Category Archives: people

The Lady Who Bulldozed Robert Moses … and more!

Robert Moses is one of those figures who are bound to stir up controversy. In the mid-20th century, Moses re-shaped Manhattan and the other boroughs with grand projects. Those grand projects were based on the idea of “city as machine”. Moses wanted to use modern technology to make the machine work better. That meant bulldozing neighborhoods for freeways. Stuff like that. People just had to adjust to the new realities. That was progress, as far as Moses saw it. And he saw himself as a visionary.

These days, this style of urban renewal has gone out of fashion. Instead of Moses as hero, we get his nemesis, Jane Jacobs as hero. And we will soon see this in a film to be released called “”Citizen Jane: Battle for the City“.

The new way of thinking is that people make the city. And treating the city like a big machine damages the human side of city life. We take James Baldwin’s comment, “Urban renewal means negro removal”. a tad more seriously.

I find it a bit odd that we embrace this as doctrine at the same time that we are awash in corporate money in our politics and elect a dude like Donald Trump to be president.  Could it be, as Elizabeth Warren argues, that we need to wake up to the way our political system has become “rigged” so that it cannot and will not deliver for the people?

Clearly, corporate power is at a high point. We want the efficiencies that cost reduction through market exploitation offers and that big corporations deliver. By and large, we are satisfied when we buy a car or shop at a supermarket. As Steve Jobs said in a different context, “it just works”.

At the same time, we may be just beginning to sense that Ayn Rand was full of baloney. Her vision of the rational and selfish heroics — a vision that captivated Alan Greenspan and led him to champion deregulating the financial system — is starting to look out of date. Contrary to Rand’s ideal, humans are not strictly rational. Research confirms that by and large, we are emotional creatures who use reason from time to time. Or as Dan Kahneman put it, we like to think fast (and act on pre-existing beliefs) rather than think slow (and question whether we know what the hell we are doing). Rand’s rational hero is not a slow thinker.

So where will this take us? Good question. It is too early to tell how the 21st century will move on from 20th-century silliness, just as the 20th century moved on from 19th-century silliness and the 19th century moved on from 18th-century silliness and the 18th century moved on from 17th-century silliness. But move on, we will.

Stay tuned.

Partying with Charlotte Bronté

We start off this brief story with a word about William Makepeace Thackeray, who was born in 1811.

In his early adulthood, Thackeray was a bit of a ne’er do well who squandered his family fortune. After he married (in 1836), he began to write satirical works for magazines (most famously Punch) because he needed the money to support his growing family. This lifestyle suited him. and he grew famous by satirizing society figures, especially in his serialized novel, Vanity Fair (begun in 1846).  A victorian Truman Capote? Well, not quite. But you get the idea. BTW; he coined the modern use of the word “snob”. and he loathed Irish Catholics. And BTW, Thackeray was tall for his day (standing around 6 foot 3 inches).

Enter Charlotte Bronté. Ms Bronté was an outlier. As a child, she did not thrive in the real world. Indeed, if she and her siblings thrived at all, it was through their sharing stories of fantasy worlds that they created. None of them would enjoy a long life.

As an adult, Charlotte Bronté did the unthinkable. She published poetry and novels (albeit under the curious pseudonym Currer Bell). Worse still, the novels revealed an amazing amount of female passion.  Women had passions?  Who knew? Jane Eyre, Bronté’s most famous work, was her second effort and was published in1847.  BTW, Charlotte Bronté was tiny (under five foot tall).

Both Thackeray and Bronté became well-known literary figures. And they were acquainted. But what an odd pair! Thackeray’s daughter, Anne Isabelle (who would later become a literary figure in her own right), describes a visit to Thackeray by Brontê this way.

… two gentlemen come in, leading a tiny, delicate, serious, little lady, with fair straight hair and steady eyes. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barège dress with a pattern of faint green moss. She enters in mittens, in silence, in seriousness; our hearts are beating with wild excitement. This then is the authoress, the unknown power whose books have set all London talking, reading, speculating; some people even say our father wrote the books – the wonderful books. … The moment is so breathless that dinner comes as a relief to the solemnity of the occasion, and we all smile as my father stoops to offer his arm; for, genius though she may be, Miss Brontë can barely reach his elbow. My own personal impressions are that she is somewhat grave and stern, specially to forward little girls who wish to chatter. … Everyone waited for the brilliant conversation which never began at all. Miss Brontë retired to the sofa in the study, and murmured a low word now and then to our kind governess … the conversation grew dimmer and more dim, the ladies sat round still expectant, my father was too much perturbed by the gloom and the silence to be able to cope with it at all … after Miss Brontë had left, I was surprised to see my father opening the front door with his hat on. He put his fingers to his lips, walked out into the darkness, and shut the door quietly behind him … long afterwards … Mrs Procter asked me if I knew what had happened. … It was one of the dullest evenings [Mrs Procter] had ever spent in her life … the ladies who had all come expecting so much delightful conversation, and the gloom and the constraint, and how finally, overwhelmed by the situation, my father had quietly left the room, left the house, and gone off to his club

Which of the two was more eccentric? I would not hazard a guess. And yet, Bronté was the more controversial, especially (as you can see from the above) because of her lack of social graces.  In victorian times women were expected to please. Men were given more leeway.  Borish as men might be, they could return to their clubs to act out their inner silliness.

And here the story takes another turn. Another victorian lady, Elizabeth Gaskell also knew Charlotte Bronté. Like Bronté, Gaskell was a writer.  Gaskell, however, played the victorian game of being female like a pro. She knew how far she could go and she went just that far and no farther.  From the Guardian

Above all, Gaskell understood the value of domesticity, or at least the appearance of it, to the female writer: for all that it was suffocating and demeaning, it was also a shield.

In other words, unlike Bronté, Gaskell was full of “enjoyments”. Despite their differences, Gaskell was enamored of Bronté. Not in a sexual way, but in a conversational way. The two

… walked together for hours, and “like the moors”, Mrs Gaskell felt, “our talk might be extended in any direction without getting to the end of any subject”.

How different than Brontê’s ill-fated visit to Thackeray!

It is not a huge surprise that upon her untimely death at the age of  38, Bronté would be slighted in the press. Gaskell would have none of it and immediately wrote a highly flattering biography. Unfortunately, there were a few problems. From the above Guardian article

Here are some reasons to hate Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë: it is moralistic and stultifying; it flattens Brontë’s brilliantly transgressive nature and confines her to a saccharine version of Victorian female victimhood. It is inaccurate, overemotional and, at times, libellous towards those she accused of attacking her good friend. You might also criticise Gaskell’s motivations: driven by opportunistic ambition to feed, vulture-like, on the carcass of Brontë’s reputation, rather than a true desire to investigate or memorialise.

Strong words! In this light, it is easy to dismiss Gaskell as lightweight. Not to be taken seriously. And yet, thee is something to praise here. Gaskell and Bronté dared to live as themselves – women writers – at a time when women were expected to assume and play out a  much more restricted and highly artificial role. .One can understand why Gaskell would use all of her wiles, even if she would distort the facts, to defend her dear friend, with whom she shared such deep affections.  Even in our more enlightened times, women sticking up for one another against a male dominated society remains controversial in some circles. The courage to speak out deserves at least some respect.

And if you think about it, of course, Bronté would have been leery of Thackeray.  He was interested in society more than the individual. Perhaps that is why we think him as being hopelessly old-fashioned.

How Robert Pirsig found Zen on his Motorcycle

Things went bananas back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Counter-culture had gone from fringe to mainstream. Everyone was rebelling against something and everyone was trying to find themselves in the process. It was kooky.

For some, me included, this significantly raised the level of angst. How could you feel otherwise when things were not “ok”, and you didn’t know if they would get any better?  I became a big fan of Kafka and thought that the novel “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s News” (written back in 1962 by Ken Kesey) was prophetic. The folks in power seemed like nurse Ratched and we all wanted to be the MacMurphys of our lives. Of course, we were not, in fact, all that heroic, and so Woody Allen’s comedy (about hilariously failing to live up to standards) hit the mark.

In that environment, a book like Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (published in 1974) was a tonic for the soul.  Pirsig actually was a bit nuts – diagnosed as schizophrenic – which was a good starting point when being a bit nuts was cool. Not completely bonkers, but just a bit wild-eyed. And Pirsig needed to find peace.  To get there. he fused two cool symbols: zen and motorcycles and pitched a tale of healing — as well as closing the generation gap with his son. Naturally, it became a best seller.

The Guardian writes

Pirsig said its protagonist “set out to resolve the conflict between classic values that create machinery, such as a motorcycle, and romantic values, such as experiencing the beauty of a country road”.

People talked like that a lot back then and it was serious stuff. Pirsig was trying to tell us something about being overly committed to “romantic” storylines at the expense of rationality. It was an idea that Nietzsche had talked about as well. One could get pleasure out of riding motorcycles AND fixing them.   Balance dude!

Of course, few got into the serious side of Pirsig’s thought. Zen and transcendental meditation became pop culture artifacts. So everyone got the joke in the film Annie Hall, when at a Hollywood party Jeff Goldblum complains to his therapist (?) over the phone that “I forgot my mantra.” Here is that classic scene.

.

..After the great success of his first book, Pirsig then spent 17 years writing a sequel to Zen. It was called Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, and it came out in 1991.  It traces a sailing journey along the east coast of the US. Sadly, the word “morals” did not resonate in the 1990’s the way the words “zen” and “motorcycles” did in the 1970’s   Self-improvement –  as in Jane Fonda workouts – yes, but morals, not really. Lila went unread and even unnoticed by most.

That does not diminish what Pirsig gave to us back in 1974 with Zenn. The thing I remember most about reading it was that it was ok to calm down a bit. Not that I actually did calm down just then. But it was an option to keep in mind. One might at least try to figure out what was going on around oneself rather than just rebel. Later on, I bought into that point of view.

Robert Pirsig just passed on at the age of 88. Thanks man!

The Carefree Days of Somerville and Ross

Somerville and Ross were a pair of Anglo-Irish ladies. Edith Somerville was born in 1858 on the island of Corfu.  She then grew up in County Cork. In 1886, she met her cousin Violet Martin.  For reasons that are not altogether clear. the two decided that they were a superb collaborating team of writers and inseparable companions. They began to write together, assuming the nom de plume, Somerville and Ross. By the time of Violet’s death in 1916, they had written 14 books together.

Edith was stunned by the loss of Violet. She refused to accept that Violet was gone, connected with her regularly via seances and continued to write as if Violet were co-.authoring.  Hmmm … perhaps in a sense, she was.

They were birds of a feather. Though they had political differences (Edith was an Irish nationalist and Violet a unionist) they saw the world through the same filter. That filter was the nurturing and pleasurable country life, especially that of the upper middle class of the Anglo-Irish, to which they both belonged. And that enjoyment spills into their story telling. It is not serious and it is not meant to be serious. I would compare it to Jerome K. Jerome, who was writing around the same time. Though Jerome was more flippant.

Back in the 1980’s snippets of their stories were cobbled together into a TV series called “The Irish RM”. It is brilliant, due in large part to the acting of Peter Bowles (who played the English major with the job of RM — resident magistrate — trying to figure out obscure and clever Irish ways).  I highly recommend watching the whole series. Here is one episode.

But this does not give you a glimpse of the writing style of Somerville and Ross. To get that, check out how they open this story entitled “When I first Met Dr Hickey”

There was a wonderful chandelier in the hotel dining room. Fine bronze it was made of, with mermaids, and tritons, and dolphins flourishing their tails up towards the dingy ceiling-paper, and peaked galleys, on whose prows sat six small lamps, with white china receptacles for paraffin and smokey brown chimneys. Gone were the brave days when each prow had borne a galaxy of tall wax candles; the chandelier might consider itself lucky in that it had even the paraffin lamps to justify its existence, and that it still hung from a ceiling, instead of sharing the last resting place of its twin brother, in the bed of the tidal river under the hotel windows.

Wow! What a whopper! Overdone? Of course, but in a way that still draws you in, as it reveals that attitudes of the authors and the context in which they observe the world. And I love this story from The Irish RM.

In one scene, the (RM)’s English wife, Philippa (Doran Godwin) is dancing with Flurry’s groom, Slipper (Niall Toibin), at a servants’ ball. Slipper ventures to say that ‘The English and the Irish understand each other like the fox and the hound,’ to which the lady replies in good humour, ‘But which is which?’ The answer is, ‘Ah well, if we knew that, we’d know everything!’

Yes, this is comedy. Something we desperately need nowdays!

Introducing Emmanuel Macron

The news from BI

Centrist Emmanuel Macron, running on the “En Marche!” platform, and far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen are set to face each other in a May 7 runoff for the French presidency after coming first and second in Sunday’s first round of voting, according to multiple projections.

The result makes Macron most likely to become the next president of France.

So who is Macron? Here is a quick into

I am sure that we will be hearing a lot more about Mr. Macron in the ocming days.

Kirk Douglas; You Got to Keep Moving

Kirk Douglas was born in 1916 as Issur Danielovich, the son of impoverished immigrants from Russia (now Belarus). Neither of his parents could read or write. Douglas himself wrote this about his childhood

My father, who had been a horse trader in Russia, got himself a horse and a small wagon, and became a ragman, buying old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for pennies, nickels, and dimes …. Even on Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder. And I was the ragman’s son

Not to put too fine a point on it, Douglas worked his ass off to get out of that situation  Once he spent the night in jail because he had no place to sleep. But he made his way. Lauren Bacall helped him get his first film role. And he went on to act in over 80 movies.

I found his 1994 interview with Charlie Rose to be fascinating. Not because Douglas bowled me over. To the contrary, it was because he didn’t want to bowl anyone over. He wants to give back to people who helped him. Check it out. Enjoy!

Henry Blodget is the New Lou Rukeyser?

In 1970, Lewis Rukeyser started a TV show called “Wall Street Week with Lewis Rukeyser” that summed up the weekly financial news.  It stayed on the air for 32 years. Not bad for a show about finance.

Image result for Louis Rukeyser

The show was in fact, more than just a financial news summary. Lou had a way of making the financial news — especially making money from investing — sound like fun. He promoted the idea of investing in stocks for the long haul. And he and his panel made bold buy recommendations with explanations. Sure there was professionalism. As important, Lou brought a cocky attitude that he was in it for the fun of making money and talking about making money.

It got a lot of attention and, I think, encouraged lots of folks to invest and talk about investing rather than just leaving it to the experts. It also fit right in during the 1980’s with the huge cultural shift in the US towards a “greed is good” attitude. But Lou was not just a stock pitch man. He was ready to make fun of investing fads and he preached doing research before buying.

Image result for Louis Rukeyser

Lou passed on in 2006.

As far as I can tell, no one has been able to effectively fill Lou’s shoes. Jim Cramer tries, but he does not have the same compelling personality and connections. There are other as well. But again, I don’t see the same level that Rukeyser regularly hit.

And now there is Henry Blodget. Henry founded Business Insider and he is now doing a short weekly financial news summary through Business Insider. The show is not as developed as Rukeyser’s was. Nor does Henry offer the panel that Lou did. But Henry does pretty good interviews. And he takes the longer view the way that Lou did.

check it out! I think Henry is onto something and hope that he will keep it up!