Archive | February, 2012

Overlooked and under-appreciated

26 Feb



The Philadelphia Inquirer today carries an interesting piece on the 50th anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points in a single basketball game. It carries a shocking disclosure that this historic accomplishment was not universally accepted as a tour de force. Many considered Chamberlain, at 7 foot 1, a freak of nature who actually was hurting the game. After Wilt’s 100-point outing against the Knicks (in Hershey, Pa.), the Philadelphia Warriors went to Madison Square Garden to again face the New York club. Interest was low. Only half of the 18,496 seats were sold.

Why is time and perspective required to understand the relevant and important?


I once worked at a newspaper in north Florida that had won a Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1967, long before I arrived. The winning photo was of a lineman up on a telephone pole. He had been shocked by an electrical surge and had passed out. His safety belt kept him hanging, enabling an apprentice lineman to climb up and give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The photo was taken by Rocco Morabito and entitled, “The Kiss of Life.”

From the stories that were told, the photo ran on an inside page and of only modest size.

Can anyone recall instances where something historic or significant was overlooked or underappreciated until much later?


What good are crowds when you’re dead?

20 Feb

Mulberry Tree

Yesterday I stood in line with hundreds of people waiting to see a show by an artist who, while alive, sold only one painting.

The “Van Gogh Up Close” exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum was a collection of paintings done in the last four years of the artist’s life. Many were completed at an asylum where he was being treated for mental illness.

In the context of his time (the late 1800s), his work was revolutionary. It was unacceptable – almost a joke — to the majority of the established art world. Vincent Van Gogh, in his life, was a failure. It is a sad thing that greatness has to suffer in its time because it is so far ahead of its time.

The rest of us are so slow to catch up.

“This was done by a free mind,” my wife, an artist and teacher, said. “My young students can do work like this.”

Van Gogh self-portrait

She did not mean they reach Van Gogh’s level of artistry, craft and creativity. She meant that like Van Gogh their minds are unshackled.

It takes time to shackle a mind, but in the end they get locked down pretty tight.

In many ways, the reaction to new art is like the reaction to great scientific discovery, which is said to have three stages:

  • First, people deny that it is true.
  • Then they deny that it is important.
  • Finally they credit the wrong person.

Well, at least Van Gogh got his credit … belated though it was.

When faith creates an NBA fan

18 Feb

An old chum called the other day. He’s the kind of guy who has retained the quirks and traits of youth while transforming into something foreign.

We don’t see much of each other anymore; it’s usually by chance at the supermarket. He’s had more than a few troublesome twists in his life, and they seem to get worse with the years.

He doesn’t have a TV and he called to ask if he could come over to watch Jeremy Lin play basketball. Lin is a guard for the New York Knicks; an undrafted, unheralded Harvard grad who came off the bench and is credited with putting his team on a winning streak, and doing it with style. As an Asian-American, his presence in the NBA makes him stand out.

“I don’t remember you being a basketball fan,” I said.

“I’m not,” he answered. “But this guy is a sensation … and he’s a Christian.”

I paused.

“Aren’t most of the NBA players Christian?” I asked.

He paused.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean the dominant religion in America is Christianity. I assume the majority of the NBA players are Christian.”

“Jeremy Lin practices his faith,” my old friend said.

My inclination was to start an argument, asking if it was his Christian duty to judge the entire NBA.

But I didn’t.

I let it go and told him I’d to be happy to watch the next televised Knicks game with him.

“As long as it’s not on Sunday,” he said. He won’t watch TV on the Sabbath. (Would he think less of Lin for playing on the Sabbath?)

Afterward, I pondered his use of the word “faith,” which from my perspective on language I find odd. Why do Christians and member of other religions need to have faith? In the secular life we either believe something or we don’t, or maybe we admit we just don’t know. A Republican who claims lower taxes spur economic growth doesn’t require faith.

He or she simply believes it.

Why can’t Jeremy Lin and my friend just believe in what they espouse – that Christ is the divine savior who rose from the dead? Needing faith suggests doubt.

“Faith is believing something you know ain’t true,” Mark Twain said.

I have no doubt in my spiritual beliefs. That’s because they are my own. I’ve no need to take the dogma of others and cram it into my value system. I’m comfortable discarding what I don’t like or what doesn’t seem logical.

My religion is my own. I’ve crafted it.

In a piece I’m writing, I recommend others do the same. And I offer my view of a creator who has put the universe in motion based on a complex probability formula that ensures both free will and a pre-determined outcome.

The plan operates on its own, like a machine. There is no divine intervention. No corrections or adjustments. God does not help the Jews in battle.

After all, why would a perfect being have to intervene in something it created perfectly? That suggests imperfection.

Comments on this idea are appreciated and could help with the direction of my writing. I’d especially like to hear from Christians, of which I claim to be one.

Go Jeremy Lin!

No Briticisms, please

14 Feb

Watch those tweets, mate.

Bloomberg Business week reports that a couple of Brits were picked up at the Los Angeles airport by Homeland Security after tweeting that they were going to “destroy America” (read: party it down) and dig up the body of Marilyn Monroe. They were detained for five hours.

Dole for the Middle Class

13 Feb


 In need of more government help?

Fewer and fewer people today want their tax dollars to go to the poor. According to the New York Times, their wish is coming true. The government safety net established to keep people from poverty is going through a shift. Its newer mission is to support the middle class. 

The Sunday Times article says:

“The share of benefits flowing to the least affluent households, the bottom fifth, has declined from 54 percent in 1979 to 36 percent in 2007, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis published last year.”

Interestingly, many members of the middle class who are getting the money oppose government handouts.

“They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it,” the Times says. “They say they want less help for themselves; less help in caring for relatives; less assistance when they reach old age.”

Some of the people interviewed, when asked to discuss the inconsistency between reality and their political beliefs, cried.

Said one:

“You have to help and have compassion as a people, because otherwise you have no society, but financially you can’t destroy yourself. And that is what we’re doing.”

A truly great performance

12 Feb

Montgomery Clift in "Judgment at Nuremberg".

Each time this year, TCM – the cable movie channel – presents, “31 Days of Oscar.” I happened to have tuned in when it was showing the 1961 film, “Judgment at Nuremberg.” I had never seen it. From the beginning, it was easy to tell this film is not only very good, it is very special and unique, with a strong, unusual perspective and a universal message.

I had been expecting anti-German propaganda.

Directed by Stanley Kramer, the film is studded with stars: Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland – even a young William Shatner pops up. The story is about the post-war trials in Germany. Top Nazis have already been prosecuted, and the film focuses on the trial of three judges who approved Nazi-ordered sterilizations (read castrations).

What motivated me to write this post, however, was Montgomery Clift.

His performance on the witness stand as a not-very-intelligent sterilization victim overwhelmed me with its power.

I was never a fan of Monti’s, who looks very different in this film. I had seen him play roles like soldiers and boxers and never felt they were right for him.

As the sad little witness, frightened and damaged, he is incredible. His screen time is a mere 12 minutes.

Please watch. (the first minute or so is missing)

Here is the interesting part, as reported on the Internet Movie Database site: Clift was having an extremely difficult time remembering his lines, so the director told him to ad lib, and that his confusion would ad to the confusion the character was going through under cross examination.

God did that work.

Clift usually cut his hair short after each movie, and didn’t make another until it grew back. In this film, there was no time for it to grow back.

The end of privacy

11 Feb


Digital technology brings the world to you and you to the world.

It tracks and records you, follows you around, knows where you have been, what you like, who your friends are. It can predict what you are likely to do.

There is a story circulating that a person with good credit was denied a mortgage because his friends in the digital world were un-creditworthy. You know, birds of a feather.

True? Don’t know. But certainly possible.

Now it seems people with information to protect are taking great steps to secure it when they go abroad. The New York Times this morning describes the precautions taken by a China expert at the Brookings Institute when he travels to that country. The account says such measures are now commonplace for government and business officials.

He leaves his cellphone and laptop at home and instead brings ‘loaner’ devices, which he erases before he leaves the United States and wipes clean the minute he returns. In China, he disables Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, never lets his phone out of his sight and, in meetings, not only turns off his phone but also removes the battery, for fear his microphone could be turned on remotely. He connects to the Internet only through an encrypted, password-protected channel, and copies and pastes his password from a USB thumb drive. He never types in a password directly, because, he said, “the Chinese are very good at installing key-logging software on your laptop.”

At home, the average person’s privacy is compromised for marketing purposes. Someone wants to sell you something. It’s not a pleasant idea, but most can live with it. If it ever becomes political and used as a repressive tool of government, we’ll have quite a lot to worry about over a simple game of Angry Birds.

Am I’m being naïve by saying “if it ever ….”?

Sticks, stones and free speech

10 Feb

Hateful or merely unfunny?

I’ve noticed that more and more celebrities, politicians, broadcasters and sports figures are saying things that offend people. Reporting gaffs, if they are indeed that, has become its own news genre.

What people say rarely offends me. I’m an advocate of free speech. And I like to hear what people really think. Don’t others feel this way? It is difficult for me to believe that, say, a Jew, would prefer an anti-Semitic congressman keep quiet and never be found out, rather than speak honestly and reveal himself.

Do those who complain about people like Roland Martin think Roland Martin would be a different person if he didn’t say what he said?

I once found myself among a large group of traveling North Koreans. They didn’t say a word, didn’t crack a facial expression, didn’t show they were human. Fear encapsulated them. I’d much rather be around a bigot than an automaton. I’m hoping the current tendency to castigate offensive utterances doesn’t turn Americans into North Koreans.

Can’t we just ignore celebrity offenders? That’s severe punishment, since these are people who can’t seem to live without attention.

There once was a politician in my town who probably was a good fellow at heart. He liked to make jokes and never worried about offending people. He thought himself a scream. He held a high county office and once had to deal with a small riot in a Hispanic neighborhood.

He was unable to play it straight.

During a public meting he said this: “We could have avoided the problem if someone had just put up a taco stand.”

He was roundly criticized.

At the next meeting, he took the podium to apologize, even though he was not the kind of man to do so.

“I was completely wrong,” he told his audience. “It’s the Mexicans who like tacos. The people who rioted were Puerto Ricans.”

And he belly laughed.

Was this man a racist or simply a failed comedian?

To me he was someone who refused to hide himself. If I chose to, I could have run from him, knowing more about him than I knew about most people.

He lost the next election, retired and died. Roland Martin, on the other hand, probably has followers on social media than ever before.

How hungry do you have to be?

8 Feb


“The Gleaners,” by Jean-Francois Millet

I heard a little – not much – about a gleaner movement where volunteers seek permission from farmers to glean fruit and vegetables from fields, then use what they harvest to feed the hungry.

When I learned about the movement, my grandfather came to mind.

He was an immigrant, and his own gleaner. If he passed a fruit tree where apples were left on the ground, he would walk up to the door of the house and ask if he could have them. The gleaned food was in addition to what he grew in his own garden.

His son, my father, with disgust for modern life, once told me his father “fed his family on less than you spend today for paper towels.”

My grandfather was a proud, ingenious man who felt no shame in gleaning what would otherwise be wasted. If I were hungry – and I doubt he ever was – I’m not sure which I would find less tasteful: gleaning for myself or having others glean for me.

Finish one war, start another

5 Feb

Remember this?

If you believe news reports, it seems likely that Israel will attack Iran in an attempt to knock out its ability to make nuclear weapons. Iran denies it has plans to build such weapons. The reports took me back to those days when we were threatening to attack Iraq because it had weapons of mass destruction. There were no weapons, but we did, of course, attack.

Question for thought: If Iran truly did not intend to build nukes, would the U.S. and the Israelis acknowledge that and back off?

Second question: If you were the leader of Iran, would you prefer to be an unthreatened nation without nukes who concentrates on making money from oil, or one who plans to build nukes and has its economy destroyed by an attack from a neighbor allied with the U.S.?

If pre-emptive action is necessary, I prefer cyber war to hot war. Generally, no one dies. It also is less expensive. The downside: it invites  counter-attacks, which require not billions in military spending but only a single, clever mind.

A recent cyber attack on Iran’s reactors proved pretty successful. I assumed that was going to be the continued course of action. Seems I was wrong. I also thought the Iranian nuke problem was mostly solved by the assassinations of its top nuke scientists.

Wrong again.

Perhaps nations wouldn’t build nuclear weapons if they felt secure and unthreatened. How does one go about doing that? Religion is a logical start, but I think that was tried and actually made things worse.

Anyway, we all should brace ourselves for another major world conflict, a loss of the recent stock market gains and the fun and excitement of lining up for $5 a gallon gas.

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