Monday, December 26, 2011

Two Christmas Gripes: Restaurant Scourges and Disappearing Trash Receptacles

I was having a very pleasant dinner the other evening in a fine independent St. Paul restaurant, enjoying a marvelous meal, when I learned that the restaurant had been taken by the lowest of the low: the no show. The proprietors had set aside about one quarter of the restaurant for a large party, about fifteen. The table sat empty and eventually the owner called to find out that the offending party was now in a Minneapolis restaurant and not coming. Because it was a large group, the owner had called earlier in the day to confirm the reservation and was told that everything was a go. Come on people! The restaurant business is tough enough without this kind of inconsiderate conduct.

Okay, what's going on with trash receptacles at drive-through restaurants and coffee shops? Have you noticed that more and more drive-throughs are pulling out their convenient driver-side trash cans? Pulled them at my Starbucks. None at the McDonald's I visited the other day. I inquired of the lady at Starbucks and was told that they were taken out because, "We are not in the business of collecting trash." Hmmm. Seems to me they give out a lot of trash and that people are mostly just disposing of the trash from the prior day's visit. So much for customer convenience. I guess Starbucks just found a way to foist their drive-through trash on others. This is a new industry standard that I don't like.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Some day every human action may be dictated by statute or written rule. Right now laws, ordinances, and regulations place innumerable restrictions on our lives: the size of our toilet tanks; the distance we must park from driveways; where we smoke; how we dispose of aluminum cans; how many cats we may have in our homes—the list is endless. And the statute books in Minnesota have in the last few decades burgeoned at an amazing rate. Despite using what seems to be thinner paper, the official Minnesota Statues have bulked up year after year to the point where they now take up three times as much space on the bookshelf as they did a generation or two ago.

The tendency to pass more and more laws and the objection to this practice have been noted throughout history. In the 1970’s, the nation had a serious discussion about “sunset laws,” laws that would be enacted for a specified length of time and then expire. As early as the 7th Century B.C., as Gibbon notes, lawmakers recognized the value of limiting the amount of regulation:
The decemvirs had neglected to import the sanction of Zalecucus, which for so long maintained the integrity of his republic. A Locrian, who proposed any new law, stood forth in the assembly of the people with a cord round his neck, and if the law was rejected, the innovator was immediately strangled.
Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. London: Jones and Company, 1828. Vol. III, p. 168. Our society long ago took the brakes of the legislative engine and it is only under a very unusual circumstance that any penalty—even something as mild as public ridicule—attends the proposal of a new law.

But while I join the many who find it dispiriting that we do not limit the number of laws, there was a recent MPR story that stopped me in my tracks. In a story discussing bullying, this statement was made: “Minnesota's current law is one of the shortest in the country.” Could it be that there are people who want not better, not more effective, but longer laws? I drilled down a bit, thinking that the sentence might be an aberration. But earlier MPR stories on the subject of bullying* had also noted the brevity of Minnesota’s statute:
At just 37 words, Minnesota's law against bullying is one of the shortest in the nation:

"Each school board shall adopt a written policy prohibiting intimidation and bullying of any student. The policy shall address intimidation and bullying in all forms, including, but not limited to, electronic forms and forms involving Internet use."

That's the only requirement. Unlike other state laws, it contains no list of what those policies must include.
The headline for that article was: “A six-month Minnesota Public Radio News investigation of bullying policies across the state found a patchwork of policies and that the state's policy is one of the shortest in the nation.”

Indeed, thirty-seven words is a modest showing for a statute. Thousands, perhaps millions of longer statutes exist in the United States. Here, for instance, is a 145-word offering from the State of New York:
A person who overdrives, overloads, tortures or cruelly beats or unjustifiably injures, maims, mutilates or kills any animal, whether wild or tame, and whether belonging to himself or to another, or deprives any animal of necessary sustenance, food or drink, or neglects or refuses to furnish it such sustenance or drink, or causes, procures or permits any animal to be overdriven, overloaded, tortured, cruelly beaten, or unjustifiably injured, maimed, mutilated or killed, or to be deprived of necessary food or drink, or who willfully sets on foot, instigates, engages in, or in any way furthers any act of cruelty to any animal, or any act tending to produce such cruelty, is guilty of a class A misdemeanor and for purposes of paragraph (b) of subdivision one of section 160.10 of the criminal procedure law, shall be treated as a misdemeanor defined in the penal law.
Maybe MPR’s push for longer laws will lead to laws like that gem.

Of course, while thirty-seven words is quite paltry compared to the word count of many contemporary laws, it is possible to draft laws that are both brief and well-written. Consider: “Thou shalt not kill. . . . Thou shalt not steal.” These ancient laws each have only four words, but their effects have resonated through millennia. And cannot we agree that the commandment that actually does attempt to list all possible permutations of prohibition—though equally sacrosanct—is not as well drafted:
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.
Notice the catch-all provision at the end. This is necessary because the preceding list could not possibly list all the things that might belong to one’s neighbor. Why is the neighbor’s plow not listed? Why not his children? Why not his harvested crops? The act of listing is inherently perilous.

This is not to say that there are never occasions for lists in statutes. Sometimes all specific things must be listed. But in this context listing every possible act that intimidates or bullies is fraught with difficulty. Repeatedly punching someone is obviously bullying. Threatening someone is obviously bullying too. What about patting a teammate on the butt after a football touchdown? What about hugging a friend? What about raising one’s voice to the point of yelling? What about raising one’s voice slightly? What about telling a fellow student that her shirt is dirty or that her clothes are ugly? The interactions at school are so limitless that any attempt to categorize them in a detailed list is a fool’s errand. Local school officials are qualified to regulate the conduct of students without a list that explains precisely what the Minnesota legislature meant by “intimidation” and “bullying.” The legislature had a sound reason for not enumerating every unacceptable act that might fit under the rubrics of “intimidation” or “bullying.”

The notion that the quality of one state’s laws can be compared to that of another by counting words is ridiculous. While being thorough is important, the essence of good writing—and it applies to legislative writing too—is brevity. No statute should ever be criticized for not being long enough. Blaise Pascal famously observed, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have time.” Similarly, statutes are often too long because they are not carefully crafted.

It may seem quite odd that anyone would be twisted enough to take time out of a Thanksgiving Day to criticize those who are pursuing the noble goal of eliminating bullying. The simple explanation is that I was a victim of childhood bullying myself and am still suffering from its shattering effects. And so I say: MPR, please do not suggest that we should evaluate the quality of statutes based on their length.

*For the record, I refuse to use the prevalent “anti” prefix when discussing bullying laws. Do we need to say “anti-murder laws” or “anti-kidnapping laws” in order to convey the notion that society is opposed to murder and kidnapping?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Alexander Melnikov in Recital

The Frederic Chopin Society has been bringing talented pianists to Minnesota for about twenty-five years. Usually the pianists are not household names. Though it has sponsored such well-known artists as Marc-Andre Hamelin, Stephen Hough, Angela Hewitt, Richard Goode, Imogen Cooper, Jonathan Biss, and Simone Dinnerstein, one of the organization's great gifts is that it consistently finds brilliant lesser-known pianists, ones who nearly always give satisfying performances. Sadly, my attendance has fallen off a bit and until today I had not attended one of the Chopin Society's recitals in several years. After Alexander Melnikov's recital on November 6, I am once more excited about the society's offerings.

The concert venue, Hamline University's Sundin Music Hall, was excellent. The 326-seat auditorium was very pleasant and has superb acoustics. All the seats were filled, but the audience, with one particularly notable exception, was one of the quietest and best mannered I have observed. Perhaps this exceptionally warm November has forestalled the cold season, the perennial enemy of Minnesota piano recitals.

Alexander Melnikov is a Russian pianist who is said to be heavily influenced by Sviatoslav Richter. Though I never saw Richter in recital, Melnikov's approach seems in line with Richter's reputation and what I hear on Richter's recordings. Melnikov appeared dressed all in black and is a tall, imposing figure. While a moderate showman--on stage neither a milquetoast, like Pollini, or a clown, as Lang Lang can sometimes be--his playing is powerful and very aggressive. At times during this recital he approached the brink of loss of control, but always reined himself back in.

It's hard to think of a better way to begin a recital program than with the opening sonorities of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy. The four-movement fantasy is based on one of Schubert's Lieder and after you have heard the opening of this piece a few times you never forget it. My knowledge of it comes from my Pollini and Kissin recordings. Melnikov let the audience know from the beginning of the piece that he was not going to hold much back. The closing minutes of the third movement and the entirety of the fourth were a savage and delectable assault on the Steinway. This was a point where Melinkov seemed to push his technique to the limit--and I think with good results. The tempo of the closing fugue was quite fast and I could not help thinking that there was a dash of Rachmaninoff in my Schubert.

The set of Brahms opus 116 pieces were next. The first of the set, a D-minor Capriccio, was again played aggressively. At times the piano seemed to be treated as if it were Melinkov's enemy. But his fierceness was in reserve during the haunting A-minor Intermezzo. Here, I thought the concert hall proved its acoustical merit: I was sitting near the back, but do not recall ever hearing such wonderfully clear quiet passages. These late Brahms pieces seemed to fit Melinkov's style very well.

The second half of the program consisted of the first twelve of Shostakovich's opus 87 Preludes and Fugues. Melinkov played with a score, but his mastery of these pieces made this seem more a habit than a necessity. What fascinated me about these pieces, ones I have heard occasionally but do not know well, was the extent to which Shostakovich showed that he mastered the manner of Bach. There are parts of Prelude No. 10 and Fugues 1, 4, 6, and 10 that could be be taken for Bach. But elsewhere there were modern and post-modern tonalities that nobody could mistake for anyone other than a 20th-century composer. My favorite of the pieces was the Fugue No. 8, which starts with a very long theme, perhaps 40 to 50 notes, that is very reminiscent of a bird song--though perhaps one with hints of modernism. Another favorite, the last Fugue played, No. 12, was pure Shostakovich. No Bach here: instead a piece of driving intensity that builds to what almost seems a false ending and then quits quietly. Too bad that there was that one loud cough just as the piece was drifting into silence.

All of Melnikov's offerings were well received by the audience. But despite three bows, there were no encores. I am usually disappointed if there are no encores, but on this occasion Melnikov's decision was exactly correct. He had offered two-and-a-half hours of exceptionally fine music and the audience left the hall sated and smiling.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Perfect Saturday: Learning to Talk About Books I Haven't Read

In Minnesota a late October day and a trip to the mechanic rarely lead to much good. But an afternoon full of warmth and sunshine, when combined with the discovery of a tight, funny, and novel collection of essays meant that I could find happiness even while my car was up on the rack. The fun started while perusing the "Books About Books" section of Half-Price Books in Highland Park. Lately I have more and more taken to absorbing my literature indirectly--not by diving into literary works themselves, but by trying to find interest and amusement without the hard work. And so I came upon Pierre Bayard's "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read," as translated by Jeffrey Mehlman.

I expected cheesy instruction on the strategy of chatting about literature. But this is nothing of the sort. The work is a thoughtful discussion of why we should be enthusiastic about literary and other ideas even in the face of life's grand limitations. It begins by appealing to the reader's self-interest, by absolving readers for not having read all of literature's canon.

Can't we all admit that there are some iconic works that we should have read, but haven't? For instance, I have never read Joyce's "Ulysses." A sad admission for a devotee of literature, but there you have it. Bayard makes the point that even if we are well read, we are still likely to have huge gaps in our knowledge of literature. Who has really read all of Conrad, Mencken, Traven? And can anyone really stay abreast of the twenty promising new novels published each month? The point is drilled home with reference to someone who, looking for a specific bit of wisdom, strolls the stacks of a vast library and does a mental calculation, finding that it will take a hundred lifetimes to tackle just this one library. So Bayard charms us by showing how any attempt to actually read everything, or one percent of everything, or even all works in the "canon," is folly.

Bayard also tackles the ambiguity of what it means to have read something. If you have read a work, but cannot remember anything of it, can you really claim to have read it? Even if you've recently finished reading a book, how quickly does it vanish from memory? Doesn't it really become what Bayard calls a "shadow book," a sometimes inaccurate, always modified version of the original?

His discussion of what happens when the public meets an author is instructive. Sometimes readers fix on details and interpretations that leave the author aghast. Precision and detailed recollection of a work can interfere with such a meeting, perhaps leaving the author with the bitter realization that a work has been revered for all the wrong reasons, reasons perhaps perverse to the author's intention. His advice: praise the work without offering specifics. Similar observations are made about academic or classroom discussions of literature. Attempting to find out if someone has read a book, or assuming they have not based on stated inaccuracies, is demonstrated to be a dangerous, uncertain, and even counterproductive business.

A good collection of essays, like a family, has both commonalities, that which binds them, and differences, that which makes them interesting. This collection is marvelously unified. Bayard has uncovered five or six stunning literary references that bear on his theme. The varied nature of these references, from classic French writers like Valery and Balzac, to scientific studies involving attempts to teach Hamlet to African natives, gives the reader confidence that one is being guided by a very thoughtful man. I admire Bayard's gift here. He realizes that these references can be pulled together and enlisted towards his end.

The individual chapters are likable, humorous, and penetrating. One chapter dissects a work wherein college literature professors play a game called "Humiliation." The players score points by naming prominent works that they have not read. Another chapter analyzes the Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day" and touches on how to talk about literature with one we love. Each individual essay is worthwhile.

The closing essays address literary criticism, asking the question, "How much must one read before one knows that a work is deficient?" Then it is suggested that the point of literary criticism really has nothing to do with the merits of the work itself, but is just an art form--one where a negative review can serve the critic's art just as well as a positive one. Equally provoking is the assertion that we have a moral duty not to read certain books--not as I expected because they are immoral, but because they are a waste of time.

I read the book while walking in the sunshine along the Mississippi and finished it just as my car lowered from the rack. "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read" somehow eased the pain of the expensive brake job--my only regret being that Bayards' interesting and important work was not available to me many years ago.

Ten Recommended Classical Recordings: A Sampler for Those New to the Classical Scene

The following is a list of classical recordings that offer a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music many of the recordings are now budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.