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Friday, October 9, 2015

Opera Season opens, Part 1: Time to see what all the hollerin’s about

 Opera star, Anna Netrebko, in “Anna Bolena.”
                                         Opera star, Anna Netrebko, in “Anna Bolena.”

Call this a diary, if you will, of one man’s attempts to find what’s been missing from his life where opera is concerned. Until recently, I’ve been walking around the cultural fairgrounds of life with little interest in what goes on inside that particular big tent.
Because opera is satirized or parodied so often in popular entertainment, I assumed that it was just a big, silly, overblown mess that was patronized by rich dowagers and gents in top hats. You know, those cartoonish captains of industry who have to be shushed when they start snoring during the second act. Opera was just something that fancy people attended to show they were fancier than the rest of us.
Oh, I’m not a complete ignoramus. I love classical music and prefer it to all other kinds. I went to the Metropolitan Opera once when I was in college because I loved the story of “La bohème” – starving young artists in a garret, doomed love, beautiful love songs. And I owned some Pavarotti albums. And just loved the movie “Bizet’s Carmen” (with Placido Domingo) enough to have watched it about 20 times in the past 10 years.
And no one gets through life without humming snatches of Wagner every now and then, even if he doesn’t know they’re from Wagner. But I really never did anything to deepen my knowledge of opera.
For one thing, live opera tickets are fairly expensive. Listening to the radio is free and pleasurable, but doesn’t give one the satisfaction of watching the singers perform or seeing the spectacular costumes and staging. As for televised operatic performances: the operatic universe simply cannot be crammed into a nutshell. Then, a few years ago, my excuses were taken away when the mountain came to me.
In 2006, Metropolitan Opera Live in HD began broadcasting selected live performances to local theaters. Sent by special satellite hookups, these simulcasts of their star-studded shows brought to the big screen the same (usually Saturday matinée) programs that out-of-town radio fans had been faithfully listening to for years.
Suddenly, folks from Maine to Oregon, Florida to California, and many places in between, could “go to the opera” on a Saturday afternoon. Some of them love opera enough to drive 50 or 100 miles to get to a theater. Others, city dwellers such as myself, need expend no more effort than a brief drive to a local movie theater. The closest theater to our Chestnut Hill community is the AMC Plymouth Meeting Mall Cinema 12, a mere 20 minutes away.
Tickets are pricey, compared to a regular movie, but plenty cheap compared to the expense of going to the Met in New York. They were around $16 a few years ago, but have risen; I paid $21 for the show I saw this past weekend – Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” (The Troubadour).
Each year since the beginning, the Met has expanded its offerings. In the past several years they have averaged ten simulcasts, offered in more than 2,000 theaters in about 70 countries. Ticket sales have soared to more than $60 million on an average ticket cost of about $23. (Discounts are given for multiple event purchases.) For those who miss the Saturday afternoon transmissions, “encore” performances are offered, usually on the following Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.
Before going on, I must pause to be personal: In living my life, I have never been accused of rushing headlong toward maturity. I grew older but clung tenaciously to whatever might be called the opposite of wisdom. Now having passed what I imagine was the mid-point of my life, I have discovered pleasures I never knew existed. Simply by opening my mind and noticing that I didn’t know it all.
It’s as though every year I discover a beautiful garden on the other side of a wall I’d never peeked through, or walked around, or climbed over. In my eagerness to rush through my youth I missed the chance to enjoy a great deal. In short, I’ve been wrong more often than I’ve been right about what was worth spending time doing.
The upside of this newly bloomed awareness is that I’ve discovered so much new in the world. Not new to the world, just new to me. But that’s just as good. Each day takes on a special glow because of that.
Having these live simulcasts come to my neighborhood movie theater has made it easy for me to overcome my prejudices and start becoming an opera fan. I started going to these shows during the 2008-2009 season. I go to most of them each year. Usually alone. These experiences have provided the most intensely emotional artistic experiences I’ve felt in the past half-dozen years.
Opera, when it works, presents life at its aesthetic extremes. Not all the productions work for me, but the ones that do really work me over. When the curtain comes down and the characters on stage turn into smiling fellow humans, bowing before a wildly applauding audience, I feel exhilarated, overflowing with ideas for creative projects, insights into human nature, and love for all mankind. It’s a little late in the day, I guess, to take up a passionate new interest like this. But better than than never, eh?
More, with details, to follow as I offer some notes about this season.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Whatever your nature, you need nurture: David Epstein’s The Sports Gene

Argument settler, or argument provoker?
Malcolm Gladwell, in a recent blog, referred to The Sports Gene as the best sports science book around, so I thought I should check it out. The author, David Epstein, presents a survey of the entire field here in a clear and interesting fashion. Occasionally quite technical, it nevertheless should be an easy, handy read (and argument settler) for anyone who wants to know more about modern athletic physiology.

The title is just a bit misleading since there is no single “sports” gene – for any event. Epstein reports that single genes have effects so tiny as to be undetectable in small studies: “Modern scientists have begun to abandon small single-gene studies in favor of looking at how the interplay of biological endowments and rigorous training affects athleticism.”

He writes, “The broad truth is that nature and nurture are so interlaced in any realm of athletic performance that the answer always is: It’s both.” But how? he asks. And to what degree? Does one outweigh the other in some cases? Epstein looks for answers in unexpected places.

For example, he tells us that in the early 1940s a Dutch chess master and psychologist named Adriaan de Groot sought to know the core of chess mastery. He devised a test for a panel of chess players who represented four skill levels: A world champion, a master, a city champion and an average club player. He flashed before them, for three seconds, a chessboard with chess pieces set up in realistic game scenarios. Then he took the board away, gave them blank boards and pieces, and asked them to recreate what they’d seen.

The grandmaster could recreate the board exactly. The master performed not perfectly, but very well. Neither of the other two could recreate the board accurately. An interesting finding, but did these findings indicate a superior visual memory, or some other, acquired skill?

Three decades later, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University repeated the de Groot experiment – with a twist. They showed four levels of players a chessboard whose pieces had been set up in random situations that could never occur in an actual game. After a five-seconds look, the players were asked to recreate what they’d seen. This time the masters were no better than the others.

Apparently, randomized boards defying the rules of chess are unreadable. Players who know the rules governing the movement of pieces notice only meaningful situations on a set-up board. Masters are quicker recognizers of rule-governed patterns.

Sports scientists have noticed that successful baseball batters can watch the initial movements of a pitcher’s shoulder, torso and arm and predict what kind of pitch is coming. Similarly, a football running back can run through “holes” in the line of scrimmage just as they form. And basketball players on a three-on-two break can “see the future” forming.

In other words, there is a mental element in sports. Not a “thinking element,” but a rapid perception of where one is in space, taking into account one’s speed, and angle of approach relative to the other players. Elite athletes, according to Epstein, (paraphrasing the research of Bruce Abernethy, a Queensland sports scientist)“need less time and less visual information” to know what to do next.

Is this simply “instinct,” a genetic gift? Yes and no. All other things being equal, practice makes a big difference. Malcolm Gladwell, in his recent book “Outliers,” popularized the notion of “10,000 hours” as the amount of time one needs to master an endeavor. This “rule” applies to violin playing, basketball, chess, track and field events, golf – you name it. It implies that, even without superior genes, practicing can make one a champ.

All things being equal, that is true – but only sometimes. In a large population, all things are seldom equal when you consider how many hope to be a world champion and how few succeed. Some people are born gifted with the ability to perform at a high level with comparatively little practice.

Epstein cites a four-year study of L.A. Dodgers baseball players whose visual acuity averaged 20/13. Such superior vision is found in about 18 percent of the average population. Studies from the Netherlands revealed that the youths who eventually signed professional soccer contracts had been 0.2 seconds faster than their teammates even back when they were tested at ages 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16.

In fact, it sometimes happens that a person who puts in 10,000 hours of practice loses a competition to someone who has practiced, say, only 5,000 hours (or less), but has more innate talent. Epstein’s mantra is that every case involves “both hardware and software.”

A fascinating phenomenon he reports on is that athletic body types have changed over the years. Fifty years ago a single idealized athletic physique seemed appropriate to most events. Today’s athletic bodies conform to their specialization’s needs. Michael Phelps, for example, the swimming champion, is six four, with disproportionally small legs, extra-long forearms and hands, and small hips. Ideal for cutting through water at high speeds.

Female gymnasts are usually small in stature, have little body fat, and very small hips. Track sprinters have more “fast twitch” fibers in their muscles, allowing them to win events that call for speed and explosive power. The bulk of the muscles in their calves and thighs is located high on the bone, almost a physics text design for a fast leg.

Fast-twitch muscle fibers aren’t very efficient at longer distances, however, because they don’t correlate with long-term oxygen debt over time. Distance running favors smaller, less overtly muscular bodies with more slow-twitch muscles fibers that use oxygen more efficiently.

Some of these requisite body sizes are found more often in certain “populations” than others. (Anthropologists and sports physiologists dismiss the word “race” as scientifically useless.) These findings are the subject of several chapters of the book and their results are discussed in an informed and interesting manner.

The most important thing to learn from this highly readable synthesis of the available information is that body, mind and will govern all athletic ability. But, sadly, for most American sports buffs, however, all other things being equal, talent will win nearly every time. Not an American thing to say. Too elitist. Undemocratic. This book dispels that and many other illusions.

Hugh Gilmore is the author of the Kindle Top-100 memoir: “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” Available in paperback too, through Amazon.com.

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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ruben Amaro, Jr.s long walk from the bull(shit) pen

There's no corporate-speak crying in baseball

Recently fired Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. grew up in the Rhawnhurst section of Philly and should have been perceived as one of us, but he never was. He’d even been a batboy for the Phillies when he was a kid, but fans never saw him as a local guy. He wasn’t. Something was always a bit off about him.
That something was his language. It was fuzzy, so it seemed deceptive. Maybe he spoke a different way at home, or when playing cards with his buddies, but whenever he said something official his words sounded like double talk. His vocabulary bulged with the big, flat, dead words of a public relations expert.
His tone ignored the humble roots of the only sport whose heroes sit and spit tobacco juice and pumpkin seeds on the dugout carpet while waiting their turn to bat. The players’ locker room is the last stronghold for adult millionaires who still think its funny to spray shaving cream at one another.
Ruben Amaro Jr. went to William Penn Charter and Stanford. In college he did not major in business, as one might suspect of someone who tried to turn the muscular English language into creamed corn. He majored in human biology. Afterward he played professional baseball for a handful of years, some of them with the Phillies. When he finished playing, he went to work for the Phillies organization, worked hard and became general manager, the person responsible, among other things, for hiring and firing ballplayers who might help the team win a championship. What we got from Amaro instead was bad teams and dead speeches.
Let’s cue the tape here and offer samples of Ruben Amaro Jr. sound bites: “Aaron had a very consistent year … and he has found his niche with us as a valuable piece of the bullpen mix.” Translation: He pitched well enough, so we signed him as a relief pitcher.
Amaro in a May, 2015 interview on CSN Philly.com: “These guys having success is good for us on all fronts, whether they stick with us and continue to be part of what we’re trying to do moving forward or whether we utilize those assets to improve our club. Them doing well can only help our club.” Attempted translation: “It’ll be easier to trade some of these guys if they get some hits.”
From an August interview with Mike Sielski on Philly.com: “We took a pretty analytical approach as far as what we saw with these guys and where the trends might be. Naturally, as players get older, their ability to function at the same level can dip.” Translation: We finally figured out that our older players are past their prime.
In firing beloved manager Charlie Manuel, Amaro said they were “making a managerial change.” Charlie, famous for his plain speech, said: “Let’s make this clear: I never quit nothin’. And I didn’t resign.”
Charlie Manuel’s speech habits delighted fans because he spoke plainly and always seemed to be speaking honestly. Though he talked to management every day, his speech was never corrupted by phrases like “put a product on the field,” (get good baseball players) or having “pieces that can move us in the right direction” (players who win).
Such abstract language puts a 10-foot wall of cotton batting between the ball club and the fans. It hinders mutual understanding. Heck, it keeps the club executives from knowing their own thoughts. People lose sight of their objectives when they resort to speaking in abstractions. Noisy, loyal, passionate, traditional followers of the team get referred to by them as “the gate,” or the “fanbase.”
The smell of popcorn and hot dogs is noticed only as ancillary income from comestibles. The feel, look, and atmosphere of the stadium gets spoken of as its “ambience.” The heart of baseball is ignored when every aspect of it is described in language taken from a quarterly report to the stockholders.
In that respect, for all his obvious brains, Ruben Amaro Jr. never learned to speak bilingually. He had the language of the boardroom down cold. But he couldn’t speak to the fans. His mind seemed trapped in a place where he could never stop analyzing how his product should be described in the “entertainment business” marketing kit. He was like a drama critic who never really sees what is happening in a play because he’s so busy writing the review in his mind. The problem with such public-relations-speak is that its creators might wind up believing the crap they say. And lose the ability to see what’s happening before their eyes.
People like that think that cleverness with language can help them fool the masses. They think that flattening bad news can make it acceptable. Euphemisms don’t fool anyone, however. Nor does double speak. They simply make the speaker seem to be foolish, or worse, a bullshitter.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

A rumba on the beach with Fellini's "la Saraghina"

              Since last May most of my Chestnut Hill Local newspaper columns have been about people who were not what they seemed to be. For example, I’ve written about Margaret Wise Brown, the children’s book author (Goodnight Moon) who turned out to be quite neurotic, depressed and misguided. And John Howard Griffin, a white journalist (Black like Me) who passed as a Negro to travel the American south recording the racial oppression he observed. Most recently, I told how the world-famous “Crying Indian” (from the 1970s anti-pollution ads) was really the movie actor Iron Eyes Cody – who was in real life a Sicilian American from Louisiana.
            I hesitate to include today’s illusion, “la Saraghina,” in this series. The woman who played this character in Federico Fellini’s classic movie “8 1/2” never pretended to be anything other than what she was – an actress. Nonetheless, her performance in her one big scene in that movie was so perfect she remains lodged in my mind as the grotesque dancing temptress known as la Saraghina.
            Young cinema buffs can never know how we all awaited and anticipated each new Fellini film back in the 1960s. Fellini and Italy were inextricably linked. His movies were thoroughly original, and terrifically entertaining. He wrote and directed most of his films. What will he do next? was on our collective movie-going minds whenever he released a new movie. They were not classics then; they were modern.
Fellini’s films were heavily autobiographical. “8 1/2” appeared after he had written seven and a half previous films. It is a movie about a middle-aged filmmaker’s struggle to wrestle his script (and his life) into shape. Nearly half the scenes portray current fantasies or flashbacks to his past. In the scene from “8 1/2” I want to relate to you, the main character, Guido, the movie maker, is bored as he listens to a priest lecturing to him in a garden. Distracted, he watches a middle-aged peasant woman with bare feet as she hikes her skirt to her knee while descending a slope. The sight triggers a reminiscence. He is a boy again, about twelve, on the cusp of sexuality. His friends urge him to come with them to the beach and see la Seraghina. He joins them as they run away from the village, to the beach, where they cry out her name, “Saraghina! Saraghina!” Out of the darkness of a beach shed, a figure emerges. The sound track begins with some churchly organ chords that soon morph into what is now known as the famous “Saraghina rumba.” We see her. She is large and mysterious. Her black hair is full and disarrayed, framing her wild, round face. Her astonishing, upward-slanting eyebrows punctuate her knowing eyes and lascivious mouth. She takes a proffered coin from Guido, puts it in her large bosom, pulls her blouse to expose her shoulders, pauses, and begins to dance for the boys. They stand there, howling and hooting, as her hips and bosom roll sensuously for their delight. She picks up Guido and holds him close as she raises him high...
            Too bad we’ll never know what might have happened next. Two priests came running up to the scene. The boys fled. Guido was caught and dragged home. Cut back to present time in the garden, the adult Guido nodding perfunctorily as the priest talks and his boyhood memory fades.
            What a great scene! Indelible. The essence of Italian cinema to me back then when all was new. Funny, thoughtful, offbeat, sensuous, satiric. And la Saraghina: An icon of Italian sexuality to those young, uninitiated boys. All the swells and curves of the female shape widely exaggerated. Made up to seem repellent, but still mysteriously attractive. As though one wandered backstage and learned some truth about women, especially Italian women. Ah, that’s what they’re really like. Raw and irresistible.
            Another unforgettable Fellini character. (For a treat, see “Fellini’s Faces,” a book that contains over 600 headshots of characters Fellini auditioned over the years.) La Saraghina has been blazed into my memory all these years. Enough so, that last month I wanted to know more. I wanted to see the beach scene again and found it easily on YouTube. It was as good as I remembered it. Better in some ways because my accrued maturity allowed me to appreciate her more. Fascinating. But who was the actress? What part of Italy was she from? Did she appear in other Fellini movies?
            The IMDB revealed that la Saraghina, to my complete and utter surprise, to my everlasting amusement, was played by a woman named Eddra Gale. Who had been an opera singer from Chicago! Of Norwegian descent. She was living in Milan in the early 60s, taking vocal lessons. Fellini saw her on the street one day and asked her to audition for “8 1/2.” She had just the look he was searching for. The rest is cinema history.
            And thus it happened that this tempestuous figure, by appearances straight out of classical Italian peasant folklore, was anything but: she was a Scandinavian American from Chicago, of all places. Another cinematic illusion. After this film, she went on to appear in over 100 movies and TV shows including, “The Graduate,” “What’s New Pussycat,” and “Somewhere in Time.” She died in New Mexico in 2001.
Obviously, like the other persons I’ve described in this series so far, Ms. Gale and Sig. Fellini had an intent to deceive us. But in a different way. They presented us with a greater and more memorable truth than any mere press clipping or advertisement ever could. The moral: Always remember, my stage-door nephews, that an actress and the role she plays are two different creatures. A great screen role lives forever.

            I’ll never forget you, Seraghina. Thank you, Eddra.  

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Why “The Crying Indian,” cried

Note the tear falling from his right eye

Iron Eyes Cody was the perfect movie Indian. He appeared in over 200 of them, back in the days when no one called Indians Native Americans. The first New World explorers were looking for a westward passage to India and thought they’d found it, so the natives of this new continent were called Indians. That’s that, so Iron Eyes was an Indian and he didn’t mind being called one. He was quite successful at being one.
Marshall McLuhan, the media whiz, once said, “We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” Once the New World invaders had killed most of the indigenous Indians with bullets, diseases and the heartbreak of broken treaties, a wave of artistic nostalgia for the lost frontier arose. On the stage, in music, and especially in the newly developed art of moviemaking, the Winning of the West became an extremely popular subject. For the most part, movie Indians were depicted as savage, treacherous, stubborn and bloodthirsty obstacles to White Progress. There were a few good ones, though. They were proud, courageous, and trustworthy. Iron Eyes Cody was usually one of that kind. He played the Noble Indian over a hundred times.
When asked, Iron Eyes Cody told folks he was born on April 3, 1912, near Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. His mother was Cree. His father was mostly Cherokee, he said, and was known as Thomas Longplume. Through time Iron Eyes ancestral name changed to Codey and then Cody.
Iron Eyes Cody entered the movie business around 1925 thanks to his father’s role as technical adviser to a Howard Hughes western. The boy could recite the Great Spirit prayer, do rope tricks, knew sign language and could speak parts of five Indian languages. The family still lived in Oklahoma at the time, but soon moved to California to work with the movie industry. At first Iron Eye’s father operated a business renting Indian props and costumes to the studios. With time the boy acted in bit parts.
From the very beginning, he said, he tried to convince the studios to avoid cliches about Indian life and present the story of his people with accuracy and dignity. They wouldn’t take his advice, he said, being more interested in making money with bloodthirsty stories. He stayed for the paycheck, but vowed to keep trying to be a positive influence, which actually happened over time.
In one one of his three memoirs, “Iron Eyes Cody: The Proud American,” 1988 (with Marietta Thompson): he appears in publicity stills with such well known people as Tim McCoy, Gene Autry, Lucille Ball, Roy Rogers (making sign language together), Jimmy Cagney, Jane Russell (whom he taught to shoot bow and arrow for “Paleface”), Bela Lugosi, Bing Crosby, Jim Thorpe, Jay Silverheels, Abbott and Costello, Polly Bergen, Howard Keel, Ronald Reagan, Tom Ewell, Fess Parker, Wally Cox, Stubby Kaye, Mickey Rooney, Dan Blocker, Lee Van Cleef, Ben Johnson and Errol Flynn, to name but a few.
For his unstinting promotion of American Indian causes he was named to nearly every important Indian affairs committee in the United States. His writing describes his meetings with such luminaries as Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Walt Disney, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II.
Cody was often asked if had posed for the Indian Head U.S. nickel. No, he answered, but that was my uncle, Chief John Big Tree, who also posed for James Earle Fraser’s famous statue “End of the Trail.”
To most Americans Iron Eyes Cody might have remained an obscure cinema footnote, his not having ever had a starring role, but for one famous television commercial. A public service campaign, Keep America Beautiful, emerged to fight the increasing problem of highway litter. The ad agency decided that nothing could be more iconic of a pristine American way of life than an American Indian. And no one looked and acted that role more than Iron Eyes Cody. There was a huge print campaign, including billboards, but nothing made the point as famously as an anti-pollution TV commercial, timed to coincide with the first Earth Day in 1971.
In the commercial (easily seen on YouTube) a solitary Indian paddles his canoe through polluted waters to come ashore on a waste-strewn beach. He takes a few steps just as someone throws a plastic bag of trash from a passing automobile. It lands at his feet. He looks down and then looks up and around at the smoggy, messy American landscape, his noble aboriginal face the only unspoiled sight in this man-ruined environment. The camera delivers a sudden close-up as he turns his gaze to look directly into the camera, a tear falling from his right eye. “People start pollution. People can end it,” solemnly intones the narrator, William Conrad.
The ad was a sudden overnight sensation. And thus, so too was Iron Eyes Cody, the actor hired to play what people began calling “The Crying Indian.” He became America’s best-known American Indian. The demand for public appearances by him never stopped for the rest of his life.
Oh, there was one small hiccup for a while, but just a little while: In 1996 a half-sister blew his cover. She claimed that Chief Iron Eyes Cody was actually Espera Oscar de Corti. He was born, she said, in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, in 1904. He was the second son of Antonio de Corti and Frencesca Salpietra, recent immigrants from Sicily. As a teenager he anglicized his name to Corti and it was but a short hop from there to Cody, after Buffalo Bill Cody. Modern biographies now treat the sister’s claim as true.
The reaction to this big reveal? Not much. De Corti avoided the subject, continued his American Indian ancestry claims and pronounced his sister mistaken. The public appearances continued. He was over 90 at the time and few people felt a need to call him out about it. He’d played the role for so long he had absorbed it deep in his psyche. Perhaps it was the other way around.
Either way, people need heroes with good stories more than they need more tales of ethnic identity theft. Cody died in 1999 and was buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Later that year a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to him.

Written for the August 5, 2015 issue of The Chestnut Hill Local