Saturday, December 29, 2012

Mentor: Abe Melden

     Among my mentors at UC Irvine was Abe Melden, who, by the time I arrived as an undergraduate in 1973, was nearing retirement. When, a few years later, I was admitted to grad school (again at UCI), Melden had retired, though he taught one or two classes. Still, it was during those years that he had the greatest influence on me—and on Kathie, who arrived at UCI in 1977.
     I should mention that Ron Bauer’s chief advisor in grad school (at UCLA) was Kit Fine, who is mentioned below.
     I have “colorized” the material below that strikes me as most interesting.

• A few brief personal remarks:

     We (Kathie and I) held him in such high esteem—during grad school—that I don't think we were able to see him for the eccentric or "real character" that he was. On the other hand, I think we were able to appreciate him—a very smart man—as no others could, simply because we accepted him as he was, not even noticing his peculiarities.
     He was the only real Wittgensteinian among the faculty. By then (c. 1978) the popularity of the "Later Wittgenstein" was waning or worse. (I'm still essentially a Wittgensteinian.) Nevertheless, Melden taught a seminar on W's Philosophical Investigations, which we took, along with perhaps one other student, who (as I recall) dropped out, owing to Melden's eccentric ways. The eccentric ways in question, I think, were his gruffness and disinclination to hear what the students had to say. Clearly, he proceeded with the idea that he understood this material and we did not. Thus our job was to listen and to learn.
     Perhaps he was influenced by the British system. (He had spent some time over there in the thirties.) Dunno.
Ludwig Wittgenstein
     At least for a while, Melden was very friendly to us—a couple, who attended his seminar religiously. He invited us to his place, located on the bluffs above Back Bay. He had an astounding wall of stereo speakers—evidently, the most advanced stereo system in the state and beyond. I never learned how that came to be, though I recall he told us that someone had "built it for" him.
     He was a serious appreciator of wine and would tell funny stories about colleagues and visitors and their tastes in wine. As I recall, he told of a visit by the famous British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who responded to a tour of Melden's fine collection by asking for a wine she had once tasted that she really rather liked. He tried everything but could not help her identify the wine. He even visited the local wine merchants. Finally, she told him, "well, it had a screw top."
     Melden really loved to tell those stories. He was a ham and he had a large ego. But he was tough. I never saw him as anything less than strong and confident.
     Clearly, he was rather full of himself. He was boastful and proud. He dropped names endlessly and in the worst way. He could be imperious. In that regard, he seemed always to be a dinosaur, forever dragging some forgotten era with him. I'm sure that was a factor in his "retirement" in 1977.
     He tended to make the most hideous faces during "lecture." He also tended to use old and forgotten phrases unapologetically. He stood uncomprehending when we revealed our unfamiliarity with such things. When he made allusions to literature or art or music, he expected us to understand them, which, almost invariably, we did not. As I recall, as an undergraduate, I impressed him when he expressed astonishment that none of the students in the classroom were familiar with Forster's "The Celestial Omnibus"—and I went straight to the library and checked it out; read it. I still recall the experience, for the book was very old, and, evidently, I was the only person in the history of UCI who had ever checked it out. I just assumed that the copy had been provided by Forster himself.
     He was, in his way, a friendly and jovial presence, though his mood could switch to something dark—usually, something condemnatory of some failure of appreciation—pretty quickly. This happened to me once or twice. Once, I implied that G.E. Moore wasn't very serious about ethics, and Melden really tore me a new one.
1988
     He seemed to be some sort of old-fashioned liberal. Of course, to all other young people (beyond Kathie and me), he was assumed to be some sort of Neanderthalic Republican. In fact, I'm pretty sure he was a loyal Democrat. He would occasionally rail against Richard Nixon. As I recall, he once described how "we all knew" what a creep Nixon was back when he used his dirty tricks against Helen Gahagan Douglas, back in 1950 or so. Boy was he old, we thought. In fact, he was only in his late 60s at the time. (See below: response to Reagan's firing of Chancellor Kerr.)
     He owned a pricey Mercedes two-seater, which he seemed to take very good care of. He tended to have "only the best" of everything. Even his suits were expensive, if absurdly dated. He wore a hat of the sort men wore in the thirties. I think he liked bow ties. In some ways, he seemed to proceed through his days oblivious that some things had changed since his youth.
     At the entrance of his home stood a menorah. Nevertheless, I don't recall his ever alluding to his Jewishness or to religion.
     He seemed to have a good relationship with his wife, Regula, who seemed a very nice lady. One wonders, however, if his habit of imperiousness extended to that relationship. She didn't look to me as though she'd put up with that.
     I'm sure he had a daughter. Was there another child, who died? I seem to recall knowing about some tragedy, some sorrow, but I don't recall any details now.
     He loved to be the raconteur at parties; he enjoyed being the center of attention.
     He was the kind of philosopher—a very good one, I think—who quite literally could not understand that there were some who disagreed with him about philosophical matters. During his seminar on his (then new) book Rights and Persons, I recall the day he presented his case against John Rawls' account of rights. (Rawls was all the rage at the time. This clearly annoyed Melden.) He laid it out for us and then declared victory. "Well?" he'd say. He expected everyone simply to acknowledge the very great truth that he had just revealed. That few ever did this did not seem to discourage him from persisting in this expectation. On him, this was rather charming. He was a kind of charming despot, for those open to such charms, such as two grad students who came from very strong families and who were accustomed to respecting their elders.
     As I recall, he would tell stories the upshot of which was that some student revealed his failure to be respectful or humble or hard-working—and then some professor (Melden?) would say, "Go hall garbage!" Somehow, this imperative never seemed cruel or mean. Many things he said or did somehow didn't have the hard edge you'd expect them to have if you had simply heard about them and had not actually experienced them first-hand. There was an inner teddy bear that accompanied his outer grizzly, though few of younger generations, I think, hung around long enough to perceive this. I sometimes think that Melden understood this, and so, like Puff the Magic Dragon, he sadly slipped into his cave in 1977.
     Until the next awards ceremony, anyway.
     I loved him, I guess, though I'm sure I puzzled him. I see him now as a very flawed human being, like the rest of us. But I think about his ideas very often and I have quoted him and referred to him even recently. I'm very glad I knew him and learned from him. Kathie and I were, I'm sure, right not to join others out the door upon witnessing the Great Man's odd and imperious and old-fashioned ways.
     Let that be a lesson to you, kids!

• Kathie's remarks:
Kathie’s comments (Jan 5):

     Well, you brought tears to my eyes, Roy, due to (1) your wonderful writing, which makes me envious but also inspires me to redouble (or just "double") my efforts in the wonderful arena of narrative nonfiction and (2) your dead-on remembrance of Abe Melden.
      As I read it, and before I got to your own declaration of the same, I realized: "I loved him." We did, didn't we?—and that's a sign of our good sense (as he might put it himself) and our attunement to real worth and to characters who deserved to be loved. I will just add a couple of details to your rich tribute: once he told me (or some how communicated it less directly) that he loved his single cup of coffee in the morning. He needed not to drink much, for health reasons, but he really savored that one cup. At the time, and still now, that struck me as the essence of wisdom—and an admirable way to approach many things (the virtue of moderation!).
      When I was at Stanford, I was thinking about Melden and at one point wrote him a little note expressing my deep appreciation for all that he'd taught me; I think I even hinted very indirectly that even if others did not appreciate him, there were some who did, profoundly. He thrilled me by writing me back a note that said, "You were very kind to write to me as you did." I hope that I still have that note. I know I'd never discard such a treasure. Thanks so much for the memories! –Kathie

     Now I have to add more comments: I didn't remember that Karel Lambert was my first advisor, but I'll bet you're right. I remember that he was quite kind to me—a good thing, since I was characteristically petrified by them all and by the whole situation of graduate study. Once, in a Philosophy of Language class, Lambert required us all to write a paper of "no more than 6 pages long." I despaired and reflected on how impossible that was—and then did it. Good for him! He liked it, too, which thrilled me no end. (He used the word "ambitious," which makes me suspect that it was probably a complete failure to show what I intended to show. As I said: "kind.")
      Gerry Santas was another major character, eh? I loved that "what a formidable couple!" exclamation, which occurred during one of our endless volleyball games when we somehow, together, made a really good play. That was a wonderful moment. Remember how we'd play volleyball from around 3 in the afternoon on Fridays to maybe 7 p.m.?!?! And we'd be drinking beer out of coolers the whole time! That's one of my really fond remembrances of graduate school. — KJ

• Abraham I. Melden, Philosophy: Irvine 1910-1991
by Karel Lambert & Gerasimos Santas, 1993

Gerry Santas
     Abraham I. Melden was born in Canada in 1910. His family soon moved to the United States and he was educated at the University of California, Los Angeles (A.B., 1931), Brown University (M.A., 1932), and the University of California, Berkeley, where he received the Doctorate of Philosophy in 1938. After a short stint at Berkeley, he taught at the University of Washington until 1964. In that year he moved to Irvine to found the Department of Philosophy and to help create the new campus of the University of California. He officially retired in 1977, but was on recall for the next five years, and in fact was very much present in the Department of Philosophy, the Humanities Research Institute, and around the University, until his heart attack some two years ago.
      Melden broke onto the philosophical scene with a series of trenchant articles in moral philosophy: “Why be Moral?,” “The Concept of Universal Human Rights,” “The Obligation to Keep a Promise,” and “Two Comments on Utilitarianism.” The article on rights was only the beginning; he continued his examination of human rights in a series of books, Rights and Right Conduct (1959), Human Rights (1970), Rights and Persons (1977), and Rights in Moral Lives (1988). He also extended his critique of utilitarianism in a series of articles. And in 1961 he created a sensation in a related area, the philosophy of mind, with the publication of Free Action. Clearly written and forcefully argued, this little book maintained that the view of human action, dominant since Aristotle, as caused by desires and beliefs is mistaken, and any theory of determinism based on such a view is without foundation. It became required reading here and abroad, and was one of the most cited philosophy books in the 60s and 70s.
     During those years especially, Melden was constantly invited to expound and defend his views at colloquia, public lectures, and conferences, in the United States, Canada, England, Continental Europe, and Japan. Melden's readable books and articles, written as they are in clear and graceful—even racy—English without technicalities, engage any intelligent person seriously interested in human morality and conduct. Melden, considered “one of the three or four most creative contributors to contemporary ethical theory”, and “one of the leading statesmen of our profession”, was honored with Ford, Guggenheim, Fulbright and Rockefeller Fellowships. He was elected President of the American Philosophical Association in 1962, and he served the association generously in many capacities since then.
"Joe" Lambert
     At Irvine “Melden was an institution”. As the first chair of the Irvine Division of the Academic Senate, he directed the development of its bylaws and the organization of the faculty. His work “was always characterized by common sense and fairness”. He also served as chair of the “Budget Committee”, and on numerous search and ad hoc committees, the latest being the committee which planned the future law school. In a few short years he built a first-rate philosophy department, hiring not only well known senior people but also several younger investigators, such as Dan Dennett, Gordon Brittain, and John Lemmon, all of whom became famous in their own specialties. He was probably as influential in building the department and the campus as any other single individual. He always stood for “scholarly integrity” in the midst of all the political situations accompanying the founding of a new university.
     In 1972 he was given the UCI Alumni Association's Extraordinarius Award, and in 1988 the UCI Medal, the campus' highest honor.
     One is not defined merely by career stages and professional accomplishments; one's unique set of personal traits and actions also deserve mention. Abe Melden was a mixture of elements, often endearing, and sometimes amazing. His oenological [wine] expertise was legendary among his colleagues and sought out by the general community. So was his nearly infallible judicious investment sense, which he generously provided on request. Not that he didn't miss occasionally. Once when offered the chance to purchase what would turn out to be some of the most expensive real estate in the country, Abe informed the salesman, “It is a sand spit and a sand spit it will remain!”, and passed on the opportunity to acquire a large piece of Balboa peninsula in Newport Beach, California. 
     He was a person of considerable judgment and great intuitive gifts, though the twists and turns of his mind sometimes seemed like a black box to his colleagues. But his opinion about how to achieve some common goal was usually correct, and, of course, both amazed and usually delighted his colleagues. 
     Though he would probably have resisted the description that he was a kind person, in fact he was, and often, without solicitation but with great sensitivity, acted on behalf of the families of his departmental colleagues in trying and difficult crises; he was the epitome of a loyal friend. He laughed easily and boomingly, and loved a good joke, especially of a political kind. Though no mere raconteur, he was himself a practiced spinner of yarns and stories, and was a wonderful host at the numerous parties he and his wife Regula held at their home in Newport Beach, a place where the wine and food were invariably exceptional, the discussion always lively and filled with humor, and the source now and then of a pleasant piano performance by Regula and sometimes by various wandering colleagues—Kit Fine performing a fragment of a Mozart piano concerto comes to mind. He was rightfully proud of probably the finest home sound system on the west coast. 
     Unquestionably a very complicated man, Abe possessed the remarkable ability to carry out numerous and diverse professional, administrative, and personal tasks at one and the same time, enjoying every nuance of every task. Driving a four-horse chariot in ancient Rome would have been a waste of his talents. Because he was a person of great personal resources, and was always busy, not just in motion, he was rarely if ever bored. He was curious about everything—people, places, things and ideas—and, in the words of one of his own injunctions, did “everything first class”. He was himself, as they say, a class act. 
 —Karel Lambert & Gerasimos Santas [1993]
     [As I recall, Lambert was Kathie's first advisor at UCI. I had taken Lambert's two-quarter advanced logic course perhaps a year earlier. Gerry Santas came to be a friend in the latter years of our time at UCI. At one point he alluded to us, saying, "what a formidable couple!"]

• Philosopher A.I. Melden of UCI Dies (LA Times)
November 20, 1991
      IRVINE — Philosopher Abraham I. Melden, a founding UC Irvine faculty member and the first chair of the university's department of philosophy, has died of congestive heart failure, university officials announced Tuesday. He was 81.
     Melden was considered one of the nation's foremost scholars in the area of ethics and the philosophy of human action. A Phi Beta Kappa who took his doctorate degree from UC Berkeley in 1938, he was the author of five books and numerous reviews and articles. "It's kind of a passing of an era of people who helped in the building of this campus," UCI Chancellor Jack W. Peltason said of Melden's passing. "Professor Melden was a very distinguished philosopher, and he was active until the very end."
     Melden joined the UCI faculty in 1964, after 18 years at the University of Washington at Seattle. During his tenure at UCI, he also taught at universities in Japan, Taiwan and Korea as a visiting Fulbright distinguished lecturer. In 1972, he was named the Outstanding Educator of America. The same year, the UCI's alumni association gave him the Extraordinarius Award as the person best exemplifying the campus spirit and mission.
     In 1988, 11 years after his retirement—apparently in name only—UCI awarded him its highest honor, the UCI Medal. At that time, after cardiac surgery, the longtime Newport Beach resident continued to teach, write and work with UCI's Humanities Research Institute.
     Melden is survived by his wife, Regula, and their daughter, Jean, who lives in Menlo Park. No funeral services were planned, but a memorial service will be scheduled at a later date, UCI officials said. In lieu of flowers, Melden's family suggests that contributions be made payable to the UCI Foundation and sent in care of the Abraham I. Melden Memorial Fund to the department of philosophy, UC Irvine, Irvine, Calif. 92717.

• History of the [UCI Philosophy] Department 
     When UCI opened its doors in the fall of 1965, the first philosophy course was taught by one Daniel C. Dennett, lecturing on Descartes. Abraham I. Melden was the founding Chair of the Department, and one of a handful of founding faculty of the “instant university”, expanding the University of California system. Today we have the Melden Chair in Moral Philosophy, honoring Abe.

SEE ALSO 
The case of Hubert Phillips, p. 151. The UC's Edward W. Strong is interviewed and mentions this case which occurred during the McCarthy Era. Melden contacted Strong in an effort to save Phillips' job at the U of Washington (he was a Marxist).
• The Senate reacts to the Dismissal of President Kerr -- Reagan summarily fires Kerr; UCI Ac Senate responds. Melden in charge.

P.S.: today (June 20, 2013), I came across this photo of UCI's "groundbreaking ceremony" in June of 1964. That's Chancellor Aldrich in the middle, President Johnson to his immediate left.  Then, over to the right, we have Governor Edmund G. Brown:


     Now check out the guy in the dark, appearing behind the Governor:


It's Melden!

Friday, December 28, 2012

NEW CONTRIBUTOR! Northern field correspondent, Sarah Bauer

By Sarah Bauer (age 10)
Sawah

     Today something very weird happened.
     My grandmother (on mom's side) went to the hospital at 5:00 this morning. The phone rang at our place then, and I was worried, because nobody calls that early. She must have felt really sick. 
     Right now, I am at Oma and Opa's place, in Trabuco Canyon, waiting for my mom to arrive to pick us up. Mom has been at the hospital, taking care of Grandma.
     Mom had to pick up grandma's chocolate lab retriever, Simon. Here's a picture I took of him on Wednesday:



     Oma showed me an old dress of her's. It's really pretty. She said she only wore it once, and it doesn't fit her anymore, but, she added, "it will probably fit you!" So she got it out and I tried it on. Uncle Roy says that I look pretty good, but now I've got the shoulders of somebody named "Joan Crawford." 
     Here is a pic that we just took:



     I was going to show a video, but Uncle Roy couldn't quite get that to work (downloading from my iPod). We'll figure it out eventually. -SB

Thursday, December 27, 2012

This magic moment


And then it happened
It took me by surprise
I knew that you felt it too
By the look in your eyes*
     I call ‘em “magic moments” (MMs). That’s a trite phrase, I suppose, but when I talk about them, which is almost never, that’s the phrase I use.
     I just looked up the word “magic.” The adjective can refer to “a quality that makes something seem removed from everyday life, esp. in a way that gives delight.”** Well, that’s pretty much what I have in mind.
     I’ve always had MMs—though maybe not as often as I do nowadays. I love ‘em, of course, though I tend to keep them to myself. (For the purposes of this essay, I’ll leave aside the MMs of romance. They seem to require special treatment.)

My sister and me, Vancouver, B.C., c. 1959
     FLEETING MEMORIES OF CHILDHOOD. Some of my MMs seem to be randomly-occurring, tenuous memories of moments from childhood. When they occur, it is as if I have been transported back to, say, 1962, sitting in my mother’s car (the passenger seat, next to mom) as she drives my sister to summer school. The school building is in the country, away from the city, and it is old, large, and intriguing (and I never go inside). Something lovely plays on the radio in that old car—a 1950 Buick? I am transfixed, there, in 1962. I want this moment to last.
     Was the experience, fifty years ago, “magical”? Or is it magical only now, when experienced anew, by this elderly fellow? I suspect that the original moment was some kind of magical, though that magic is now largely lost. And the memory, now, I suspect, owes at least some if its “magic” to a yearning for that moment and world in 1962—something lost or nearly so.

     NOT A SCENE, BUT A WORLD. Some magic moments concern ignorance and imagination, things in great supply among children. As I recall, as a child, I would encounter a scene—something described in a book or story or portrayed on a movie or TV screen—and my mind would somehow fill in the vast undescribed and undetermined of the scene’s “world” with a kind of vague, largely unspecified wonderfulness. The result: a Wonderful World. And a place beyond reach, probably.
     When I was very young, scenes of the Old West could be like that—not always, but sometimes, when the right image or sound or even smell entered my consciousness.
     It’s 1959 and I’m living with my family on a quiet street in Vancouver, BC (see photo above). No doubt, it’s raining. My folks have bought a plastic model of a Conestoga wagon. It sits there in the corner of the living room, on an end table near a couch. I stare at it and imagine a vaguely wonderful world, where the sun always shines and all things are exotic and interesting. That world is somehow gone, and that is sad and beautiful.
     People who chronically experience such thrall are sometimes called “romantics.” Romantics, of course, are people with “romantic” ideas:

romantic, adj.:
  • inclined toward or suggestive of the feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love
  • of, characterized by, or suggestive of an idealized view of reality**
     I knew nothing about the excitement of love in 1959 (I was four years old). But, otherwise, “excitement” and “mystery” are on the money. Idealized? Well, yes. That Wonderful World was surely better than the one I was in. 

     ONE SUCH WORLD, IN A BOOK. I recall that, as a young school child, I was introduced, at some point, to a richly illustrated reader about a small group of boys and girls, living in the country, a fecund place with trails and forests and hills. Looking at those pages, my imagination was wildly actuated, and I was transported to the world (it seemed) of that book. I now remember virtually nothing about that reader, and the world, but I do remember being utterly transfixed by its illustrations. I know I wanted to be in that world, though I understood, too, that it was a fantasy.
     Once in a while, I’ll see an illustration—typically, in an old children’s book—that reminds me of the old images and world of that book. My senses, or quasi-senses, are piqued; it is as though I hear the faint plucking on the strings of some distant, harp. I cannot quite hear the sound, but I feel the plucking. I try to find it, to focus upon it, the sound, in my mind. But the best I can do is maintain that faint plucking of unheard sounds. It dies away. It's gone.

     A WORLD THOUGHT, NOT SENSED. When I was young, the “worlds” of such moments could be “big”—such as the “Old West.” More often, however, they were relatively circumscribed: the smallish world of the imagined adventures of Daniel Boone (the wilderness of Kentucky) or, say, the valley of the farm of Lucas McCain (of the “Rifleman” TV series). The magic world could be a small thing.
     How odd it is to feel a world that one cannot quite sense, even with sense memories. One has more an idea of it. —The idea of a sensory world, sans any image or sound or feeling, like a photograph that is blank yet that demands that one listen intently to it, or a sound that one cannot help but stare at with eyes wide open. Strange, complex phantom-experiences. Dream-like, I suppose. And yet, the imagined world is somehow just a world, that is, in time and space to be lived in as one does every day.

     THAT "NEIGHBORHOOD" FEELING. I want to say that I stopped thinking about such worlds a long time ago.
     On the other hand, I love old artifacts and buildings. Always have. I even bought one once—a small, two-story house built in 1903, in a neighborhood in Old Towne Orange. Living in that house, I would often experience a kind of thrill—a magic moment—of a special world, somehow in the past, but also in the present. I later grew conscious of a more definite recurring "moment" that would punctuate my days: a special neighborhood feeling—a special sense of the quiet little community of people there, quietly living beyond those walls, somehow tied to these old homes with their old bricks, and narrow slats, and plumbing, and outmoded designs. To live there, it seemed, was to participate in an older way of life, something largely lost. My neighborhood feeling was slightly Tom Sawyerish and a more than a little Henry Aldrichish. 
     I moved out of that house fifteen years ago, but I recently had occasion to walk past it. It was night; I walked down Orange street, past my house, down the block; I then turned the corner, and then another corner.
     A cat followed. I called to it—and then I had the moment, a faint thing. It was that old “neighborhood” feeling, carried, it seemed, by Mr. Cat, with his fine neighborhood ways, who somehow stopped following. I looked for him. I tried to hang on to the magic, but it grew more faint. No cat.



       THE UNDYING DEEP MAGIC OF "THE WEIGHT." Songs can bring magic. I recall seeing the film “Easy Rider” as a teenager. At one point, the biker duo—"Captain America" and Billy—ride across vast landscapes accompanied by “The Weight,” the song by Bob Dylan’s backing band (eventually named simply The Band). I’m not sure, but I do believe that that song was magical to me from that moment on.
     Once again, in the song, we're in rural America, if not the Wild West, in a town called “Nazareth.”*** The singer enters the town—perhaps by car (he "pulls in")—with a mission (we eventually learn), but he runs into difficulty:
I pulled into Nazareth, I was feelin' about half past dead
I just need to find a place where I can lay my head
"Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?"
He just grinned and shook my hand, "No", was all he said

CHORUS: 
Take a load off Annie
Take a load for free
Take a load off Annie
And you put the load right on me
 
I picked up my bag and I went lookin' for a place to hide
When I saw Carmen and the Devil walkin' side by side
And I said, "Hey, Carmen, come on, let’s go downtown"
And she said, "Well, I gotta go, but my friend can stick around" 
(Chorus) 
Go down, Miss Moses, there's nothin' you can say
'Cause just ol' Luke and Luke's waitin' on the Judgment Day
"Well, Luke, my friend, what about young Anna Lee?"
He said, "Do me a favor, son, woncha stay an' keep Anna Lee company?" 
(Chorus) 
Crazy Chester followed me and he caught me in the fog
He said, "I will fix your rack[?], if you'll take Jack, my dog"
I said, "Wait a minute, Chester, you know I'm a peaceful man"
He said, "That's okay, boy, won't you feed him when you can?" 
(Chorus) 
Catch a Cannonball, now, to take me down the line
My bag is sinkin' low and I do believe it's time
To get back to Miss Annie, you know she's the only one
Who sent me here with her regards for everyone 
(Chorus)****
     I’m not sure how much of the scene painted by these lyrics was clear to me when the song first did its magic more than forty years ago (in those days, I never bothered to work out lyrics, preferring to respond to the aural/lyrical gestalt). I think I understood only vaguely what was going on. But the setting—an older and rural America with people named “Anna Lee” and “Crazy Chester” and “Luke”—was clear enough. So was the mission revealed at the end.
     Through the years, listening to, and loving, this song, I’m not sure I ever wanted really to be in Nazareth. I suppose I placed the town in some vaguely rural/small-town America, which is in many ways attractive to me, but I always understood the bleakness of the song's scene and the sense of frustration of the singer.
     Still, I’m sure I’ve always felt the usual MM longing when this song’s magic would hit me. Carried into this song’s special world, I want something. But what? (Or I've got something, and I seek to keep it, knowing it will slip away.) The place—Nazareth—is intriguing, and yet there’s trouble here. The singer is less-than-well-to-do, it seems, and he’s not having much luck in this odd town. A young woman—Annie—has sent her friend, the singer, with her regards (only that?) to friends in Nazareth. Why did she send the singer and not go herself? The singer knows at least one person in town—Carmen, who saddles him with "the devil"—but he seems like a stranger anyway, alone and unsettled and perhaps puzzled. And why the suggestion of violence in his encounter with Chester?
     Why does this man's difficulty doing a friend a favor have such resonance? His endeavor is vaguely attractive, traveling to this town in the night, there to leave his regards for a friend. His reactions to his odd encounters with Carmen and Chester and Luke are our reactions, of course: we understand his frustration, if not the particulars of his mission. We are told almost nothing about the town of "Nazareth." The song's names and allusions suggest the Bible Belt: rural, small town America, like the areas The Band often played in before and during their association with Dylan.
     At the song's end, the singer, perhaps dejected, tells us it's time to leave, and he catches a train back—to Annie, who remains a mystery.
     What's it all mean? Not sure. But the bare story, with its hints at tasks and promises and frustrations and fidelity, is powerfully compelling nevertheless. Like so much magic, it seems to depend on the vast undefined space that, somehow, is readily filled with our vague and unlocated stuff of wonderfulness. This magic is like a song, faintly heard, that is beautiful for as long as we can't quite grasp its melody and harmonies though we sense their lovely presence, somehow, in our mind's imaginings.

     * "This Magic Moment," by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, 1960. See here and here and here.
     ** All definitions from my Mac's dictionary
     *** Nazareth (Pennsylvania) is, among other things, the home of Martin Guitars. The only American member of the Band is its singer, Levon Helm, who hailed from Arkansas.
     **** By Robbie Robertson of the Band, 1968. See here.

The Band: four Canadians and an older guy, from Arkansas

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Scenes from a Christmas (2012)

Niece Catherine, age 5
Reggie, the SuperPup, age 5 months
The twins: Catherine and Natalie (age 5)
Nephew Adam (8), his cousin Liliana (9), and Reggie
The twins, their dad, grandpa
Young Reggie
Niece Sarah
Mom and the grandkids: Adam (8), Sarah (10), the twins (5) 
Sister Annie with Catherine


RECENT SHOTS OF YOUNG BUGSY:


The young man is doing extremely well. He's an important member of the family

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Bugsy's "freak oblique"


     No new pics of young Bugsy, Manny and Edith's Miracle Kitten, but I do have a report, of sorts.
     I showed up at my folks' place on Friday just in time to volunteer to take my mom and her “baby” to the vet—he needed to be checked out to see how he’s healed after his gender-attenuating surgery of a week ago. (I don't like my dad driving. He's 80 years old. He'd normally be the one to drive—not just mom—cuz taking the cat to the vet is, for my parents, a massively complex event, evidently requiring both a driver and a towel-wielding cat-handler.)
     Naturally, when I arrived, my mom and pop and sister had managed to whip themselves into the usual neurotic/déjà-vu-ular anxiousness. The upshot: Mom had swaddled the poor Bugster deep within some enormous fluffy towel—an entombment that, alone, was surely enough to launch the heartiest of creatures into a Life of Neurosis.
     I gestalted the situation and immediately announced that we “go now.” Off we went, mom with her charge huddled in the backseat of my Chrysler. At the PetSmart/Banfield, whilst awaiting the predictable verdict on the Bugster, I bought one of those circular plastic tube-things that encase a white ball. My mom had no idea what it was; she looked skeptical.
     “It’s good,” I said. “Don’t worry, he’ll love this thing.”

Star Chaser Turbo Scratcher Cat Toy


     Soon, the young man was brought out to us. “He checks out just fine,” said the vet. Everybody doted on him. "Cute!" they cooed.
     We got back on the road, with my mom reassuring her “Osterhase” (Easter bunny) that, now, at long last, all is well, “you poor thing.”
     “Mom, you know,” I suggested, “if you want a normal cat, you should try to act like everything is normal.”
     “Vat?”
     “Maybe just let him loose. Or just stop holding him so tightly in that towel. –You know, act like things are fine, cuz they are, you know.”
     “I don’t vant him to get avay!” said mom.

     Eventually, back at the house, things got more or less back to normal. So I got out that plastic turbo-thingy and laid it on the floor near Bugsy’s favorite chair—i.e., mom’s TV chair—in the living room. Soon, the boy, guided by his tiny pink nose, zeroed in on it. At first, he seemed interested only in the round patch of rough cardboard in the center of the wheel. He sat on that and then started rolling around on it. He liked it.
     Eventually, his tiny white tail bumped the ball—and it moved.
     He stared at it. After a few seconds, he carefully batted it with his paw. It started rolling around in its tube. Bugsy was mesmerized.



     Cats are unlike humans. Their hard-wiring is such that small objects of mouse- or bird-size are deeply attractive to them—especially if they are viewed from around other objects—trees, chair-legs, chunks of plastic, etc. Go figure.
     I call it the "freak oblique." A cat will grab some little thing and then arrange the world such that the object in question is around a corner or behind some solid object, and almost beyond reach. Then he'll just go nuts grabbing at it, playing with it, then maybe disemboweling it.
     Rinse. Repeat.
     The makers of this plastic ball turbo thingy understand cats.
     After a while, Bugsy lay his head on the carpet, then reached around the plastic tube-wall to touch the barely-visible ball, then, upon making contact with it, jumped away and down the hallway and straight up the window blinds.
     Freak oblique! Freak oblique!
     Naturally, the Bugster came right back. He wanted more. I decided to join him in his play. We sat silently next to the tube and hovered over it. I sought to emulate Bugsy's attitude and concentration. He’d bat at the ball. Then I’d bat it back at him. (My actions were minimal. Minimalism is essential.)
     This went on for a while. He liked our play, though he remained wary. (I'm not mom.) Soon, we were two kittens, buddies in Feline Funland, and it was all very tight and close. I felt special.
     Eventually, I demonstrated my ability to flick the ball with such force that it spun quickly around in its tube--so quickly that it nearly became a blur. But Bugsy was up to the challenge of tracking it. His head followed the damned ball: left-right-left-right-left-right. Naturally, his furious head-shaking slowed as the ball’s orbit slowed. It was really something to see.
     I burst out laughing. That caused him to run away. He didn’t come back. Oh my.
     I caught up with him a few minutes later. He was being cradled by mom. “My tiny Heiny,” she purred. His eyes were shut.
     “Looks like a Chinaman,” said dad.
     “Yeah, I guess.” I said.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Ma & Pa's kitten, Bugsy

Sweet kid

Here's the Bugster, playing with one of his favorite toys, a motorized mouse. Somebody turns it on, launches it, and it moves idiotically about the floor. Then he "kills" it, eventually leaving it on its side. Then he waits for someone to right it. This typically goes on for quite some time.

Bugsy underwent neutering surgery yesterday, but it hasn't slowed him down a bit. This morning, he was again full of piss and vinegar. Here he is tearing into some Christmassy doo-dad near his grass farm.

He's supposed to wear that Elizabethan collar, but mom is reluctant to put it on her little boy. Actually, he's pretty good about wearing it. He's pretty good about everything. He hasn't been licking or biting the site of his surgery. He's a very polite little man.

This is Bugsy's all-time favorite toy, his bunny-rabbit, a finger puppet. Mom call it Bugsy's "baby." Sometimes, he "kills" it, but then he treats it like a teddy bear. Cats are complicated.

He's a very sweet, well-behaved kitten. Doesn't have a mean bone in his body. My dad says that Bugsy is very "reasonable." He is, I guess, for a cat.

Hide-and-seek with the Bugster. He can play all day.

Bugsy in his new home. Everything's good in Bugsy's life.

THE BUGSY SAGA (on Dissent the Blog):
A couple weeks ago


Took TigerAnn for a walk. She smiled

December 9, 2012


Adam, Catherine, Natalie, Sarah
Photo by Susan's friend Robin. In the morning, by the gate. It was a nice day.

     Sarah, 12/28/12, offers an UPDATE: Catherine (pink boots) is the one who thought her Furby was mad at her. Natalie (purple boots) is basically a mini me.
     Here is a picture of me (Sarah) when I was little:

SAWAH
Compare this with a detail of the above photo, showing Natalie's face:

Natalie
Same face! Two more:

Sarah
Natalie
Sarah, May, 2008