on the importance of downtime

 

 

… I have been a chronic loafer and an enthusiast of dolce far niente all my life. This is the other side of the Taoist percept that “doing nothing is better than to be busy doing nothing.” Almost daily I spend a couple of afternoon hours in my favorite ways of “doing nothing” mentally: working in my garden, cutting the lawn, struggling with the jungle around my summer cottage, walking, swimming, fishing, and climbing mountains. … I still do … [all] kinds of physical work.

Quite frequently I also loaf by meditating on a beautiful sunset or sunrise, whitecaps or the stillness of dreaming waters, the fireworks of a thunderstorm, or the “deafening silence” of a starry night.

 

— Pitirim A. Sorokin, A Long Journey: The Autobiography of Pitirim A. Sorokin (1963)

 

 

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I have observed it often. I am sure you have too.

Overprogrammed kids (uber-kids). Overprogrammed adults.

 

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Uber-kids. You will from time to time read about them in the newspaper. The high school student who missed getting into an Ivy League School for some reason and perhaps feels it was because of discrimination. Near 800 scores on their SAT’s. Proficient on the cello. Captained the high school tennis team. Volunteers at a homeless shelter and spent a summer in Guatemala assisting with refugee efforts.

And so on.

I hope I don’t sound snide. Or like a know it all. When I was in high school, and was striving to get accepted to Harvard, I felt overprogrammed. I volunteered for all sorts of clubs and student organizations; participated in athletics which I did enjoy for the most part but also hoped would make me appear “well rounded”; and studied very hard. But, one can’t help wondering, is it fair to place such demands and expectations on young people, that they always perform at a high level in so many areas? With no time to just be themselves. Their wonderful, unique selves (as their parents know them to be).

I have witnessed, as I am sure most readers of this blog have, many kids brought up this way from early childhood. Swimming lessons. Tennis lessons. Music lessons. After school enrichment programs. Summer camp (no time allowed for sheer idleness). And so on.

Their parents seem hard pressed to shepherd them (usually by automobile) from appointment to appointment.

 

 

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Anyway, I took a walk yesterday after a long, hectic week. And was thinking about how I often feel overprogrammed. Multitasking. I often seem to be doing everything practically at once and accomplishing less and less as time goes on.

It was sometimes this way in my own adolescence, but I do recall having a lot of time as a child — in a different age, when things seemed simpler and less competitive — to just hang out with friends or do things by myself. Long summer vacations (they seemed endless when you were a kid). Playing in the back yard, the street, or a vacant lot. Improvised games and idle conversations. Playing kids’ board games or with toys, or simple card games such as War and Old Maid. (Games that were essentially a waste of time, but we were socializing.) Days spent lolling around with a book, or a comic book. Daydreaming. Being alone, lost in thought, or playing a solitary game. The feeling we used to have of delicious boredom.

 

 

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On my neighborhood walk yesterday, I thought to myself that everyone needs down time. Not only to “recharge batteries.” But for true productivity.

And, most importantly, for CREATIVITY.

When one is idling mentally, one has the time and opportunity to think or just start doing something different or new. It doesn’t have to be something momentous. It often isn’t. It could be picking up something such as a book you had forgotten you had. It could be cleaning your room or raking leaves, or doing some other menial task. But, what happens is that one finds that the mind becomes reenergized. Naturally.

It seems to be true that the mind is most fertile precisely when it is not overprogrammed. You pick up a newspaper or magazine or a book you had forgotten about. You engage in a conversation that seems to be going nowhere in particular (which is of no account). And, suddenly, you get a new idea. Or, when you are doing something nonintellectual, and a whole new idea, a new thought, comes to you, strikes you. And, feeling refreshed, you are eager to perhaps write it down, to run with it, so to speak. This happens, it seems, not only because you are refreshed, but also because the mind has been cleared, making new thoughts more likely, and so on. If I were a psychologist, I could, no doubt, explain this better.

 

 

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Pitirim A. Sorokin expressed this well. But, it should be noted that it is not exactly a matter of shutting down mentally. It’s just that the mind needs freedom to idle (like a car engine) and wander a bit. It needs some freedom to “roam.”

To put it another way, using a metaphor from nature. If you can give yourself a break mentally, a germination process often occurs. You are cleaning your room or raking leaves (or perhaps doing something non task oriented, like walking). You have shut down mentally for a short while. All the thoughts and impressions, all the knowledge, is still there. They are mulch, like leaves on the ground. They are the substratum of new mental matter, new thoughts.

How truly pleasurable this is. I hope our kids will be allowed to experience it.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2018

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on happiness vis-à-vis sadness (and the other way around)

 

 

 

“We are more apt to feel depressed by the perpetually smiling individual than the one who is honestly sad. If we admit our depression openly and freely, those around us get from it an experience of freedom rather than the depression itself.”

 

— Rollo May, Paulus: Reminiscence of a Friendship (1973)

 

 

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These thoughts, this post, are occasioned by a film I saw about beleaguered people in a foreign country.

I was transfixed — totally engrossed in the people’s stories and the picture the film gave of their daily lives.

I shared my enthusiasm for the film with someone close to me and suggested that she see it with me.

She said no, she had no interest (despite my strong recommendation) in seeing the film.

“Why?” I asked.

She answered (perhaps she was looking for excuses), “I don’t want to see something that will make me sad.”

This struck me as patently ridiculous. Since when has it been imperative to avoid things — in life, in art — with the potential to make oneself sad?

It should be obvious that true art mixes joy and beauty with pathos.

In his Poetics, Aristotle developed the theory of catharsis (from the Greek κάθαρσις, catharsis, meaning “purification” or “cleansing” — the purification and purgation of emotions — especially pity and fear — through art”; as explained on Wikipedia). Note that, as explained in the online encyclopedia article, catharsis represents an “extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration” (italics added).

The film which I saw was a documentary about North Korea entitled Under the Sun. More about this below.

 

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So much for theory. Let’s consider some examples. But first, a digression about happiness in PEOPLE.

To what extent is happiness a desideratum? Can we expect it? Is there even such a thing — is it real? How should we regard others who are, seem to be, or claim to be happy?

My father, Alan W. Smith, thoroughly enjoyed life, on many levels: an interest in things (including the delight he took in little things, such as observing what happened once to dry ice when he threw a chunk of it over the side of a ship into the water; he wanted us to see it), including intellectual curiosity; a love of music (chiefly as a performer); a delight in people and their company; a delight in little amusements; pleasures such as eating and drinking. He had a keen appetite for life.

Unlike a lot of adults, he loved his work. He never begrudged, never complained about anything. Welcomed everything and anyone who came his way.

He could loosen and cheer up a group simply by being himself and by virtue of his presence. He didn’t mind looking ridiculous, making fun of himself (or being made fun of), or being regarded as extravagant or incautious.

Oftentimes, he would enter a parlor with people leaning forward in their chairs — tight lipped, looking uncomfortable.

“What’s everybody looking so glum for?” he would say. The complexion of the group would change just like that and people would begin talking and joking.

He took the weather with equanimity, be it a blizzard, a hurricane, or an earthquake.

My father happened to be in the Bay Area, visiting my older brother in the late 1980’s, shortly before he died, when an earthquake struck. “I’ve always wanted to be able to experience what an earthquake feels like,” he told me afterward. As my former therapist pointed out, such an attitude showed an appetite for life and an eagerness to experience it.

A hot summer’s day? A great excuse for setting off a few fireworks in our back yard, or for a lobster cookout (which both my parents loved) in the front yard of our rented summer house on Cape Cod.

I remember a blizzard in my home town of Canton, Massachusetts when I was in high school. Everything was shut down. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. An idea came to my father. Wouldn’t it be great to toast marshmallows and cook hot dogs in our living room fireplace? There was a problem, however — we didn’t have the ingredients. Such niggling problems never seemed to stand in the way of the fun planned by my father. Come to think of it, how about a walk? We walked, tramped about two miles each way through snowdrifts, found a store that was open, and bought marshmallows, hot dogs, and buns.

There was, of course, another side to him. He could be pensive and gloomy. He could be irascible and had a bad temper. His cheerfulness was only one side of the coin.

When something untoward happened to him — an argument with his second wife, for example — he would say to himself through gritted teeth (as she used to tell me), “I’m not going to let it ruin my day.”

 

 

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Phony Cheerfulness

 

A truism: no one is happy all the time.

There was a nice looking, perky girl in the class a year ahead of me in college: Marie E______.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say this. It will sound petty and perhaps mean spirited. But Marie’s perpetual cheerfulness grated on me.

A friend of mine, who lacked emotional depth and (often) insight into human relationships, was eager to get to know Marie and had several tennis dates with her. The relationship went no further.

“The thing I like about her,” he told me, “is that she’s always cheerful.” This comment seemed obtuse and fatuous. It nettled me. I would be willing to bet that Marie’s perpetual cheerfulness was her way of dealing with insecurities that she probably felt.

 

 

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Happiness in a person without an admixture of sadness seems to be inimical to the human condition. One wants to get to know both sides of a person — to hear about their highs and lows from him or herself.

What about my father? you might ask. Didn’t I just wax rhapsodic over his cheerfulness and capacity to enjoy life?

I noted that he had another side that, while it was less often seen, would suddenly be displayed in bursts of anger. And, my father knew profound grief from family tragedies for which he did not bear responsibility but in which he was the chief mourner and suffered the most.

A capacity for joy does not preclude an awareness of sadness, does not obviate sadness.

Who wrote the Ode to Joy? The same composer who in his late quartets, beautifully, incomparably, expresses pathos, sadness.

 

 

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The film mentioned above is Under the Sun (2015), a documentary about North Korea. It was directed by the Russian documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky.

It is beautifully done and tugs and pulls at the viewer emotionally on many levels. The central person in the film, who is unforgettable, is an adorable eight-year-old North Korean girl named Zin-mi. The plot is ostensibly about Zin-mi going through steps, including school, as she prepares to join the Korean Children’s Union. At the film’s conclusion, she breaks down and cries upon being admitted to the children’s union. She is perhaps crying from relief that the stress of achieving the goal is over and, it seems, from what one would call joy mixed with sadness.

As I noted in a previous post:

re “Under the Sun” (a film about North Korea)

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/08/25/re-under-the-sun-a-film-about-north-korea/

the compelling thing about the film is that you come away caring about the people and touched by the film’s PATHOS — despite the fact that one is aware that the people live incredibly hard, regimented lives in a totalitarian state where they have been effectively brainwashed and reduced almost to automatons (or so it often seems).

The film features beautiful, elegiac music composed by a Latvian composer, Karlis Auzans. It captures the pathos musically, for example, in a scene where you see North Koreans having family photos taken in a sort of assembly line fashion. A couple stands proudly in front of an automatic camera with their children. The photo is taken and another couple poses. And so on. As they stare into the camera, one sees expressions of pride but also feels a great sadness. The music rises to an emotional pitch and captures this. One feels empathy with the people posing, with the North Koreans! One feels that they are people, just like us. That, despite very hard lives, they experience feelings like ours. One feels like crying oneself, but one, at the same time, experiences a kind of joy in contemplating the miracle of human existence, and how this elemental reality links us all, regardless of circumstances.

 

 

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This got me thinking about pathos in literature and music. About the comment “I don’t want to see something that will make me sad.”

Anna Karenina ends sadly. Does that make one any less desirous of reading it? It seems that in most operas the plot involves a tragic love affair, often with someone committing suicide, dying of grief. Art (in the broad sense of the word) is full of grief, so to speak, as well as happiness — as depicted by the artist drawing upon a profound knowledge of human life. Would one wish all art to be reduced to the level of a situation comedy?

What about music? Ever hear stirrings of pathos? In Beethoven’s late quartets, in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony, and so forth?

Case closed.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2018

Posted in essays (by Roger W. Smith), general interest, personal psychology (Roger W. Smith observations re) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Roger’s rules for staying healthy (disregard at your peril!)

 

 

drink lots of water, as much as you can (can you believe my latest doctor told me not to drink too many fluids in the evening?)

don’t smoke; and, by all means, no drugs

drink only a little, or in moderation

eating light is better, but don’t get obsessive about diet

fewer sweets and less sugar are desirable

don’t take ANY meds (including aspirin) unless YOU feel you absolutely have to (and ignore what the docs say about them) — in short, leave your brother body alone

exercise as much as you can, but only if it’s fun for you; KEEP ACTIVE

try to keep the weight off, but don’t obsess over it

DON’T EAT LATE AT NIGHT OR BEFORE BEDTIME (it’s better to go to bed hungry)

allow yourself to get as much sleep as you want

stay away from hospitals (“the patients check in, but they don’t check out”) — they’re bound to make you sick, or sicker

avoid doctors, if you can manage it

try to ignore colds if you can … keep going; you’ll find that once you forget about it, the “illness” will forget about you

don’t let inclement weather stop you from going out … cold air is good for you

don’t listen to the advice of would be doctors (family, friends) and “medical meddlers” — except for mine (!)

above all, AVOID STRESS (this includes worrying about your health)

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2018

Posted in personal health and exercise | Tagged , | 1 Comment

a February concert

 

 

 

Last night I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall.

The program:

Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550; Orchestra of St. Luke’s; Robert Spano, conductor

Bryce Dessner, “Voy a dormir”; Kelley O’Connor, Mezzo-Soprano

Beethoven, Piano Concerto in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (“Emperor”); Jeremy Denk, piano

I jotted down some notes and impressions as well as personal thoughts on my way home.

 

 

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Mozart symphony no 40

have known and loved the first movement from a very young age

but, to my surprise, I think I enjoyed the second movement (Andante) even more tonight … it is a musical conversation between the instruments … Mozart THINKS musically (as I noted in a previous post)

The second piece, “Voy a dormir,” was the world premiere of a work by a young composer … beautiful soprano voice (the composer collaborated with her on the work) … Spanish text, based on poetry by Alfonsina Storni (Argentinian)

It is pleasurable to hear Spanish and to be able to follow the lyrics, since I know the language. It sounded so beautiful, as are all the Romance languages. All kind of the same — in a way — and at the same time each unique with its own “melody.” En el fondo del mar / hay una casa / de cristal.

Listening to the Emperor Concerto performed live. What an experience. There is such a range of emotions in Beethoven — e.g., from the first to the second movement.

One can HEAR such a difference in and evolution of styles between and from Mozart to Beethoven. From classical to romantic. But, to me, Haydn is the clearest exemplar of the classical style — not Mozart (not to detract from Mozart; it’s just a question of musical styles).

I had unusually good seats. It was great to watch the conductor, Robert Spano, and the piano soloist close up.

There must be such an incredible feeling of power to be the soloist in a piano concerto.

 

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I thought of my father, a pianist who conducted occasionally

and of my family’s experience with music as performers

my father, who graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in music and who was a professional musician and piano teacher

my mother, who was in the Radcliffe College chorus and played the piano

my three siblings, all of whom are gifted musicians, notably on the piano, and each of whom achieved proficiency in more than one instrument

my maternal grandmother, who — I never knew this during her lifetime — is said to have played the piano well

my paternal grandmother, who was a church organist and choir director … and my father the same

my paternal grandmother’s mother (my great-grandmother), who, I was told by an aunt, played the piano and sang in a Methodist Church in the nineteenth century

 

 

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I have hazy memories of my father conducting once or twice … I see him striding down the aisle proudly with his usual good posture, perhaps a bit more serious of mien than usual, but not overly so; assuming an appropriate air of dignity … being applauded … the performance commencing

where did he learn to conduct? … guess it’s not difficult if you have performed in orchestras … he did not, to my knowledge, conduct classical works

 

 

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when one is growing up, one takes one’s parents and nuclear family largely for granted … they are a given, like your front yard or neighborhood

your parents’ unique or distinctive attributes are something you are not likely to think about until much later in life

watching this particular concert, I felt a twinge of sadness, loss, and regret for my father and mother — occasioned by thoughts of what such a concert would have meant to them; how we could have talked about it (and would have enjoyed doing so); and how their existence and persons not only made mine possible, but endowed me with musical and aesthetic sensitivity

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 16, 2018

 

 

program

*****************************************************

 

 

Mozart. Symphony No. 40

second movement (Andante)

 

Posted in Alan W. Smith (Roger W. Smith's father), music (from the point of view of a listener), my family, personal reminiscences of Roger W. Smith | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Green Leaves of Summer”

 

 

My favorite Sarah Vaughan song — of a great many — is “The Green Leaves of Summer,” which is on YouTube at

 

 

 

 

 

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I absolutely love the singing and the voice of famous jazz singer Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990).

Some find her songs to be treacly. There seems to be something to this criticism — as it applies to some, but by no means all, of her songs — but I love her nonetheless.

It is my nonprofessional opinion that her deep, rich voice cannot be equaled.

Regarding the lyrics of the song, below, I have interpolated my own comments on what they mean. Many readers of this post will say, does he think I can’t read? I don’t need to have the lyrics interpreted for me.

I have interpolated comments nevertheless — for the sale of the many foreign readers of this post who may not be familiar with English jargon.

By the way, I think that the “The Green Leaves of Summer” is a great song.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2018

 

 

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Addendum: To see how a group can mess up a great, sentimental song such as this one, listen to the version by The Springfields (at the same YouTube link). This version is treacly, and the arrangement stinks.

 

 

 

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The Green Leaves of Summer

Woo, woo,
A time to be reaping [reap: to harvest crops]
A time to be sowing [sow: to plant crops]
The green leaves of summer [tree leaves; green in summer; change color in fall, fall off trees in winter]

Are calling me home
Twas so good to be young then [“Twas”: it was]
In the season of plenty [season of plenty; things were growing in abundance; the earth was fertile, like a woman]
When the catfish were jumping [catfish: fresh water fish; jumping — the fish are so plentiful they jump out of the water; times are good]

As high as the sky [the fish jump as high as the sky]
A time just for planting [time for planting seeds]
A time just for ploughing [a tractor plows the earth to make it ready for planting]
A time to be courting [it’s also the time for “courting,” finding a mate, love; everything is pregnant, ripe]

A girl of your own
Twas so good to be young then [it was good to be young and full of energy and spirits at that time]
To be close to the earth [good to be in close to the earth; one feels it in summertime, and when one is young, one’s body feels full of vigor]
And to stand by your wife [to bond and to have a love object]

At the moment of birth, woo [the earth is producing food; the wife is giving birth]
A time to be reaping [reap: harvest]
A time to be sowing [sow: plant, not only seeds to grow in earth, but also make babies]
A time just for living [the joy of just plain being ALIVE]

A place for to die [the lyrics are the words of someone at end of life recalling the summer days of his young manhood]
Twas so good to be young then
To be close to the earth
Now the green leaves of summer
Are calling me home [“home,” meaning to return to the earth and be buried]

Twas so good to be young then
To be close to the earth
Now the green leaves of summer
Are calling me home

Posted in my favorite music | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

why some op-ed pieces bomb; or, should

 

 

 

indigesitble genericspeak

 

“#MeToo Has Done What the Law Could Not”

By Catharine A. Mackinnon

The New York Times

February 4, 2018

 

 

 

The #MeToo movement is accomplishing what sexual harassment law to date has not.

This mass mobilization against sexual abuse, through an unprecedented wave of speaking out in conventional and social media, is eroding the two biggest barriers to ending sexual harassment in law and in life: the disbelief and trivializing dehumanization of its victims.

Sexual harassment law — the first law to conceive sexual violation in inequality terms — created the preconditions for this moment. Yet denial by abusers and devaluing of accusers could still be reasonably counted on by perpetrators to shield their actions.

Many survivors realistically judged reporting pointless. Complaints were routinely passed off with some version of “she wasn’t credible” or “she wanted it.” I kept track of this in cases of campus sexual abuse over decades; it typically took three to four women testifying that they had been violated by the same man in the same way to even begin to make a dent in his denial. That made a woman, for credibility purposes, one-fourth of a person.

Even when she was believed, nothing he did to her mattered as much as what would be done to him if his actions against her were taken seriously. His value outweighed her sexualized worthlessness. His career, reputation, mental and emotional serenity and assets counted. Hers didn’t. In some ways, it was even worse to be believed and not have what he did matter. It meant she didn’t matter.

These dynamics of inequality have preserved the system in which the more power a man has, the more sexual access he can get away with compelling.

It is widely thought that when something is legally prohibited, it more or less stops. This may be true for exceptional acts, but it is not true for pervasive practices like sexual harassment, including rape, that are built into structural social hierarchies. … If the same cultural inequalities are permitted to operate in law as in the behavior the law prohibits, equalizing attempts — such as sexual harassment law — will be systemically resisted.

This logjam, which has long paralyzed effective legal recourse for sexual harassment, is finally being broken. Structural misogyny, along with sexualized racism and class inequalities, is being publicly and pervasively challenged by women’s voices. The difference is, power is paying attention.

Powerful individuals and entities are taking sexual abuse seriously for once and acting against it as never before. No longer liars, no longer worthless, today’s survivors are initiating consequences none of them could have gotten through any lawsuit — in part because the laws do not permit relief against individual perpetrators, but more because they are being believed and valued as the law seldom has. Women have been saying these things forever. It is the response to them that has changed.

Revulsion against harassing behavior — in this case, men with power refusing to be associated with it — could change workplaces and schools. It could restrain repeat predators as well as the occasional and casual exploiters that the law so far has not. Shunning perpetrators as sex bigots who take advantage of the vulnerabilities of inequality could transform society. It could change rape culture.

Sexual harassment law can grow with #MeToo. Taking #MeToo’s changing norms into the law could — and predictably will — transform the law as well. Some practical steps could help capture this moment. Institutional or statutory changes could include prohibitions or limits on various forms of secrecy and nontransparency that hide the extent of sexual abuse and enforce survivor isolation, such as forced arbitration, silencing nondisclosure agreements even in cases of physical attacks and multiple perpetration, and confidential settlements. A realistic statute of limitations for all forms of discrimination, including sexual harassment, is essential. Being able to sue individual perpetrators and their enablers, jointly with institutions, could shift perceived incentives for this behavior. The only legal change that matches the scale of this moment is an Equal Rights Amendment, expanding the congressional power to legislate against sexual abuse and judicial interpretations of existing law, guaranteeing equality under the Constitution for all.

But it is #MeToo, this uprising of the formerly disregarded, that has made untenable the assumption that the one who reports sexual abuse is a lying slut, and that is changing everything already. Sexual harassment law prepared the ground, but it is today’s movement that is shifting gender hierarchy’s tectonic plates.

 

 

The problem, as I see it, with an article like this — I find it boring, and not uplifting — is that it is overly generalized writing, what I might call genericspeak, amounting to boilerplate written for a certain interest group. The dictionary definition of boilerplate is as follows:

1. standardized text

2. formulaic or hackneyed language

There is nothing new. It is all generalities and the author of the piece is essentially preaching to the choir, i.e., to radical feminists with views identical or very close to her own.

There is no personality on the page. A writer’s voice does not come through, other than an angry, cold one propagating dogma.

The piece is built upon a tissue of generalities.

 

 

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directorspeak

 

“A Note From Our New Publisher”

By A. G. Sulzberger

The New York Times

January 1, 2018

 

 

 

In 1896 my great-great-grandfather left his hometown, Chattanooga, and traveled north to purchase a small, fading newspaper in New York.

The moment was not unlike our own. Technological, economic and social turmoil were upending the traditions of the country. People trying to understand these changes and their implications found themselves confused by polarized politics and by a partisan press more focused on advancing its own interests than on informing the public.

Against this backdrop Adolph Ochs saw the need for a different kind of newspaper, and he committed The New York Times to the then-radical idea that still animates it today. He vowed that The Times would be fiercely independent, dedicated to journalism of the highest integrity and devoted to the public welfare.

His vision for the news report: “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.”

His vision for the opinion report: “to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.”

This mission feels particularly urgent to me today as I begin my work as publisher of The New York Times. Our society is again being reshaped by political, technological and environmental forces that demand deep scrutiny and careful explanation. More than 120 years after Adolph Ochs’s vision was printed in these pages, the need for independent, courageous, trustworthy journalism is as great as it’s ever been.

This is a period of exciting innovation and growth at The Times. Our report is stronger than ever, thanks to investments in new forms of journalism like interactive graphics, podcasting and digital video and even greater spending in areas like investigative, international and beat reporting. Our audience, once confined to a single city, now stretches around the globe.

This is also, of course, a period of profound challenge for The Times, for the news media more broadly, and for everyone who believes that journalism sustains a healthy society.

There was a reason freedom of speech and freedom of the press were placed first among our essential rights. Our founders understood that the free exchange of ideas and the ability to hold power to account were prerequisites for a successful democracy. But a dangerous confluence of forces is threatening the press’s central role in helping people understand and engage with the world around them.

The business model that long supported the hard and expensive work of original reporting is eroding, forcing news organizations of all shapes and sizes to cut their reporting staffs and scale back their ambitions. Misinformation is rising and trust in the media is declining as technology platforms elevate clickbait, rumor and propaganda over real journalism, and politicians jockey for advantage by inflaming suspicion of the press. Growing polarization is jeopardizing even the foundational assumption of common truths, the stuff that binds a society together.

Like our predecessors at The Times, my colleagues and I will not give in to these forces.

The Times will continue to search for the most important stories of our era with curiosity, courage and empathy — because we believe that improving the world starts with understanding it. The Times will continue to resist polarization and groupthink by giving voice to the breadth of ideas and experiences — because we believe journalism should help people think for themselves. The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness — because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have. The Times will do all of this without fear or favor — because we believe truth should be pursued wherever it leads.

These values guided my father and his predecessors as publisher as they steered this company through war, economic crisis, technological upheaval and major societal shifts. These same values sustained them as they stood up to presidents; battled for the rights of a free press in court; and overrode the financial interests of our business in favor of our journalistic principles.

The challenge before me is to ensure The Times safeguards those values while embracing the imperative to adapt to a changing world. I’ve spent most of my career as a newspaper reporter, but I’ve also been a champion of The Times’s digital evolution. I’m protective of our best traditions, and I look to the future with excitement and optimism.

Much will change in the years ahead, and I believe those changes will lead to a report that is richer and more vibrant than anything we could have dreamed up in ink and paper. What won’t change: We will continue to give reporters the resources to dig into a single story for months at a time. We will continue to support reporters in every corner of the world as they bear witness to unfolding events, sometimes at great personal risk. We will continue to infuse our journalism with expertise by having lawyers cover law, doctors cover health and veterans cover war. We will continue to search for the most compelling ways to tell stories, from prose to virtual reality to whatever comes next. We will continue to put the fairness and accuracy of everything we publish above all else — and in the inevitable moments we fall short, we will continue to own up to our mistakes, and we’ll strive to do better.

We believe this is the journalism our world needs and our readers deserve. That has been the guiding vision for The New York Times across five generations and more than 120 years. Today we renew that commitment.

A.G. Sulzberger Publisher

 

 

This is all self-congratulatory boilerplate blah. There is not one original thought or idea, and hardly any information.

The entire piece could be boiled down to a sentence or two and not lose anything with respect to content or meaning: e.g.: I pledge that The New York Times will continue its mission of providing readers with the best journalism on the face of the earth.

Such writing might be appropriate as the text of a hortatory address by the principal at an assembly at the beginning of the school year, or for a motivational speech to employees by a CEO. Sulzberger’s op-ed is not worth reading. It is full of platitudes with no substance, just an assurance to readers that the Times has always been great — or, as he sees it, has always adhered to the highest journalistic standards — and will, he pledges, continue to do so. That’s nice, but so what? Is his oration worth a reader’s time?

Such language is often used by leaders in business and academia and, with embellishment, by politicians. There is nothing necessarily wrong with a motivational speech. But, such writing does not belong on the op-ed page.

What if Sulzberger had said, for example?

We are opening up a new bureau in Novosibirsk to cover developments in the Far North from the perspective of global ecology.

We intend to provide more coverage of ethnic minorities worldwide, such as the Rohingya people.

We have given more priority to coverage of women’s sports at the college level.

That would have been informative to Times readers. He should have used the op-ed piece to convey substantive information about what to expect from the Times in the coming months and years under his stewardship. He does not, for the most part, do this.

 

 

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jerrybuilt; too cute

 

 

“The Dancing Queen: Do The Leona”

By Sheryl McCarthy

New York Newsday

April 15, 1992

 

 

In years to come, it will be known as “doing the Leona.”

It will be written up in the lawbooks, and in the privacy of their offices, slick-suited defense attorneys will discuss using it on behalf of their clients. Certain crass members of the press, always quick with the cynical remark, will call it the “red bathrobe” technique — and they’ll use it to refer to any convicted criminal who cries, whines, scrabbles and is willing to do just about anything else to stay out of jail.

We’ve been subjected to this sorry spectacle in recent weeks as Leona Helmsley and her lawyers tried every ploy they could think of to keep Leona from being carried off in in handcuffs today for the crime of bilking the federal government of millions of dollars in taxes. The strategy didn’t work for Leona, who presumably is even now wending her way to a Kentucky prison. But that doesn’t mean that in the future “The Leona” won’t work for other felons.

The basic elements of “The Leona” are these:

1. PROCLAIM YOUR innocence, in spite of voluminous evidence to the contrary. Admit no wrongdoing, or even any mistakes, and express no remorse whatsoever for your behavior.

2 CLAIM YOUR spouse is sick and will die if you’re sent to prison, since you are the only person on Earth who can care for him properly. (Despite the fact that her 83-year-old husband, Harry, is a billionaire and can afford the best possible medical care, according to Leona it is only her presence that can ward off his premature death.)

3. CLAIM YOU are sick and will die if you are sent to prison. After a federal judge turned down her request for a new trial, Leona collapsed outside the courtroom and was rushed to the hospital. Her attorneys have since argued that because she suffers from hardening of the arteries and high blood pressure, the stress of prison life could kill her. Try telling this to the 67,000 other federal prison inmates, many of whom also feel that prison is not conducive to good health.

4. HAVE A public relations firm organize a “Keep Leona Out of Jail” rally. This tawdry event took place about 10 days and reeked of insincerity.

5. APPEAR ON national TV talk shows, claiming you have been railroaded. Leona cried a lot on the “Joan Rivers Show.” And on “20 /”20” in an interview with Barbara Walters, the queen with the fabulous ballgowns was interviewed in a long red bathrobe — her version of sackcloth and ashes, and clear proof that she was emotionally overwrought. On the same show, she claimed her only friends in the world, besides old Harry, are her black maid and the security man at her Connecticut estate.

6. OFFER TO perform community service in lieu of prison time, a ploy overused by white-collar convicts who believe prisons are for the lower classes.

7. CLAIM TO be a member of a reviled minority group. Leona’s attorneys argued that she would face hostility and abuse by other prison inmates because she is “a widely reviled, vastly wealthy New York Jew.” Try this argument on the convicted drug lords, gang members, mob chieftains, and homosexuals who also expect to encounter some “hostility” from other inmates.

8. ARGUE THAT you can’t go to jail until after your next religious holiday. Leona’s attorneys argued that she should at least be allowed to celebrate Passover with the aging Harry. I’m not sure when Leona became a devout Jew, but I do know that a lot of prison inmates have foregone a final Christmas, Easter, Ramadan, or Kwanzaa with their families.

9. IF ALL else fails, try to bribe your way out of jail. In a last-ditch bid for freedom yesterday, Leona’s lawyers offered to turn over several Helmsley hotels for use as homeless shelters. This sudden burst of charity came from a woman never particularly known for benevolent gestures, who apparently became aware of the homeless problem only this week.

In the end, none of these tactics worked for Leona Helmsley. Not even the skillful briefs and arguments of Alan Dershowitz — a brilliant defense attorney who in recent years has squandered his abilities to serve the wealthy, the contemptible and the guilty — could sway the courts in her favor.

Nor could this massive public-relations campaign change the public perception that Leona Helmsley is an awful human being with a voice like a foghorn and the morals of a pirate. For years she plundered the poor and the powerless. She abused and intimidated her minions, the low-paid, unskilled hotel workers who desperately needed their jobs to make a living.

She blatantly stiffed the contractors who worked for her and who then got their revenge by turning her in to the authorities. But the IRS was the one entity she could not stiff, and so Leona is going to prison.

Legally, her crime was cheating on taxes. Morally, her crime was in believing her wealth and power set her above the law and exempted her from normal standards of decency. A horror of realization must have set in yesterday when the court rejected her last appeal.

So, on this 15th day of April, tax day, Leona Helmsley goes off to jail. Sources tell me the little people are planning a demonstration today on the steps of the U.S. Court of Appeals downtown. They will gather with their recently completed income-tax returns in their hands and when a sign is given they will lift these forms high above their heads and wave Leona bye-bye.

 

 

Leona Helmsley, the so-called Queen of Mean, was the wife of Harry Helmsley, a billionaire real estate investor and property developer. She was convicted of federal income tax evasion and other crimes in 1989 and sentenced to 19 months in prison.

The story was front page news in 1989. It is mostly forgotten now, and Sheryl McCarthy’s op-ed piece seems dated. Op-ed pieces are, by necessity, topical, but this one is also superficial:

In years to come, it will be known as “doing the Leona.”

It will be written up in the lawbooks, and in the privacy of their offices, slick-suited defense attorneys will discuss using it on behalf of their clients. Certain crass members of the press, always quick with the cynical remark, will call it the “red bathrobe” technique — and they’ll use it to refer to any convicted criminal who cries, whines, scrabbles and is willing to do just about anything else to stay out of jail.

This assertion seemed clever, supposedly, to the writer. It makes little sense now, because it was built on a very flimsy conjecture — in fact, one that has no substance: that the Leona Helmsley case would set a legal precedent. Of course, the writer knew it wouldn’t, but her piece is jerrybuilt on the playful assumption that it would.

The rest of the piece is a trashing of an easy target: the reviled, convicted and unpopular Leona Helmsley, who was publicly perceived as a greedy, haughty, arrogant woman getting her comeuppance; “an awful human being with a voice like a foghorn and the morals of a pirate” in the writer’s words.

This is glib, overblown writing.

So, on this 15th day of April, tax day, Leona Helmsley goes off to jail. Sources tell me the little people are planning a demonstration today on the steps of the U.S. Court of Appeals downtown. They will gather with their recently completed income-tax returns in their hands and when a sign is given they will lift these forms high above their heads and wave Leona bye-bye.

Did this actually happen? Certainly, it did not the way the writer envisions it.

In principle, there is nothing wrong, or that should be “prohibited,” with trying to be inventive or clever in writing a lead, in trying to make a point (often with irony or sarcasm), or in using or devising scenarios in one’s head or out of thin air (for the purposes of illustration or exemplification) that the reader knows are not literally true. One sees this often in fiction, naturally, but it is also used in essay writing: consider, for example, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” But it takes a clever writer to pull this off and not end up looking plain foolish, whimsical, and as if the piece was conceived in la-la land. This seems especially true of the op-ed page.

 

 

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a bad lead that leads nowhere; a faulty premise (and purple prose)

 

 

Dave Anderson

“Richard Is Real Rocket, the Only Rocket”

The New York Times

May 29, 2000

 

 

 

Other athletes are known today as the Rocket, notably pitcher Roger Clemens, the tennis legend Rod Laver and receiver Raghib Ismael, but they plagiarized the nickname. To anyone who saw Maurice Richard play hockey, he was not only the original Rocket, but also deserved to be remembered as the real Rocket, the only Rocket.

Just as Babe Ruth defined George Herman Ruth, Rocket defined the Montreal Canadiens’ folk hero who set all the National Hockey League goal-scoring records that Gordy Howe and Wayne Gretzky eventually shattered.

Whenever Richard scored in the hockey cathedral that was the Montreal Forum, hats, programs, galoshes and newspapers were tossed onto the ice in celebration as the public address announcer boomed formally, first in French and then in English, “Goal by Maurice Ree-chard.”

But his coach and former linemate at left wing, Toe Blake, usually referred to him as “Rocket.” So did his teammates.

“I sat beside Rocket in the dressing room for the seven years I played with him,” center Jean Béliveau once said. “He was an inspiration and the idol of my generation. On the team we all knew he was kind of an introvert and not the greatest talker.

“But in his own way, he was a leader and, as players and as a team, we followed him because we were inspired by his desire to win. When we lost, Rocket did not need to say anything to show how hard he accepted defat. You could see it in his eyes.”

Yes, those blazing eyes, which finally closed Saturday when he died at 78 after a two-year struggle with abdominal cancer.

 

 

This op-ed piece is a eulogy for hockey great Maurice Richard. The central premises are that Richard was a great player beloved by fans and an idol and inspiration for his teammates. Dave Anderson, who was The New York Times’s leading sportswriter when this op-ed piece was published under the “Sports of the Times” heading (Anderson had the prestige of writing the column), should have stuck to these points, but he overdid it with his assertion that there is something special about the nickname Rocket that distinguished Richard, or that anyone could claim distinction based upon a nickname. Such a literary device was used for Anderson’s lead, which gets the piece off to a bad start and makes it fall flat.

 

 

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“tough guy” journalism; a barroom rant

 

 

“The Death Penalty Is Queens DA’s Only Option”

By Steve Dunleavy

New York Post

May 30, 2000

 

The Queens district attorney, Richard Brown, should right now be shopping for twin beds.

Well, not really beds — gurneys on which you strap humanity’s filth and jab them with the needle of ultimate night.

I don’t know why DA Brown, who screwed up in the first place by not locking up John B. Taylor for 12 years, is wrestling with himself over whether to seek the death penalty.

Rick Lazio, speaking through a stitched lip, sewed up Mr. Brown’s agony when he said the words that certainly will make him the next senator of this Empire State:

“After a fair trial, competent counsel and if Mr. Taylor and [Craig] Godineaux are found guilty, there is no question that the district attorney should seek the death penalty.

“That is what the death penalty was made for. Here we see a senseless slaughter of human beings. Hard-working, never looking for a handout, not being rich, just working. A senseless slaughter.

“If they are convicted, after due process of law, there is no question about what the punishment should be.”

Rick Lazio got a lot of votes yesterday from my friends. Yeah, they’re beer-drinking cops and firemen. And yeah, they’re the guys who put their lives on the line every day to make sure I wake up after I go to sleep.

Taylor was on five years’ probation when he committed three armed robberies and Judge Pauline Mullings gave him an incredibly low bail of $3,500.

The New York state court system accuses District Attorney Brown of screwing up because he did not indict the little punk called Taylor. Who cares now who was wrong?

You could tell it to the Marines, but don’t tell it to the friends and family of those who died in the Wendy’s slaughterhouse.

The liberals, who are against the death penalty, say lock them up forever, away from society.

Well, this state under Gov. Hugh Carey, who was more interested in dyeing his hair than a peace officer dying, should have learned its lesson on May 15, 1981 at Greenhaven prison.

Lemuel Smith, a total worm given life for three murders, was locked away in Greenhaven for life … No threat, according to the liberals, to society.

Apparently, Donna Payant did not count as part of society. She was just a correction officer.

And that gave· triple murderer Lemuel Smith the right to rape and murder Donna Payant and trash her body in a prison Dumpster. So much for locking someone away to protect society.

In the case of the lice John B. Taylor and Craig Godineaux, they have told cops what they did.

Yes, I’m sure they’ll bring in psychiatrists for their defense. I will never forget May 28, 1998 when Dr. Sanford Drob, chief of psychological assessment at Bellevue Hospital, gave evidence on behalf of triple murderer Darrel Harris.

He told the court that Harris should not be executed because he couldn’t draw a bicycle.

Harris, of course, could draw a gun, and when he ran out of bullets, he slashed Evelyn Davis to death with a knife as she said: “Please let me out of here. I have five babies.”

Don’t ask me why Dr. Drob — read that as dope — came up with the conclusion that not being able to draw a bicycle had anything to do with Darrel Harris getting a tiny needle in the arm.

Despite the best efforts of Dr. Drob, Darrel Harris became the first killer sentenced to die under the state’s new capital punishment law. So District Attorney Brown has no real problem.

All he has to do is look at the files of this newspaper, listen to Rick Lazio and listen to common sense. Lifetime in jail does not guarantee that killers won’t kill. Killers sometimes shank people in jail just to get celebrity status.

Ask me. I told the so-called “Boston strangler” Albert DeSalvo that he would be murdered by Peter Wilson and Patty Devlin in Walpole State Prison, Massachusetts, if he didn’t stop being a big mouth. They did him.

The only thing that stops murderers murdering is to have them removed from the face of the earth. Rick Lazio understands that, thank God. So does New York and I pray that today Richard Brown grasps it all.

 

 

Steve Dunleavy is a tabloid journalist known for his focus on crime and other gut issues which, in his view, call for mob justice.

“gurneys on which you strap humanity’s filth and jab them with the needle of ultimate night”; “the little punk called Taylor”; “Lemuel Smith, a total worm”; “In the case of the lice John B. Taylor and Craig Godineaux, they have told cops what they did”; “Killers sometimes shank people in jail just to get celebrity status.” “I told the so-called “Boston strangler” Albert DeSalvo that he would be murdered by Peter Wilson and Patty Devlin in Walpole State Prison, Massachusetts, if he didn’t stop being a big mouth. They did him.” “The only thing that stops murderers murdering is to have them removed from the face of the earth.

This is supposedly tough street talk. It actually serves to show Dunleavy’s crudeness, stupidity, and ghoulishness; the utter absence of any reflection on his part; and that he is unqualified to be a journalist.

Note the one sentence paragraphs. This is a hallmark of tough guy, in your face journalism. And, the writing is just plain dumb and crude. It’s as if one wrote an angry note to one’s ex-girlfriend saying: “YOU’RE A COMPLETE JERK. I HATE YOU.”

Supposedly great (and, in my opinion, very overrated) journalists such as Jimmy Breslin (d. 2017) and Pete Hamill often write in the same vein. They are extolled for presenting in plain language the views of the man on the street, the common man. They do not seem to be in the same class as Dunleavy, and they can write half decently. But, they do not write that well — certainly not at a level which deserves admiration — and their views are often simplistic and can lead to serious distortions when it comes to contentious issues.

 

 

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One further thought. Re jerrybuilt op-ed pieces and writing that seems too “cute.” Op-ed writers can certainly use humor and ingenuity to get their points across. No one is saying they can’t or shouldn’t. But, it takes great skill to be funny without seeming jejune. Current and former columnists whom I admire who (in my opinion) have a genius for humor and use it effectively include Russell Baker of The New York Times, Art Buchwald of The Washington Post, and Maureen Dowd of the Times. (For fun, I have posted below, as an attachment, two notable op-ed pieces by Baker and Buchwald.)

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2018

 

 

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Addendum:

 

For an example of a Swiftian piece of satire wherein an op-ed writer runs with a seemingly preposterous premise and pulls it off, see:

“Why Stormy Daniels isn’t a bigger hurricane”

By Dana Milbank

The Washington Post

February 16, 2018

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-stormy-daniels-isnt-a-bigger-hurricane/2018/02/16/9f7b6ae4-1320-11e8-9065-e55346f6de81_story.html?utm_term=.3acbcd53e840

 

 

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Russell Baker, ‘President’s Big Break’

 

Art Buchwald, ‘Le Grande Thanksgiving’

 

 

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See also my post:

“Nuts?”

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/10/07/nuts/

 

about an op-ed piece by New York Times columnist Gall Collins

Posted in journalism critiqued as such (and as specimens of writing), writing (the craft of writing; good vs. bad writing; my training, experience, and lessons re same) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ted Williams’s last homerun: a footnote or two, and some trivia

 

 

 

 

Ted Williams's last homer.jpg

 

 

 

Everyone knows that Ted Williams, incredibly, homered in his last at bat in the final game of his Major League career at Boston’s Fenway Park.

He homered off Baltimore Orioles pitcher Jack Fisher with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning on a one-and-one count.

The date was September 28, 1960. It was an overcast day. There were 10,454 fans in attendance.

 

 

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Two acquaintances of mine saw the homerun.

My Brandeis University roommate John Ferris, when he was in high school, skipped school to attend Ted’s last game. He told me a story once that is worth repeating.

Williams had come up in the bottom of the fifth inning, batting against Orioles reliever Jack Fisher (pitching in relief). He hit a tremendous drive to right center field that barely missed being a homerun.

Here’s how it was described by sportswriter Ed Linn (who was at the game) in his book Hitter: The Life and Turmoils of Ted Williams:

As the ball jumped off the bat, the cry “He did it!” arose from the stands. Right-fielder Al Pilarcik ran back as far as he could, pressed his back against the bull-pen fence, well out from the 380-foot sign, and stood there motionless, with his hands at his side. …

At the last moment, Pilarcik brought up his hands and caught the ball chest high, close to 400 feet from the plate, A moan of disappointment settled over the field, followed by a rising hum of excited chatter, and then, as Ted came back to the first-base line to take his glove from Pumpsie Green, a standing ovation. [It was the third out.]

“Damn,” Ted said when he returned to the bench at the end of the inning. “I hit the living hell out of that one. I really stung it. If that one didn’t go out, nothing is going out today.”

My friend John Ferris described the play to me with relish and added a detail. He said that Pilarcik waited for the ball to come down (as described by Linn) with his back against the bullpen fence, caught it just before it cleared the fence, and then, made a gesture in which he turned to toward the fans in right center field, shrugged his shoulders, and with body language seemed to be saying: “Sorry, but I couldn’t not catch the ball when I could.”

Not among the 10,454 paying customers but at the game in the eighth inning when Williams did homer was a relative of mine: McLaren Harris, then a graduate student at Boston University. As Harris told me years later, he had been listening to the game on the radio. Boston University is right next door to Fenway Park. Harris and his friends decided to attend the last couple of innings.

You could do that in those days because (besides the fact that the game was not a sellout), the Red Sox had a policy of opening the gates to fans after the seventh inning on. Anyone could enter for free. My older brother, friends, and I used to do this in the 1950’s.

So, Harris, with incredibly good fortune, arrived just in time to see Ted’s final homer.

 

 

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Some trivia about the game.

Gene Stephens was the left fielder for Baltimore. He went two for four with a double. It’s intriguing that he was playing on the opposing team because Stephens spent most of his career with the Red Sox. Stephens played for the Red Sox from 1952 until 1960, when he was traded (in mid season, on June 9) to the Orioles. I remember Stephens well because in the 1950’s he would always be entering the game in late innings as a replacement in left field for Williams. The sportswriters called him Ted Williams’s caddy.

It’s worth noting, also, that Stephens had been traded for Orioles outfielder Willie Tasby. In his famous piece about the game for The New Yorker, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” John Updike describes Williams warming up before the game by playing catch with Tasby. Tasby played center field that day.

Despite Williams’s homer, the Red Sox went into the bottom of the ninth trailing by a score of 4-3. With one out, Red Sox second baseman Marlan Coughtry singled off Fisher. Then pinch hitter Vic Wertz doubled, sending Coughtry to third. Vic Wertz, none other than the slugger whose fly ball to the deepest part of center field at the Polo Grounds in the first game of the 1954 World Series was caught by Willie Mays in a play that came to be known as The Catch.

Red Sox pitcher Tom Brewer came in to pinch run for Wertz. I remember Brewer well. He once came to speak to a church supper at the North Congregational Church in Cambridge, which my family attended, in the 1950’s.

The next batter was Pumpsie Green. He walked. The aforementioned Willie Tasby grounded to third. The second baseman, Billy Klaus, attempting to complete a double play, threw wildly to first. Coughtry and Brewer scored and the Red Sox won 5-4.

I recall Klaus well from the 1950’s, when he played shortstop for the Red Sox. He was traded to the Orioles after the 1958 season. Klaus began the 1959 season playing third base for the Orioles, but was replaced in mid-season by none other than Brooks Robinson and moved to shortstop.

Another piece of trivia. Gene Stephens was traded in 1961 by the Orioles to the Kansas City Athletics for first baseman Marv Throneberry: “Marvelous Marv” Throneberry. Throneberry was the starting first baseman for the 1962 New York Mets. (I remember “Marvelous Marv” best from Miller Beer ads). And, who was Marvelous Marv’s older brother? Faye Throneberry: an outfielder who played sparingly for the Red Sox in the 1950’s. I had his baseball card.

 

 

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A final observation.

John Updike’s 1960 New Yorker article about the game, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” is regarded as a classic.

Ed Linn also wrote an account that was published as “The Kid’s Last Game” in the February 1961 issue of Sport magazine and that is also contained in Linn’s book Hitter: The Life and Turmoils of Ted Williams (1993).

In my humble opinion, Linn’s account is more informative — there is no comparison when it comes to descriptive detail — and more telling. I prefer it to Updike’s.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2018

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