Twin Peeks

The mock gymnastic meet we attended last night afforded a periodic glimpse of our twin granddaughters, Ayelet and Leora in action at USA Gymnastics.  What a beautiful job by both girls, and a joy to behold the fluidity of their choreographed floor routines!

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Diversifying the Spiritual Portfolio

Keep your eyes lifted and your head turning“.  A simple yet key phrase in the advice given by the brilliant sociobiologist, Edward O. Wilson to young scientists, but good advice to us all.  “Ideas emerge when a part of the real or imagined world is studied for its own sake.

Browsing one evening at B & N, the 1,706 page tome From So Simple A Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin, edited with introductions by Edward O. Wilson, caught my eyes.

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Yes, reading Darwin has been on my bucket list for some time now.  His writings are something that virtually all of us have been exposed to in some form or another, but comparatively few have read in the original.  And this long holiday weekend I’m giving thanks in part for still being here and am pursing my reading bucket list in earnest.  Suffice it to say that in my youth what little I knew about Darwin placed him at odds with the ideas of God and Creationism.  That is one reason, among others, why it is so important in weighty matters to go back to the original texts rather than the representations made of those sources.

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Permit me to take you to Darwin’s Recapitulation and Conclusion (Chapter XIV) of On The Origin Of Species:

“Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created.  To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual … There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms on into one; and that whilst this plant has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

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It seems that Darwin, in very plain English, acknowledges the role of “the Creator” as a specific spiritual force who put laws and principles into place to guide the universe,  but who (or that) does not necessarily micromanage its operation.  This in turn affords Darwin the opportunity to diversify his spiritual portfolio within the fund of naturalist knowledge that enabled him to hedge his bets.

Darwin was considerably humble and qualified in his writings.  In Chater IV of The Descent Of Man he writes:

“Thus a very large yet undefined extension may safely be given to the direct and indirect results of natural selection; but I now admit, after reading the essay by Nageli on plants, and the remarks by various authors with respect to animals, more especially those recently made by Professor Broca, that in the earlier editions of my ‘Origin of Species’ I probably attributed too much to the action of natural selection or survival of the fittest.  I have altered the fifth edition of the Origin so as to confine my remarks to adaptive changes in structure.  I had not formerly sufficiently considered the existence of many structures which appear to be, as far as we can judge, neither beneficial nor injurious; and this I believe to be one of the greatest oversights as yet detected in my work.”

In his introductory notes to On the Origin of Species, Wilson observes that Darwin took the very original step of conceiving evolution as a phenomena of populations.  He observes: “It is the ensemble of individuals, exchanging hereditary material each generation by recombination, that evolves as a whole in the crucible of environmental pressure.”

It is within that crucible of environmental pressure, I would contend, that we diversify our spiritual portfolios.

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The Long Silence of Danny Saunders

Can’t place the title of the book?  It makes for a great trivia question.  What famous book with the title “The Long Silence of Danny Saunders” on its original manuscript, sold well over 3 million copies?  A further clue: the original manuscript had the first name of the author as “Herman”.

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That’s right!  The 50th Anniversary Edition of the book that fooled professional book critics (who panned it) to the same degree that Trump fooled professional pollsters has just been released, and in it you’ll learn the story of how the book got its title, and see that the initial manuscript identified the author’s first name as Herman Potok rather than Chaim.  (“Le-Herman” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.)

Among the supplementary material included in this edition is a short piece by Robert Gottlieb, editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster on The Birth Of The Chosen.  As Gottlieb tells it, he was stymied about an appropriate title for the book when, on the way to the men’s room, he ran into Arthur Sheekman in the hallway.  Sheekman was a screenwriter and, seeing a look of worry on Gottlieb’s face, asked him what the problem was.  “So I told him I was going nuts trying to find a title for a book about boys in wartime Brooklyn, Hasidism, and baseball. ‘Call it The Chosen’, he said casually, and walked on.  Literary history was made because I had to take a leak.”

Playwright (ever wonder why it isn’t spelled “playwrite”?) Aaron Posner, who adapted Potok’s work for the stage, contributes this observation: “I had read The Chosen in junior high school.  I remembered there was a baseball game, and that was out it.  In reading it as a searching adult, I was struck by so many things – the stark and powerful prose of the storytelling; the raw force of the core conflicts; the endless complex humanity of all the characters; and, finally, the universality of the story.”

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Look, I love baseball more than the next guy, but the construct of the baseball game [graphic by Joon Mo Kang, NY Times] as a creative force that frames The Chosen is a bit far-fetched.  In the Foreword to the 25th Anniversary Edition, Potok writes that this metaphor as a way of uniting different themes from his youth came to him on a gray November morning, when the memory of watching ‘Hasidic’ youngsters in a Brooklyn park playing the game called running bases popped into his head.  But they were playing amongst themselves, and without the trappings of gloves and bats.  Back in the days when Potok wrote the book (1963-1965), while pursuing a Ph.D. in Jerusalem, it’s unlikely there would be an organized softball game pitting teenage Satmar Boys vs. the Y.U. High School Maccabees.  Even these days in the Catskills’ Orthodox Bungalow Baseball League, Chasidim of Danny Saunders’ ilk aren’t like likely to field a team to compete with Reuven Malter’s brand of modern Orthodoxy.  The closest one might come to an organized event at a baseball venue in New York co-mingling Chasidim and non-Chasidim would be Torah At Citi Field.

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But I’m quibbling here.  In re-reading The Chosen, I’ll extend Potok full literary license for how well he represents the cultural divide through a softball metaphor that levels the playing field.  I hadn’t appreciated how much Potok’s fiction was semi-autobiographical, mirroring his lifelong quest to understand his role as a Jew in the fabric of a secular world. After his undergraduate days at my alma mater, Yeshiva University, Potok would become ordained through the Conservative bastion known as the Jewish Theological Seminary.  His singularly transformative experience however, came through his service as a Chaplain in the U.S. Army in Korea.  It was there that Potok navigated through a sea of people to whom Jews were invisible or non-existent, and for whom the entire Abrahamic culture was irrelevant.  Yet he greatly admired their spirituality and values, and through his writing chose to analyze the effects of his own insularity.

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Thanksgiving

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The first Thanksgiving in the New World was celebrated in 1621, nearly a year after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In 1789, George Washington became the first of many US presidents to formally proclaim a day of ‘public thanksgiving and prayer’:

“I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.”

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The Miller Can Still Tell His Tale

We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
But the crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
As the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
The waiter brought a tray
And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale
She said, ‘There is no reason
And the truth is plain to see.’
But I wandered through my playing cards
And would not let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast
And although my eyes were open
They might have just as well’ve been closed
And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale
And so it was that later …

That King Curtis did his saxxy cover version at The Fillmore West:

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Splendor in the Grass

Stephen Jay Gould, world-renowned paleontologist, died at the age of sixty on May 20, 2002, the day I turned fifty.  I never met the man, and have no idea what we might have had in common other than what can be inferred through his writings.  One thing that is abundantly clear was Gould’s love for baseball from a fan’s perspective – a passion that I share as you may have gathered through some of these blogs.

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I thought that I had read every one of Gould’s books, and in several of them there are hints if not declarations of his addiction to baseball spectatorship and analysis.  But it was only recently that I came across a posthumously published collection of his essays on baseball, Triumph and Tragedy In Mudville: A Lifelong Passion For Baseball.  How fitting it was to discover this book during our annual sojourn to the Arizona Fall League last month, and the copy that I ordered was waiting for me back at the office when I returned to Fair Lawn last week.  Naturally it’s been my morning read at Starbucks for the past few days, wanting to savor it rather than giving it the Evelyn Wood speed-reading finger.

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First the Foreword by David Halberstam, a brilliant author in his own right who was tragically killed in a car accident several years after the book was published.  Halberstam writes that late in life Gould taught a class at Harvard with fellow professor Alan Dershowitz, a close friend who often attended Red Sox games with him.  Dershowitz once pulled out a cell phone to take a call, and incurred the wrath of Gould, who was not at games to socialize but to take it all in.  He appreciated the human elements of the game, as do I, in concert with one of Ted Williams’ basic truths of both baseball and life: “God gets you to the plate, but from then on, you’re on your own”.  What you put into it, how hard you work, how much passion you bring to it, and how you study to improve yourself are crucial aspects of how one succeeds in any enterprise – and baseball was no exception.

Among my favorite vignettes in the book is the one on Babe Pinelli, the umpire who rung up pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell on strikes for the 27th out of Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

Mitchell groused that the pitch was outside by a foot, but to Gould the actual location of the pitch wasn’t the key.  He writes: “A man may not take a close pitch with so much on the line.  Context matters.  Truth is a circumstance, not a spot.

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Remember the transistor radio that would tuck into your shirt pocket, and the earphone that you could run up your sleeve to sneak in an important sporting even like that during class?  When one of Gould’s classmates whispered to him that Larsen had just pitched a perfect game 5, Gould cheered loudly and threw his jacket high in the air.  He surmised that the 10 points that his teacher deducted from his final grade in that class probably cost him his admission to Harvard as an undergraduate (he attended Antioch College instead) —- but, he claims, he never experienced a moment of regret.

In another vignette, Gould relates how he switched to rooting for the Red Sox after relocating to Boston just enough to feel the town’s pair over being a perennial bride left at the post-season’s altar.  Not as much pain as the Cubs who had never won it all (no longer applicable!) or the Phillies whose two World Series flags hardly offset all those years of painfully lousy teams.  Perhaps as a lifelong Yankees fan you might think that Gould would pull for the New York Team in the 1986 World Series, when the Mets faced the Red Sox. Gould nips that notion in the bud:  “Maybe you thought I would switch caps for the Series and start chanting ‘Let’s Go, Mets’.  Not on your life.  I’m a loyal New Yorker, to be sure, but the Mets are nothing to me… They didn’t exist when I was a kid, and loyalties are shaped by those early years of splendor in the grass and the glory in the flower.”

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Sacks Redux

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And while we’re on the subject of Oliver Sacks … my desk still houses an artsy book from 2009 titled “The City Out My Window: 63 Views On New York“, featuring Oliver’s vignette on the view of New York through his apartment window:

“The interlocking symmetries of the buildings across the way, the old brownstones with their stoops, the ginkgo trees which line the street – all this I find solid and calming.  But looking down at this busy corner of Thirteenth Street and Greenwich Avenue, I also see and hear the constant movement and life of New York City – people hurrying, carrying bags, idly chatting or smoking, walking their dogs, parking their cars.  Impossibly large trucks making the tight corner, noisy fire engines screaming by, the A train rumbling beneath the pavement.  My typewriter desk sits in front of the window, so this is the view that faces me whenever I sit down to write.  I think I need the ever-moving flow of the city life as a counterpoint to my own thinking and writing.”

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