Thursday, May 31, 2012

Host Service

Andrew and I served as good hosts for my sister. It was her third visit to Minneapolis, all within the last five years, but her first visit of any significant length. She had a very pleasant stay.

She arrived the Friday before last. Both Andrew and I took off work early that day and welcomed her at the airport and brought her home.

We stayed in that first night—it was my sister’s choice.

My sister liked our new house. She did not object that our living room and dining room were completely unfurnished.

She appreciated the attraction of our giant kitchen, with its windows and skylights.

She also appreciated the beauty and comfort of our upstairs den/living room, which served as her bedroom. It had everything necessary to keep her comfortable and amused: beautiful furnishings and accoutrements (courtesy of Andrew’s mother, who had selected not only the sofas, chairs, bookcases, desks and tables but also the lamps, rugs, wall prints and window treatments), books, music, computers and large windows overlooking the park. My sister fell in love with the room instantly, as I had expected.

The first Saturday of her visit, my sister had Andrew and me show her around Eden Prairie for a couple of hours so that she might acquaint herself with where we now live. That evening, Andrew and I took her to downtown Minneapolis, where we had dinner at a nice restaurant and attended a Minnesota Orchestra concert.

The first Sunday of her visit, we spent the day at Andrew’s parents’ house. My sister already knew everyone except Helena, not yet born the last time my sister visited Minneapolis. We did little more than play with the kids all day that Sunday.

Andrew and I had to work last week, so my sister was left to her own devices during the weekdays (we left behind one of our cars for her use each day). She chose to stay in on three of those five days. I think she liked having time to herself and a house to herself.

One day last week, she spent all day at the Minneapolis Institute Of Arts. On another day, she spent a few hours at The Walker Art Center.

On Tuesday night, Andrew and I took her to dinner, followed by a performance of Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Compleat Female Stage Beauty” at Minneapolis Theatre Garage. On Thursday night, Andrew and I took her to dinner, followed by a performance of Beth Henley’s “Crimes Of The Heart” at Bloomington Civic Theatre. On Friday night, Andrew and I took her (and Alex) to dinner, followed by a performance of Agatha Christie’s “The Hollow” at Theater In The Round.

There was nothing at The Guthrie we had wanted to see, but my sister did not mind, as we had taken her to a performance at The Guthrie in 2008.

On the second Saturday, Andrew and I took my sister to Cathedral Of Saint Paul and The Basilica Of Saint Mary, the two most impressive church edifices in the Upper Midwest. That evening, Andrew and I took her back to Saint Paul, where we had dinner at a nice restaurant and attended a Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert.

The second Sunday, Andrew and I took my sister—and the kids, as well as Alec and Alex—to the Minnesota Zoo. It was a fun afternoon, mostly because the kids were fascinated by the animals.

On Memorial Day, we spent the day at Andrew’s parents’ house, eating, relaxing and playing with the kids.

My sister has now seen pretty much everything worth seeing in the Twin Cities. In fact, between her most recent visit, her visit in the summer of 2007 and her visit in the summer of 2008, she has seen most of the key attractions in Minneapolis and Saint Paul at least twice.

My sister returned to Oklahoma on Tuesday. Since Andrew and I were at work that day, Andrew’s mother took my sister to the airport for her flight home.

My sister will remain home all summer, working at a summer job. Her time in Minneapolis WAS her summer vacation—it was her only free time between her college graduation and her summer job.

It does not look like anyone in my family or Andrew’s family has a trip planned for this summer. I would like to go somewhere, but Andrew and I are building up vacation time, hoping—perhaps—to spend a week or ten days in Paris in September.

Because my sister was here over Memorial Day Weekend, Andrew’s parents delayed opening the lake house for the summer, which they typically do over the first holiday weekend of each summer. Early tomorrow evening, consequently, we will make up for lost time and head up to the lake for the weekend. Everyone in the family will make the trek.

I look forward to it.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Basilica Of Saint Mary

America’s first basilica, The Basilica Of Saint Mary.

Although Baltimore is home to America’s first cathedral, Baltimore is not—as commonly believed—home to America’s first basilica. That honor was bestowed in 1926 upon this magnificent Beaux-Arts edifice in Lutheran-dominated Minneapolis.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

"Goodbye To Berlin"

[While in London in 1944], Irving Berlin received an invitation to have lunch with Winston Churchill at 10 Downing Street.

Throughout the course of the war, Churchill had been entertained by dispatches written by the celebrated Oxford don, Isaiah Berlin, who was assigned to the British Embassy in Washington. On hearing that the writer he so admired was visiting London, Churchill hastened to invite Isaiah Berlin to lunch. Through a bureaucratic mix-up, however, the invitation went out to the songwriter rather than the political commentator.

On the appointed day, Irving Berlin presented himself at the prime minister's residence, where he was escorted to a comfortable room and given a cigar and a glass of brandy. In time, Churchill appeared, still under the impression that his guest was Isaiah Berlin.

The prime minister wasted little time on pleasantries. "How is war production in the United States?" he demanded.

Berlin was taken aback by the question. He was a composer and performer, not a war correspondent. "Oh, we're doing fine," he hesitantly answered.

"What do you think Roosevelt's chances of reelection are?"

Uncomfortable at being called on to play political pundit, he gave the obvious answer. "I think he'll win again."

"Good," Churchill replied. "Good."

"But if he won't run again," Irving offered, "I don't think I'll vote at all."

For the first time, [Berlin] had Churchill's interest, not that he welcomed it. "You mean you think you'll have a vote?" Churchill asked, a note of wonder—or was it British irony?—creeping into his voice.

"I sincerely hope so," Irving said.

"That would be wonderful," Churchill replied, appearing to sum up. "If only Anglo-American cooperation reached such a point that we could vote in each other's elections. Professor, you have my admiration. You must stay for lunch."

Throughout lunch at 10 Downing Street, Irving was haunted by the feeling he was well out of his depth. Why had Churchill addressed him as "professor"? He stopped trying to reply to Churchill's probing questions and fell silent. Eventually Churchill turned his back on his taciturn guest.

The awkward lunch finally came to a conclusion and, as Churchill left the room, he whispered loudly to an aide, "Berlin's just like most bureaucrats: wonderful on paper, but disappointing when you meet them face to face."

Laurence Bergreen, writing in 1996.

Irving Berlin 1945

Isaiah Berlin 1945

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Monday, May 14, 2012

Scrupulous Avoidance Of The Words "Excellence" And "Achievement"

On Wednesday, Andrew and I flew to Nashville, Tennessee. The purpose of our trip was to attend my sister’s college graduation.

Much to my surprise, there are at least four daily nonstop flights from Minneapolis to Nashville—I would never have guessed, before researching our trip, that there were ANY nonstop flights between the Twin Cities and Nashville; I had expected we would be required to route ourselves through Chicago—and Andrew and I were able to book the most convenient nonstop flight of the day, the late-morning flight. It took us little more than two hours to get to Nashville.

Early Wednesday afternoon, we met up at the Nashville airport with my parents (flying in from Oklahoma City) and my brother (flying in from Dallas)—and we all spent the rest of Wednesday and all day Thursday and Friday with my sister.

The graduation events and ceremonies were not inherently interesting—they never are—but we made it through two-and-a-half days without significant pain.

My sister is happy to leave Vanderbilt, a school she has never liked, and she is happy to leave Nashville, a city she has never liked.

My sister is nowise unhappy or dissatisfied with the last four years. She achieved her objectives—a Baccalaureate from a “name” school, lots of like-minded friends, and grades and test scores high enough to get her into one of the nation’s finest business schools—but now she is ready to move on and never look back, leaving Vanderbilt far behind her.

I know exactly how she feels.

Until Wednesday, I had never been to Nashville, and neither had Andrew. We did not see much of the city—but what we did manage to see was not particularly impressive. My sister, for four years, has referred to Nashville as “Hicksville”, and my sister is probably not far off the mark.

The nation’s elite institutions of higher learning need to reexamine how they conduct graduation festivities. First, the ceremonies are far too long—are two full days of activities genuinely necessary?—and, second, the ceremonies are monotonous and clichéd, designed to celebrate the institutions and the various dogmas they have embraced rather than the graduates themselves.

I would give Vanderbilt a failing grade on its two days of commencement ceremonies. Everything was poorly organized, hours and hours of dead time were built into the schedule, and the events themselves were alarmingly down-market—as my parents noted, repeatedly, with more than a little displeasure. Everything we saw and experienced suggested a university in total disarray, an institution utterly incapable of presenting a basic annual function at some minimum standard.

Most dismaying of all were the various graduation addresses. Whether by students, faculty or invited guests, the speeches were appalling. It was as if the Vanderbilt administration had gone to considerable lengths to engage the biggest morons they could find to speak to the assembled graduates and guests.

The addresses were shameful: uninteresting, unintelligent, unlearned, unreflective, unimaginative, unstylish, revealing not a spark of irony, wit, wisdom or thought. Worst of all, it was positively bizarre—in an educational setting, of all places—to encounter such scrupulous avoidance of the words “excellence” and “achievement”.

The two words, sadly, have been removed from the nation’s lexicon, a face-saving maneuver imposed from necessity once two seedy grifters from Chicago became installed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

There was virtually no applause after any of the speeches—my parents, like most parents, sat stone-faced through them all—and we thought we heard mild booing as well as mild hissing after several of the addresses.

There most definitely was booing and hissing to be heard after Tom Brokaw’s speech—one wag shouted out, while Brokaw was speaking, “Who was the ghost writer for your book, Brokaw, you hack?”, which elicited more than a little laughter—and there most definitely was booing and hissing to be heard after the speech of Vanderbilt’s Chancellor. In both cases, the booing and hissing were well-deserved.

If I were on the Board Of Trustees of Vanderbilt University, I would vote immediately to discharge Vanderbilt’s Chancellor, Nicholas Zeppos. Based upon his speech, and based upon our experiences at the institution he leads, Zeppos is little more than a comedy figure, with far more in common with the Marx Brothers than just his last name.

On Saturday morning, graduation events over, we all went our separate ways. In the late morning, my brother flew back to Dallas and my parents flew back to Oklahoma City, with my sister and her things in tow. (This coming Friday, my sister will fly to Minneapolis in order to spend ten days with Andrew and me. She will be our first houseguest in our new house, and Andrew and I are busy trying to figure out how to entertain her for ten days.)

Very early Saturday morning, instead of returning to the Twin Cities, Andrew and I flew to Kansas City.

We had to rise at 3:00 a.m. in order to be at the Nashville airport at 4:30 a.m. for a 5:30 a.m. flight to Atlanta. In Atlanta, we changed aircraft and caught a flight to Kansas City. (There are no nonstop flights between Nashville and Kansas City; the most advantageous routing for us, time-wise and duration-wise, was through out-of-the-way Atlanta.)

Andrew and I had wanted to visit Kansas City in order to explore the Nelson-Atkins Museum Of Art. I had visited the Nelson-Atkins before—I had been fourteen years old at the time—but Andrew had never visited the Nelson-Atkins. Both of us wanted to spend some serious time at one of the world’s very greatest art museums.

We spent all day Saturday and all afternoon Sunday at the museum.

We enjoyed the Nelson-Atkins immensely. It is a spectacular museum with a spectacular collection.

The artworks at the Nelson-Atkins are extremely well-presented. In fact, the art presentation at the Nelson-Atkins is among the finest I have seen at any museum in the United States or Western Europe.

The Nelson-Atkins has an unusual history.

The institution came about simply because two large private pools of money had been set aside early in the 20th Century to erect a building and to acquire an art collection at such time as city fathers decided that Kansas City needed an art museum. There were no founding collections; no major donors presented the institution with existing art collections that could be used as a basis for building a large and comprehensive permanent collection.

The museum as an institution was not founded until the very end of the 1920s. Construction of the first building did not begin until 1930. The museum did not open until 1933.

Because of The Stock Market Crash Of 1929 and the ensuing worldwide Depression, the late 1920s and the early 1930s, seemingly, were the worst possible times in which to found a museum, to erect a building, and to acquire an art collection from scratch.

The Nelson-Atkins, however, enjoyed a remarkable stroke of luck. It was founded upon two great fortunes—and both fortunes, fortuitously, had cashed out of the stock market prior to its 1929 collapse and had shifted assets into U.S. Government Bonds, the only financial instruments in the world that rose in value throughout The Great Depression.

The result was that the Nelson-Atkins was flush with cash precisely at the time world art markets collapsed. (In 1929, world art markets crashed immediately after world stock markets crashed).

For the next fifteen years, the Nelson-Atkins went on a buying spree; it was the largest acquirer of art in the world during this period—and at fire-sale prices. Almost every significant Old Master painting offered for sale in the U.S. between 1930 and 1945 was acquired by the Nelson-Atkins; almost every significant Old Master painting offered for sale in Europe between 1930 and 1939 was acquired by the Nelson-Atkins. (The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, was the only other museum in the world actively buying Old Master paintings during this period of economic distress—but the Wadsworth Atheneum lacked the vast financial resources of the Nelson-Atkins.)

The result of the buying frenzy: the Nelson-Atkins—an institution that owned not a single painting (or other work of art) on January 1, 1930—today has the finest collection of European paintings in the nation’s heartland.

Andrew and I viewed the European and American painting collections at the Nelson-Atkins twice, one viewing on Saturday and a second viewing on Sunday. We made it through as much of the rest of the collection as time allowed.

The Nelson-Atkins made our visit to Kansas City worthwhile.

On Saturday night, we attended a performance of Kansas City Ballet at the new Kauffman Center For The Performing Arts in downtown Kansas City.

I had seen Kansas City Ballet on a single previous occasion—I had seen Kansas City Ballet dance “The Nutcracker” when I was eight years old—but Andrew had never seen a performance by Kansas City Ballet. We enjoyed Saturday night’s performance very much; the program was a good one.

Our return to Minneapolis early Sunday evening was a snap. There are numerous daily nonstop flights between Kansas City and Minneapolis, and flight time is only one hour and twenty minutes between the two cities.

Andrew and I were on a plane heading home little more than two hours after the Nelson-Atkins had closed for the day late Sunday afternoon.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Moscow 7 November 1941: Military Parade

A military parade through the snow-covered, deserted streets of Moscow on November 7, 1941.

Stalin reviews the parade from a platform at the Kremlin.

“Death Solves All Problems. No Man, No Problem.”

Revolution in Budapest, October 1956: crowds topple and disfigure a giant statue of Joseph Stalin.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

In Which Another Idiot Joins The Fray

Joseph Stalin was a great man. Few other men of the 20th Century approach his stature. He was simple, calm and courageous. He seldom lost his poise; pondered his problems slowly, made his decisions clearly and firmly; never yielded to ostentation nor coyly refrained from holding his rightful place with dignity. He was the son of a serf but stood calmly before the great without hesitation or nerves. But also—and this was the highest proof of his greatness—he knew the common man, felt his problems, followed his fate.

W.E.B. DuBois

A Moron Speaks

In all spheres of modern life, the influence of Stalin reaches wide and deep. From his last simply-written but vastly-discerning and comprehensive document, back through the years, his contributions to the science of our world society remain invaluable. One reverently speaks of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin—the shapers of humanity’s richest present and future.

Paul Robeson