CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS

In a post last December, I mentioned in passing the widely held fiction that when Christopher Columbus set off on his first voyage, many if not most Europeans thought he would sail his ship off the edge of a flat earth and into oblivion. I was taught this in elementary school, and I have spoken to many people my age who remember being taught the same thing. More recently, I questioned my college students about this, and many of them said they had the same impression about Columbus.

The fact is that it was common knowledge among Columbus’ contemporaries in Europe that the world was round — a point that Nancy Marie Brown makes in her book, The Abacus and the Cross.

This book is not about Columbus; it’s about Gerbert of Aurillac, a French monk who lived in the 10th century. Gerbert had a thirst for knowledge and he became thoroughly schooled in the humanities and in the sciences.

GERBERT of AURILLAC

His scholarship carried him to Spain, where he came in contact with a thriving Arab Muslim culture which had preserved enormous amounts of philosophical and scientific knowledge that had been lost to Europe. Gerbert seems to have had both the curiosity and the capacity of a Leonardo or Michelangelo, and he devoured as much learning as he could. He was engrossed in both mathematics and in music, for example, and in the relationship between the two disciplines. He scrutinized the properties of organ pipes, and he eventually designed a built a prototypical organ that was not driven by water — the common technique of his time — but by forced air.

He didn’t only strive to satisfy his own curiosity. He was an influential teacher whose students included royalty. In the process of carrying out this vocation he introduced Europe to the place system of arithmetic — vertical rows for the ones, tens, hundreds, and so forth — which was much more efficient than the clumsy Roman system and which the western world has been using ever since. In this connection, he also carried back from Spain numerals that had originated in India and that had been adapted by the Muslims — the forerunners of the so-called Arabic numbers we use today. As the title of the book suggests, he learned in Spain to use an abacus board to calculate, and he later designed his own versions and taught others how to use them.

AN ASTROLABE

Also among Gerbert’s interests was astronomy. He learned all about astrolabes, overlaid disks that were used to trace the positions of the sun and the moon and the stars and the planets — and tell time — and about celestial globes, which were three dimensional representations of the apparent paths of the heavenly bodies. He made his own models of these instruments, too, sometimes taking as much as a year to finish one.

As Brown points out, it is clear not only that Gerber, in the 10th century, knew that the world was round, but that Pythagoras determined that around 530 BC, and Erastosthenes figured out how to calculate the circumference of the globe by 240 BC. Some flat-earthers persisted, but by the time of Columbus the point was moot in western Europe. Columbus knew the world was round; his mistake was in underestimating the circumference.

Being a churchman in that era, and one who enjoyed consorting with powerful people, Gerbert inevitably got drawn into the constant political turmoil in Europe, and his fortunes rose and fell along with those of his patrons.

He almost ended on a high note when he was elected Pope Sylvester II in 999 AD.

SYLVESTER on FRENCH STAMP

Even that didn’t turn out so well, because he had to flee Rome for a while along with his patron of the moment, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. Sylvester died in 1003.

During his lifetime and for a long time after his death he was the subject of rumors that he consorted with the devil or engaged in sorcery. Ironically, this was because of his pursuit of knowledge in astronomy and mathematics, which in some ignorant minds were associated with the occult.

There’s a place in New Brunswick that serves up a hot dog known as the “crackler.” A strip of bacon is wrapped around the dog like an armature, and the dog and bacon are deep fried. I used to frequent that place — Tido ‘n His Junkyard Dogs — before the Gannett Co. discovered that I was of no further use and I had to find work in another neighborhood. I thought to myself at first that it might be easier to forego the cracker and simply put a loaded revolver to my head, but my watering palate got the best of me, and indulged myself from time to time. I suppose one could make the argument that I was putting my family’s future at risk by abusing my arteries in that manner, but I was, after all, accepted “for better or for worse,” and if this was as bad as “worse” got, perhaps it wasn’t a bad bargain for anyone concerned.

I have often wondered, standing in a checkout line while some bloke at the front asks the clerk for an eight-dollar pack of cigarettes from the vault, whether I would still lay down that much money if I had been a smoker. I have never been a smoker, so I have never had to confront that dilemma, but it seems as if New York Times columnist Mark Bittman would like to come at me from a different direction.

Bittman wrote this week that the federal government should heavily tax unhealthy foods so as to discourage people like me from becoming a drain on the health care system.

This is the approach that has already been taken with cigarettes, which the feds and the states have gleefully taxed and taxed again, boasting that they’re only looking out for people who can’t look out for themselves, whereas what they’re really doing is compensating for their own inability to control government spending by making scapegoats of people engaged in an unpopular but legal activity. The last I heard, beer wasn’t a healthy drink. Why don’t governments tax the hell out of that? I think you know why.

Bittman isn’t in government, and I don’t suspect him of such a cynical motive — although he does mention the potential for billions in tax revenues from consumers of donuts and Pepsi. I think he means well, and in a way that’s almost worse. Government can do whatever it wants in the way of public education — things such as Mayor Bloomberg’s calorie-posting requirement — but slapping what amounts to a financial penalty on people exercising their freedom to eat what they choose, which is perfectly legal, is too much government in private life.

You can read Mark Bittman’s column by clicking HERE.

“Oh, bother!”

July 22, 2011

JIM CUMMINGS

I was shocked when a colleague told me the other day that she had never read the Winnie-the-Pooh books, and I suppose I should have hidden my surprise better than I did. That’s a conceit of mine – that everyone’s life experiences should be the same as my own. Then again, we’re talking about Winnie-the-Pooh, for heaven’s sake.

This conversation was occasioned by the fact that Pat and I went on Sunday to see the new Disney movie, Winnie-the-Pooh, with our daughter and our two grandsons. The film is well done with hand-drawn images and a story line that are true to the spirit of both A.A.Milne, who wrote the books, and Ernest Shepard, who illustrated them.

Milne and Shepard, of course, provided text and pictures, but they did not provide the voices of the characters. That was left to the Disney studio, where some genius cast Sterling Holloway in the title role of Winnie-the-Pooh and the Honey Tree in 1966. Holloway played the part in two more Disney short features, and his high-pitched, plaintive voice became the voice of Pooh for a couple of generations of kids and adults who, by the mercy of God, have not fully grown up.

STERLING HOLLOWAY

Holloway retired in the 1970s, and the Disney casting office had another epiphany, choosing voice actor Jim Cummings – who can be heard in about a hundred films – to speak for Pooh, as it were. It was a tough assignment for an actor who, I’m sure, wanted to do his work without a ghost looking over his shoulder but also wanted to keep the character authentic in the minds of the audience. No problem. Cummings’ performance is distinctive, but it has the ring of a bear, and a hungry one at that, of very little brain.

Cummings knows something about following a tough act. He also took over the role of Tigger in the Pooh films after the retirement of Paul Winchell, who entertained audiences in the 50s and 60s with a ventriloquist act that featured the mannequin Jerry Mahoney, and who was also the first person to design and build an artificial heart.

I can’t say I missed Holloway while we were watching Winnie-the-Pooh, but I miss him in general. I first became aware of him when he appeared in the recurring role of eccentric but gentle Waldo Binney, a neighbor of the title family on the series The Life of Riley, which starred William Bendix as Chester A. Riley.

HOLLOWAY and ALTER EGO

Holloway was unique, sui generis, in the quirkiness of his appearance, his demeanor, and his voice, so it was always a pleasure to run across him in movies or TV shows – the latter including The Amazing Adventures of Superman. He appeared in about 150 screen and TV properties over all. In the 1970s, he also did voiceover commercials for Purina Puppy Chow dog food, and sang what was then a familiar jingle: “Puppy Chow / for a full year / till he’s fully grown.”

As often happens with performers who have long careers, two of Holloway’s landmark achievements are largely forgotten – namely the fact that he introduced two songs that became a permanent part of the American musical repertoire. This occurred when he was appearing on Broadway in the 1920s and the songs were “(I’ll take) Manhattan” and “Mountain Greenery,” both composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

Holloway, who never married because – he said – he liked his life the way it was, died in 1992 at the age of 87.

Click on THIS LINK to see and hear Sterling Holloway singing “A Perfect Day,” a song written in 1909 by Carrie Jacobs Bond. Holloway’s touching rendition occurred in the 1940 film “Remember the Night.”

George Reeves and Sterling Holloway in an episode of the TV series "The Amazing Adventures of Superman."

It might be significant that I couldn’t think of any way to begin this post about Stan Musial — any way but this, that is. The thesis of Stan Musial: An American Life is that, because Musial played his whole career with the St. Louis Cardinals, he has been perennially undervalued vis-a-vis his contemporaries who played in cities like Boston and New York. I grew up during his career, and it’s true that, living in the New York area — especially after the National League teams both slunk out of town — Musial was not the topic of everyday conversation.

He was, as New York Times columnist George Vecsey suggests in this book, just kind of there, and the next thing we knew he had accumulated more than 3,600 hits and had established himself as one of the best hitters of his era.

Musial came from Donora, Pa., which was a gritty industrial town where his dad worked in a steel mill whose management wasn’t concerned about the employees’ health. Vecsey draws a detailed picture of life in that town, and that may be the most worthwhile part of this book. Young Stan was a good athlete, but he got into the Cardinals’ organization as a pitcher — something he wasn’t suited for.

In 1941, he had a storybook season. He started out in the spring in the Cards’ baseball camp in Hollywood, Fla., where he was supposed to pitch batting practice, and by the end of the summer he had been converted into a hard-hitting outfielder and was called up by the parent team for the last week of a pennant race.

He played for the Cardinals until he retired in 1963, amassing one of the great personal records in the game plus a reputation for reliability, and for dignity on the field, and for a cheeful and hospitable approach to life. He was well liked in and out of the game.

While it is true, as Vecsey writes, that Musial’s extraordinary career has been overshadowed in the popular mind by the careers of contemporaries like Joe DiMaggio in New York and Ted Williams in Boston, his numbers are indelibly preserved in the record book where they put the accomplishments of other players in perspective, for better or for worse. Derek Jeter, for instance, has achieved what only 28 out of about 17,000 major league players have achieved, and yet he can’t escape the ink that says that Musial’s mark in total hits is out of reach.

But Vecsey, writing about “an American life,” does a little too much fawning over Musial and not enough exploring of aspects of the ballplayer that Vecsey himself brings up. He dwells on Jackie Robinson’s revolutionary appearance with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and he intimates that Musial was at most a passive participant in the breaking of the color line, but he does not deeply plumb Musial’s attitude on race.

Vecsey reports that Musial was spared military service during the heat of World War II on the grounds that he was a parent and the sole support of his mother and father – who, incidently, had several other children; that he declined to join an army unit when a baseball colleague urged him to do so, and that, when his number was up, as it were, he served at the tail end of the war by playing baseball in Hawaii and then by flying a stateside desk. The author writes, too, that Musial was not an activist when his fellow players  rebelled against the reserve-clause system that for a long time made players the property of their owners, the Fourteenth Amendment notwithstanding. In a broader way, Vecsey writes that Musial was a peacelover, meaning that he liked to avoid conflict. We are left to infer that Musial was happy in statu quo so long as things were going well for him — which they were for several decades.

Vecsey does at least let a voice other than his own — that of former Cardinals star Curt Flood — speak to the question of who Stan Musial really is. Flood unsuccessfully sued major league baseball after refusing to agree to a trade in 1969; his suit was the opening shot in a movement that ultimately changed labor relations in baseball.

In his autobiography, Flood wrote that he and other players respected Musial as a player and as a person; they thought of him as a man who would not consciously do harm. But, Flood continued, “He was just unfathomably naïve. After twenty years of baseball, his critical faculties were those of a schoolboy. After twenty years, he was still wagging his tail for the front office – not because he felt it politic to do so but because he believed every word he spoke.”

ARSINEE KHANJIAN

The 2005 Canadian film Sabah has a lot to recommend it, but nothing more potent that Arsinee Khanjian, the actress in the title role.

The film concerns a family of Syrian Muslims living in Toronto. Sabah is an unmarried 40-year-old woman who is responsible for looking after her stylish but perhaps a little hypochondriac widowed mother. Unlike most of her family, Sabah wears drab traditional Muslim clothing — something that seems to symbolize the oppression she has been subjected to by her brother Majid (Jeff Seymour) since their father died. Majid wants Sabah at their mother’s side, and he monitors Sabah’s movements and finances as though he were her father.

In an unusual act of rebellion, Sabah — who loved to swim when she was a child — begins to surreptitiously visit an indoor pool in the city, despite her brother’s instruction that a Muslim woman is not seen in a bathing suit in public. At the pool, Sabah meets a secular Christian man, Stephen — played by Shawn Doyle — who is very courteous to her but also is clearly fascinated with the timid woman from their first encounter.

SHAWN DOYLE

The poolside meetings evolve into a sweet romance, but Sabah’s insistence on keeping the relationship a secret from her family tries Stephen’s patience. Meanwhile, Majid’s young niece defies him by refusing to accept his choice of a husband for her, as Majid wrestles with a broader family problem that he has been keeping from his mother and siblings.

JEFF SEYMOUR

This movie — sort of an Abie’s Irish Rose for the 21st century — infuses the familiar challenge of intermarriage with a well-written script and thoughtful direction, both by Ruba Nadda, a Canadian of Arab ancestry. Our only reservation about the book was that the resolution of the family’s complicated problems was a bit too sudden — especially given the earlier intransigence of Majid.

The characters are all well played, and Doyle in particular deserves credit for the nuances and subtleties he brings to the person of Stephen. But Arsinee Khanjian, who was 45 when she made this film, is irresistible in the part of Sabah. The initial vulnerability, the glimpses of fire beneath a stoic exterior, and the thrill of her growing awareness of a wider world than she has ever known make Sabah an unusually attractive figure.

This film was well received when it was introduced, and those of us who are catching up to it late can see why.