Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Quote of the Day (Alice Munro, on the Constant Changes During Childhood)

“Every year, when you're a child, you become a different person. Generally it's in the fall, when you reenter school, take your place in a higher grade, leave behind the muddle and lethargy of the summer vacation. That's when you register the change most sharply. Afterwards you are not sure of the month or year but the changes go on, just the same. For a long while the past drops away from you easily and it would seem automatically, properly. Its scenes don't vanish so much as become irrelevant. And then there's a switchback, what's been all over and done with sprouting up fresh, wanting attention, even wanting you to do something about it, though it's plain there is not on this earth a thing to be done.”—Canadian Nobel Literature laureate Alice Munro, “Child's Play,” in Too Much Happiness: Stories (2009)

Monday, November 23, 2020

Photo of the Day: Korean Hornbeam, Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh PA

When I visited Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens on a trip to Pittsburgh a year ago, I was enthralled by the vast variety of flowers and plants in this wonderful site. One of the visual delights that I photographed then was the Korean Hornbeam, a deciduous tree native to North America and Asia. Slow-growing, this is considered a fine specimen for beginning bonsai enthusiasts.

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Duck Soup,’ As Groucho Demonstrates a Unique Diplomatic Style)

Ambassador Trentino [played by Louis Calhern]: “I didn't come here to be insulted!”

Rufus T. Firefly [played by Groucho Marx]: “That's what you think!”— Duck Soup (1933), story by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, with additional dialogue by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin, directed by Leo McCarey 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Photo of the Day: Gray Skies and Fountain, Roosevelt Common, Tenafly, NJ

Though I live more than two miles away, Tenafly’s Roosevelt Common has been a constant in my life for 45 years. The site’s memorial to Theodore Roosevelt holds its interest, but above all, its pond has been a source of tranquility and even beauty for me.

The fountain at the center of the pond especially drew my interest today—enough, obviously, that I photographed it.

The thermometer may have read 49 degrees but with no sun, it felt cooler. Elsewhere in town, even as seats and tables remained in place for outdoor dining, they were largely unused, with potential patrons no doubt discouraged by the plunging mercury.

The gray sky seemed an appropriate reflection of the gray spirits so many have felt in this region of the Northeast in recent days as COVID-19 cases increase, along with the probability of tighter restrictions on business and private gatherings.

Given these circumstances, then, seeing this pond and fountain didn’t make my heart soar. But it was a sign of life, the way water always is, even amid a contraction of nature that has felt more severe this year than ever before.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Mark Twain, on Dominican Bravery During a Cholera Epidemic in Italy)

“I have heard of many things that redound to the credit of the priesthood, but the most notable matter that occurs to me now is the devotion one of the mendicant orders showed during the prevalence of the cholera last year. I speak of the Dominican friars—men who wear a coarse, heavy brown robe and a cowl, in this hot climate, and go barefoot. They live on alms altogether, I believe. They must unquestionably love their religion, to suffer so much for it. When the cholera was raging in Naples; when the people were dying by hundreds and hundreds every day; when every concern for the public welfare was swallowed up in selfish private interest, and every citizen made the taking care of himself his sole object, these men banded themselves together and went about nursing the sick and burying the dead. Their noble efforts cost many of them their lives. They laid them down cheerfully, and well they might. Creeds mathematically precise, and hair-splitting niceties of doctrine, are absolutely necessary for the salvation of some kinds of souls, but surely the charity, the purity, the unselfishness that are in the hearts of men like these would save their souls though they were bankrupt in the true religion—which is ours.”—American humorist Mark Twain (1835-1910), The Innocents Abroad: or, The New Pilgrim’s Progress (1869)

As a religious skeptic for much of his adult life—and particularly in the case of Roman Catholicism—Mark Twain would have been among the last people I would expect to include in my Sunday “Spiritual Quote of the Day.”

But the circumstances surrounding the package tour to Europe that inspired his Innocents Abroad were extraordinary, as was the courage of the Dominicans he encountered in Naples, Italy, during a cholera epidemic in 1867. In a season when the COVID-19 pandemic rages again worldwide with renewed force, it does not hurt to pay tribute to an earlier group that many people a century and a half ago regarded as “essential workers.”

In Italy as a whole, an estimated 100,000 people died of cholera in 1867. The fear and frustration were particularly virulent in Naples, where mobs, enraged at prior broken pledges to improve the city’s sanitation and infrastructure, attacked government offices.

In March of this year, a Charles Collins post on the Catholic Website Crux Now gave further details on the trip in which Twain saw how the Dominicans bore witness to their faith. It is well worth reading.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

This Day in Baseball History (Birth of Stan Musial—Batter of Consistency, Model of Decency)

Nov. 21, 1920— Stan Musial, who through 22 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals earned the respect of teammates and opponents alike with consistent ferocity at the plate and unwavering kindness to those in contact with him, was born in Donora, Pa.

The son of a Polish immigrant who died from breathing fumes from a local zinc factory, Musial was used to personal setbacks. That might be why, when he damaged his left shoulder as a young pitching prospect in the Cardinal minor-league system, he accepted his manager’s advice and transitioned, like Babe Ruth two decades before, into becoming an outfielder.

In St. Louis, Musial became the linchpin in the best years of the franchise between the Dizzy Dean’s “Gas House Gang” of the 1930s and the Bob Gibson-led team of the 1960s. From the early-to-mid 1940s, that squad won four National League pennants and three World Series titles. During those appearances, Musial established a reputation for clutch hitting, batting .315,.357, .347 and .365 in the “Fall Classic.”

Even as he established a reputation for geniality in St. Louis, Musial filled opposing fans with dismay for the way he crushed the hopes of their hometown heroes. That was especially the case in Brooklyn, where Dodger diehards groaned at what “that man” was doing to their pitchers. That gave rise to the affectionate nickname he kept for the rest of his life: “Stan the Man.”

(Such was the reverence felt in St. Louis for “Stan the Man” that in 2012, the mainstay of the franchise for the prior decade, Albert Pujols—now relocated to the California Angels—objected to the title bestowed by his new team’s marketing department: “El Hombre.” "No, I'm not comfortable with that, because I believe there's one Man and, believe it or not, it's God," Pujols said in an ESPN “SportsCenter” interview. "God is the Man and there's another Man, Stan 'The Man' Musial in St. Louis. I know six years ago, when people first started making jerseys, I wasn't comfortable with that because of the respect I have for Stan Musial.")

In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the statistics maven compared Musial with Carl Yastrzemski, another All-Star of Polish descent who spent two-thirds of his career in left field and the rest at first base. But the most interesting similarity between the two Hall of Famers is that they began as contact hitters before experiencing power surges at age 27, when they achieved career highs in home runs. Each remained a power hitter throughout the rest of their long careers.

Time—and let’s be frank, players’ increased use of performance-enhancing drugs—has decreased the number of major league records (55) held by Musial upon his retirement in 1967. But the following statistics testify to his extraordinary consistency:

*His 3,630 hits (still fourth overall, behind only Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron) were divided exactly between home and the road;

*He walked more than twice as much as he struck out (696 times vs. 1,599 times)—and most contemporary players would kill to strike out so little while hitting his number of home runs (475);

*Even when not clubbing homers, Musial made outfielders sweat, as he earned more than 900 doubles and triples (a total exceeded only by Tris Speaker);

*His 24 All-Star Game selections are second only to Hank Aaron;

*He was named Most Valuable Player three times and was among the top five in the vote counts another five times.

His inside-out swing and “corkscrew” stance (in which his back actually faced the pitcher) were, to say the least, unusual. But it didn’t matter: As teammate Joe Garagiola once joked, “Musial could hit .300 with a fountain pen.”

Nobody could play like this without a burning rage to compete, but Musial never took it out on opponents or umpires. (Astonishingly, he was never thrown out of a game.)  He was held in such high regard by teammates that second baseman Julian Javier named his son Stan after him.

Yet even rivals benefited from his kindness. Chuck Connors recalled how, during his 1951 season with the Chicago Cubs, he followed up on teammates’ suggestion that he ask Musial for advice on how to break out of a slump.

“I was a bum of a hitter just not cut out for the majors,” Connors—later famous as a TV actor— remembered. “But I will never forget Stan’s kindness. When he was finished watching me cut away at the ball, Stan slapped me on the back and told me to keep swinging.”

In 2011 Barack Obama awarded Musial the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the United States can bestow on a civilian. The great slugger passed away in 2013, mourned by true aficionados of the National Pastime.

(For the best short treatment I have come across on “Stan the Man,” I urge you to read this November 2012 post by blogger Joe Posnanski on Medium.)

Quote of the Day (The ‘Mayflower’ Pilgrims, With an Early Model for American Self-Government)

“Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”—Text of “The Mayflower Compact,” signed by 41 males aboard the Mayflower, Nov. 21, 1620

Next week, as they have taken to doing each year at this time since Abraham Lincoln, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving. The holiday will serve as a kind of wish fulfillment for a country that looks to a past event—aid from Native-Americans that helped the Pilgrims survive hunger in their settlement in Plymouth—as a celebration of how different races, ethnic groups and religious sects can live together in harmony.

But 400 years ago today, an even more auspicious event occurred: the signing of the Mayflower Compact, America’s first experiment in self-government. That document was the product of desperate improvisation in a strange, perilous new country.

The Pilgrims—or, as they were known (more properly) then, “Separatists”—had been ceded land by King James I. Better to have them halfway around the world, he figured, than closer to home (even if, in this case, they had felt it expedient to migrate to Holland to escape his persecution of them), where they could spell trouble with their agitation for removing all traces of Roman Catholicism from the Church of England and the government.

But bad storms blew the Mayflower away from their destination: territory claimed by the Virginia Company near the mouth of the Hudson River. Assessing what passenger and future governor William Bradford called “dangerous shoals and roaring breakers,” the captain decided to disembark at Plymouth Rock, in modern Massachusetts.

The original signed in Europe, then, was null and void, and the group called the “Strangers”—the merchants, craftsmen, skilled workers and indentured servants, and several young orphans on board that were unrelated to the religious sect—were making noise about breaking off on their own.

To increase the new colony’s chances of success, the Pilgrims needed to keep the “Strangers” in the fold. The Mayflower Compact, with its 41 signers—virtually the entire adult male population on board—sought to cool these tensions while giving the majority Pilgrims the most significant voice in the settlement.

A “democracy” as we know it was the last thing on these settlers’ minds. But thousands of miles away from the authority they took for granted, they needed to create their own structure. The practical experience in self-government that took root then—a secular covenant—led eventually to the notion of the “consent of the governed” in the Declaration of Independence.

(For a concise but informative account of the circumstances surrounding the Mayflower Compact, see Melissa Love Koenig’s November 2010 post on the Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog.)

(The image accompanying this post is Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, an 1899 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.)