Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Just sayin, part III

A quick follow up. A couple weeks ago, with fourteen games left in the season and the Mets, Phils and Brewers all posting identical records, I offered these predictions about where the three teams would end up:

Phils 92-70
Mets 89-73
Brewers 89-73

And these are the real world results:

Phils 92-70
Mets 89-73
Brewers 90-72


One off, but I think it can safely be said:

I've watched too much baseball in my life.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

So McCain admits it, too

In addition to being a stunt, a ploy, and another bit of grandstanding political theater we can apparently now rely upon John McCain to provide, there is one more aspect of this decision (to briefly suspend his campaign in the face of the nation’s financial crisis) that no one seems to have touched upon, and that is what an extraordinary, downright open, confession it is of the insulting manner in which the Republican nominee has gone about campaigning to this point.

While I don’t for a second concede that he actually has suspended his campaign, I merely note that in pretending to do so, he is as much as saying, “I find this crisis to be so dire, I have determined that this is no time for the kind of bullsh*t that I have been engaged in on a daily basis for the last two months.”

Given the sort of campaign that McCain has run – juvenile, aimless, deeply cynical, and deceitful – he’s actually quite right. Comparing Obama to Charlton Heston or the Jonas brothers, telling lies about his policy proposals, or portraying him as a latent pedophile, just wouldn’t go down well in the current climate. We’re not in the mood. It’s not as cute as it was ten days ago.

If on the other hand, one had approached his or her presidential run as an opportunity to dialogue with the American people about all the most pressing matters that currently face us as a nation – a way of airing positions and proposing your own solutions – well, then it wouldn't occur to you to “suspend” your campaign in the face of a big crisis. You would want to ratchet it up and to take advantage of the heightened focus that the crisis has brought to bear upon your nomination, and the fact that we are all presently looking for the person who will inherit this crisis, among others.

And obviously all the same things can be said of McCain's suggestion that the debate be put off. Does he mean, until such time as we’re all comfortable going back to hearing substanceless, canned answers to questions that have nothing to do with anything? Then perhaps he’s right, we should wait a week or two, and keep our fingers crossed that nothing meaningful or foreboding happens in the mean time.

If on the other hand, one approached a presidential debate as an opportunity to…well, I’m not even going to finish the thought, it’s too obvious, and too sad that it has to be said. The point is, McCain admitted to us yesterday that he knows that his campaign is an unworthy thing, the apparent equivalent of Bush’s golf-game: an unbecoming and impolitic display in a time of national crisis.

How odd.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

re: the bail-out

I'm not nearly smart enough about this sort of thing to offer a useful comment, but I think we can at least all step back and cherish this moment, which surely won't last, as being one of those all-too rare instances when no one seems to know what the entrenched partisan positions are.

In fact, nothing about the collapse, or potential collapse, more convinces me of its seriousness than that when I turn my ear to the wind, it really does sound like every man for himself out there.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

bout of pedantry #2, "begs the question"

Truly, you cannot surf the political blogosphere for ten minutes without running into the misuse of this venerable old phrase, so much so that I’m almost ready to hoist the white flag and let it be, let it mean what everyone seems to want it to mean, which is “prompts the question” or “makes one want to ask the question” (As in, “the sudden reaction of conservative pundits against the prospect of a government bail-out of the nation’s financial system, on the grounds that it vests too much control in the hands of one unchecked entity, begs the question ‘where were you guys for the last eight friggin’ years?’”)

After all, the sheer extent of abuse (of the phrase, that is) speaks to the apparently urgent need for some expression to do the work for which this one has been drafted, so why not surrender the old meaning and give over to the new. Is the original meaning of “begs the question” really all that important?

Well, the truth is, it was pretty good. Back in the day, to "beg the question" meant to give an answer that really only sounded like an answer, but which was, in fact, really just a clever restatement of the premise upon which the question was asked in the first place.

To give an example, you might ask: "How has Jose Reyes managed to raise his average from .250 to .333 in just two short years?" (Just play with me here.)

I might answer, "Well, that's simple. Whereas two years ago he was only getting one hit every four times up, now he's getting one hit every three times up."

THAT is "begging the question." Clearly in asking, you wanted to gain some insight into Jose's swing or new command of the strike zone. My answer, while seeming quite knowledgeable and responsive, was really nothing of the kind, just a more crafty restatement of the premise of your question. No new information was provided.

The technique has many more significant real word applications, of course. When the Bush Administration, asked whether it has sanctioned the use of torture, replies that American Law forbids torture and we follow the Law, that’s a version of begging the question. When your four-year-old son, in the course of one of his why-jags wants to know why grandma’s cat died, and you find yourself, after the eleventh straight “why?” saying, “Because God decided?” and he says, “ Why did God decide?” and you say, “Because God makes the decisions,” that is certainly another form begging the question, and it isn’t pretty, but sometimes it’s the only thing that will allow you to get back to your newspaper. Begging the question is the only thing that will silence him, not so much because you’ve satisfied his curiosity -- you haven’t – but because your son now realizes you’re not really as smart as he thought you were.

But that is neither here nor there. The point is, “begging the question” is a very real, very common, very deceitful little maneuver, and one worries that if we give up the phrase – or the meaning of the phrase -- we may in some way give up our capacity to recognize and to identify what is among the most important weapons in the arsenal of all cheats, liars, crooks, politicians, schoolchildren, ne’er-do-wells, and parents. And that would be a loss. We really can’t let that happen, and so I ask, if we do let “begs the question” mean “prompts the question,” it prompts the question, what should we then call begging the question?

Soon to return to more pressing matters. There seem to be several.

musical suggestion #3, Rubinstein's 960

I’ve never been convinced that classical music really is in so much trouble. Seems to me it’s done quite well for itself, as artisitic genres go. Granted, novels aren’t symphonies, but if someone told me that the finest actors of the day would, two hundred years from now, be routinely gathering in studios every couple of years to read yet another voicing of the best novels written today, for the purpose of commercial distribution – and that these actors could actually make a living doing so – I would be both surprised and encouraged.

That’s not to say that there aren’t certain characteristics of classical music, qua commercial product, that impede its greater success. I would argue that one of these is Mozart, oddly enough. But that for a later post. Another is the fact that there’s just so much to choose from – not just so many different composers and pieces, but so many different versions of those pieces. One doesn’t have to have all that cultivated an ear, after all, to recognize that it matters quite a lot which version of a given piece you happen to listen to. One version – of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, for instance, might drift into the wallpaper for you, while another (and I’m looking at you, Fabio Biondi) absolutely explodes in your head. Given the marked difference in effect between one rendition and another, it’s understandable that one doesn’t want to arrive home (i.e. download) the wallpaper when you could have gotten the dynamite instead. And so the uninitiated customer, prompted by the soundtrack of the movie he or she just saw, is to be forgiven if, standing before the full catalogue of expertly recorded “Nimrods,” seeing that they are sixteen apparently viable options in front of him, not really knowing the good investment from the bad, ultimately throws up his or her hands and returns to the pop-rock section, where there really only are one or two worthy versions of most given songs.

Squeeze played Squeeze well. I'll get the Squeeze.

Of course there are lots of books and Penguins guides and websites that can help an interested party navigate, but the very existence of such an industry – of musical advice – testifies to the problem, a problem which becomes particularly acute when we start talking about the REALLY popular pieces, the war horses, the ones that have been recorded literally hundreds of times. If one is on a budget (as we can assume anyone who takes this kind of interest probably is), one wants to feel he or she is getting the best of the best or his or her ten bucks.

It is with this concern in mind that I would seek the settle the matter on what is surely one of the top ten, if not top five, piano compositions of all time – at least by measure of its popularity and ubiquity in the repertoire. I speak of Schubert’s 960 (AKA sonata in B-flat, AKA sonata number 32) which holds the distinction of not only being of the great piano compositions of all time, but also the last that Schubert ever wrote, during the syphilitic binge of creativity with which he closed his life at the tender age of 31, and which has long tempted me to go out and sleep with the dirtiest whore I can find, just to see if I could contract the same level of genius and creative energy. Truly the amount and the quality of product that Schubert turned out in the last year of his life stands as one of the great and most confounding human achievements of all time. It’s sick and incomprehensible, and among it s purest jewels is 960, for which reason there exist hundreds if not thousands (what with Youtube) of recorded versions.

Further complicating the issue, of choosing which one to go with, is the fact that 960 (and Schubert in general) really isn’t that difficult a piece, either to play or to listen to, which is to say, you can’t separate the wheat from the chaffe by confining yourself to players with the best technique. Most proficient high-schoolers can play the damned thing. Most truly gifted pianist have been playing the piece since they were six, for which reason you will never hear 960 at a piano competition; it just doesn’t provide enough opportunities for the player to show his or her chops. No, as with all Schubert, the challenge is an almost exclusively interpretive one, but even that overstates the case. All the piece really asks is that it be played tastefully, and fluidly, and musically, how to draw out its beauty without sounding foofy, its humor without miniaturizing it, its gravity without seeming ponderous; how, in other words, to let the darned thing sing.

Well, friends, the weird thing is, as subtle a challenge as it poses, and as many extraordinary players as have stepped up and offered perfectly serviceable answers, I am here to tell you that there is one that puts to shame all the rest:

Artur Rubinstein.

And here is why.

In my borne days I’ve never heard a recording that so sensationally adopts of faith in which a piece like 960 was composed: of casual intimacy. Rubinstein is one of those who had been playing the piece since he was a boy, and boy, it shows, what an old friend he is returning to here. And making plain to the listener, by dint of that familiarity, that this really isn’t a concert hall piece. It sounds dismissive to call it a salon piece. It’s better than that. It’s emotional scope is tremendous, and yet, in Rubinstein’s hands, one is quickly convinced that the proper confine of the piece – at least physically, is the parlor. The sound engineer clearly agrees. He sits you very close. You are five feet from him. You are sitting in the living room while he plays, sipping the drink of your choice, and if you didn’t know better, you’d think he was improvising. There is not a moment of strain or hesitation. All the notes are so found. In addition ot being a liltingly, achingly simple and beautiful, it is also an exceedingly funny one. Rubinstein was, by all account, a charming man. This performance leaves no doubt how lucky one would be to count him a friend, or dinner companion -- sympathetic, dry, self-effacing, elegant, and profound.

Different pianists seem to get the humor of different composer. Horowitz -- of whom, I have to confess, I am not always so fond -- clearly gets Scarlatti in a way that others (Pletnev) don’t. Richter gets Prokofiev. Rubinstein, whose affinity for Chopin is more famously noted, really gets Schubert. The third movement, what industry writers will routinely call a bit of "quicksilver," is uncommonly dry and delightful here. The main phrase of the second section ends with a a three-note repeptition. One wonders if Schubert knew that he was being funny when he wrote it, or knew how funny he was being. Probably, but none ever told the joke better that Rubinstein.

And of course, if a player (or person) gets the humor of another, the likelihood is that he or she gets the rest as well. In 960, there is a world of emotion, and youth, and age. Rubinstein emcombasses all of it and every note. He simplifies. He clarifies. Her serves.

If you are inclined, shove the heap aside and rest easy. You will have two new friends.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Empathy vs Sympathy in the race for the Wild Card

If a blog is good for anything other than chiseling down our predictions for all the world to see, it has to be the occasional bout of pedantry. So here’s one.

The other day, the Milwaukee Brewers, with whom my Mets are currently battling for a playoff spot, looked as if they might be righting themselves from a late season nose dive. They were leading their division rival Cubs by four runs in the ninth, in Chicago, only to blow the lead, and then lose the game in the bottom of the 12th, having put runners on second and third with none out in the top of the 12th and failing to plate them.

A brutal, brutal loss. As I wrote to a couple fellow Met fans that same evening, in advising them to check out the boxscore: “Now THAT’S empathy.”

My point, in saying so, was this:

Back when I was a kid, and into my early teens (I was born in ’65), it was enough to say that you sympathized with someone. If they were going through a difficult time, broke their leg during the summer vacation, for instance, it sufficed to say, “Hey, I sympathize” or even “I can sympathize.”

Then roundabout 1984, a whole new word was discovered. It had been there all along of course, but for some reason, the word “empathize” got unearthed. (I’m now wondering how much this had to do with the emergence of the concept of “empaths” in comic books and on Star Trek: The next Generation, which featured, as ship-counselor, an attractive young “empath” of a stubborn Greek/Turkish lineage, Deanna Troi.)

In any case, the difference between empathy and sympathy is a subtle one, and like most all English words, subjective. Generally, though, sympathy is understood to represent an expression of shared feeling with the subject (usually a sufferer), while empathy expresses an actual identification with the subject, usually based upon the shared experience – again, usually of suffering.

That’s all a little fudge-y, granted, fudge-y enough that the popular understanding of this difference, at least to judge by the steady creep of the word “empathy” between the early 80s and now, was that empathy, insofar as it expressed a kind of One-ness with the Other, was basically like sympathy times two. The early, pioneering usages of the term were a little more furtive. They’d have gone something like “Broke your leg? Hey, I sympathize – no, actually I totally empathize – with you.” Empathizing was a way of ratcheting up your expression of sympathy – going from a peck to a French kiss -- while at the same time permitting a not-unsubtle note of egoism. As in, that’s how much I care. Screw sympathy. I have empathy, because of what I know and where I’ve been. I AM you, my friend.

And slowly but surely, as this widely accepted view gained purchase, that empathy was just a larger, greater, more potent version of sympathy, sympathy got kicked to the curb, it got treated like a rented mule; like the notion of “giving 100%” (having suffered so in the face of athletes giving 110%, then 115%, and now 300%), to the point now where now, in 2008, you almost never hear it mentioned anymore. You would never hear a TV newsman say, “I think we can all sympathize with the victims of Katrina.” At this point, one would have to say, “I think we can all empathize with the victims of Katrina,” as if we all know, we’ve all had our houses swept away, we are all Louisianans, and Georgians, AND Berliners, we are all Christ and Buddha, and Deanna Troi. To express anything less than complete unity and oneness withal – that is, to be merely “sympathetic” with what someone else is going through -- would sound like an insult.

See, but needless to say, I’ve always felt this gets the whole dynamic wrong. My take on empathy was always that it was a (potentially) compassion-free expression of identification with someone else’s plight, insofar as it was based (assuming one is not either Christ or Deanna Troi) upon a perceived common experience. So an easy example from my life would be, if I heard about another married couple who were having trouble conceiving a child, I could very quickly say, “Oh, I empathize,” meaning simply, “hey, I’ve been there,” Which is true, I have, so I know, I can feel, and to that extent, I can identify with much of what they’re going through, the same as I can identify with much of what the Milwaukee Brewers fans have been going through this past week. As a Mets fan, I empathize.

Does it mean I care? Does it mean I sympathize? Hell, no. As I say, I'm a Mets fan. To my way of thinking, there’s nothing remotely disconsonant in saying, “I am giddy with empathy for Milwaukee Brewers fans right now.” I know exactly what they’re going through, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

And this is my point. Not only do I not understand empathy to be a more powerful or potent expression of sympathy, I believe it to be a far less powerful expression – of compassion, at least. All empathy ever really meant (in my book) was that I identify, or I can identify with the plight of the person at question, having been there. It says nothing about whether that identification moves me to have actual compassion for the Other. What moves me to feel compassion for them is…well, sympathy, which is based either upon the inherent magnanimity of my spirit, or the fact that I am for whatever reason fond of whomever we’re talking about. Perhaps this is all an explanation of what makes me a class-A prick, because maybe I should sympathize with everyone I empathize with, but I don’t think I do. That couple heading in for their fifth unsuccessful IVF? They could be horrible people for all I know. Maybe they hunt baby seals on vacation. Maybe they voted for Bush twice. I don’t know. So they can have my empathy, sure, when they find out the “bad” news. My sympathy, I keep; I keep for when I feel it, and let me point out in defense for what may sound like a pretty heartless position a) that I’m not advocating the judgmental portioning of one’s compassion so much as trying to define the use of a term, and that b) I don’t even sympathize with myself most of the time. I empathize with myself – all the time – but as for the sympathy I extend my own lament, my own personal tales of woe? Eh.

By the same token, when the shoe is on the other foot, when I am on the receiving end of these same two expressions, my feelings are commensurately distinct. If someone says to me, “I empathize with you,” I take it for what it’s worth. I appreciate what they’re saying – that they must feel they have been through something similar and to that extent can “feel” me – but I also can’t help but detect a taint of pretentiousness and self-aggrandizement in their saying so, in the first place because I don’t really believe they know what they’re saying – for me, the word always sounds like someone using “whom” when they shouldn’t – but also because I feel like, to the extent they actually do know what they’re saying, all they’re really doing is using my plight to call attention to themselves and what they’ve been through, which suggests a very high likelihood that they have no idea what I’m going through, they’re so trapped in their solipsistic little universe.

On the other hand, if someone comes out and says I “sympathize”, well, there I hear an authentic expression of support and compassion, borne of nothing other than the mysterious generosity of the human spirit, a desire to share my suffering not because this person has been through it, too, but because they are a friend, and because they WANT to bear my burden with me.

When someone says to me, “I empathize,” I feel like I’m supposed to reply, “Oh, really what happened to you?”

When they say, “I sympathize,” I just want to say, “Thank you, brother, that’s very kind.”

In the coming days, look for similiar installments on the expressions "buck naked," and "begs the question."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

it looks like a job for...

What with the markets and the country's whole financial system embarked upon a death spiral from which only apparently the Fed can save it, let me just say this:

a) we now officially have a fourth branch of government. It’s called the Fed.

b) though it’s not a program I watch with anywhere near the attention that I pay to most of the other shows my children enjoy, it has come to my attention that Higgleytown Heroes vastly overstates the importance of the pizza delivery boy in the lives of most children.

Maybe I’m na├»ve.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

NL East predictions

If blogs are good for anything, it's gotta be predictions. So time to lock in visavis Brewers, Phillies, Mets.

All three with 83 wins. 12-14 games left. Brews, in the throes of a 2007-Mets-like swoon, play Chicago 6 times (plus cincy and pittsburgh). Phils close out with a melange of Atlanta, Florida, and Washington, two of whom are proven pains in the asses. Mets? Well, does the schedule even matter when you boast the worst bullpen in ML history for a team that's this good (Wash, Atl, Chicago, Fla, without a single day off).

So. (and bearing in mind that we only predict things in order that such outcomes are made LESS likely for having been foreseen, Fate hating the futurist.)

Phils in. They know they can do this. They can close out 9-4, easy, going 92-70 for the season.

Which leaves Mets v Brews for the wild card. One thing is for sure, whoever wants OUT of the post season is going to have to want it bad. Mets can scratch out six more wins, requiring Brews to go only 6-7, which sounds like maybe as much as could be asked of them at this point. In fact, they'll have to be "heroic" to pull it off (as will Mets).

The requirements of justice and drama therefore incline me to predict both teams sputter to utterly disechanting 89-73 records. In Milwaukee, alas, (poor Shea) Mets lose unspeakably see-saw one game playoff, in extra innings, when Heilman is charged with a bases loaded balk for actually urinating in his pants.

But seriously, no.

It'll be a "single" over the head of a draw-in Endy Chavez.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

ms. flick's speech

on the bright side, it appears that this is already beginning to shed some much deserved light on the brilliant work of Alexander Payne.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

McCain just lost his 'base'

I have nothing more to add about Palin herself. For once, I can say that I’m actually quite satisfied with the job that the mainstream and independent press is doing in devouring the stupidity of McCain’s selection, and having the common sense to recognize that real story here isn’t the fact that Palin is a book-burning, Christianist, secessioniast. The story is McCain and his appallingly slipshod decision-making process.

And that, I think, will be the real fallout of the affair, regardless of whether Ms. Palin recuses herself. (Yesterday, I’d have said ‘no way’. I have to say, today, I’m not so sure, but if I were Tim Pawlenty, I’d made sure my cell-phone was charged.)

The fall-out is that this entire imbroglio has finally given the press license, and the apparent willingness, to do what it has been so unwilling to do up to now: criticize John McCain. Shine the light on him. Make this election as much about him and his judgement as it is about Obama. I frankly wasn’t sure that was ever going to happen, and my fear was that the fundamental imbalance of the TM's overriding campaign narrative – that this election was a referendum on Barack Obama, not John McCain – was going to keep this race so annoyingly, unnecessarily, and ridiculously tight.

I think that whole frame is gone now. Being a POW is apparently no excuse for not even vetting your VP pick. I think the Press now sees and openly admits, this is not the man they came to know and love back in 2000. Just as important, McCain is now discovering that this is not the same press either. This is not his 'base’ as he so charmingly used to like to call them. And having lost them – through this single act of stunning arrogance and laziness – he’s kinda got nothin’.

Look for much anger and recrimination from the Right, that the current firestorm just goes to show that the 'liberal' media is out to get their candidate. Look for the silent majority of Americans to once and for all flip them the bird they so richly deserve.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Just sayin', part II

Last Thursday morning I wrote a post ('Storm Steals Thunder') suggesting that, for the GOP at least, the silver lining of Gustav's mighty cloud could be that it would give Bush an excuse not to attend the Republican Convention.

Today from Yahoo news:

The looming threat of Hurricane Gustav forced President Bush to cancel his planned valedictory address before the GOP national convention Monday night.

For many delegates gathering here, that's not a bad thing.
Everyone assembled in St. Paul hates the circumstances that forced Bush's absence; concern about Gustav dominated every conversation. But given the deeply conflicted emotions that swirl around the president from within his party, Bush's decision to forgo the occasion saves Republicans an awkward moment.