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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

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, 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

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, 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

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, 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

 

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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

kupbezrecepty.com

, Dies at 81. Feb 12, 2007

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

 

 

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