April 28, 2020

How to Do It

We may not always want to admit it, but our behavior is influenced by what we see in the media. When we see beautiful and seemingly competent people doing even everyday things, we feel that we should be doing things the same way. This is easier said than done. Let me offer three examples.

In the commercials, we see attractive women washing their faces with some promoted brand of soap—or should I say, “beauty bar.” Then the person in the commercial puts her two hands together and deftly collects water that she then splashes elegantly across her face to remove the soap—beauty bar—residue. Somehow, I cannot seem to master this procedure. If I use both hands to collect my rinse water, when I lift my face, the water drips down my shirt because I don’t have a towel handy. The towel rack is too far away to reach with my head down, and, should I put a towel on my shoulder before rinsing off the soap, it will likely fall into the sink. Instead, I keep a towel in one hand and use a single hand to collect rinse water. More than one hand’s worth of water is invariably required. My method works, but it lacks the elegance of what I see on television.

Then there’s the matter of brushing my teeth. At the suggestion of my dentist, I bought an electric toothbrush. I am reasonably convinced that it does a better job of cleaning my teeth than I was able to do with a manual toothbrush. In television commercials, models use their electric toothbrushes smiling and generally looking both beautiful and capable. How hard can using a toothbrush that does most of the work for you be? I haven’t worked on the smiling part—I’m not a perpetual smiler anyway—but I would at least like to look neat. Instead, the brushing procedure seems to produce a foam of toothpaste that I cannot keep completely in my mouth. Instead, it leaks out, making me look like I have rabies. Not a pretty look.

Finally, there is the simple matter of removing a tee-shirt. YouTube hosts a demonstration of what, reputedly, is the fastest way of doing so. It only uses one hand, sort of. I don‘t think that many people use this technique, which looks more like a magic trick than an elegant lifestyle skill learned in charm school. No, what appears to be the standard way one is supposed to remove one’s shirt is to cross your arms, grasp the hem of the shirt with each hand, and pull up, thereby removing the shirt over one’s head. In Equus, Jill performed this maneuver so effortlessly before Alan, revealing that she was wearing nothing underneath. I, however, cannot pull this off. (Pardon the pun.) When I get my arms halfway up, my shirt kind of gets stuck. I can remove the shirt in the end, but I don’t look at all cool. In practice, I pull my shirt at the neck and pull it over my head.

I’m sure there are other everyday tasks I’m not good at, but those described above are the ones that most seem to bug me. Do others share my disabilities?

The Great States

She is hardly the only person to use the locution, but Rachel Maddow repeatedly refers to a state as “The Great State of [wherever].” (I haven’t caught her referring to “The Great Commonwealth of [wherever],” but, then again, I don’t know why Arizona is a state, and Massachusetts is a commonwealth. What is a commonwealth anyway? For what it’s worth, the official seal of Pennsylvania refers to “The State of Pennsylvania,” but the governor’s seal carries a “Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” label. Crazy, but you can look it up!)

Clearly, “The Great State” is intended as a kind of honorific, though it isn’t clear why Ms. Maddow (or anyone else) needs to be so deferential toward a state. Moreover, she seems to be indiscriminate in her usage; she will talk about both “The Great State of California” and “The Great State of Mississippi.” One can perhaps make a case for California’s being a great state, but the corresponding case for Mississippi is, shall we say, weak. Perhaps the objective is to avoid giving Fox News a reason to claim that one state or another—probably one with a Republican governor—was defamed on her show. As for me, if I ever speak about “The Great State of Mississippi,” it is likely that I am being ironic.

I find this “great state” business tiresome. Perhaps at the present moment, however, we have a legitimate way to distinguish great states from not-so-great states. New York, with its Democratic governor who is clearly concerned about the welfare of the state’s people generally and of the well-being of its medical facilities and staffs particularly, would seem to argue, along with other facts, for speaking of “The Great State of New York.” Georgia, with its Republican governor who is eager to resume “normal” economic activity without any cause to believe that coronavirus infections will not massively increase, probably does not deserve to be called “The Great State of Georgia.”

April 27, 2020

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev

Today is the129th anniversary of the birth of Russian composer Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev. Well, maybe it is, anyway. The composer apparently thought he was born on April 11, 1891, O.S. Russia was slow to modernize its calendar, and that date corresponded to April 23, 1891, in the West. His birth certificate, examined after his March 5, 1953, death, indicated that he actually had been born on April 15, O.S., or April 27 on our calendar. Although the date of Prokofiev’s birth is ambiguous, the date of his death certainly is not. The composer had the misfortunate to die on the same day that Joseph Stalin met his demise. Needless to say, the Soviet dictator got more press than did the Soviet musician.

Prokofiev in New York in 1918
Prokofiev in New York in 1918
I was excited when I got my first phonograph capable of playing LPs. The Montgomery Ward player came with a 10-inch recording comprising a collection of various classical compositions. I had seen Fantasia sometime earlier, and I began building my classical collection immediately with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I discovered that the main library in New Orleans lent not only books but also records. For some reason I do not recall, I checked out a recording of Malcolm Frager playing Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto. It was a Grammy-nominated recording, although I didn’t know that at the time and probably didn’t even know what a Gammy was. Anyway, I listened to the concerto over and over, discovering that I liked it and, at some level, believed that I understood it.

The Frager recording later became the first Prokofiev I’ve owned. Since then, I have accumulated recordings of most of the Prokofiev compositions that have been recorded. Early on, my collection required buying Soviet recordings of less familiar pieces, but these have been superseded by more modern LPs and CDs. Apparently, Prokofiev’s music has increased in popularity in recent years. In Pittsburgh, I have even been able to attend performances of Prokofiev orchestral compositions and ballets. My collection also includes books by and about the composer.

Many people know at least a few Prokofiev compositions, though they may not even know the name Sergei Prokofiev. His best-known piece is Peter and the Wolf, which, though charming and often performed, is hardly characteristic of Prokofiev’s oeuvre. Similarly uncharacteristic is his First, or “Classical,” Symphony. The symphony was written without the use of a piano and was intended to be the sort of orchestral composition Haydn might have written were he transported to the twentieth century. Somewhat more typical of Prokofiev’s work is the march from his opera The Love for Three Oranges. This piece became popular not from the opera itself but from its use as the theme song for the fifties radio drama The FBI in Peace and War.

It is difficult to definitively characterize Prokofiev’s music. He is most often cited for his “motoristic” rhythms and his lyricism, seemingly contradictory properties. His harmonies are distinctive—his son suggested that he wrote “normal” music and then “Prokofievized” it—as is his propensity to change keys in surprising ways. I think of Prokofiev as the inheritor and developer of the nineteenth-century romantic tradition uncontaminated by excursions into such oddities as twelve-tone serialism.

One of Prokofiev’s greatest musical contributions is his collection of nine piano sonatas. (A fragment of an unfinished tenth sonata remained at the time of his death.) He was a successful concert pianist for much of his life and had a deep understanding of the instrument and its potential. His Third Piano Concerto and Fifth Sympathy are much admired—certainly the most popular of their respective genres—though I am fonder of the aforementioned Second Concerto and Seventh Sympathy. (The second movement of the Second Piano Concerto is a perfect example of a breathless Prokofiev scherzo, by the way.) Prokofiev’s ballet music, particularly from his later ballets—Romeo and JulietCinderella, and The Story of the Stone Flower—is truly wonderful and often moving. Finally, I should mention that Prokofiev wrote several film scores, the most notable of which was for Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. The film music was later turned into a cantata for mezzo-soprano, chorus, and orchestra. The mezzo-soprano solo, “The Field of the Dead,” a lament for a dead lover, is achingly beautiful.

As I seek to conclude this essay, I am reminded of other Prokofiev pieces that deserve mention, many of them favorites. I did not set out to produce an annotated catalog of the composer’s music, however. To celebrate the birthday, why not listen to some of Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev’s music. If you own no recordings, YouTube can provide you with a good many options.

Happy listening!

April 21, 2020

Is It Time to Return to “Normal”?

The president is eager to “open up” the economy, and governors—not all of them Republican—are beginning to relax regulations designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Plans to return much of society to “normal” are being made recklessly, without first satisfying the prerequisites either of the World Health Organization or even of the looser requirements articulated by President Trump himself.

I suspect that the president is engaged in his usual magical thinking. Sheltering at home was an extreme measure designed to eliminate coronavirus infections. Now that we’ve largely done that, we can resume life in relative safety. Sick people have been taken to hospitals, from which they will emerge either cured or dead. People resuming their normal lives will have little occasion to encounter foreign carriers—international travel is virtually shut down—and will intuitively avoid the conspicuously ill. What could go wrong?

Well, a lot could go wrong.

We need to think about where infections are coming from. Many hospital workers or workers in nursing homes and similar facilities are being infected by their patients or clients. But infection is an occupational hazard affecting a small segment of the population.

Where are other infections coming from? Who knows? People are developing COVID-19 in states with shelter-at-home orders and in places without such orders. Meatpacking plants are significant sources of virus outbreaks now, and plant workers will infect family members and members of the public at large.

In this country, we have been obsessed with testing those who are sick. If people are sick enough, however, they don’t need a coronavirus test to tell them to go to the hospital. (Hospitals, on the other hand, do need to know who is infected in order to discourage the spread of the virus.) If people are only moderately sick, it is to be hoped that they will, as fas as possible, self-isolate. China took the isolation of such people seriously, even from their families. Sadly, we have not done that.

Problematic are infected and infectious people who are asymptomatic. These people may be sheltering in place in states like my own or walking about in states that have eschewed systematic isolation. They are the people who will create the next wave of COVID-19 cases when restrictions on public movement are lifted, or they may even be creating that wave now.

In reality, we don’t know when infected people are infectious and when they are not. We cannot tell if a person is a threat by sight alone. We don’t know if seemingly recovered people can again become infected or infectious. Only by testing can we identify asymptomatic carriers, and we may even need to test those people repeatedly. Ideally, we should test everyone. If we test a large, representative sample, we can estimate our chances of catching the virus, but we cannot assure our safety. Nowhere in the U.S. is such testing being carried out.

If governors adopt an out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude toward coronavirus infections and lift restrictions on their residents, the worst will be yet to come, and we may soon learn that the problem is indeed worse than the cure.

April 15, 2020

Thoughts on Returning to “Normal”

NPR reported today that the World Health Organization has enumerated six prerequisites for ending a coronavirus lockdown. They are the following:
  1. Disease transmission is under control
  2. Health systems are able to “detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact”
  3. Hot spot risks are minimized in vulnerable places, such as nursing homes
  4. Schools, workplaces and other essential places have established preventive measures
  5. The risk of importing new cases “can be managed”
  6. Communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to live under a new normal
World Health Organization LogoDespite President Trump’s eagerness to put the coronavirus pandemic behind him and get the economy moving again, the United States is not making much progress in meeting the WHO requirements for rescinding the virtually national lockdown. Last night, Rachel Maddow noted that we don’t really have to look past the first item on the WHO list to see how little we are prepared to lift restrictions on people and organizations—disease transmission in the country is nowhere nearly under control.

Of course, the president has decided that the WHO must be held accountable for letting coronavirus infections become a pandemic, a reputed failing for which he intends to withhold U.S. funds from the United Nations organization. This is clearly a strategy to avoid his being held accountable for his own shameful delay in responding to the global health threat. Because President Trump has chosen to make the WHO a scapegoat, he is unlikely to pay much attention to its recommendations, particularly in light of his eagerness to restore “normal” economic activity and his assertion that he possesses unlimited powers to impose his will on the states,

Even were we to satisfy the six WHO criteria, new coronavirus infections will continue to occur. To the degree that we satisfy them imperfectly, they could occur in large numbers. Nothing short of a universal vaccination program is likely to remove the threat the virus poses, and such a program is probably two or more years away.

In the meantime, I suggest a seventh requirement for “opening up” the economy: we must assure that all hospitals, nursing homes, and similar facilities have sufficient medical and protective equipment to deal with the inevitable recurrence of COVID-19 outbreaks. It is disgraceful that we have asked medical and custodial personnel to fight what President Trump has called a war without giving those on the front lines the necessary weapons and defensive equipment to prosecute that war successfully without themselves becoming casualties.

When we are finally allowed to leave our houses, we will likely still have to wear masks and practice social distancing for a time. How will we know who is a dangerous person to be around? I have heard it suggested that those who have recovered from the virus and are, presumably, immune and non-infectious, can carry a document attesting to their status. This is silly on two fronts. First, we don’t know much about what happens after one survives COVID-19. More importantly, it is impractical to demand documents of everyone we meet while staying six feet apart. In the movie Contagion, people who have received the vaccine against the pandemic-causing virus are given a hospital-style bracelet to wear. We can do the same to people whom we determine are non-infectious. (A tattoo on the forehead might be more effective, but that seems extreme.) It is unclear whether we can identify such safe people, however, before a vaccine is available.

I fear that the coronavirus is going to remain an important part of our lives for quite some time to come.

April 13, 2020

Thoughts on the President in a Difficult Time

This blog was originally intended for “quick takes,” but my essays here have often been anything but. On Facebook, however, I often post thoughts that are but one or two sentences long yet seem worth preserving, if only for historical interest. The current coronavirus pandemic has inspired many such genuine quick takes. Below, I have reproduced some of these, only lightly edited from their original form.
It’s time to talk about the “Trump Virus,” which is shorter than “coronavirus,” whose success in the United States has been assured by President Trump’s inaction.
— March 29, 2020
Can it be that the president is the only American who doesn’t know that testing for the coronavirus is still a problem?
— March 31, 2020
The thing this administration isn’t good at is administration.
— April 1, 2020
Conservatives worry that universal health care will result in the rationing of care, but the restrictions on coronavirus testing are already rationing care.
— April 2, 2020
 Congress seems more inclined to act than the president. Let Congress fund a 9-month vacation for President Trump at one of his golf clubs and hire a real manager for the coronavirus pandemic.
— April 5, 2020
The Republican Party seeks to cripple the federal government. The administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic proves that the GOP’s been successful.
— April 10, 2020
A strength of the Republic little noted until now is that state governors can compensate for an incompetent president.
— April 13, 2020
The scandals that will be fully exposed after Trump leaves office will dwarf the Eaton Affair, and the Crédit Mobilier, Teapot Dome, Watergate, and Iran-Contra scandals combined.
— April 13, 2020