Beethoven’s Fifth

Every group has its snobs. Each group forgets that it has its prejudices. Gladly, we can learn from our mistakes, and in this particular failing, we can sometimes receive a simple reminder and not a bump on the head.

We were a group of young musicians that year, long ago. We’d been playing or singing with varying degrees of instruction and diligence for little more than a decade. We knew and loved the great pieces of classical music. We thought we knew them, more accurately.

The Chicago Symphony was coming to Austin, and we were most eager to hear them. In Texas, the opportunity to hear fine groups, when we were young, came rarely. Not to slight local groups, or indeed the ones we ourselves played in, but we knew that we were in for a treat. Chicago. Perhaps the best symphony in the world.

We sat down and opened our programs. In a word, we were disappointed. Here we had the best symphony, and the featured piece was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Our eyebrows raised, our foreheads furrowed, our hopes fell. It’s a great one, to be sure. We’d all played it or, for the singers, heard it. We had laughed at PDQ Bach’s version (One of the narrators here is Gifford Nielsen, a member of my church and a famous quarterback who once was asked to speak when I was scheduled. Imagine. He was gracious about it, as was I. 1981, San Angelo, Texas. Another story, as we say.)

It wasn’t that we were thinking it was trite, exactly. Perhaps we were hoping for the emotional roller coaster of Shostakovich, the warm and subtle harmonies of Brahms, the mysterious drama of Mahler, or the wit and energy of Hindemith. Bruckner even, who still confused us a bit. Beethoven, we thought, could be played by anyone, well enough.

And then we heard the first notes. Familiar, yes. Expected, no. The director and the performers knew something about this piece that we did not. Call it talent or experience, depth or height or width. It didn’t matter to us any longer. The Chicago Symphony gave a performance of such clarity and beauty, apparent even to some foolish young musicians, that we could scarcely breathe. (You can watch Sir George Solti and the Chicago here, years later, of course.)

Obvious lesson: Don’t be snobby. Listen (or look or read) with an open mind. Perhaps the inclination fades with age, but that is certainly not a given. A friend told me of an incident in which a couple he was with looked at a room full of people at a fine restaurant and declared that no one was there. Two hundred perfectly nice people but none who were anybodies.

The second lesson is less obvious but more important: The ease of the way has little to do with the importance of the destination. As familiar as the Fifth might be, and as little difficulty as it demands of the player, its message transcends its ease. We must never take for granted that anything—events, decisions, works of art, advice, principles—is not useful or wise or excellent simply because it is accessible or obvious or easy. And that, my friends, is one way beauty can be truth.


The Old Folks’ Gym and Stephen Hawking, RIP

To begin with, the place is a palace. Years ago I went to a venue I thought was The Summit, a warm, high school pool with older women doing water exercise class. Unimpressive. When I told someone who recommended it to me two years ago, she responded that I most surely had not been to The Summit, the new one, and I must get over there the next day. I did, and it stunned me: High end finishes in the locker room and showers, fabulous pool with a vortex area and separate hot tub, a ballroom, pool table room, movie theater, snack center, greenhouse, tai chi classes, water aerobics, yoga, floor exercise classes, a stunning metal tree in the reflecting pool, and on and on. Outside trips about town and to Ireland and Italy. Important note: the minimum age is 50.

Who are we? Diverse apart from age. Lots of members are in their 80’s. Scars abound: replaced knees, hips, hearts, puncture-looking wounds from gall bladder or appendix removals. Most are retired. I speak to women who were teachers or therapists, engineers or accountants. More than you’d think have tattoos; heavily into butterflies are these ladies. All seem intent and attentive, polite, not at all afraid.

When I decided to write about the gym (I don’t actually go to the dances), I wanted to think about aging, but something else happened­­ first. Stephen Hawking died March 14 at age 76, decades after his disease could have taken him. He was an atheist, looking to science as the great explainer. Although he once used the phrase “the mind of God,” he later walked it back. “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,” he told the Guardian. “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” As if your brain is what you are. He has been wrong before: about galaxy formation, about the disappearance of material in black holes, about the impossibility of finding the Higgs boson. His thoughts on the ill-advised search for alien life, the possibility that artificial intelligence will end human life, and the need for humans to leave Earth within 100 years remain unproven.

I turned that age when people are universally considered old (per the government at least), and I had a distinctly spiritual impression that my life here is limited, that there is more to come, and that it will be better. Sort of The Memo, but felt—not seen—and deeply comforting. It feels right to share this news with you, regardless of your age. The growing older part hasn’t been any easier; my last cortisone shot to the knee hasn’t helped a bit. I’m losing the ability to remember faces. What else? I forget. But I’m not afraid.

Plenty of atheists and agnostics come to the gym, along with the Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus. Asking any of them if they’re afraid of death, or of the dark? It just isn’t done. They don’t show it if they are. Perhaps they received The Memo as well. That’s how they act—living life, loving life—as if it mattered. I don’t believe Stephen Hawking blinked out of existence, and perhaps he doesn’t either. RIP would be meaningless if he did, but how much better to have peace before the resting.

Uncontained Water, Sloshed

You’re getting your money’s worth today. This is the third time I’ve written this discussion, at no additional charge to you. The opening paragraph began this way: The night after the Oscars I received the following communication: “Can you bring yourself to see The Shape of Water, or will you have to wait for the sanitized version?” The basis of the first part has to do with my practice of avoiding R-rated movies. The second part has some layers. The phrase “have to” suggests I will see it at some point. The word “sanitized” makes the film seem unsanitized therefore unsanitary which means dirty which means dangerous.

A simple “no.” I’m not going to see it until it’s safe.

Then I meandered around reviews and box office, the Oscars as irrelevant anyway, the hot dog cannon, the times I’ve seen R-rated movies without apology, things I wish I hadn’t seen. Blah blah blah. But it didn’t work, and you wouldn’t have cared. What I’ve arrived at is something more basic. Having done all this research, I find myself coming full circle, with a need to discuss different than a movie I haven’t even seen.

The reason not to see R-rated movies is two-fold: agreement and protection. Orson Scott Card took issue with people denigrating others at church for seeing The Passion of the Christ because of its rating. Doing so is not on any list of “Thou shalt nots”; certainly there are no consequences if I were to see The Shape of Water. One fan of Donny Osmond’s asked if he had “special permission” to watch the R-rated movies he had discussed seeing. To me this is really funny, but perhaps you have to be a Mormon to understand why.

The idea of protection has to do with the delicacy of the human mind. It cannot forget images that are put in it. For example, there is a scene in American History X in which one character curb stomps another. Important to know, however: I never saw that. It just lingers up there in some horror slog waiting for me to wretch.

Violence is movies is one thing, while sex and nudity are another. Obviously, the blood, the gore, the exploding body parts are all fake. Hacksaw Ridge has gruesome, realistic battle scenes that reflect the horror of war; perhaps they are different in some way from the curb scene I never saw because I can’t remember any of them. In intimate scenes, real humans are touching other real humans. As one friend once wondered, how must that make the spouse feel? And I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone say, “I was so embarrassed to be watching that with my mother.” Body doubles are sometimes used, of course. Megan Fox, Jessica Alba, and Scarlett Johansson apparently never take their clothes off for the camera, and I assume there are many others. And to be fair, my research reveals (sorry, had to) that all kinds of cinematic tricks do conceal “the real things.” CGI and pasties, socks and body suits—whatever works.

Still, what I see on screen looks like making love, which I consider the most sacred act possible between a married man and woman. I shouldn’t be seeing it. In The Odyssey, even the bedroom in the home of Odysseus and Penelope holds a bed that he made from a tree with roots deep beneath the home. No one but the old servant woman enters besides the two of them, certainly not a camera. Certainly not me.

Finally, to the core of the matter: art. My definition—given to me in graduate school by Dr. Raymond (or Ramon) Carver—says everything I need. “Art is an activity or productivity wherein an artist, using critical means, shares with percipients what it means to be human.” If he didn’t originate it, I can’t find who did. “Critical means” is the essential term, of course. An elephant isn’t an artist, though this is pretty. Decisions determine art, a matter that would take a book, part of which would discuss why adding sex scenes is not necessary. It is a choice.

In contrast, we have Neil Degrasse Tyson on Twitter, “Bears repeating: Creativity that satisfies & affirms your world view is Entertainment. Creativity that challenges & disrupts your world view is Art.” Besides the fact that this doesn’t make sense, it appeals solely to the emotional reaction. It also commits the artistic heresy of telling me what to think. Three rules of writing—“Show don’t tell. Characters in conflict. If you want to send a message, tweet it.” Graduate course in creative writing, no charge.

The irony with which I close comes from Amazon. Apparently, there is an app called ClearPlay that will filter sex, violence, and language. Free. Not everything is available, of course. (A beloved app, VidAngel, disappeared months ago.) Will I decide to see a “sanitized” version of The Shape of Water in which a mute woman has sex with a fish man/god after saving him from vivisection by a cruel white sadist before dying and being healed, thereby using her own gills to breathe underwater? Frankly, it doesn’t sound all that interesting. Art? Maybe. How it could disrupt my world view remains to be seen.

And it continues…

Truly I don’t want to be pedantic. However, if last week was the appeals (logos, ethos, pathos), this week must be some logical fallacies. I say some because there are many more than three: the most complete list I’ve found has 146. Within that list, many have multiple names. It makes me tired thinking about them, and I find them confusing. Why do it? People use them against me. Sometimes innocently, usually not. Perhaps three will be enough.

Last week one of my grandsons made this statement: “Why are we going to the moon again when we still have so many people in need?” Of course, I was thrilled at his sensitivity and concern for humanity. Then I had to correct his argument. He had committed a fallacy called red herring, innocently. It has a Latin name (Ignoratio Elenchi), but suffice it to say a red herring is a smelly fish someone once dragged across trail to throw hounds off the scent of a fox. The pattern is often “Why are we talking about  ____ when we ought to be talking about ___?” Matt Walsh does something like this in an article about Planned Parenthood and the NRA. His thesis reads like this: Who has the NRA killed? We should be talking about how many babies have been aborted. It’s not that what he says is false or even that I disagree. It just has nothing to do with gun control.

“You’re either with us or against us,” said Cameron Kasky, a Parkland survivor recently. This phrase is among those in the “If-I-had-a-nickel-for-every-time-someone-used-it” category: Sarah Palin about the #NeverTrumpers and Hillary Clinton about the terrorist fight, Gaston in Beauty and the Beast or Anakin Skywalker to Obi-Wan Kenobi in Revenge of the Sith. Too many to count. This is not the either/or dilemma of “Smoking or non?” which, technically, you don’t hear anymore because there is no smoking. Instead, it is the fact that most issues have many sides, or perhaps only one. To insist that there are only two limits the argument artificially, absolutely, when logically that is not possible.

If you’re a parent and haven’t heard an “Everyone’s doing it,” then I don’t believe you. A snarky response has to do with jumping into the Grand Canyon, but I digress. This one has the simple name Bandwagon or the Latin Argumentum ad Populum. I realized recently that young people would have no idea what a bandwagon is. In a parade, sometimes bands didn’t march but were towed about on a large wagon. Politicians would ride through town on the bandwagon and invite people to get on board. Here we see Mr. Spock explain this fallacy to Mr. Sulu. I have to love that someone has taken the time to animate lots of the fallacies a la Star Trek. Everyone is not doing anything except maybe breathing. Polls can be useful tools, but their usefulness is in question. This article, among many others, suggests a bandwagon effect in which the opinions of others—whether legitimately expressed or not—impact the decisions of others. A recently cancelled series called Wisdom of the Crowd relied on groups to figure out and assist with police investigations (#JeremyPiven). This contradicts, of course, K in Men in Black who responds to Will Smith’s suggestion that “people are smart” with “A person is smart. People are dumb…”

Three out of 146. My point is that there is an effort to confuse, confound, obscure, divert, and on and on. Be aware of the dangers. Someone wants to win, at whatever cost. We all need to think deeply about what we are being told. Actual lies are not fallacies. Lots of other statements are. March isn’t so bad. Getting ready for November 2018 will be harder.

(The image refers to the Straw Man Fallacy: Attacking a weak point instead of a main one or misrepresents the real argument. So I guess you learn four. Here’s a Bernie Sanders example.)