Monday, April 26, 2010

Thanks for everything! Anna Maria Alberghetti

(Anna Maria and I had such a good time together.)

It was the summer of 1967 and I was working as Assistant Tennis Pro at Scioto Country Club in Upper Arlington, Ohio.  I played tennis for Ohio State in those days and John Hendrix was the coach at OSU.  He was also the Head Pro at Scioto CC, so he hired me for the summer.  I mostly played tennis with elderly women who needed company and who needed someone to make them laugh on the court while hitting tennis balls.  I also ran tennis clinics for kids, strung tennis racquets, and I got to play quite a bit of tennis when I wasn't teaching.  Not a bad gig all-in-all.

One of the members of the club was a developer who was ready to have a Grand Opening of his housing development.  He and Coach cooked up the idea of having a tennis exhibition at the development as part of a gala opening, and Bob "Harry" Harrison and I were given the assignment.  Harry also played for OSU, so we were old friends.  But the exciting part of the event was the planned appearance of a celebrity that the developer had hired, or bribed, or coerced in some way to show up and mingle for a while with prospective buyers of his houses while watching our tennis exhibition match.

The celebrity was Anna Maria Alberghetti, a woman who is well-known to those of my generation.  Alberghetti started her career as an opera singer and a child prodigy at the age of 6, performed at Carnegie Hall at 13, and then starred in about a dozen movies in the 1950s and 60s.  She won a Tony Award for her Broadway performance in Carnival in 1962.  I specifically had remembered her in Cinderfella in 1960, where she co-starred with Jerry Lewis.  And she was on the cover of Life magazine twice.  Wow!

So Harry and I were to play a singles match in front of the famous Anna Maria and that was it--no other matches but ours, no other distractions for the movie star.  She could focus on our talent and our Ohio personalities, she would enjoy herself thoroughly, she would raise our praises in Rome when she returned to her homeland, and she would giggle and tease and horse around with us after the match.  In short, she would have an afternoon so entertaining that she would never forget it, nor would she ever forget us.

Anna Maria showed up in a limousine, exactly befitting a famous person.  She was surrounded with 4 or 5 men who wore sunglasses; I assumed they were body guards.  Anna Maria also wore large sunglasses and a large, wide-brimmed hat.  Her arrival was anticipated by the crowd with great excitement; Harry and I giggled like 3rd graders before the match.  The only problem was that she arrived AFTER we had finished our match.  She got there in time to see two tired, sweaty, and smelly wannabes gawking at the black entourage, and I mean black.  The limousine was black.  All the bodyguards were dressed in black.  They reminded me of a scene from The Sopranos.   Everyone wore dark sunglasses.  And Anna Maria never said a word the entire 30 minutes that she was there; I mean she never uttered a sound-not in Italian, not in English, not a moan, not a sigh, nothing.  She signed autographs, while the ends of her mouth were turned up ever so slightly in what could be defined as a smile.

It then occurred to me that maybe the guys in black were sent there by the tennis coach from Purdue, the only team in the Big Ten Conference that we could beat in those days, to whack Harry and me.  This whole thing was just a setup to eliminate one-third of OSU's team.

By sundown I realized that the entire episode was just another of life's disappointments.  We had a lot of those in Ohio.  Anna Maria came and she went.  She saw nothing, said nothing, sang nothing and, I am sure, remembered nothing. 

But I'm much older and more sophisticated now.  I think that next spring I will go to Rome; I love Italy after all.  I will call Anna Maria and have her meet me for coffee at the Piazza Navona.  She can bring along those other hot Italian movie stars of yesteryear--Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren.  I'm sure they all know each other.  And Anna Maria and I can relive old times, and reminisce about Columbus, Ohio, and we will throw our heads back in gleeful laughter, and Gina and Sophia will wish they had been there with us.  Ohhhhhhhhh hum.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The short, but eventful, avian calendar

(Daffodils at DrTom's.  It goes so fast; winter will be here before we know it.)

I tend to think of the year in bird seasons. April and May are the best months of the year for me because most of the species in this part of the world breed and nest during those months. June and July is fledgling time, when adults are busy feeding their still somewhat-dependent offspring, and the rest of the year is boring. It is just that by comparison, after May, it all goes downhill for me, and I begin looking forward to the following April. This is a terrible way to live, really.

As year-round residents, we have chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals, titmice, brown creepers, crows, blue jays, and woodpeckers, and some other species. Several of these are common at bird feeders stocked with sunflower seeds tended by homeowners. But now those species have become more conspicuous—they are singing and calling, prospecting for nest sites, and even building nests. The extremely high-pitched song of the brown creeper is common in my woods now. (This song is so high-pitched that some humans can not hear it). Chickadees are calling throughout the day, and I saw a pair checking out a small cavity in a dead red maple yesterday. Woodpeckers are tapping, barred owls are calling (although they do that all year), and crows certainly have an active nest by now.

Red maple and aspen are flowering now, but leaves are forming on some species. This will increase rapidly over the next couple of weeks. And, of course, this is the season for daffodils, tulips, and forsythia to bloom. Juneberry just finished flowering.  Dogwood and lilac will follow shortly.

So the locals have come alive, but we now have new members in the community, who left us last fall to go to warmer, more productive climes. For the most part, the birds that have now returned by mid-April are the so-called “short-distance migrants” that wintered in southern U.S. Song sparrows, American robins, brown-headed cowbirds, dark-eyed juncos, and accipiter hawks, are back and acting sexy. Eastern phoebes and broad-winged hawks, who have returned, came from a bit further. Phoebes can winter as far south as Mexico and broad-winged hawks can winter even further away. From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website: “A recent study attached satellite transmitters to the backs of four Broad-winged Hawks and followed them as they migrated south in the fall. The hawks migrated an average of 7,000 km (4,350 mi) to northern South America, and traveled an average of 111 km (69 mi) each day. Once at the wintering grounds, the hawks did not move around much, staying on average within 2.6 square km (1 square mi).” And there are ruby-crowned kinglets, which just arrived at my place, but they are passing through to breed in coniferous forests farther to the north.

April is the beginning of the bird year for me. Everyone is now vocalizing, looking for their mates from last year, and locating nest sites. May will be even better, when the long-distance migrants return. The action is picking up, but I want every day to slow down. Based on my bird-oriented annual calendar, “winter” is only three months away.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Does the existence of New Orleans make ecological sense?

(New Orleans and Katrina.  How many more times will we rebuild it?)

As an ecologist and an environmentalist I have often wondered whether New Orleans makes any sense at all. This major city is located on the Louisiana coast 2-6 meters below sea level. Using the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, we try to build structures that block the waters of the Atlantic Ocean from flooding this historic metropolitan area of about 1,000,000 people. I have concluded that given the costs of rebuilding the city’s structures and housing, and the probability that future disasters due to hurricanes and flooding are probably 100%, that it does not make sense to continue supporting this endeavor.

My argument goes like this. When we know that a particular disaster has a high probability of occurring, we should minimize our investment of resources in that location. We know the following with virtual certainty at this point: polar ice caps are melting, sea level is rising, and cyclonic storms that arise over the warming oceans of the world are likely to be more common and more intense than in the past. This means that Katrina-like events will occur again along the Louisiana coast. The question is whether humans can design and build structures that will hold out against these powerful natural events. Maybe we can learn something from a place in the world that has been fighting this battle for centuries: the Netherlands.

From Wikipedia, we find that “After the 1953 disaster, the Delta project, a vast construction effort designed to end the threat from the sea once and for all, was launched in 1958 and largely completed in 2002. The official goal of the Delta project was to reduce the risk of flooding in the province of Zeeland to once per 10,000 years. (For the rest of the country, the protection-level is once per 4,000 years.) This was achieved by raising 3,000 kilometres (1,864 miles) of outer sea-dykes and 10,000 kilometres (6,200 miles) of inner, canal, and river dikes to "delta" height, and by closing off the sea estuaries of the Zeeland province. New risk assessments occasionally show problems requiring additional Delta project dyke reinforcements. The Delta project is one of the largest construction efforts in human history and is considered by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the seven wonders of the modern world.”

In other words, given 2,000 years of experience with trying to keep the ocean at bay in a country where 27% of the land is below sea level, the Dutch have developed a system that is so extensive and so elaborate that it is considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world. The jury is still out as to whether even this will continue to work against rising seas. Now, I am not an expert on this topic, but it appears that the storms that pound the Louisiana coast are more powerful in terms of wind than what typically comes from the North Sea, and the Caribbean storms occur more frequently. In other words, the chances of Americans designing a system that can prevent the kind of disaster we saw in 2005 from occurring again and again seem remote to me.

I realize it is not politically correct to talk about abandoning a city with a 300-year old history. And New Orleans is an important conduit for oil, natural gas, and other products entering through that deep-water port. However, I am sure that some kind of elevated housing could be constructed for those who choose to remain there to work in those industries, which are vital to U.S. commerce. I envision that something like an oil rig structure could be devised that would serve the purpose. But to spend billions of dollars and to squander hundreds of tons of physical materials to rebuild repeatedly seems like folly, not to mention the future human suffering that this encourages.  I would make the exact same argument for development of any kind on the floodplain of rivers, on an active earthquake fault, or next to an active volcano.  It is not a matter of IF disaster will occur again, it is only a matter of WHEN.

I have often admonished my children that the future is not likely to look like the past, and to behave accordingly. This is particularly true in a world that is so populous that we are even changing the climate. It is time that global planners incorporate more ecological thinking into their repertoire. Southeastern Louisiana was once a vast wetland at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and I suggest we let it revert to its natural state.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Is Obama, or would McCain, be better for the environment?

(Is the jackalope a product of the law of unintended consequences?)

It is nearly impossible to be a blogger and not comment at least once on the presidential race of 2008. For starters, I will put my cards on the table and tell you that I was for Barack Obama all the way. My wife and I first got excited about Obama when we heard him give a speech in the Jewish synagogue in downtown Denver, Colorado in March 2007; later that month my wife and I put “Obama for President” bumper stickers on our car. By the way, that car is a SUV, so you now see all my cards.

But the question here is which man as President, McCain or Obama, would be better for the environment. The answer to that important question is not abundantly clear to me, and in thinking about it, I realize how complicated and convoluted the answer could be. Traditionally, we environmentalists tend to think that Democrats are more favorable for the environment than Republicans. However, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the conservation legislation that many tout as the single most important environmental law ever written, was enacted under the Republican Richard Nixon. On the other hand, President Reagan (a Republican, who is quoted as saying “If you’ve seen one redwood tree, you’ve seen them all”) appointed James Watt as Secretary of the Interior, which most environmentalists considered a disastrous choice for such an important position as the manager of the nation’s natural resources. Generalizations seem to have low predictive power in this kind of analysis.

Here is a brief and highly simplistic analogy to demonstrate how there can be both intended and unintended effects on the environment. Let’s consider two families in the U.S., the Greens and the Slobs. Mr. and Mrs. Green read Al Gore’s book on global warming and they took it seriously. They turn off the lights when they leave one of the rooms in their house, they run their major appliances at off-peak hours, and they bought a small car (their second car) that gets 35 mpg. They built their 3,500 square foot house, well-insulated, in the woods from which they drive 10 miles to get to work everyday. They take a winter skiing vacation in Colorado and a summer vacation to Europe or Costa Rica most years that, of course, involves flying. Did I mention that the Greens have three children and two cats?

The Slobs haven’t read a book in a decade (the last was a Danielle Steele romance novel), they keep their electric home really warm in the winter and really cool in the summer, and they even throw trash out of their car when driving down the road. The Slobs live in a 1,500 square foot house in a run-down suburb of a major city. The Slobs drive an SUV, but they live only about 1 mile from their jobs. Their vacation in the summer involves driving to the beach about 50 miles away and staying in a cheap rental for a week with their only child.

If we were to do a carbon footprint analysis of these two families, it would surprise no one here that the Greens contribute much more to climate change than the Slobs, even though the Greens are trying to do their best. In fact, the two additional children that the Greens have will, alone, result in a much greater impact on the environment over the roughly 75-year years in which those two humans live in the U.S. than any energy the Greens could possibly save while those children are still living in their home. During those 7-8 decades, those two additional humans will consume tons of raw materials in the products they buy, use millions of joules of energy, and generate hundreds of tons of waste. In the short run, the Greens are also responsible for permanently eliminating a chunk of habitat from the forest in which they built their house, reducing and/or degrading biodiversity in the process. In short, although the Greens “intend” to reduce their impact by watching their energy consumption and their waste generation, their “unintended” impact is much greater than the Slobs, who are basically clueless about the whole issue. And if we compare the Greens to almost any of the 4-5 billion people living in developing countries, their relative impact is enormous.

Obama and McCain both intend to cut carbon emissions by 2050: Obama wants an 80% reduction over 1990 levels and McCain wanted a 60% reduction. Both of them have opposed drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The League of Conservation Voters graded each senator’s lifetime voting record in 2008 with regard to environmental issues—McCain got 24%, Obama got 86%. Overall, Obama seems to be the candidate likely to be better for the planet, a conclusion also reached by others who are examining this issue (

What about the unintended consequences? What if Obama, who has written a book about being hopeful, engenders enough optimistic feeling in the U.S., or even the world, that the birth rate ticks up .1%-.2%? Sounds far-fetched, but birth rates historically increase when people feel the future is going to be bright. Or, what if McCain had been able to stimulate the housing market to the extent that several million more houses were built than would otherwise have been the case? All economists think this would be a good thing, but try to estimate the increase in energy consumed, habitat lost, and materials used. Both candidates promise to stimulate economic growth and lower gas prices, but this tactic is almost certainly bad for the environment. For example, lower gas prices stimulate greater use of that resource and contribute more to climate change. These are enhancements that might be “good” for most of us in the short term, but be “bad” for us all in the long term. Isn’t this the classic dilemma?

Most of us do not engage in very deep analysis of these environmental issues, even when a general election is at stake. We take at face value what each candidate says they are going to do, compare what they say, and make a decision. My argument here is not that they may be lying, or naïve, or simply misinformed about what is possible to accomplish. That may be true. I am arguing that evaluating the consequences of having one man as President over another is pretty complicated because of the probable chain of interactions and unintended consequences of policies that may have nothing directly to do with the environment. But, then, isn’t that an incorrect statement? Doesn’t everything we do have an effect on the environment?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Climate change and individual behavior

(Let's open that oven door a little less often.)

Where did this crisis come from? I stand by the 2,500 scientific expert reviewers who signed off on the IPCC 3-volume report in 2007, which was written by more than 800 contributing authors from over 130 countries, and which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore. The report concluded that we have met the enemy and it is us. Realize that about 30 billion tons of CO2 enter the atmosphere each year due to human activities, in addition to vast quantities of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane. It would be astounding to me if that did not have an effect on earth’s climate. But this essay is not going to deal with the issue of whether humans caused the climate change problem, or whether it is due to aliens, or farting cattle, or the most recent Milankovich cycle. I want to focus on our individual behavior.

The carbon cycle is an important one for life on earth. Plants need carbon dioxide, which is given off every time an animal breathes, to conduct photosynthesis, and photosynthesis produces oxygen, which is needed by animals. So there is really a gigantic symbiosis there between those two groups of organisms. Everything went along just fine until the past century. We discovered the fossil fuels of coal, oil, and natural gas, which are comprised mostly of carbon and, of course, when carbon mixes with oxygen we get carbon dioxide. These fossil fuels were safely sequestered hundreds of feet below ground for about 200 million years. We dig them up, bring them to the surface, and burn them, which releases carbon dioxide into the air.

It is a worthwhile exercise to think about how to get rid of all that new carbon now that it is on the surface. Basically, you can not. You can let more plants grow, which sequester carbon in their tissues, but eventually they die and decompose and release the carbon back into the cycle. Much of it falls into the ocean, but it is eventually released again as well. One far-out suggestion is to cut down millions of tons of trees and sink them to the bottom of the ocean, which would take carbon out of the system for centuries. Not recommending that. I don’t have the answer, but we need to keep thinking about how to reduce the carbon that is already out of Pandora’s Box.

But what can we do to reduce the amount of additional carbon we put into the already burdened atmosphere from the package in which it is now sequestered—chunks of coal or barrels of oil? We can reduce the annual flow of CO2 into the atmosphere as individuals. I recently bought two books (can you guess where I bought them?) that have helped me get my head around the companion issues of what are the specific sources of CO2 and what can I do about them. Chris Goodall’s “How to live a low-carbon life: the individual’s guide to stopping climate change” has been the most informative piece I have read yet on this topic. Goodall works for a software company, was a Parliamentary Candidate for the Green Party, and holds an MBA from Harvard. The other book is “You can prevent global warming (and save money!)” by Jeff Langholz and Kelly Turner. Langholz received his Ph.D. in my home department at Cornell, and is now at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies.

Goodall estimates that about half of all CO2 emissions to the atmosphere are due to what individuals do in their daily lives: heat and light their homes, travel, etc. The other half comes from producing the food we eat and shipping it to us from afar, heating and cooling office buildings, and construction. His thesis, which is supported with numerous examples, is that we can not count on the governments of our respective countries (Goodall lives in the UK) to reduce emissions by as much as they are needed. Thus, we need to take responsibility ourselves for reducing our individual contribution from about 12.5 tons of CO2 per person per year to 3 tons per person per year, to use his numbers from the UK. (Remember, you can talk about carbon or you can talk about carbon dioxide, but do not mix the two in an apples to oranges comparison. One ton of carbon equals 3.6667 tons of carbon dioxide).

Goodall does an excellent job at taking each of the “systems” of our lives (e.g., lighting, car travel), explaining the contribution of that component to the overall problem, and offering sound advice on how to minimize our impact. The Langholz and Turner book is like a “saving energy for dummies” guide. What exactly and specifically can you do in your home, and what products are available to do it, to minimize your contribution to the problem of climate change. I find that the two volumes in combination (for a total price of about $25) have armed me for my personal attack on this vexing problem.

So I admit there are actions we can take as individuals, even given my usual pessimism about the quantities involved in these global problems of the environment. Much of it seems to be reprogramming our usual habits. If you want to make a real difference, never fly on a plane, and I mean never. But according to Langholz and Turner, if every oven owner in the U.S. peeked at their dinner cooking one less time per year, we would save 7,000 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere every year. For starters, I think I can manage that.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Earth Day 2010

(What have you done for your "Mother" lately?)

Earth Day 2010 will be celebrated in a few days.  The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970. I was in the U.S. Army on that date and, to be honest, I don’t remember a thing about that event. I’m not all that big on celebratory days anyway. But it is noteworthy that this event has been around for 40 years now, and it has had a positive effect. Environmental legislation was passed, awareness was raised, and an annual remembrance was institutionalized. The following excerpt was copied from Wikipedia:

“Earth Day proved popular in the United States and around the world. The first Earth Day had participants and celebrants in two thousand colleges and universities, roughly ten thousand primary and secondary schools, and hundreds of communities across the United States. More importantly, it brought 20 million Americans out into the spring sunshine for peaceful demonstrations in favor of environmental reform."

Senator Gaylord Nelson, principal founder of the event, stated that Earth Day "worked" because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. 20 million demonstrators and thousands of schools and local communities participated. He directly credited the first Earth Day with persuading U.S. politicians that environmental legislation had a substantial, lasting constituency. Many important laws were passed by the Congress in the wake of the 1970 Earth Day, including the Clean Air Act, laws to protect drinking water, wild lands and the ocean, and the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Earth Day is now observed in 175 countries, and coordinated by the nonprofit Earth Day Network, according to whom Earth Day is now the “largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by more than a half billion people every year. Environmental groups have sought to make Earth Day into a day of action which changes human behavior and provokes policy changes.”

But I keep thinking about the resources needed to really clean up planet earth, to protect biodiversity, and to reduce the probable impacts of global climate change. We have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the Iraq war, and committed hundreds of thousands of people to that effort. The irony is that, in my opinion, we have done this primarily to try to protect the flow of inexpensive oil. If successful (jury is still out), we will use more oil because it is cheap, and contribute more to the primary global environmental disaster facing us today—climate change. So, in effect, we are spending tax dollars to encourage the planet to be degraded faster. What is wrong with this picture?

As usual, humans are attempting to maximize short-term benefits at the expense of long-term costs, something I have written about several times. We simply were not selected to worry about events that might occur years in the future. So on it goes. At least, Earth Day encourages humans to think about the future, if only for a few hours.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Under cover of darkness: the hideous clothes we wear

(When the lights came on, I realized how hideous we looked.)

My wife returned from Target yesterday with a number of items for the house and for our grandkids.  My eyes glazed over as usual as she went through her prideful display of each one.  How is it that women can get such pleasure from the items they buy at a store and men could care so little?  I hate shopping of any kind, but I even hate the stuff other people bring home when THEY go shopping.  I hate even hearing about the shopping experience.  I don't care what's on sale at Best Buy, or that you can now buy mangoes at Wegmans, or that they are out of size 8 Jessica Simpson boots at The Gap (but you can buy those boots on this website). In short, I normally view the things you can buy at any store as a non-event.  But then, last night my eyes were opened and my brain was stimulated by an interesting observation.

As I walked past our bedroom door on my way to the den, I happened to see what looked like a giant Smurf in there.  It turned out to be my wife, which is fortunate cause we are the only people who live in the house, who was sporting some new pajamas she had bought that day at Target.  I mean, blue is my favorite color, but such a large dose all at once was jolting.  But as I was laughing until I cried, my wife made me look down at the pj bottoms I was wearing.  They were this god-awful looking scotch plaid that you would never see anyone wear in daylight unless they were carrying bagpipes.  What the heck?  (As an example of the kind of merchandise I am talking about, click on the title of this essay).

I guess the manufacturers of nightwear think they can make any garment out of any color in any design and get away with it.  The customer knows that almost no one will see them in the thing anyway, so they go ahead and buy it.  What a vicious cycle.  Undiscerning clothiers and undiscerning consumers coexisting in a symbiotic relationship that endures only because there is no light.  Turn on a bedside lamp or wait until the sun rises and the whole charade is exposed for what it is.  Ugly clothing sold for a profit and bought by people who think it is all right to wear ugly clothing under cover of darkness.  But some consumers know what they are doing, because I have seen them hide the nightwear from other nearby customers under their other purchases at the checkout counter.

Even if you realized later how ugly the nightwear was, who would bother to return the item to the store?  What would you tell the clerk at the Customer Service counter?  The nightgown is too red, or the pajamas have too many stripes, or the blue and the brown pattern clash.  "What the hell lady!  Why did you buy this hideous thing in the first place?"  So no one ever returns these items, because they would be embarrassed to admit they once liked them.  The manufacturers think that what they are producing is fine with the consumer, because the return rate is so low.

To change this horrific pattern of "ugly in-ugly out", I suggest the following.  All of us need to gather up our ugly nightwear and take it all en masse back to the stores from which they came.  I don't care if you bought the item five years ago and you have worn it a thousand times.  Walk right up to the Customer Service counter, pile the wad of ugly material in front of the clerk, and demand your money back.  I further suggest that we all do this on the same day so as to create a media frenzy and get proper publicity for this worthy cause.  I think May 1 would be a good date for this "Return Your Ugly Nightwear Day".  It should be an annual event to allow those consumers who "slipped" during the preceding year, and bought more ugly stuff, to get out from under their careless purchases.  May 1 (May Day) is an appropriate day for this important event.  It is described in Wikipedia as "International Workers' Day, or Labour Day, a day of political demonstrations and celebrations organized by the unions, anarchist, and socialist groups".  Long live the proletariat in their ugly nightwear!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I sold my trumpet on eBay today

(Goodbye old friend.  There was a brass-full of memories in this trumpet.)

It was exciting at first.  I listed the starting bid at $275.  Bids began to come in immediately.  $311. The inquiries also began: "Are there any scratches or dents?  Can you send me more pictures?  How much to mail it to Spain?  How much to Germany?"  I put my trumpet on eBay for 7 days, and it was turning out to be a long week mentally.  Initially, I just wanted to get rid of it, but by Day 4, I wasn't so sure.

The instrument was a Conn Constellation, made in Elkhart, Indiana.  After extensive research on the internet, I concluded it was a model 28A, built in 1959.  My mother bought the horn used from my trumpet instructor Max Beck for $200, which was a princely sum for our family in 1962.  But the trumpet I had used in high school in the early 1960s had been lugged around the country by my wife and me for more than 40 years.  I tried to play it once or twice during that time, but my lip was gone and I didn't have the energy to start over with the lip building business.  My son tried it for a while when he was young, but it didn't take.  It was apparent that if I kept the memento, it would never be used by me.  $411.  What to do with it?  It makes a lousy door stop.

As the week progressed, the memories associated with that old brass thing came flooding back to me.  I remember going over to Steve Wyandt's house, where he played drums and I played my trumpet.  We would listen to records of Louis Armstrong or Jonah Jones first and then we would play and try our best to sound just like them. I remember practicing in the upstairs bedroom where my brothers and I grew up on Rice Avenue, where my mother made me play for an hour a day.  That was the deal if she was going to pay for private lessons.  The first time I played those black marks on the page that represented notes, and realized that I knew the song I was playing, was magical.

I was a pretty good trumpet player at Lima Senior High.  I sat first or second chair in a 15-member trumpet section all three years in concert band.  I was a squad leader in the first line of our 96-member marching band.  I played in a swing band called the Swingphonettes; we played at some high school dances, much to the disappointment of the student body.  What's the problem?  I didn't see what Paul Anka had that we didn't have.  I was good, but I wasn't the best.  In concert band,  I'll never forget watching Delores Taylor, who was the best trumpet player we ever had, play the trumpet solo in Haydn Trumpet Concerto in Eb. (For a fantastic rendition of this moving concerto, watch Wynton Marsalis play this at Wynton Marsalis plays Haydn Concerto).  I felt pride as we accompanied her.  What made her performance all the more unbelievable was that Delores wore braces on her teeth.  Ouch!  $456.45.  

Being in the first line in marching band had its advantages.  You were right behind the majorettes--I  remember those legs as though I was still that horny adolescent boy.  I remember the hot practices in August behind the high school (which is now gone), and our hazing of sophomores entering the band for the first time.  How green they were.  I remember the ranting and raving of our emotional band instructor Bill Stein.  Man, could he get angry.  I remember Norman Meyers yelling words of encouragement at me from the second line as we took the field on a crisp autumn evening during the pre-game ceremonies.  It was Friday night and the stands contained thousands of the town's football fans.  I remember the lush green grass under our feet as we played the national anthem in front of that huge flag. 

I remember concerts in the high school auditorium, and bus trips to other schools and the feeling of being a "visitor" on their field, and the competition at Sectionals.  How nerve-wracking.  I remember all the camaraderie, the competitiveness, the hard work, the satisfaction, and the legs.  Those memories were rich and by Day 5 of the eBay cycle I was ready to bid on my own trumpet. $493.  Management denied me this option.

As we moved into the final hour of bidding on Day 7 for the most valuable childhood possession I ever owned, my emotional attachment seemed to dissipate as the trumpet with which I had spent so many hours transformed merely into an object I was selling.  $532.50$537.50.  Sold to the gentleman from Florida!  And so it goes. We buy, we use, and we sell.  We are born, we live, and we die.  It is a law of nature.  Nothing mysterious about it.  But I was exceptionally thoughtful and silent on the ride home from the post office.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Robert Penrod Gavin: Is benevolent behavior outdated?

(The same in any language?)

Robert Penrod Gavin only lived a month past his 41st birthday.  My father never knew we went to the moon, never heard of Vietnam, never knew I graduated high school, never saw his sons’ wives, never knew his grandchildren, never used a computer or cell phone, never knew that Kennedy was assassinated, and probably never paid more than 25 cents for a loaf of bread.  He did not live long enough to bury his own father, and when he died he left a 40 year-old widow with three sons aged 9, 11, and 14. 

It has been nearly half a century since my father died, and yet his words and actions echo through my head as though he were sitting on my shoulder: work hard, be honest, wash up and brush your teeth regularly, serve your fellow man, treat your family with love and respect, never fight, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  He lived these words literally, but I also remember, when I occasionally caught him in a minor violation of one of his own rules, how he replied defensively: “Tommy, do as I say, not as I do.”  I had been enjoying his violation of his own rules a little too much.  He hated smart alecks, because he viewed smart aleck remarks as rude, and you were never allowed to be rude to anyone, ever.

But was my father right that we should all follow the honest, hard-working turn-the-other-cheek philosophy (I will refer to this from now on using the shorthand, HHWP)?  Should we follow what sounds like good advice, at least to those who follow some form of the Judeo-Christian tradition?  Certainly the advice about personal hygiene is still sound.  But, for example, is it better to work hard or work smart, or is it even better to just be really clever?  Is it better to always turn away from confrontation, or is assertiveness, maybe even aggression, often necessary and valuable?  Did his advice only apply to lower-middle class families who had little chance of being anything else?  Maybe it was good advice during the decades of the Great Depression and WWII, but has outlived its usefulness since then.  Does his advice make sense in the social environment of the new millennium? 

It may be that society wants everyone to behave according to the HHWP, but this then creates the possibility for clever individuals to behave more selfishly to take advantage of this naïve behavior of the masses.  Maybe my father was just a fool, even during the time he lived, by working hard and being brutally honest while many others were not. 

Perhaps the HHWP made sense centuries ago, because in those days we lived in relatively small communities where everyone knew everyone else, and your behavior was constantly being monitored.  This was the environment in which my father lived as a boy in Northwest Ohio.  If you did not conform, you were shunned, or even banished from that society, which in a much earlier time must have meant almost certain death in a hostile world full of predators and enemies.  Maybe our tendency to be somewhat “benevolent” toward those around us is one of these current burdens.  That is, HHWP worked when individuals were surrounded by genetic relatives, but it is an ancient behavior that is much less adaptive when you are surrounded by a community of non-kin, as most of us are in developed countries today.

I never questioned these precepts until the past decade of my own life, but my examination leaves me unsure whether my father’s advice should be followed explicitly.  I instructed my own three children according to the “Penrod Rules”, but have I done them a disservice?  Will they conclude, or have they already concluded, that I am foolish and out of touch with the social tools that are needed in the modern community of near anonymity?  I must ask them the next time we are together.