Saturday, April 23, 2016

Coincidental Genius

Four hundred years ago today, the deaths of two literary giants were recorded: William Shakespeare and Cervantes.  Though there's dispute over the actual day they died, officially it is the same day for both: April 23, 1616.

The two men apparently did not meet (Shakespeare never left England,  and after his soldiering days Cervantes stayed in Spain) and probably did not know about each other's work.  Still the coincidence of this day is the occasion for a symposium at the Newberry research library in Chicago (and elsewhere), a which-said-what quotes quiz (it's predictably tricky) and an article on the subject in the Guardian, which points out that April 23 is also the death date given for William Wordsworth, Rupert Brooke and some lesser known poets.

Also a comparison of the lives and work of Shakespeare and Cervantes that notes that a 2002 poll of 100 unnamed international writers named Don Quixote the "most meaningful book of all time."

Oddly, I stumbled on the coincidental death day by sheer coincidence (Kowincidence?)  I've started reading a few pages of J.B. Priestley's Literature and Western Man (published in 1960--when "man" was still an acceptably encompassing synonym for human) before bed, and a week or so ago I got to the page where he noted these deaths on this date of April 23, 1616.  Apparently my math skills were up to realizing this was an anniversary year, though it took a calculator to figure out the exact number of years.

What's fascinating is that these are not just two famous writers--their work is arguably the most famous in the western world and considerably beyond it.  They are the most famous writers, in two areas of literature.  As Priestly wrote, "Perhaps only Shakespeare has captured and delighted more minds than Cervantes."

Shakespeare worked in what became the dominant form of his time and place, plays for the stage.  His work helped make it dominant, and transformed theatre for all time.

The secret of his perennial appeal, Priestly writes, might be not only the range of what he dramatized but his insistence on not being one-sided.  "In his desire to keep a balance, his wrestling with the opposites, even the very kinds of opposites they were, despite his immensely rich nature (and rich is surely his favorite word) and many-sided genius, he comes close to generations of ordinary Western men of intelligence and good will.  It is perhaps the secret of his hold upon our world, century after century...."

"Though he conjures up everything from lyrical young love and gossamer fairylands to darkest witchcraft and bloody murder, he always leads us home...If the day ever comes when Shakespeare is no longer acted, read, and studied, quoted and loved, Western Man will be near his end."

Drama was also the dominant form in Spain, but Cervantes did something else.  He put together some existing forms of tales to create something new.  Don Quixote is generally considered to be the first novel.  As Priestly writes: "...and in the gathering shadows of the age and his own time (in contemporary terms he was an old man), with no patron, no salaried place, few prospects, rich only in experience, memory, knowledge of men, the one-handed old soldier began to write his book.  Then out of that experience, memory, knowledge, and an eruption of genius, he wrote the best novel in the world."

 But literary definitions aside, he certainly defined a huge area for the novels to come. "Through its bustle of roads and inns, its sense of movement, colour and life, he reached far forward to inspire all the novelists who set their characters wandering."  So to Fielding, to Dickens, Melville, Kerouac, Jim Harrison.  "And as the magical ironist of the relativity of reality, of truth at war with illusion, he might be said to have pointed further forward still..."  To Ibsen, Joyce, and pretty much everyone since.

"Of all our great novelists," he concludes, " he is the youngest, because he is the first, and the oldest, because his tale of the mad knight is an old man's tale.  He is also the wisest."

It is worth mentioning that though both writers were famous in their time, by April 1616 the world had seemingly moved on, never to return.  Shakespeare's drama was already going out of style at the end of his career. Though some of his plays were always performed somewhere in the years after his death, his work was not so appreciated again until the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the 19th century. Similarly, the novel did not emerge in a big way until about then, especially in England, and Cervantes' role as a pioneer as well as an exemplary became cherished.

So these two geniuses, together responsible for much of what life and letters are like today, died on pretty much the same day.  Or...did they just return to where they came from on the same spaceship?

Political Notes: Clinton-Warren

After my post on the subject, Ed Kilgore at New York put some actual reporting behind my contention that GOPer pols would love to run against Bernie Sanders, reviving McCarthyism for the 21st century.

About the only thing that has excited me so far during this campaign is the possibility supported by Kilgore that Hillary should select Elizabeth Warren as her running mate.  I agree completely--and I especially feel it would inject some passion into what looks to be a teeth-grinding general election campaign.  The other possibilities being mentioned (Tim Kaine?--give me a break) are uniformly uninspiring.

Despite Clinton's apparent confidence that Sanders supporters will come home to her in the likely event that she wins the nomination (made more likely by her convincing win in New York), she should not ignore especially the age gap, which this LA Times article suggests is starting to supersede race and ethnicity.   Running with Warren--with her rep and her stump style--seems likely to pretty much erase that gap.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Planet and Public Health

Today is Earth Day in America, which seems to have assumed all the significance of Arbor Day.  But on this particular Earth Day, some 175 nations of the Earth are meeting at the UN to formally sign the Paris agreement on confronting the Climate Crisis.

There is optimism that the goals named in the agreement can be reached sooner than promised.  But there's also been news since the Paris negotiations that make addressing the causes of the climate crisis even more urgent.

I've noted several of these, but the Washington Post has a summary (How Earth itself has dramatically upped the stakes for the Paris climate accord,) and John Sutter at CNN a list of what needs to be done (Stop Ruining the Future.)

But in addition to addressing the causes, the climate crisis demands that we prepare to address the effects.  In supporting its position advocating efforts to address the causes, the American College of Physicians listed some of the effects that doctors--and public health systems--are already starting to confront:

Respiratory illnesses, including asthma and COPD. Rising temperatures are causing an increase in ozone pollution, smoke from wildfires, and allergens produced by weeds, grasses and trees. Homes affected by heavy rains or flooding can become host to toxic mold and fungi.

Heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which are particularly dangerous for children and the elderly.

Insect-borne illnesses, like Zika virus, dengue fever and chikungunya, which are ranging farther north as mosquitoes thrive in warmer climates.

Water-borne illnesses, such as cholera, which can spread if drought causes poor sanitation or if heavy flooding causes sewer systems to overflow.

Mental health disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression connected to natural disasters, as well as the anxiety and stress that accompanies days of hot weather."

All of these require a public health response, but after decades of budget cuts and the demonization of public agencies, is the United States public health system up to the challenge?  Shouldn't we be urgently asking that question?

A lack of consensus on public health, a dearth of attention to these climate crisis threats and a general lack of knowledge can add up to a dangerous inability to respond in a public health emergency, spreading panic and discord which rapidly makes a bad situation worse.

For all the potential causes of virtual anarchy on any level, there are really two that can create anarchy quickly: a food availability crisis (which is often a food price crisis) or a public health crisis--the spread of a disease or condition without efforts that are effective and generally believed to be the right ones.

We don't have to go back in history to see some of the problems.  Laurie Garrett's review of Pandemic, a book by Sonia Shaw in the New York Times Book Review last month reveals giant failures among the world's nations to address public health concerns.  She tells of the mistakes made in early efforts to confront Ebola, resulting in thousands of deaths, and particularly the ongoing cholera crisis in Haiti, where it remains because of failure to fix the water and sewage systems.

Shaw's book itself offers a more than cautionary tale about how politics, psychology and ego can be stubbornly fatal in addressing epidemics, in her description of cholera in Europe in the 19th century, when evidence that pathogens in the water caused the disease was dismissed several times because of the belief (supported by politics and ego) that cholera was caused by the smell of human waste, which led to even more contamination of water and even worse outbreaks of the disease.

Public health, like the climate crisis itself, involves many interacting factors that must all be addressed simultaneously.  (Mosquito nets are useless unless there is a system to get them to the people who need them, as is not the case in much of Africa, for example.)  Public health requires cooperation in common efforts, and trust in public institutions.  As we've seen recently here in California, it only takes a small group refusing vaccination and inoculation to spread diseases that otherwise might disappear.

In fact many perennially common diseases from polio to measles began to disappear from American family life in the 1950s through the 1970s, when public trust in public health was high, and funding for public health was unquestioned.  We may face our next set of public health crises with neither of those.  

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Your Moment of Swing

It's another Glenn Miller hit, this time from his second movie, "Orchestra Wives." The film is more centered on the orchestra itself and to some extent on the real problems of wives on tour with musician husbands, but mostly it's a love story starring Ann Rutherford and George Montgomery, with some current and future dazzlers as the other wives.  As a follow to the previous movie's hit "Chatanooga Cho-Cho," this number-- "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo"--features another town with a musical name, and also a Tex Beneke vocal with a coda that has an even longer Nicholas Brothers dance routine.  You can see where Michael Jackson got a lot of his moves.

You might recognize Caesar Romero and Jackie Gleason as supposed members of the band--Romero gets more lines in the movie, but Gleason looks like he might actually know how to play bass.

But the star of this video is the dynamic blonde in the middle of the singers, Marion Hutton.  Marion's sister Betty had a longer and more successful career in show business, but Marion sang with the Glenn Miller Orchestra from its beginnings in 1938.

She had a bad childhood (abandoned by her father, her mother was a bootlegger) and a sad later adulthood as an alcoholic who devoted her last years to helping fellow addicts. But when she was 17, Glenn Miller and his wife became her legal guardians and she began singing with the Orchestra.  This film was made in 1942, the last year of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, which disbanded when Miller joined the Army Air Force and was later lost flying over the English channel.

Marion sang and appeared in a few more movies in the 40s but this number was pretty much her highlight.  She's 21 and full of energy, sparkle and wit.  The joy of the music and the moment is present in her every expression and gesture.  Not many of us get such a high moment of our lives captured so well for others, but Marion did, and here it is.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

An Afternoon with Steph and Barack


Nice day, how about a visit to Mad River Beach?  Sunny and pretty warm here but you can't predict the beach--likely it's cooler and maybe windier.  So experience teaches.

Turns out we'd moved to San Diego without moving.

First of all, the place was full of cars.  The ocean access parking lot was overfilled, the road had parked cars back to the turnoff to Mad River (where the huge expanse of asphalt parking lot was still flooded.)

The beach therefore was a good deal more populated than usual.  And what a sight for a North Coast beach: lots of people in bathing suits on beach blankets and frolicking in the surf.  I've never seen anything like it.  Here.

Among those on the beach seemed to be a lot of students, and given HSU's recruitment orientation these days, probably from southern California.  They must have felt right at home.  But where is home?

There was no wind, and the sun was hot.  It was hot on the ocean beach.  It felt like at least 80.  No need for even the light windbreaker I brought.

So this collision of feelings: This is great!  This is way weird!  I've felt it before in the past few years, but never so sharply.

Officially it was a record-breaker at 74 degrees F.  And as it turned out, it was also a record-breaker in San Diego, where it was officially 84.

It could be ascribed to just the usual unusual weather, I suppose.  Except that it's happening a lot.  And then there's the beautiful linden tree next door.  It's usually the last to shed its leaves in the winter, and the last to turn green again in summer.  But its all green and leafy now.

If I were Thoreau, who kept a careful record of all such things where he lived, I could provide exact dates.  So I don't know for sure.  But it certainly seems early.