in Rome.

This episode had little effect on Bernini’s reputation. “While Bernini was alive,”  writes the art critic Clive James, “even his enemies thought he as a great man.”

But no reputation is bulletproof. Swollen with ego and a well-deserved pride in a lifetime of achievement, Bernini was awarded a magnificent project, the addition of bell towers to Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.

He went to work, and as most geniuses do, he listened only to his own mind… and to those who told him what he wanted to hear. Had one of his consultants had the nerve to tell him, or if he’d consulted with his arch rival, architect Francesco Borromini, Bernini would have learned that his plan for the tower foundations was inadequate.

The first tower started to crack just after the roof went on. It was ignominiously torn down, and so was Bernini’s reputation.

He went away and skulked, did penance and all the usual things a big star does when things fall apart. He still had business coming his way, a bust here and there, etc. Then, like all world-class talents, he seized upon a commission that he saw as his vindication, a chapel for Cardinal Federico Cornaro, which also entailed a huge budget.

So, Bernini could, if he wished, pull out all the stops: he could create, not just a sculpture, but a spectacular architectural setting (to stop the mouths of critics who said he was no builder), and perhaps include some painting as well. It could be a theatrical ensemble of the arts and, if done well, the greatest drama he had ever created.” 

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The centerpiece of this extravaganza would be a statue of St. Teresa of Avila, a mystic nun who lived in Spain in the 1500’s. Her accounts of her rapturous experiences are vividly described in her writings, and in these raptures she is said to have levitated from her bed, her back arched and her head thrown back and her  eyes closed and her mouth agape. No wonder the carving by Bernini is titled “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”

images (6)

In her account, Teresa writes, “Very close to me, an angel appeared in human form… in his hands I saw a large golden spear and at its iron tip there seemed to be a point of fire. I felt as if he plunged this into my heart several times so that it penetrated all the way to my entrails…The pain was so severe it made me moan several times. The sweetness of this pain is so severe there is no wanting it to end…”

In his carving, Bernini replaces the spear with an arrow, and as Simon Shama points out, “The smiling angel aims his arrow (rather than a spear) not at her breast, but significantly lower on the torso.”

Bernini is not indulging in innuendo. He is making a blatant statement. He portrays the experience of merging with the divine, not by the mortification of the flesh, but by its glorification.

What he achieved in hard stone was a representation of what we are all unconsciously seeking: we know that human relationships are unreliable, and whether we realize it or not, we yearn for a union with something indefinable, something that we know won’t let us down, ever.

But until we achieve union with the divine, my friends, all we have is each other.

So in honor of the pending St. Valentine’s Day, here’s wishing every one of you all the satisfying unions you desire, be they sacred, profane, or simply made of chocolate.

Bruce

Sources:

Kenneth Clark, Civilization, Harper & Row, 1969

Simon Shama, The Power Of Art, BBC Books, 2006

Clive James, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Comeback Kid. Atlantic Monthly, January 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Gianlorenzo Bernini. Italian Art. Baroque Art., Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

“I don’t want a pickle…”

Honda Phantom, rented from Tony's Big bikes in Chiang Mai.
Honda Phantom, rented from Tony’s Big bikes in Chiang Mai.

“…I just want to ride my motor-sickle.”

So goes singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie’s ode to his beloved red Triumph Scrambler. And so goes the mantra of every man and woman who loves to ride.

Non-riders might have a difficult time understanding a rider’s devotion to his machine. They might shake their heads and consider this devotion to be a form of arrested development. That’s probably because… they’ve just never been there.

They don’t know that riding a motorcycle induces a state of visceral bliss that can’t be conveyed in words. Though this joyous sensation radiates from the body’s core, it is spawned by a mental abstraction, because the motorcycle is much more than an exquisite mechanical contrivance. It is, in the truest sense of the word, an icon, and it embodies the two most important things in the rider’s life:

1.Personal Freedom

2.Unfettered Mobility.

To most people who ride, this metaphorical stuff is meaningless. To them, riding is just totally cool, and the idea of giving it up is unthinkable.

But riding a motorcycle is inherently dangerous. Riding one in Thailand is even more so.

Let’s assume that, despite these obvious risks, you find yourself riding a Honda Phantom, a truly pristine example of the breed, and you’re cruising through northern Thailand on steep winding roads, passing through lush mountainous jungle fit for a King Kong movie.

You’re humming along, lost in that indescribable state that is a common experience to those who ride.

This is soooooo sweet !

Then, on a steep downhill curve to the left, a series of unavoidable events occurs. The details are irrelevant. All that matters is that whatever skills you thought you had as a rider, they are not up to the challenge of this situation, and you tumble into every rider’s nightmare – you go down.

You go down, and you and the bike slide right out into the middle of the highway.

In an instant, you’ve gone from bliss to black rage. Your left foot is pinned between the bike and the road and you can’t get up. You shake your fist and pound the asphalt.

Do you rage against a fate that has reduced you to helplessness?

No.

Do you tremble with fear, knowing that on oncoming vehicle could turn you into hamburger?

No.

Do you survey your wounded flesh, hoping no permanent damage has been done?

No, because all you care about at that moment is the damage done to that gorgeous motorcycle.

You try to lift the bike but can’t budge it. Then you’re distracted by the squeal of tires.  You look to your right. A pickup truck swerves to miss you, then jerks to the side of the road and skids to a stop.

The driver, a dark-skinned Thai man wearing a wife-beater undershirt, camo pants and flip-flops runs to your side. He lifts the bike off you, pushes it to the side of the road, drops the kickstand, leans the bike onto it, and without even looking at you, he jumps back in his truck and speeds off.

Stupified, you stand there in the middle of the road, staring at the vanishing truck: this guy just did you a serious favor, and you didn’t get a chance to say thanks.

You limp to the side of the road. You don’t feel much pain yet – a surge of endorphins has seen to that – but all you really care about is the bike.

When you left Tony’s Big Bikes in Chiang Mai, this bike had nary a scratch on it. As far as you can tell, you are the first one to lay it down. You are not proud of this.

So you survey the damage. The headlight is cockeyed and its rim is scratched up. The left mirror is bent. The  rubber foot peg is bent too, and the left saddlebag is scuffed, but worst of all, the voluptuous gas tank has a dent, maybe a half-inch deep and about the size of a tennis ball.

You fuss with the headlight and get it re-aligned, then you stand back and look at the bike. Like a rider thrown from a horse, you know you have to get back on. You straddle the bike and press the starter and the Honda surges to life. As far as this bike is concerned, it’s as if nothing had happened, and if it could speak to you it would say, “Quit sniveling and let’s get going.”

You try to stay loose, but gradually your body stiffens and your left leg feels like you’re standing too close to a blowtorch. As the days pass, these aches and pains don’t let up much, but when you take the bike back to Tony’s in Chiang Mai, the worst pain is in the middle of your chest. It’s the same feeling you’d have if someone had entrusted you with a fine horse, and you’d returned it to the stable lamed up.

You’re legally responsible for the damages. The owner, an Englishman named Duncan,  is very reasonable about this, and you leave feeling grateful. To him, the bike is just a financial asset. But to you, it is… more.

Most people who hear you story will shake their heads, thinking it exposes your distorted emotional attachments and immature disregard for risk, not to mention a complete loss of perspective.

And, they’d be quite right.

But then, that’s what love is all about, isn’t it?

So, my friends, for those of you who ride, here’s wishing you a lifetime of safe and happy miles. For those of you who don’t (this writer is now among you) the only thing to offer is…condolences.

Either way, happy trails,

Bruce

PS. For the morbidly curious, corroborating photos showing the damage to the writer’s body are readily available upon request at weberbruce5@gmail.com.

No photos, however, were taken of the damage to the bike. That would have been much too painful.

 

 

old-tree-s-house

 

 

 

Also, if you’re ever lucky enough to be in northwest Thailand, do yourself a favor and stay at Old Trees House.

After you cross the bridge going out of Tha Ton, watch for the sign on your left. Turn and go up the steep gravel drive, then walk into the gardens. In the cool shade, you’ll see lush plants with exotic colorful blossoms backed by a thousand shades of green. You’ll hear the gurgle of fountains, the chirping of birds, and the soft murmur of Thai women’s voices.

You’ll see six brightly painted houses, all with big porches, tucked into the manicured foliage, around a free-form pool with two waterfalls.

By the time Paolo, the owner, comes out to greet you, you’ll feel like you’re on a morphine drip.

The only downside to Old Trees House is, it is very hard to leave.

And the breakfast is always first-rate.

 

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The Lunatic Express

 

India Train
India Train

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Greetings, friends,

An astute fiction writer once wrote, “Every man has the same dream. All that varies is their mode of transport.”

He wrote this because he knew that, though some great travel writing has been written by women, the desire to cast off the shackles of civilization and head out for parts unknown is primarily a male urge.

Journalist Carl Hoffman, after spending years reporting from some of the most dangerous places in the world, decided to carry this urge to an extreme. His plan was to go around the world, his modes of transport being only the most statistically dangerous buses, boats, trains and planes. He chronicled his experiences in his book, The Lunatic Express.

At first this seems like a journalistic stunt, and Hoffman admits that, like so many other middle-aged dudes hitting the road after an existential meltdown, his own personal life had hit a serious snag.

But he also had a legitimate journalistic goal: to show how the rest of the world gets around.

Here in the western world, we complain about the vile drama of air travel, with its overbearing airport stooges herding us like cattle and frisking our under wear, and the sulking flight attendants that we who fly in steerage have to abide.

But these are luxurious conditions that the rest of the world would envy. And Hoffman shows himself, and the reader, no mercy in portraying the almost heroic measures the people of the rest of the world must undertake, just to get around.

He writes, “I wanted to jump on and circumnavigate the planet on that unseen artery of mass transit. I wanted to know what it was like on the ferries that killed people daily, the buses that plunged off cliffs, the airplanes that crashed. I wanted to travel around the world as most of the people in the world did, putting their lives at risk every time they took off on overcrowded and poorly maintained conveyances because that was all they could afford or there were no other options.

Africawhyilivehere2

He rides with manic minibus drivers in Lagos, Nigeria, who pilot rickety vans crammed with as many as 30 people as they negotiate the city’s potholed streets, driving at breakneck speeds, always wary of the cops they have to pay daily baksheesh to, working sixteen hours a day, chewing a narcotic weed to stay awake, just to earn the meagerest of livings.

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He rides jammed ferries in Bangladesh, ramshackle buses with bad brakes through the Andes, takes listing, overloaded passenger boats down the Amazon, and takes a hair-raising mountain passage through Afghanistan over washed-out roads policed by gun-crazy Afghan fighters. True to the spirit of his journey, he flies on the world’s most dangerous airlines.

Mumbai Train Station
Mumbai Train Station

But the most heartrending tale of the travel woes of the world’s poor is that of the trains in Mumbai, India. Each day, millions of Indians board these relic trains which ride over decaying rails, packed together like canned meat. IndiaDaily reported on May 9, 2012,

In the first three months of the year, 805 commuters have lost their lives and 867 injured in train-related accidents.”

This was no statistical anomaly. So many Indians die from the simple act of getting to work that most of the train stations have morgues to handle the bodies.

Hoffman rides these trains, of course, but he concedes that he could not have survived this experience, or his entire journey, if not aided constantly by some of the world’s poorest people, and he finds daily reminders of the truth many travelers learn; that the most generous people on earth are the ones who have the least to give.

To stay sane, Hoffman develops, in the face of all this danger, a sort of phlegmatic attitude. He stops fighting the nastiness and the dirt and the delays and the dangers, and as he lets go of his resistance, he slips into a form of misery that he comes to find almost comforting.

In quieter moments, Hoffman meditates on the nature of travel.  He has plenty of doubts about his motives for this trip, but in the process of his ruminations, he brings to light one of the most prominent myths about the nature of arduous journeying.

It is widely believed that getting away to parts unknown is a form of self-escape. But that might not be true. At home, we are surrounded by evidence of our identity and our importance. We have a reliable source of feedback telling us who we are and what our purpose is and what our next move should be. We live out our lives nestled in this relatively comfy cocoon, where our most cherished illusions about ourselves are constantly reinforced.

But try landing in an Asian or African city at midnight, knowing nothing about the currency, the customs, the language or the culture, and you soon realize that one misstep on your part could place you at the mercy of strangers. With no familiar cues to guide you, you are, in the most frightening way, completely on you own. Short of facing a terminal disease, there are few more stark confrontations with your true self than this moment of appalling aloneness.

If you’re simply trying to escape your circumstances, the rigors of travel may not help you, because they can make you constantly yearn for the comforts of home. If you set off on a journey to find yourself, you may learn things about yourself you wouldn’t really care to know

One thing strikes Hoffman no matter where he goes; the unfailingly upbeat attitudes of the people he meets. When he asks a man how he can remain so genuinely cheerful in the face of his difficult life, the man says,

“But you never know when you will die. So you must be happy all of the time.”

Wise words indeed.

Here’s wishing you happy travels on safe modes of transport, my friends,

Bruce

 

Sources;

Carl Hoffman, The Lunatic Express, Broadway books. 2010

IndiaDaily, may 9, 2012

The Starboard Bar, from The Dark Side Of Enlightenment, Stanfield Books, 2014

 

 

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Not-So-Mad Genius

Vincent van Gogh Self Portrait
Vincent van Gogh Self Portrait

Greetings friends,                   July 29th

On this date in 1890, a great man died.

Most of us know Vincent Van Gogh as the crazy Dutch painter who sliced off his ear in a fit of rage, couldn’t sell a painting, and committed suicide by shooting himself in the gut. Anyone who did such things had to be loony, right?

But a reading of his numerous letters, presented in chronolical order with his drawings and paintings in Vincent Van Gogh, A Self Portrait In Art and Letters, tells an altogether different story, that of a man fluent in three languages, familiar with the greatest literary achievements, who presents his ideas in lucid fashion, ideas about art and life that are filled with the same powerful insight and depth of feeling revealed in his numerous pictures.

Wheat-Field-Behind-Saint-Paul-Hospital-With-A-Reaper-small
Wheat Field Behind St. Paul Hospital

What is also not so well known is that, though he liked to draw as a child, he’d never picked up a paintbrush until he was twenty-nine, and in a mere seven years, he transformed himself into an artist whose work would transform Western art. This is about as likely as a man taking up tennis at 29, and seven years later winning Wimbledon

And how did he do this? By nothing more than sheer force of will and endless hours of practice, drawing for ten to twelve hours a day, painting in frigid studios and in cold mistral winds, never caring how hard it was to learn, only interested in expressing his wonder at the visual glory of the world around him.

Most of us don’t inhabit a living world, but a world of dry conceptualization. To Van Gogh, the material world thrummed and vibrated, seething a pulsating energy that he could feel in his bones. It was that energy he tried to capture in his work

starry-night
Starry Night

His health suffered, of course. He spent most of the money his brother Theo sent him on paint, living for years on bread, coffee, and tobacco, till his teeth loosened and his lungs ached from smoking. But none of these things slowed him down. It was the endless battle with epilepsy and depression that wore away at him, sapping his strength as the years passed.

A close reading of his letters, and an understanding of Vincent’s life, can’t help but arouse a feeling of sympathy. He was jilted by every girl he loved, failed at his early callings, his works were scorned till after his death, and he lived in constant shame at having to lean on his brother Theo for money. But though we may feel sympathy for him, he was definitely not the sort of chap you’d like to sit and have a beer with: Vincent was simply too intense.

This is not so hard to understand. Guys who do what he did are seldom socially adept. To transform the way people see the world is to move mankind forward, and as the British historian and poet Jacob Bronowski said, “The ascent of man is not made by loveable people.”

In Van Gogh’s time, the art world was fueled by Impressionism. He moved to Paris and mastered the style, but he distained its daintiness. From this experience, he learned a lot about the use of color, but the lasting result was the crystallization of his own philosophy of art. In a letter to Theo in December of 1885, he says,

Ah, a painting has to be painted, and why not simply? I see people in the street, fine, but I find the servant girls often much more interesting and more beautiful than their mistresses, the working men more interesting than the gentlemen. And in ordinary young men and girls I find a vigor and life that should be painted with a firm brushstroke with a simple technique to express their individual character

Many of the stories about Van Gogh are open to dispute, and some are definitely distorted. He didn’t cut off his ear, only a slice of the lobe, and there’s a theory that he didn’t actually do it himself, that the painter Paul Gauguin, said to be an excellent swordsman, nicked off the bit of ear to fend off Van Gogh, who was haranguing him endlessly about the differences in their views on painting.

The most persistent element of his life story is that he committed suicide, but in a biography published in 2011, Van Gogh, The life, the authors suggest that he was murdered by a local teenager who had been harassing him. According to this account, the angle of the bullet’s entry suggested it had been fired from afar. And why was no gun ever found? And the strangest question of all is, why would even a distraught man kill himself by shooting himself in the gut?

On his deathbed, Vincent said, “Do not accuse anyone. It was I who wanted to kill myself.” The authors speculate that he said this to cover up the truth.

But the experts don’t buy this story. And they may never do so, even if proof positive is found.

Why? Actor and art critic John Perreault, who portrayed Van Gogh in “The Story Of Vincent” writes in his essay “Van Gogh Murdered! Why Are The Authorities In Denial?” that this denial will live on  because, “We need the myth of the crazy, tormented, self destructive artist to convince us that painters, poets, and musicians are all nuts… and also, paradoxically, make us feel relieved that we are not artists.”

He goes on to say, “Myths are not allowed to be changed. It would be too destabilizing. We can no more change the Van Gogh ending than we can change Little Red Riding Hood.”

The real truth may never be known, and this speculation is of no importance. Vincent is dust, but his paintings remain. They tell the only truth about him that matters.

Here’s wishing you ultramarine starry nights, and chrome-yellow sunny days, my friends,

Bruce

PS. Over in Holland, Vincent’s last name is pronounced Van-GAKH.

Sources;

Vincent Van Gogh, A Self-Portrait in Art and Letters, H. Anne Suh, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2006

Atropia, an artsjournal blog, John Perreault, Oct. 26, 2011

Van Gogh; The Life, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Random House, 2011

jonathanjonesonart blog, Oct 18, 2011

The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski, Boston, Little Brown, 1974

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Dutch Painters | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Life Under The Radar

Citizens of Bazaaristan
Citizens of Bazaaristan

Greetings, friends,

We’re bombarded with statistics these days, and one of the most common is the ranking of world economies.

At present, the U S is considered # 1 and China # 2.

But there exists across this planet another economic system, one that is overlooked by conventional economic measurements.

This economy is described in Robert Neuwirth’s book Stealth Of Nations. If it were a country, he suggests, it could be called Bazaaristan. But this country has no borders and is as ephemeral as smoke, and if estimates of its magnitude are accurate, it bumps China to #3.

As he writes on page 13,

“There is another economy out there. Its edges are diffuse and it disappears the moment you try to catch it. It stands beyond the law, yet it is deeply entwined with the legally recognized business world. It is based on small sales and tiny increments of profit, yet it produces, cumulatively, a huge amount of wealth. It is massive yet disparaged, open yet feared, microscopic yet global. It is how much of the world survives, yet is ignored and sometimes disparaged by most economists, business leaders, and politicians.

You can call it SYSTEM D.”

System D stands for the vast under-the-table world of spontaneous unregulated markets, a world-wide trade system that exists totally off the books, and spans the activities of those who sell produce at a roadside stand to those who smuggle billions of dollars worth of electronic goods into impoverished countries to sell to its destitute inhabitants.

The term System D is taken from the French word, “debrouillard” (pronounced, de broo yar) which describes a person who lives by his wits, is inventive, industrious, self-starting. Another loose translation of the word is “those who need not be given directions.”

The word first appears in literature in George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” to describe a person who can get an impossible job done no matter how trying the circumstances. And chef-writer Anthony Bourdain devotes a chapter on System D, and the debrouillards he has met, in his book, The Nasty Bits

System D was earlier referred to as the, “informal economy” by British anthropologist Keith Hart., a name he now regrets originating, because it has come to lump together those who sell at farmer’s markets with those who deal in drugs and guns. The word “informal” has become a pejorative, just as “untested” is often used to discredit an herbal supplement, both terms implying that anything without the express approval of government authorities is automatically suspect.

The term System D has now been widely adopted, but regardless of what name you give it, this unregulated economy appears to be growing robustly. Freidrich Schneider, an economist at Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria, has made a decades-long study of the dollar value of this system. He admits that there can be only estimates, as those who work in the informal economy are just as unwilling to be truthfully forthcoming as those in regulated businesses. In 2010, he estimated the annual output of System D at 10 trillion dollars.  Which would make Bazaaristan the true second largest economy.

Neuwirth’s book is based on direct contact with participants in System D. He speaks with Africans who travel to China to buy products that are sold in street markets in their native countries, laid-off San Franciscans who use twitter to sell home-cooked foods, and huge multi-national companies that sell products through unregistered kiosks and market vendors around the world.

His book is full of stories of people with little education and extremely limited recourses who, with nothing more that determination and gall, create their own livings.

The Organization of Economic Development and Cooperation, a multi-national think tank, estimated that half the workers of the world, 1.8 billion, are employed in System D, and that by 2020, two-thirds of the workers in the world will be employed in it.

Given those estimates, the author of Stealth of Nations concludes,

There’s no multi-national, no Daddy Warbucks or Bill Gates, no government that can rival that level of job creation. Given its size, it makes no sense to talk of development, growth, sustainability, or globalization without reckoning with System D.

In the western world, we have come to insist, to insure our safety and security, that all activities be organized, regulated, overseen and micro-managed. This has led to massive sclerosis in all regulated central economies.

But System D functions so well because it is free of all that. As Neuwirth writes,

It seems to specialize in exploiting the economic and political fault lines of the globe, but it is fractured and haphazard and for the most part, silent. System D is a massive in-between space, strikingly independent, yet deeply enmeshed in the legal world. It involves small-scale entrepreneurs but links them to global trading circuits. It is the economic way of the global majority, guided not by corporations or politicians or economists, but by ordinary citizens.  

Even if the conclusions about System D are exaggerated, the age of long-term fulltime employment with benefits will soon be a thing of the past except, of course, for government employees. Most of the working world may well benefit from the thriving nature of system D, and if it becomes the economic norm, the regulated economies will then take on the same name, only in their case, the D will stand for……Decline.

Wishing you vast under-the-table profits, my friends,

Bruce

Sources:

Stealth Of Nations, Pantheon Books, 2011

Down And Out In Paris And London, Harcourt Brace Javonavitch, 1961

The Nasty Bits, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Anthony Bourdain, George Orwell, System D, World Economiy | 4 Comments