"The Man in the Moon" by Maxfield Parrish

Our granddaughter Alexa hits double digits this week, and as one way of observing the occasion we took her to see “Toy Story 3.” I confess to being a little blase about the animation and the high def 3-D, but I was interested in the theme – the fate of Andy’s toys now that his childhood has ended.

Pixar/Disney

This issue has been treated in literature – notably, as far as my limited knowledge goes, by Kenneth Grahame and by A.A. Milne. Grahame, who was the author of “The Wind in the Willows,”also wrote “The Golden Age” and its sequel, “Dream Days,” which consist of a collection of stories told from the viewpoint of a family of Victorian children. The best known of these stories is “The Reluctant Dragon,” but the whole body of work is remarkable for its portrayal of a world in which adults — the children refer to them as “Olympians” — have forgotten the experience of being young. This subject also concerned Sir James Matthew Barrie (“Peter Pan”) and P.L. Travers (“Mary Poppins”).

The situation in “Toy Story 3” called to mind the final chapter in “Dream Days” in which the Olympians have decided that the children have outgrown their playthings. The toys have been packed up to be given away, but the children, under cover of night, take the toys into the yard and bury them so as to keep them close to home – Leotard the elephant, Potiphar the bull, a couple of animals spared when the ark was carried off, and Rosa, who had escaped the exile already imposed on Jerry, Esmeralda, and the other dolls.

KENNETH GRAHAME

The earth was shovelled in and stamped down, and I was glad that no orisons were said and no speechifying took place. The whole thing was natural and right and self-explanatory, and needed no justifying or interpreting to our audience of stars and flowers.

The connexion was not entirely broken now–one link remained between us and them. The Noah’s Ark, with its cargo of sad-faced emigrants, might be hull down on the horizon, but two of its passengers had missed the boat and would henceforth be always near us; and, as we played above them, an elephant would understand, and a beetle would hear, and crawl again in spirit along a familiar floor. Henceforth the spotty horse would scour along far-distant plains and know the homesickness of alien stables; but Potiphar, though never again would he paw the arena when bull-fights were on the bill, was spared maltreatment by town-bred strangers, quite capable of mistaking him for a cow.

Jerry and Esmeralda might shed their limbs and their stuffing, by slow or swift degrees, in uttermost parts and unguessed corners of the globe; but Rosa’s book was finally closed, and no worse fate awaited her than natural dissolution almost within touch and hail of familiar faces and objects that had been friendly to her since first she opened her eyes on a world where she had never been treated as a stranger.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN and POOH

Milne also confronts the crisis of separation in that touching scene in which Christopher Robin explains to Winnie-the-Pooh that things between them will some day change. It’s the fateful “Chapter Ten, in Which Christopher Robin and Pooh Come to an Enchanted Place, and We Leave Them There”:

Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was still looking at the world, with his chin in his hands, called out “Pooh!”

“Yes?”  said Pooh.

“When I’m–when—Pooh!”

“Yes, Christopher Robin?”

“I’m not going to do Nothing any more.”

“Never again?”

“Well, not so much.  They won’t let you.”

Pooh waited for him to go on, but he was silent again.

“Yes, Christopher Robin?”  said Pooh helpfully.

“Pooh, when I’m–you know–when I’m not doing Nothing, will you come up here sometimes?”

“Just Me?”

“Yes, Pooh.”

“Will you be here too?”

“Yes, Pooh, I will be, really.  I promise I will be, Pooh.”

“That’s good,” said Pooh.

“Pooh, promise you won’t forget about me, ever.  Not even when I’m a hundred.”

Pooh thought for a little.

“How old shall I be then?”

“Ninety-nine.”

Pooh nodded.

“I promise,” he said.

Still with his eyes on the world Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt for Pooh’s paw.

“Pooh,” said Christopher Robin earnestly, “if I–if I’m not quite—-” he stopped and tried again—”Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you?”

“Understand what?”

“Oh, nothing.”  He laughed and jumped to his feet.  “Come on!”

“Where?”  said Pooh.

“Anywhere,” said Christopher Robin.

HOWDY DOODY

I have hung onto some shreds of my childhood, and I wish I had kept more. Fortunately, I wasn’t reared by Olympians. On one occasion many years ago, when I was delivering a homily to a class of children who were about to receive First Eucharist, I brought along an admittedly silent friend for moral support. At the end of my sermon I told the kids, “Some day grownups are going to tell you that you are too old for toys, and that you’ll be getting clothes and other boring things for gifts from then on. When they tell you that, you tell them that when the deacon was 50 years old, his mother gave him this Howdy Doody doll.

The children take things into their own hands as the Man in the Moon looks on / Maxfield Parrish

As we turned to go, the man in the moon, tangled in elm-boughs, caught my eye for a moment, and I thought that never had he looked so friendly. He was going to see after them, it was evident; for he was always there, more or less, and it was no trouble to him at all, and he would tell them how things were still going, up here, and throw in a story or two of his own whenever they seemed a trifle dull. It made the going away rather easier, to know one had left somebody behind on the spot; a good fellow, too, cheery, comforting, with a fund of anecdote; a man in whom one had every confidence. – Kenneth Grahame, “Dream Days.”

Advertisements

Abraham Lincoln meets with Maj. Gen. George McClellan in October 1862, following the Battle of Antietam

The recent decision by President Obama to remove Gen. Stanley McChrystal from his command in Afghanistan in favor of Gen. David Petraeus prompted a lot of people to reflect on the analogous event involving President Truman and Gen. Douglas McArthur. My mind reached back further, however, because I happened to be reading Lincoln and McClellan, a recent book by John C. Waugh about another president and general whose relationship came to grief.

GEORGE McCLELLAN

Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan is remembered today mostly for his reticence on the battlefield and for the effect that had on Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln finally removed the general from command of the Army of the Potomac after the carnage at Antietam. It’s hard to say that there was a winner or loser in that awful battle, but Lincoln’s frustration was that McClellan let Robert E. Lee and his army slip away without pursuit — this after McClellan had repeatedly resisted Lincoln’s urgings to attack or pursue the enemy.

In a way, McClellan, like so many of his contemporaries, was one more victim of the Civil War. He was a charismatic and erudite man who was well trained at West Point — but not as a fighter. McClellan had served in the Mexican War and had left the army for a lucrative executive position with a railroad, but he returned to arms when secession made war inevitable.

ROBERT E. LEE

Lincoln called on McClellan after the disaster of First Bull Run, and McClellan used his considerable skill to, in effect, create the Army of the Potomac and mold it into a formidable fighting force. His personal qualities endeared him to the troops, and that sentiment spilled over to the Northern public. McClellan was lionized as a new Napoleon. He believed his own publicity, but he fell short of its promise. Among his errors were that he was never quite satisfied with the readiness of his army and that he wildly overestimated the size of his enemy with the result that he ended up being embarrassed by much smaller forces than his own.

Although McClellan ran for president in 1864 and in later life served as governor of New Jersey and campaigned for Democratic presidential candidates Winfield Scott and Grover Cleveland, he hated politics and despised politicians.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

He resented any interference in military affairs by civilian authorities, and that put him on a collision course with Lincoln who, for better or for worse, had his own ideas about strategy and let the general know about them. There were bitter exchanges between McClellan and both Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who was something of a troublemaker in his own right.

This condition was complicated by the fact that McClellan came from an elite Philadelphia family and regarded people with humbler pedigrees as his social and intellectual inferiors — and that included, one might say especially, Abraham Lincoln. In letters to his wife, Ellen Marcy McClellan, the general dismissed Lincoln as “an idiot” and “a gorilla.” This was consistent with a pattern in McClellan’s life in which he usually regarded his superiors as incompetent.

GEORGE McCLELLAN circa 1880

Like many or maybe most northerners, McClellan was not concerned about the institution of slavery or about the slaves themselves, and he insisted that they were not a factor in the war. He maintained that the war should be conducted with the least possible impact of southern institutions and property – and he pointedly included slavery and slaves in that philosophy. As as result, he was scandalized when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and the fact that Lincoln insisted that the proclamation was a war measure didn’t mitigate McClellan’s disgust.

McClellan has often been brushed off as an almost comical figure who dithered while Lincoln fumed, but passing easy judgment on the men and women who lived through and participated in the war and the events surrounding it is a disservice to them. That’s why I appreciate books like this one, in which John Waugh presents a balanced view of the life and career of a complicated man caught up in a complicated epoch.

Image from purplepoddedpeas.blogspot.com

As we were sitting in traffic in a forest somewhere north of Port Elizabeth, the conversation turned to the dragonfly that was making several vain attempts to land on the black Mustang in front of us. It was 89 degrees, so we wondered if the insect found the metal trunk lid too hot to handle. What with all the trees on both sides of the road, there wasn’t much else to inspire us, so I asked Pat if she had called dragonflies by their alias, darning needles, when she was a kid.

healthyhuman.net

It turned out she had used that term, and that , like me, she had been told by adults supposedly looking after her welfare that a dragonfly left to its own devices would sew her mouth shut. I heard that story from my mother, and I believed it. Of course, I know better now – intellectually, that is – but I still shy away from dragonflies.

I have since learned that dragonflies are good friends of ours in that they eat mosquitoes and flies. I don’t know why adults who perpetuated the lip-sewing myth singled out the dragonfly for opprobrium, especially since those same adults told us kids that we could do hard time for molesting a praying mantis — and precisely because the mantis is a valuable predator.

Whatever the reason for this vicious canard against the dragonfly, it has a long history, as explained in this excerpt from scienceessayist.com:

In their book A Dazzle of Dragonflies, Forrest Mitchell and James Lasswell explain that the dragonfly-epithet “devil’s darning needle” has its origins in Europe of the Middle Ages. The long and slender shape of the insect’s body, combined with the superstitious belief that it, like the fly, was in league with the darkest of forces, produced a myth durable enough to make the journey with the colonists to the United States. Today in Iowa, the authors write, “devil’s darning needles sew together the fingers or toes of a person who falls asleep…in Kansas, they may sew up the mouths of scolding women, saucy children…and profane men.”

Dragonflies, of course, do no such thing. In fact, creatures belonging to the order Odonata (Latin for “toothed,” a reference to the chewing mandibles dragonflies share with most other insects) and the infraorder Anisoptera (Latin for “unequal wings,” because dragonflies have broader hindwings than forewings) have no sting, let alone needlepoint. They are perfectly harmless to humans, if not to their prey: smaller insects, including ants, bees, and the mosquitoes . . . .

"His Master's Voice," Francis Barraud, 1898

In a post on May 14, I mentioned a song written in 1920 by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar: “So Long, Oolong, (How Long Ya Gonna Be Gone?”) I didn’t mention that I happen to have a recording of that song, sung by Frank Crumit on the Columbia label. Crumit was a popular singer and radio personality who also wrote about 50 songs, including “Buckeye Battle Cry” which is played at Ohio State University football games.

Victrola, the Victor Talking Machine Co.

My recording of the Ruby-Kalmar song is a 78 rpm shellac disk. I could play it on the electric turntable that we use to listen to our 33 rpm LPs, but I don’t. I play it on our 1927 model wind-up Victrola. I have an odd assortment of records stored in the cabinet of that phonograph. Most of them are 10-inch disks, but there are a few of the 12-inch disks. Some of these are recorded on only one side – including a 12-inch Victor record of Giovanni Martinelli singing “Celeste Aida” from the Verdi opera. By the mid 1920s, Crumit was recording for Victor, so the recording I have has to date from before that. The Martinelli recording was made at the Victor studios in Camden on Nov. 25, 1914. I was able to determine that at THIS LINK, which is a complete catalog of Victor recordings. An interesting detail is that the Martinelli recording – one side only – sold for $1.50 and the Crumit record sold for a buck.

45 rpm record

I got on this subject because of a story I read today HERE, on the Boston Globe web site.  The nut of this story by Sarah Rodman is as follows:

As consumers buy fewer and fewer CDs, an interesting phenomenon is occurring — artists who appeal to older listeners are showing up surprisingly high on the charts.

The reason: Adults are largely the ones buying CDs these days. Younger people tend to download in general and focus on singles.

The story makes it clear that while this isn’t universally true, it’s a clear trend. It’s also interesting to note that “surprisingly high on the charts” is a relative concept. Rodman points out that a reissue of a Rolling Stones album recently hit the charts in second place on the strength of about 76,000 sales. In the “early 2000s,” the writer explains, a recording had to achieve six figures just to be in the Top 10. The early 2000s are already “the old days.”

SADE

The acts the story cites as appealing to “older listeners” are an eclectic group that includes Sarah McLachlan, Sade, Barbra Streisand, Michael Buble, and Susan Boyle.

There is a lot of discussion about the changes that have taken place in the recording industry. Like some other fields affected by rapidly evolving digital technology, this one presents a variety of challenges to everyone involved. And the challenged include people like me, who have lived through all of the developments in recording except wax cylinders — and who have accumulated evidence of every stage.

Besides the heavy shellac records and the acoustic talking machine, we have boxes of 45 rpm records in the garage — including a duet by Connie Francis and Marvin Rainwater — hundreds of LPs in the living room — dozens of cassette tapes (and several cassette players, including the one in my Beetle), CDs all over the house, and a couple of MP3 players. The only stage we skipped was 8-track.

JASON ALEXANDER

There’s an episode of “Seinfeld” in which George Costanza, having seen “Les Miserables” on Broadway, can’t get the song “Master of the House” out of his head. We’ve all had a similar experience, and it can be annoying. I read a book by the neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks in which he discusses the possible causes of this phenomenon. Pay attention. I think the next step in sound technology will be a chip implanted in the listener’s head and songs transmitted directly into the brain.

Meanwhile, is  there a market for all these jewel cases?

Who is that woman?

June 15, 2010

ANNE SEYMOUR

At last, I know. I have been wondering for decades about an actress who had a brief role in an episode of “The Honeymooners,” and last night I found out by chance who she was.

The episode – one of the so-called “classic 39” – is a Christmas story in which Ralph Kramden saves money to buy Alice a present, but spends it on a bowling ball. Then he uses what money he has to buy a hairpin box that’s made of  2,000 match sticks glued together, believing the salesman’s story that the box came from the home of the Emperor of Japan. On Christmas Eve, before Ralph gives Alice this present, a neighbor – Mrs. Stevens – comes to the door and says she’s going to be away for the holiday and wants to give Alice a present before leaving. Of course, when Alice opens the  package it’s a box just like the one Ralph bought, and the neighbor says she bought it at a novelty shop near the subway station.

ANNE SEYMOUR

The rest of that story doesn’t matter. What matters — to me, at least — is that I have always felt that the woman who played that small part was a wonderful actress. She created such a strong impression of Mrs. Stevens as warm and self-effacing that, even as a kid, I had a feeling that I’d like her to be my neighbor or even a member of my family — an aunt, maybe. Every time I see that episode, I’m entranced by that actress’s performance. But “The Honeymooners” producers were stingy with the credits, so the actress wasn’t identified.

So the other might I watched the 1949 version of “All the King’s Men” on TCM. The film is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, and it is the story of Willie Stark, a corrupt politician modeled after Huey Long. I had not seen it before, and the first time I heard the voice of the actress playing Stark’s wife, Sally, I knew my question had been answered. A little Googling confirmed that the Kramdens’ neighbor was portrayed by Anne Seymour.

ANNE SEYMOUR and RALPH BELLAMY

Anne Seymour, it turns out, had an extensive career. The International Movie Database lists 121 film and television appearances for her between 1944 and 1988. “All the King’s Men” was her second movie. Her last was “Field of Dreams.” She played the newspaper publisher in Chisolm, Minnesota who helped Ray Kinsella learn about Dr. Archie “Moonlight” Graham.

The actress’s birth name was Anne Eckert, and her family was in the theater for at least seven generations dating back to the early 18th century in Ireland. Her brothers, James and John Seymour, were screen writers. Anne made her stage debut in 1928, and she later also worked in radio drama. Though she spent the bulk of her career working in television, she played Sara Delano Roosevelt, the mother of Franklin Roosevelt, in the 1958 Broadway production of “Sunrise at Campobello,” for which Ralph Bellamy won a Tony award for his portrayal of FDR. Although Anne Seymour got good review for her work in that play, she was not cast in the film version.

FRANKLIN PIERCE

When I was a kid, a bubble gum company came out with a line of president cards which I guess were intended as the nerd’s alternative to baseball cards. I was into baseball – including the cards – but I was also into history. Also, my Dad owned a grocery store, so I had easy access to whatever the gum companies were peddling.

I recall sitting across from my father at the kitchen table. He held the president cards, arranged in chronological order, and I would try to list them from memory. I can still hear him saying one night when I got stuck somewhere in the latter 19th century: “C’mon! What street does your Aunt Ida live on?” The answer was Garfield Place, as in James A.

It occurred to me at that young age – it was during Dwight Eisenhower’s first administration – that Franklin Pierce had the best-looking face on those cards.

FRANKLIN PIERCE

Pierce is the subject of a new little biography – part of a Time Books series on the presidents. This one is written by Michael F. Holt, a history professor at the University of Virginia and an expert on the political life of the country in the years leading up to the Civil War. Sure enough, Holt points out that Pierce was not only handsome, but charming and warm hearted as well. Unfortunately, those qualities carried a lot more weight in the internal politics of Democratic New Hampshire than they did when spread out over a nation that was on the verge of committing suicide over the issue of expanding slavery into the western territories.

In fact, Pierce was nominated for the presidency in 1852 not so much because his party thought he was the Man of the Hour but because the party couldn’t muster a winning vote for any of the three leading candidates – one of whom was not Pierce. He was the original Dark Horse, as far as the presidency of the United States was concerned.

FRANKLIN PIERCE

Pierce actually showed some skill in managing the foreign affairs of the country, and he directed the Gadsden Purchase, which was the last major territorial acquisition in what is now the contiguous 48 states. But the crisis of the moment had to do with whether the institution of slavery was going to migrate west along with settlers – an argument that many thought had been closed with the Compromise of 1820. Pierce’s attitude on this issue was complex. First of all, he was a strict constructionist, meaning that he didn’t believe the federal government had any right to interfere in the internal affairs of states, including slavery. Pierce was not pro-slavery per se, but he believed that as long as slavery was protected by the Constitution, the federal government had no right to intrude.

JEFFERSON DAVIS

Pierce was also fiercely determined to hold the Union together, and that inspired his  loathing of the abolition movement. He considered abolitionists fanatics whose shenanigans were threatening the solidarity of the nation. And so, Pierce was a New Englander who consistently supported the Southern slave-holding oligarchy.

Another error in Pierce’s thinking, Holt explains, was an attempt to unify the Democratic party – which was suffering regional and philosophical tensions – by doling out federal patronage jobs to men who represented the whole spectrum of opinion. Among other things, he appointed his friend Jefferson Davis – soon to be president of the Confederacy – as Secretary of War, a move that did not endear Pierce to northern interests that despised and feared the southern plantation establishment. Rather than unifying the party, this policy succeeded in irritating just about everybody but those who got lucrative or influential positions.

JANE PIERCE

Pierce made enough mistakes that he was denied re-nomination by his own party. He was gracious in defeat, Holt reports, but he had to have been sorely disappointed. Among those who probably was not disappointed at all was the president’s wife, Jane Appleton Pierce, who had no patience with politics or life in the capital. In fact, when a rider caught up with the Pierces’ carriage to report that Pierce had been nominated for president, Jane fainted dead away. The poor woman was shy and fragile, and she and her husband endured a series of tragedies that unfortunately were not uncommon in the mid 19th century. They had three sons. Two died at very young ages and the third was killed when a railroad car in which the parents and child were riding left the track and overturned. Holt mentions that although Pierce did not approve of Abraham Lincoln’s policies, he wrote Lincoln a heartfelt note of sympathy when one of Lincoln’s sons died in the White House.

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE

Pierce was a heavy drinker – a problem drinker, actually – during much of his life, including the years after Jane died in 1863.

An interesting aspect of Pierce’s life was his compassion for other people – the most prominent of whom may have been Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Pierce met while a student at Bowdoin College. The men were so close that when Hawthorne sensed that he was dying he asked to spend some of his last days with Pierce. Although Hawthorne could travel only with difficulty, Pierce accommodated him and set off with him on a trip that was to be Hawthorne’s last. Pierce found the writer dead in a room at a hotel where the two men had stopped on their journey. Pierce, who was well off, included Hawthorne’s children in his  own will.

Pierce is consistently ranked as one of the least effective, or “worst,” of American presidents. But life isn’t lived on historians’ templates; it is lived between the ground and the sky in specific times and places and under specific and complex conditions. Calling a man one of the “worst” in any realm might have as much to do with what we expect of him at a comfortable distance than it has to do with the choices and challenges that confronted that man in his  own circumstances. When Abraham Lincoln had been murdered, an angry crowd approached Pierce’s home demanding to know why he wasn’t displaying a flag. Pierce pointed out that his father, Benjamin, had fought in the Revolution, his brothers in the War of 1812, and he himself in the Mexican War: “If the period during which I have served our state and country in various situations, commencing more than thirty-five years ago, have left the question of my devotion to the flag, the Constitution, and the Union in doubt, it is too late now to remove it.”

Will Ferrell and Amanda Peet in a scene from "Melinda and Melinda"

We watched the 2004 film “Melinda and Melinda,” which was written and directed by Woody Allen. It was an uneven experience, and I think that was because the balance between comedy and tragedy — which goes to the heart of the film — wasn’t achieved. In my view, at least, the tragedy is to profound to be counterbalanced by the romance. The tragedy is what I expect to stay with me.

RADHA MITCHELL

The story, as one might expect of a Woody Allen film, is based on an offbeat premise. Two playwrights and several of their friends have dinner in a Manhattan restaurant, and their conversation drifts into the subject of tragedy and comedy as defining elements of everyday life. These playwrights, by the way, are limited parts wonderfully played by Larry Pine and Wallace Shawn. One of the dinner party describes what she says was a real-life incident in which a domestic dinner party was interrupted by  the unexpected arrival of a female friend of the hosts. The two playwrights then concoct full-blown stories from that premise — one a tragedy and one a romantic comedy. In both instances, the unexpected visitor is Melinda – played in both cases by the magnetic Radha Mitchell.

TRAGIC MELINDA

In the tragic version, Melinda is a suicidal woman who — by her own account — squandered an idyllic life with her physician husband and two loving children, because she had grown bored with existence and blundered her way into the arms of an Italian photographer. That adventure cost her not only the marriage but any opportunity to even see her kids. She returns to Manhattan in a confused effort to build a new life for herself, but she winds up disrupting the lives of the couple she barges in on, a minor actor and a music teacher played by Johnny Lee Miller and Chloe Sevigny.

COMIC MELINDA

In the comic version, Melinda is a single woman who has temporarily moved into the apartment building occupied by an independent film maker and her husband — another minor actor — played by Amanda Peet and Will Ferrell. Ferrell, incidentally, is the surrogate for Allen, the part he would have played himself if he had less sense. In this  version, too, the addition of Melinda disturbs the chemical balance in the household, albeit in an ultimately hilarious way.

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR

There are a couple of other important characters, most notably Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays a kind of demon-ex-machina who helps bring on the decisive crisis in the tale of Melinda the Tragic.
Perhaps it’s typical of Woody Allen’s films that a viewer can enjoy this one best by suspending credulity concerning the characters, their motivations and behavior, and the witty, boozy environment in which they live. Although Allen, as usual, pushes introspection to the edge of its tolerable limits, he does so with a sharp and absorbing script. As usual, too, he has assembled a highly talented cast to deliver his material, and every one of the actors does his work justice.
I am not a fan of Will Ferrell’s, but I found him to be a natural for the role he takes on here. Perhaps twice in the film, one imagines having heard Woody Allen’s own voice speaking lines he might have spoken himself in a perfect world in which the actor never ages, but for the most part Ferrell puts his own comic stamp on the character.
I can’t say enough about Radha Mitchell’s portrayal of the two Melindas. In particular, she is utterly convincing as the Melinda who is coming  undone when we meet her and continues to unravel before our eyes.
All in all, those who like to pick their spots with Woody Allen films would benefit from making this one a pick.

Will Ferrell and Radha Mitchell in a scene from "Melinda and Melinda"

Self portrait

By coincidence, I have read biographical works over the past several months about Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo Da Vinci. In all three cases, the authors emphasized that these men were motivated by insatiable curiosities to question established “knowledge” and see beneath and beyond it.

The most recent of these books is “Leonardo’s Legacy” by European science writer Stefan Klein.

Although, Dan Brown aside, the mention of Leonardo may evoke in most people’s minds images of paintings and sculptures, Klein covers the broad range of Leonardo’s interests, from human anatomy to hydrodynamics.

Statue of Leonardo, Uffizi, Florence

Klein doesn’t neglect the arts. In fact, I found his discussion of the Mona Lisa enlightening. I am a duffer when it comes to art, and I have never thought seriously about that painting – which appears in so many contexts that it has become a cliche. But Klein’s explanation, for instance, of Leonardo’s use of chiaroscuro to create a lifelike image helped me to look at the portrait with a new perspective. The same is true of the author’s explanation of the painter’s use of light and of the landscape that appears in the background.

Klein also pointed out that Leonardo, who had made careful studies of the muscles and nerves that control facial expressions, created the woman in the “Mona Lisa” with an asymmetrical face in which the emotions expressed on each side are not identical. Here, Leonardo seemed to be anticipating what is now understood about the left and right hemispheres of the brain controlling the right and left sides of the body, respectively. It was one of many examples of how Leonardo applied what he learned in one field to his work in another.

Portrait by Swedish artist Evald Hansen

Leonardo associated with some interesting Renaissance characters, including the  philosopher Nicolo Machiavelli and the warlord Cesare Borgia. Leonardo hired himself out to men like Borgia in order to make a living, and he  earned his keep by providing entertainment and by designing practical devices, including weapons. Klein makes a point of the apparent contradiction between Leonardo’s abhorrence of war and avowed respect for life and his willingness to imagine and at least design on paper the most horrible mechanisms for maiming and killing human beings.

On the other hand, Leonardo’s employment by Borgia was the occasion for creating an astounding map of the Central Italian city of Imola. By Klein’s reckoning, Leonardo and an assistant paced off very street and building in the city, using instruments that Leonardo had invented for that purpose. Leonardo then prepared a realistic view of Imola that appeared as if it were viewed from overhead – an unheard-of concept at that time.

Flying machine design

Among Leonardo’s fixations was the behavior of water, and he spent incalculable hours pursuing it – simply by observing water in nature and also by sketching it alone and including it in his paintings. He studied surface tension and the manner in which water moved through wider and narrower channels. He put to use the knowledge he gained when he designed a lock for a canal in Milan and, in a more remote way, when he studied the manner in which blood flows through the vessels of the body. Klein suggests  that Leonardo may have actually built a model of a heart to reach his conclusions about the movement of blood in the cardiac ventricles –  something that wasn’t scientifically observed until hundreds of years later.

Anatomical drawings

Leonardo was also determined to provide man with the freedom of flight, but Klein explains that this enterprise was doomed to failure because of Leonardo’s incorrect assumption that birds could fly because they flapped their wings. Although Leonardo understood the concept of gliding, he did not deduce that birds kept themselves afloat because of the difference in the speed and pressure of air passing above and below their wings. Given the era in which he was working, however, Leonardo’s conceptual achievements in this area are still remarkable. In fact, Klein describes an experiment in which modern hobbyists built a machine based on one of Leonardo’s designs, but provided it with a rigid wing, and the device was able to fly.

A great deal of Leonardo’s insight – literally and figuratively – came from his work in dissecting cadavers, something that he found repugnant but pursued for the sake of knowledge. Study of anatomy was not unusual among artists at that time, but Leonardo’s desire to understand the component parts of any organism – natural or artificial – took his studies far beyond those of his contemporaries. His study of the body of a centenarian with whom he had been acquainted led him to the conclusion that the man had died because hardened and constricted vessels had retarded the flow of blood, a finding that foreshadowed diagnoses of arteriosclerosis. So thorough were Leonardo’s examinations of the human body that Klein says some of the artist’s anatomical drawings could have been made in the 21st century.

The author  argues that Leonardo’s expansive work was possible because the manner in which he lived gave him a great deal of  freedom to observe and ponder and sketch and tinker. Klein speculates that minds like Leonardo’s still exist but wonders if they can thrive under our highly structured educational systems.

In any event, this very readable book challenges us all by reminding us of the capacity of the human mind, even ours.

Leonardo's "overhead" map of Imola. The roof of each individual house was painted in water colors.

RUE-DE-SEINE

I don’t know what the writer of the Book of Genesis had in mind when he composed that ninth verse, but he provided an image that comes to my mind whenever I hear that the Passaic River has gone over its banks and once again swamped the homes of people who persist in living in its path.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered in one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so.

In other words, it took a command from God to get water to relinquish its superiority over earth, and the way I see it, water has never fully obeyed.

One example of the element asserting itself — just because it can — is described in “Paris Under Water” by  Jeffery M. Jackson, an account of a flood in January 1910 that wrecked a large part of the city and some of its suburbs.

Marker indicates where the Seine crested, 20 feet above normal, on January 28, 1910.

Jackson, who is a history professor, explains that there was a complex of causes for this disaster. These included an unusually high amount of precipitation between June of 1909 and January of 1910 and relatively mild temperatures in western Europe that winter. In addition, Jackson writes, excessive deforestation upstream of Paris may have contributed to the deluge.

He also explains that late in the 19th century Paris had remade itself into a modern city, complete with an electric subway – the Metropolitan – and greatly expanded sewerage facilities. These very improvements, Jackson says, helped to create the calamity in 1910, because water pouring out of the river and bubbling up from the saturated ground had multiple conduits to carry it where it otherwise might not have gone — and certainly not so swiftly.

One citizen carries another through the flood water.

The flood brought with it all the problems of property loss, unemployment, and contamination that usually accompany such events, and the looting and profiteering as well.

Still, one of the most interesting and uplifting aspects of this book is Jackson’s account of how individuals and institutions rose to the challenge and helped the city and each other survive the flood.

Also engrossing is the author’s chronicle of the activities of Prefect of Police Louis Lepine, whose title described only a part of his responsibility, which included public health. Lepine, who had introduced scientific police techniques to Paris, was a dynamo during the flood, seldom resting as he personally oversaw the management of the city’s response to the crisis.

More recent events, such as our own Hurricane Katrina, have a way of dulling or even snuffing out our collective memory of natural disasters. This one, which in Jackson’s estimation has some lessons for our  own time, is worth recalling.

One of the many postcards produced and sold during and after the disaster shows a scene that was repeated in many places in Paris -- citizens gingerly making their way over wooden walkways that were hastily constructed as the city fought back against the flood.


MICKEY MANTLE

In the first inning of the 1961 All Star Game, Whitey Ford of the Yankees struck out Willie Mays of the Giants. It was a called third strike. The event prompted an uncharacteristic response from Ford’s teammate, Mickey Mantle, who was playing center field. Mantle clapped and whooped and hopped his way all the way back to the American League dugout at Candlestick Park, and Mays was none too pleased. Anyone in or around baseball would have understood that. Mantle had broken the “code” — the set of unwritten rules by which major league ballplayers mutually govern each other’s behavior on the field. One of the principal canons is that one player doesn’t show up another player on the field – particularly not during a nationally televised All Star Game. A player who shows up another player is often inviting a pitch aimed at his head sometime soon if not in his next at-bat.

WILLIE MAYS

Besides being irked, Mays probably was baffled because it wasn’t like Mantle to  behave that way. Even in the era before hot dogs like Barry Bonds stand in the batter’s box watching their home runs leave the park, Mantle was known for his demeanor after he hit one of his 536 homers. He circled the bases with his head down, as though he were embarrassed at causing such a fuss, and he said explicitly that he figured the pitcher felt bad enough already and didn’t need to be humiliated by a showboat. Curtain calls were virtually unknown in Mantle’s era, but he wouldn’t even look up into the crowd as he returned to the dugout. I recall one instance late in his career when he hit one of his last home runs and just touched the bill of his cap to acknowledge the fans. It caused a sensation.

WHITEY FORD

It turned out that Giants owner Horace Stoneham had arranged for Mantle and Ford to play golf at an exclusive club, and the two players had rented all the equipment they needed for about $400 and charged it to Stoneham, intending to repay him. When they saw their host again, however, Stoneham offered a wager that if Ford retired Mays the first time they faced in the All Star Game, the debt would be forgiven, but if Mays got on base, the players would owe Stoneham $800. Ford accepted the bet, and Mantle was furious because at that point Mays was six-for-six against Ford. When the showdown occurred, Mays hit two very long foul balls against Ford, and then struck out looking at a nasty curve ball. Hence Mantle’s schoolboy reaction was more about Stoneham than about Mays.

DENNY McLAIN

I learned about that incident in “The Baseball Codes,” a book by Jason Turbow and Michael Duca that explores some of the cultural aspects of baseball that are not covered by the official rules. The discussion has a lot to do with “respect” — between players, between teams, and for the game itself. At times, it seems, it’s the same kind of “respect” that governed the behavior of people like the Gallo crime family. Cheating — using a foreign substance on a ball or stealing signs — is allowed, for example, until a player or team gets caught. Then it has to stop.
One of the topics discussed in the book is the protocol regarding records. For instance, based on a 1948 story in Sport magazine, the authors report that Ed Barrow, general manager of the Yankees, had once declared a game rained out because Lou Gehrig — who was in the midst of his consecutive-games streak — was sick with the flu. There was no rain.

JIM PRICE

This also works across teams. For instance, the authors repeat the well known story about Tigers pitcher Denny McLain, who as a boy had idolized Mickey Mantle. McLain wound up pitching to Mantle in a game in September 1968 — the season in which McLain won 31 games and Mantle retired. Mantle at the time was tied with Jimmy Foxx on the all-time home run list — both with 534. McLain decided he was going to do what he could to help Mantle hit 535 and so informed Tigers catcher Jim Price. When Mantle stepped into the batter’s box, Price let him know what was coming, and McLain stood on the mound clapping as the ball went into the seats.

NAPOLEON LAJOIE

Another twist on the records issue, as described in this book, involved the very popular Cleveland second baseman, Napoleon Lajoie (LAH-ja-way) who, on the last day of the 1910 season, was running to second to Ty Cobb for the batting title. Cobb was as disliked in the game as Lajoie was liked, and St. Louis Browns manager Jack O’Connor was among those who despised the Tigers outfielder. So with Cleveland playing St. Looie in a double header on the last day of the year, O’Connor moved his third baseman far behind the bag to give the right-hand hitting Lajoie a clear shot down the left field line. Lajoie wasn’t in on it, but he knew an opportunity when he saw one, and he bunted for seven straight base hits in the two games. He also had a triple before he noticed the odd positioning of the third baseman. But in his last at-bat, Lajoie swung away and grounded out. Cobb ended up with a batting average of .3850687, and Lajoie with .3840947.

TY COBB

The postscript is that O’Connor’s tactic was so widely criticized that he was fired by the Browns and never managed in the major leagues again. The post postscript is that in 1981 the office of the Commissioner of Baseball ruled that Cobb had been erroneously given credit for two hits that season, so that his average was actually .383, and Lajoie — who by that time had been dead for 22 years — was declared the batting champion.
—————————————————–
ERRATUM: I have learned since writing this post that the Lajoie-Cobb incident may not have ended as it was described in this book. The Cleveland Indians web site indicates that it was a baseball historian at the Sporting News who found the discrepancy in Cobb’s stats for 1910, but that Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn refused to take the batting title away from Cobb.