Thursday, October 29, 2015
Friday, October 9, 2015
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.
Thursday, October 1, 2015
|Argument settler, or argument provoker?|
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.
This entry was posted in Enemies of Reading. Bookmark the permalink.
Thursday, September 17, 2015
Thursday, September 10, 2015
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.
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.
I’ll never forget you, Seraghina. Thank you, Eddra.
Wednesday, August 5, 2015
|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
Woe and double woe, as William Wordsworth used to say after a hard day of daffodil worship. “The world is too much with us; late and soon,” he’d add, watching his shot glass sink into his beer mug. Mumble, mumble, mutter-mutter, then stumble home from the pub for succor from this dissembling world. Small wonder he turned away from human commerce and sought the world of nature, where things always are what they seem to be.
(Except for Angler fish, one must admit, they whose tongues look like worms to unsuspecting smaller fish; plus certain kinds of carnivorous flowers (e.g. the Venus flytrap), or camouflaged insects that sneak up on their prey, and so on. And that’s not to mention all the cases of aggressive mimicry found in nature, where a plant or creature appears – like a politician – to be some other species.)
But why quibble? Let’s grant Wordsworth his due: Nature is grand, but People are not always whom they seem to be.
A few examples. The first comes from – gosh this is so trivial, but examples must be chosen – a recent Dave Eggers New Yorker article on Hollister, California. Turns out that the town of Hollister
With each purchase comes a story that goes like this: the eponymic John M. Hollister was born around 1895, spent his summers in Maine and graduated from Yale in 1915. Rejecting the New York business world, he set sail for the Dutch East Indies, purchased a rubber plantation in 1917, fell in love with a woman named Meta, and bought a fifty-foot schooner. Hollister and Meta sailed around the South Pacific for a while but eventually settled in Los Angeles, in 1919. They opened a shop in Laguna Beach that sold goods from the South Pacific. John Jr., a surfer, added surf clothing and gear of such spirited quality that the business became a globally recognized brand. The Hollister story, Abercrombie proudly tells us, is one of “passion, youth and love of the sea,” evoking “the harmony of romance, beauty, and adventure.” Buy the product, you’re buying into the lifestyle. You’re telling the world who you are. Stand back!
Hate to tell you this if you’re wearing their gear, but none of this is true. Most of Abercrombie & Fitch’s brands—including the now defunct Gilly Hicks and Ruehl No. 925—have fictional backstories, said to have been conceived by Mike Jeffries, the company’s former C.E.O. Abercrombie & Fitch pulled the name Hollister out of thin air.
I don’t know about you, but I was heartbroken. After all, I’m just getting over learning that the wine cooler guys, Bartles and Jaymes, were phony people invented by an ad company. Those two folksy-nitwit wine merchants sometimes stood in a bog to demonstrate the elusive concept of “fresh fruit.” From 1984 to 1991 two actors portrayed these fictional underdogs who ended their pitches with the slogan, “Thank you for your support.” The underdog company that offered Bartles and Jaymes (a made-up ad name) wine coolers was E & J Gallo Winery.
There’s a long list of other fictive commercial icons. For example, Betty Crocker. Created by taking a popular woman’s first name, Betty, and combining it with the last name of the retiring Washburn-Crosby CEO William C. Crocker. Betty was introduced in 1921 as spokeswoman for Gold Medal flours.
Another example: Aunt Jemima’s pancake fame began when her name was taken from a minstrel show song back in the 1889 by a fledging pancake company. Various images of the fictive “plantation mammy” were used over the years by pancake manufacturers. In a Saturday Evening Post ad of 1920 she appears with a fictional bio that tells, among other things, a story of how she once entertained a Confederate general back in 1864 with a giant heap of fragrant pancakes. Not even remotely true, but oh so reassuring to white folks. Gosh, the ur-version of “Why can’t we all get along?”
Like Burt Shavitz, from Burt’s Bees, (another misrepresentation), Aunt Jemima appeared as a living trademark for years. Her image was updated in 1989 by the removal of her bandana and the addition of a pearl earring.
Speaking of selling things through fiction writing, consider the world of politics and the upcoming TV commercials coming our way. Each candidate will struggle for the next two years to create a persona and fable meant to tell us who to vote for. Or against. Joe McGinness’ “The Selling of the President 1968” remains the classic in this field. McGinness describes life backstage as Roger Ailes’ (now president of Fox News) “packaged” Richard Nixon, using all the tools and techniques of Madison Avenue. It was a bit shocking to read at the time, though most folks now take such maneuvering for granted.
Written for the July 22, 2015 issue of The Chestnut Hill Local