Showing posts with label articles. Show all posts
Showing posts with label articles. Show all posts

Monday, April 30, 2012

On the value and necessity for persistence if you expect to be successful.

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. Winston Churchill who left the world so many memorable lines, said this one, too: “No young man should ever take no for an answer.” Allowing for the fact that these days “young man” would need to be changed to “young person”, what he said is as relevant today as it ever was, not least because of the challenging and seemingly unending dismal state of the economy, USA, Europe, the world.
Sadly, though I sound like an old fogey for saying it, today’s young people take no for an answer all the time, seeming to expect it, and certainly having little or no inkling of what to do when it hits them in the face. And this is a problem indeed, calling for immediate scrutiny and action.
To set the scene for this article, which can (kept and used) change your life for the better over and over again, go to any search engine and find the tune “True Grit”, composed by Elmer Bernstein for John Wayne’s 1969 film. Persistence, unwavering determination, in the face of obstacles big and small, is what true grit means. And that’s why, even in our adulterated days, it is in such short supply.
London, Summer 1977, your author, in a single day, learns the unalloyed value and usefulness of persistence.
It was 1977. London was packed with folks from everywhere who had come to find the England of their dreams and memories, and to see H.M. the Queen, celebrating (along with her husband, “always a step behind” Philip of Edinburgh),her Silver Jubilee, 25 years of her (mostly) happy and glorious reign. I was there, too, but not to gawk. I had serious business I meant to transact… if I could find anyone willing to transact it with me, young, green, determined.
The situation.
In 1977, I was a newly minted Ph.D. of well under 1000 days. My credentials — including that Ph.D. from Harvard — were impeccable. “That and fifty cents,” said my ever-practical and deflating father, “gets you a cup of coffee.” I took his point, not least because 1977 was a year of recession, where would be junior professors, from even the best universities, were having a very difficult time getting jobs, much less jobs they liked. I knew that only too well. Employers, academic or otherwise, did what employers always do in such situations if left unobserved: they raise the level of qualifications required… and slash the salary as much as possible.
That was why I was in London, to turn myself into the kind of gilt-edge property even the most supercilious of institutions would rush to recruit. My strategy went something like this:
* take my Harvard doctoral dissertation and cannibalize it for articles that could be sold to appropriate popular publications as well as published by appropriate academic journals.
* once the articles were published, use these to convince an appropriate publisher of my dreams (and I knew who they were) that I as a first-time book author was worth the money they’d have to invest to launch me and my book publishing career.
* Use the published articles and first book (remember, the first of many) to leverage a suitable position at a suitable (read “condescending and renowned”) institution.
Short, sweet, piece of cake — not.
The first challenge requiring persistence involved the cannibalization of my dissertation, mined for two very different kinds of publication: popular (newspapers and magazines) and academic. I wanted to publish at least 10-15 popular articles from what some (with consummate snobbery) called “ephemeral” publications… and an equal number for academic journals bearing lofty names and high credentials but few readers. By pursuing this two-pronged strategy I got maximum value from the dissertation and paved the way for its ultimate use as the launching pad for my publishing career and the Nobel Prize for Literature, which must, in due time, be granted. (Still waiting.)
Writing the articles, researching where to send them, organizing an efficient production process.
“Well begun is half done”, we say in New England, and fortunately for me the dissertation (entitled “Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee 1887″, covering the creation and perfection of English royal pageantry) covered events known, attended, and loved by millions of people. This apt selection of subject made the achievement of my objective the more likely than those who has selected more recondite (read “dull”) subjects. I wanted fame, acclaim, and all the trimmings therefrom and selected my subject accordingly.
I confess now (but never would then, insouciance being an essential part of a Harvard degree) that this was demanding… and needed discipline, focus, and persistence. It also required at least a one-way ticket from Boston, Massachusetts to London, for you see the overwhelming majority of these publications were there. Money being tight I worked hard to get it. I won’t say I resorted to cutting grass and baby sitting… but it was close.
And this is why on a sweltering Summer day, so hot English mates stripped thereby exposing the whitest of flesh, that is why, I say, I was standing on Fleet Street, my lengthy list of publications in hand, poised to enter the Daily Telegraph and ascendant celebrity.
That confident pipe dream lasted for 5 minutes, maybe less. No, the features editor wasn’t in; what’s more if she were, she wouldn’t see you anyway, Harvard man that you claim to be. Yes, this mere receptionist all but kicked me out shouting “Get out maggot.” I was shocked… and it was but the prelude to a very, very long day of being turned down by newspapers great, mediocre, and provincial, many of which I had thought (only that morning too) beneath my superior notice Oh, how the mighty had fallen.
And so it went, with only fellow countryman Johnny Apple of the New York Times agreeing to see me. He was a true gentleman, he was, the late Johnny, for all that he told me (in the nicest possible way) that hell would freeze over… not least because some of my article subjects the revered New York Times was paying him to render. And that was that.
The “luck” that is persistence.
And so it went until at last I was at the end of my day, my tether, and my list… just two more places left to reject me and my once vibrant ideas. I was bushed, crestfallen, irked, with a dollop of self-pity (I’m sure) in the mix.
And so I entered the offices of the Associated Press, London, one of the most important journalistic operatives on earth. And there I commenced to tell my story to a bored clerk, the clerk who had the power to crush 1/2 of my available prospects… a giant to a fly. And then, then, a disembodied voice bouncing off the wall divider… “Did you say your name is Jeffrey and that you’re from Massachusetts?”
It was as if the voice of God.
And in less time than it takes me to tell you, there was a chipper person before me with an American smile and directness. “You look terrible” my benefactor said, “Come in and tell me what’s on your mind.” And I did, to a length which only his good nature and courtesy would have excused. But from this encounter, which so easily might not have occurred, everything else, everything else ensued… for Reporter Jeffrey, whose surname I to my everlasting chagrin long ago misplaced… published a story titled “A Massachusetts Yankee in Queen Victoria’s Court”… a marvelous story, a story of intelligence and timeliness, well written too. And this story ran everywhere on this planet thanks to the giant reach of the Associated Press.
But I had one more place to go, The Times, the paper Charles Dickens dubbed “The Thunderer”. And here again, nirvana for the Features Editor saw me, knew AP reporter Jeffrey who was indeed from Massachusetts, and told me to prepare one article for her perusal. It was on her desk the next day… and accepted at once; the first of five articles bought by The Times and syndicated to the world; articles which my soon-to-be editor Roger Machell read in his office at Hamish Hamilton, that exquisite house I so longed to be part of and thanks to my AP benefactor now was. How I would like to see that man again and shake his hand, for he — and my own persistence — were decisive in shaping my life.
*** Your response to this article is requested. What do you think? Let us know by posting your comments below.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Abraham Lincoln… captivated by words, created by words, empowered by words, glorified by words. Reflections on his Cooper Union Speech, February27, 1860.

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant Author’s program note. 150 years ago, March 4, 1861 Abraham Lincoln (born 1809), became 16th president of the United States. And if you do not believe in destiny, fate, or kismet, even you will wonder at the undoubted fact that at the time of its maximum peril, the Great Republic should have found the perfect man to guide her affairs and so preside not over her premature dissolution (as so many thought and even wished) but her greatest trial, from which, terrible forge though it was, emerged the greatest of nations. Oh, yes, here was the hand of God, indeed… to the wonder of all… and as we know His ways are mysterious so we shouldn’t wonder at this man and his story… a story to be told in the words he loved, the words he mastered, the words he used to effect his great purpose… the words we all have at our disposal… but which only he used with such grace and power… and such resolve… the mark of the consummate master of our language and the great uses to which it can always rise… For this tale, I have selected as the occasional music a tune Abraham Lincoln loved and tapped his toe to, “Jimmy Crack Corn”. It’s a frolicksome number thought to be a black face minstrel song of the 1840s. Like so much that touches Lincoln, it’s not quite what it appears to be…. that is, a black slave’s lament over his master’s death… it has indeed a subtext of rejoicing over that death and possibly having caused it by deliberate negligence…. “Dat Blue Tail Fly”… It is a feeling every slave must have thought at some time… which every master must have understood and feared… and from this seemingly unsolvable conundrum Lincoln freed both, saving the people, cleansing the Great Republic. Without benefit of formal education… yet with every necessary word to hand. Consider the matter of Illinois, the 21st state, frontier of the Great Republic in 1818 when it was admitted to the Union. It was a land firmly focused on the bright future all were certain was coming… the better to obliterate and make bearable the rigors and unceasing travails of the present. The land was rich… the richness of the people would soon follow. In this land of future promise, inchoate, Lincoln, like all those who delight in words, found his labors lightened and vista magnified by books, and thanks to the good and helpful work of Robert Bray (2007), we may learn just what books he possessed, and so which words he knew, by whom rendered, and how. It is impossible to know in just what order young Lincoln found the books, read the books, and with what degree of joy and enthusiasm, for Lincoln (unlike many who love and live by words) was not a great writer of marginal commentary, in which reader engages in often enraged tete-a-tete with author. Such marginalia are cream to any biographer, but in Lincoln’s case were infrequent. In any event, we can surmise that he learned his words first from the great King James version of The Bible, perhaps the most influential and certainly most lyric book in the language. If so, it bestowed on him not only the words but their sonority, cadence and above all, moral certainty, all of which were critical in the development of his mature style and so helped save a great nation from self-destruction. There followed first the odd volume, happily received, then a steady trickle, then the glorious days when he could have as many books, and so as many words, as he wanted; paradise to a man for whom each word, and every book, was a key to greater understanding of the cosmos… and himself… Thus, E.A. Andrews and S. Stoddard “A Grammar of the Latin Language” (1836); Nathan Bailey “Dictionary of English Etymology” (1721); James Barclay “Dictionary” (1774); George Bancroft “History of the United States (1834); Francis Bacon “Essays” (1625); John Bunyan “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (1678); Benjamin Franklin “Autobiography” (1818); Edward Gibbon “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (1776)… … and one great poet after another, for as Lincoln learned, as every word smith must learn, there can be no mastery of words where there is no understanding of poets and their precise, meticulous craft… and so one finds without surprise the works of Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Thomas Gray whose “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751) he so loved… with its sad beauty, lines which, once read, seem to have been written for Lincoln himself: “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike the inevitable hour, the paths of glory lead but to the grave.” It was a thought Lincoln knew only too well, and he had but to touch this poem to think on its powerful, unanswerable, haunting words, including these… “Slow through the church-way path we saw him borne”… but not yet… not yet. And so Lincoln on every day sought out the light enabling him to learn the words, all the words he needed and his work demanded…. thus was he up with day’s first light… to finish his work betimes, to snatch some minutes for the words…, then to pass the night and gain some further words by fire light and smokey tallow. Because the words would not be denied… Lincoln was not to be denied. They beckoned. He followed… until he was at last ready to begin, just to begin, his great work… the work that needed all of him… and so every word at his command. Thus was he summoned from Springfield in Illinois to the greatest city of the Great Republic, New York, where its most renowned and anxious citizens, worthy, substantial, concerned, waited with impatience, condescension, worry and, yes, even hope to hear what a prairie lawyer named Lincoln had to say to them about the great issue of their day and how this great blot upon the Great Republic could be resolved… and their great experiment in governance be purified. And so did Abraham Lincoln rise to speak, at Cooper Union, February 27, 1860. The most important speech since Washington’s Farewell Address (1796). These days only specialists are knowledgeable about the Cooper Union speech… but this is wrong, for it gave the Union a new voice, a new leader, and a man fiercely dedicated to the preservation and triumph of the Constitution. Without Cooper Union Lincoln would never have been nominated in 1860, so never would have served, and could not have brought his signal talents to bear on saving the Great Republic. And thus the greatest experiment in human history and affairs might well have come to naught, to the impoverishment and despair of our species. But Cooper Union did happen… and with every word the nation knew it had found not merely a good and honest man, but a savior… a man fiercely dedicated to truth… fiercely dedicated to working together with even obdurate men who hated and outraged each other… fiercely determined to find the formula to protect and defend the Union… And so he was fierce in his moderation… fierce in his implacable opposition to anyone threatening the great federal Union… fierce in asking all good citizens to step forward and work for the greater good… And such was the power of his fierce message of what must be done, such was the excellence, clarity and reasonableness of his words, that this audience of the great thrilled and cheered him to the very echo. This single man whose ambition was defined (according to his law partner William H. Herndon) as “a little engine that knew no rest”, was now in place for the uttermost struggle, a struggle for common sense, common purpose, common decency and the validation and acknowledgement of all. He was ready… for he had the ideas, the fortitude, the moral certainty… and, above all, the words he needed, the words that saved the Great Republic and remind us still of what is possible when we have a leader who summons the “better angels of our nature.”

Friday, March 16, 2012

‘Look away Dixie Land!’ The day that determined the outcome of the U.S. Civil War. The Battle of Hampton Roads, March 9, 1862. And you are there….

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant Author’s program note. The American Civil War began April 12, 1861 with the firing of the rebel forces on Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. It officially ended on April 9, 1865 when General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House. In between, 212,938 people from both sides were killed in action, with total casualties exceeding 625,000 in what was the most bloody war ever fought on this planet… and the most embittered, as is always the case when brothers fight each other to the death, enraged, grieving, broken hearted but determined to have victory, whatever the cost… This war was filled with incident, great deeds of valor, deeds, too, of squalor, treachery, unmitigated cruelty… and chivalry… but of all the deeds in this great struggle, the deeds of just a handful of men determined the outcome. These were the men who fought each other at the Battle of Hampton Roads, Virginia March 8-9, 1862. And I am taking you there today… for you will want to know who won, who lost, and why it happened the way it did. For the incidental music to this article, I have selected Daniel Decatur Emmett’s famous tune, “Dixie,” also known as “I Wish I Was in Dixie,” a song originating in the black face minstrelsy of the 1850s. It is a tune that makes even the least likely ready to jump up and whirl. I have selected it today because, as Abraham Lincoln himself said on April 10, 1865, it’s “one of the best tunes I ever heard” … but also because of its famous line, “Look away, Dixie Land.” After the Battle of Hampton Roads, Virginia and all the other Confederate states had nothing to look forward to… and everything to look away from. But it didn’t look that way on March 8, 1862… quite the contrary. News of the most alarming portent arrives in Washington, D.C., Sunday, March 9, 1862. Gideon Wells, a New England journalist, found himself urgently summoned to the White House. Come! Come at once! And this Connecticut Yankee, in his unlikely role as Secretary of the Navy, scurried to a meeting where he found Mr. Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, in the greatest possible dismay… and so alarmed himself that he was alarming, too, the President of the Dis-united States of America. It was a scene to brighten every heart in Dixie… and cause shrewd financiers to sell U.S. Treasury bonds short before Wall Street opened Monday, to chaos and defeatism. Mr. Stanton could not keep still, could not hide his profound anxiety and fear. He sat down, only to jump up again and rush to the windows… What was he looking for? A savior for the Union cause… What did he expect to see? The CSS Virginia in all her glory steaming up the Potomac, sinking the Federal cause with effortless grace. It was a scene of destiny, and every man on both sides of the struggle knew that history of the gravest magnitude was happening now! To them! At Hampton Roads! And so depending on their point of view and allegiance they either gave way to unbridled joy… or profound despair and lamentation. No one was neutral on this urgent matter. USS Merrimac into CSS Virginia. The largest naval installation of the Great Republic was at Norfolk in Virginia… and so after the Old Dominion seceded (April 24, 1861) it became a matter of the greatest urgency to both sides to arrange matters there to their greatest advantage. This to the Federal forces meant moving as much as could be moved, destroying the rest. And, to the rebels, to do just the reverse. Thus was the USS Merrimac, unable to be removed in time and against the rebel sentiments of her crew, burnt and sunk… but not effectively. Her new owners quickly discovered both hull and engines were serviceable… and so began her transformation into the CSS Virginia, the vessel which made Secretary Stanton quail with acute fear and humiliating anxiety. Why? Because CSS Virginia, for all that she had just weeks ago been scuttled, was transformed into the mightiest ship of all the navies of all the seas… a ship sheathed in iron, designed to deal death to the picturesque, now ineffectual sailing ships of every navy, but without suffering a single nick at all. Thus did the dead Merrimac come to be the super weapon the Confederacy needed to pulverize the Union and secure their freedom from the meddling, inept Yankees they despised. Confederate triumph March 8, 1862. The world changed this day… as the Virginia, with the merest motion, rammed the hapless USS Cumberland, 121 seamen going down with her… then the USS Congress was put out of action, surrendering… and everyone, from the merest cabin boy, saw the future… and knew that every gallant wooden vessel, yesterday puissant, was now dross. And so, as cat to mouse, Virginia moved to her next sure triumph, USS Minnesota… while every telegrapher sent on the news, the news that so discomfited Secretary Stanton… and every other brave Union heart. Armageddon was here… and it flew a Confederate flag. Until… In August, 1861 Gideon Wells authorized work on a top-secret Union ironclad… and in due course the USS Monitor was born, the most radical naval design ever; the invention of Swedish engineer and inventor John Ericsson. And it was this curious, much mocked vessel that steamed into Hampton Roads March 9, just in time, to reverse what but yesterday had seemed certain, Southern command of the seas and therefore victory. And as Monitor and Virginia battled each other to a draw, each unable to finish its deft opponent, the entire strategic scene changed. All wooden ships, every single one, was now obsolete; thus a new arms race started for command of the seas. USS Monitor had, simply by maneuvering to a draw, stopped the South’s “certain” advance and commenced a war of bloody attrition, a war the North could win, and the South had most reason to fear. For without access to the world, the South could only rely on itself… and that would never be enough to ensure independence as every Southern family would, in tragic due course, come to understand only too well. As for both the historic ships of this engagement, neither sailed for long. Virginia was burnt again and sunk when Union forces took back the Norfolk port facilities in May. As for the plucky Monitor, she sank December 31,1862 off North Carolina. The remains of one of her stricken crew, 24-year-old James Fenwick, were just recently brought to the surface for honorable burial. He had been married just a few weeks before Monitor embarked on her final voyage; her history short but epochal. “Old times they are not forgotten; Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.” ** We invite you to post your comments to this article below.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Boys will be boys…. thoughts on hazing, fraternities, fair Dartmouth and a renowned college president who stumbled… or did he?

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. I have total recall of this matter. It was1966 and I was about to be a sophomore at alma mater… and my parents were worried… worried that I, their darling, their first-born son, was becoming a wonk… all work, no play, a very dull boy indeed. Sure, I was #1 in my class, a certain summa in the making, but not well rounded, never the lithe master of every country club skill. And so, mom did not so much request as plead with me to go through “rush week” when older boys (to my worried parents’ complete satisfaction) scrutinized younger boys… delivering themselves of every social outrage, all in the name of social acceptance, social advancement, and the glory of the frat.
And so to please mama, I signed up as an available pledge… and went out each and every evening to my fate… which went like this…
Gilded anachronism.
To justify their anachronistic existence, and divert attention from what they liked to do and were in existence to deliver, all the fraternities sponsored a yearly academic prize… and all worked as hard as they ever worked on anything to win it… for winning covered a multitude of outrages. And so they sought out wonks, not because they liked wonks but because these wonks and their stellar grades, once pledged, gave them the latitude to party hardy.
“Boy,” they said at each House in the stream of parties attended, “we don’t want you… but we do want your perfect grade point average… that cool 4 point o.” And so, holding their noses, the jeunesse doree’ of Fraternity Row offered me membership… at the cost of my self-esteem. Finding the necessary resolution, I told them thanks but no thanks, breaking my uncomprehending mother’s heart, who saw not courage but a lifetime of effortless contacts from past, present, future brothers thrown thoughtlessly away…
… As a result, I was never hazed and so cannot from personal experience relate its intricacies, primal thrills and long-established protocols. Luckily I have at my disposal the unvarnished truths on the matter delivered by the man who kissed and told, that rogue brother, the traitor of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, Andrew Lohse, the man who did the worst thing he could do… letting his erstwhile brothers down… to his everlasting shame and damnation.
For the incidental music to this piece about boys being boys and the ways long honed by their Greek letter predecessors of getting around bamboozled parents and clueless authority figures of every kind, I have selected one of the popular songs from the “Animal House” series (first released in 1978). It’s “Louie, Louie”, the ultimate attitude song. It was written by Richard Berry and released in 1957. Find it in any search engine. Play it at once. And, remember, it didn’t get its reputation for outrage, insolence and ability to irritate every adult everywhere for nothing…
Dartmouth College, an abbreviated history.
When you first see Dartmouth, founded in Hanover, New Hampshire in 1769, you catch your breath. It’s a picture-postcard-perfect scene, a location tailor-made for well-heeled parents remembering their own undergrad capers. But behind the Currier-and-Ives scenaries is one generation of Dartmouth men doing absolutely disgusting things with and to the bodies of other young Dartmouth men… in rites as old as Neanderthal and as new as Facebook.
The current imp to unveil the excesses occurring behind the Corinthian columns on Fraternity Row — for they have been unveiled before — is young Lohse, aspiring journalist, who had no farther to look for inspiration than to his brothers. What they were willing to do to sleep in such exalted quarters amongst the gilded youths makes piquant reading indeed…
… how pledges slurped beer (no doubt the cream of pale ales) off the backsides, between the legs of their soon-to-be brethren;
how these same chosen few walked through kiddie pools sloshing urine and excrement;
how they feasted, as well they might, on succulent pies of gourmet-quality vomit.
There is more, of course; there is always more, of these gifted Ivy Leaguers snorting with each other, spitting on each other, tossing the furniture about, least wisely at a female Dartmouth security officer. There is still more… but you get the picture, the picture Lohse first published in the campus newspaper, The Dartmouth (America’s oldest college newspaper, since 1799) on January 25, 2012; a picture he has now sold for publication in “Rolling Stone” for the edification of the world.
The faculty reacted with the usual unedifying mixture of umbrage, outrage, humiliation, and — above all — embarrassment. How could they brag of their high positions at this Ivy League institution when this institution was most often portrayed — and in such detail, too — as a country club for the socially maladjusted and their jejune pastimes and adolescent joys? Outrageous!
Enter Dartmouth president Jim Kim.
Having little else to do in their pristine North woods, the abashed faculty made their way to President Jim Kim’s available door… pouring forth their hot words, often in iambic pentameter. Amongst the words most heard: outmoded, dangerous, illegal, scandalous, moral thuggery, physically, emotionally, psychologically damaging… and much more of this florid, grandiloquent, purple language of high import and flatulence; for this faculty, like so many faculties, never met a sonorous and highfalutin word it didn’t like, and uses them with gay abandon whenever the opportunity arises, as it most surely has arisen here.
Weak as water, or shrewd and cagey, biding his time?
President Kim, a renowned educator, gave these aroused faculty members no satisfaction whatsoever, although he called for an investigation and made it clear the College’s detailed anti-hazing policy, as well as that of the Granite State itself, would be applied and applied with rigor. That was the presidential equivalent of “blah, blah, blah” and conduced to greater anger amongst the academicians than they had already evinced. Too little, they grumbled, too late; they demanded the complete demolition of each and every den of iniquity and bad taste called fraternities.
Here President Kim not only disappointed, but alarmed them… for he made clear that he would not, and most likely, could not eradicate the insolent fraternities and their (to others) offensive ways. Some saw this as a nod in the direction of Dartmouth’s rich alumni, aging brothers with odd tastes and strong memories. If drinking beer their own way had been good enough for them, what had a few chiding do-gooders to say of the practice? They would give to Dartmouth if and only if…
And since Dartmouth needs money, and oodles of if, the fraternities and their bullying, homo-erotic, unhousebroken ways, might have to be tolerated… for this is, after all, America… where a man (or woman) has the God-given right to outrage their neighbors and their prim views just about anyway they like.
And, with that, I give you the stirring chords of “Louie, Louie” once again, because whilst these frats and their particular menaces and peculiar devices might well remain for cycles yet to come, “me, I’ve gotta go”…
**** We invite you to post your comments to this article.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Deviled eggs.

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. This is a story as American as apple pie and hay rides, although its roots go back to Ancient Rome. It’s a story that will remind you of your own youthful days when the livin’ was easy, and you had time enough to waste without a single regret.
It’s a story about people you haven’t thought about in too long… and places you miss the minute you think of them… it’s about the days when your energies were prodigal… and you were admonished to wipe your feet and wash those hands before sitting down and giving a blessing too short, perfunctory… because you didn’t know how blessed you were.
It’s a story of mom in the kitchen laboring, the lady of the house, a position which later ladies might disparage, but which she never did. It’s a story, too, of dad who organizes the whole shebang for the good of the family he’s proud of; saying little perhaps, but giving all.
This is the story of a little item that was a frequent guest… and a joy to eat… a thing eaten fast, never savored, gulped, acknowledged later with a belch you tried to quell but could not; your mother thereupon pointing a finger at you while saying, “I told you so.”
This is the story of deviled eggs… and you, like me, will be glad to have it… and, if you can find one today, glad to eat… for it is the most delicious time capsule of all… and you’ve been missing it without even knowing.
As the incidental music for this article, and this culinary staple of high summer, I have selected “In the Good Old Summertime.” It started as an American Tin Pan Alley song first published in 1902 with music by George Evans and lyrics by Ren Shields. It was the title song in the 1940 film starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson. Go now to any search engine and find the version you like. Then sing along, so you can work up an even better appetite for your ovoid treat.
Terrible cook, memorable deviled eggs.
My mother, bless her soul, was a terrible cook; I could therefore count on the fingers of a single hand the dishes she made which were actually good. One of these was her deviled eggs. They were not merely good; they were supreme, as if all the talents which might otherwise have gone into a dozen dishes or more had been concentrated in just one never-to-be-forgotten masterpiece.
Thus when I saw deviled eggs on the menu at the Cambridge Common Restaurant a couple months ago, I ordered them at once… and found myself impatient while waiting for them; (a thing I never thought I’d see on any menu hereabouts) . And I did to them what I did to their ancestors of fifty years and more ago: I gulped them down, for my brain, in some deep place of memory, knew that that was the way, the only way, to eat them… And so in an instant, with a single taste, I was no longer the senior citizen with burdens and obligations, but twelve or fourteen or so, happy, alive, immersed in joy, surrounded by love… and as many deviled eggs as the sustenance and prolongation of such a mood and condition might require.
No two cooks, even if they scrupulously followed a common recipe, would produce their deviled eggs in the same way. That is because each, yes every single one, adds one top secret ingredient, an ingredient so important it was never discussed, and most assuredly never written down; for your mother was aware that every other housewife (no matter how honorable in other matters ) couldn’t possibly resist a little culinary espionage, regarding it as an essential aspect of her work. And if she found and employed this ingredient to improve what was wrought by her own fair hand, why that was her bounden duty and solemn obligation. After all, all’s fair in love…
Start here.
But before we get to the matter of those secret ingredients, let’s start with the basics, for in these most cooks are agreed.
A dozen hard boiled eggs, yolks extracted Mayo (generously mixed in) Mustard (only a little) salt & pepper a splash of Worcestershire sauce Add all ingredients above into bowl and hand mix or use hand blender Refill egg cavities with yolk mix Dust finished eggs with paprika Slice pimento-stuffed green olives and place a piece so the red center of the green olive is in the center of each deviled egg. Chill and serve.
This recipe works, of course, in the way all such recipes work. It does the job but just in prosaic, pedestrian manner. As such while it may be good enough for others (like Mrs. Anne down the road), it will never be good enough for you and yours. And so you go where lesser housewives do not venture; places that prove your ingenuity, skill and cunning… a condition of affairs which you relish and exult.
And so to Rome.
There isn’t a culture on earth that doesn’t have its version of deviled eggs; thus you are able to excel in your presentation by studying what is done far from your kitchen… by housewives as proud as you are. Each delights in her own secret: diced pickle or pickle relish, ground black pepper, powdered cayenne pepper or chipole, turmeric, vinegar, poppy seed, thyme, cilantro, minced onion, celery… and
… garlic, horseradish, wasabi, sliced Jalapeno pepper, cheese, chutney, salsa, hot sauce, ham, mushrooms, spinach, sour cream, caviar, smoked salmon … and many more…
Each a secret ingredient, and kept secret until the actual moment of use, the ingredient that spells mastery… and love… for each is the ingredient proving her family is the most loved and cared for of all, proven by a taste that forever means home…wherever you are, whenever you have it.
And, this summer, as in all the summers before, deviled eggs will be in attendance, waiting to perform their delicious function for you as they once did for the emperors of the seven hills of Rome and the wide world beyond….
“No trouble annoying, Each one is enjoying, The good old summer time”…
… and all the deviled eggs you could ever want.
*** We invite you to post your comments to this article.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Running your own business? Think you’re listening to and serving your customers? You may be surprised what these customers think about that.

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
We live in a society where the means of connecting with each other increase and proliferate every single day. And yet, we are communicating with each other less well than ever; in fact, it seems to me that as the means of communicating go up, the actual communicating we do goes down. And if this is one of the chief ironies of our times; it is also amongst the greatest, most irritating and always infuriating aspects, not least because it should never occur at all.
Irritation by phone.
Every Wednesday I have occasion to see how people who are not sufficiently client-centered handle their customers. The case in point is the team of Brazilian cleaners which comes every 7 days to help keep me sufficiently clean and tidy for another week so that I can do my important work for you, readers, with the complete focus required.
These cleaners have worked for me for some years now. I like them and (despite my exigent standards) they seem to like me.
Lately, however, the situation, once stable and acceptable, has declined. What’s more I know why and (if they’re paying attention) the cleaners and their fearless leader should know, too.
We have, in fact, arrived at the point where I say a thing, but they do not hear that thing, much less take action to do that thing. And so a “problem” that should never have existed… now needs the kind of action I am no longer sure these cleaners are able and willing to take. It goes like this…
“Hang that phone up.”
The head cleaner, not to put too fine a point on the matter, has never met a phone she doesn’t like. She’s always pleasant, personable, a smile ever at the ready even when things in her life are not going as well as she might like… and (and this is the gravamen of my charge) she’s a chatterbox who may well have been born with a phone in her ear, and this not only annoys me; it alarms me… for my particular lifestyle is unusual for our times…
Life in a museum.
Over the course of the last couple of decades or so I have focused on the acquisition of museum quality artifacts of every kind. Their care and protection is my objective… the better to give each of them the opportunity to be shown to utmost advantage. This means regular dusting and polishing. Here’s where the problem begins.
I have made it clear to the cleaners on now innumerable occasions that the way they work for others may not constitute the best way they should work for me. In other words, their whirling dervish style of dust removal must be changed when the object being dusted has literally hung at Versailles. Slow and steady is the desired approach…
“Don’t do it all at once.”
Dusting and the like, let’s face it, can be dull, excruciatingly dull indeed. I pride myself on an acute awareness of this fact. And so from the very beginning, with so many facets needing regular attention, I have advised the cleaners to do a portion of the artifacts one week; the balance the next… even extending full dusting over three visits; in other words caution and care are desirable, not necessarily the speed on which they pride their operation. That works for them; it most assuredly does not work for me. And, worse, as they rush through their tasks, I literally hold my breath while they swing their awkward and provocative vacuum cleaner in the very limited space at their disposal. To say I am nervous as they work is the ultimate under statement.
But no matter how often I advise them… that is the precise number of times they have not only failed to hear… but have made it perfectly clear that they regard this advice as superfluous, intrusive, completely beside the point…
The phone, the whole phone, and nothing but the phone.
The cleaners love to yap (a word my grandmother used to use for chatter that most assuredly did not rise to the level of more demanding and reciprocal conversation)… and they yap from the moment they arrive… to the moment they depart. They do it LOUDLY with each other (a situation that I usually ignore). More seriously, they do it on the phone while doing their cleaning… and this is a situation I most assuredly do NOT ignore. What’s more, I cannot ignore it… because, in my case, that would be careless and irresponsible, such is the rarity and beauty of the items herein, a fact I am never sure they have taken in, much less understand and make clear they understand by carefully considered and carefully rendered action.
The situation rises to boiling point when they focus on the telephone and their jejune yapping… instead of devoting 100% of their attention to the breathtaking portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) which arrests the attention of every connoisseur who sees it. For the cleaners, philistines, it is just another burdensome object to get through, get by, get over until they can go home — safe from the old geezer who demands not only an earnest effort, but one that does not on any way threaten the object in question.
And so the chief cleaner says this to me with complete incomprehension: “I never break anything,” her pout pronounced… her eyes smouldering. Thus, she indicates she has not heard my point, clearly doesn’t understand it, and does not perceive the benefit of attending to her customer, the customer she needs for her business but cannot be bothered to comprehend, much less conciliate and reassure.
Beneficial advice. Treat it accordingly.
Now let us draw what benefits we can from this situation, for it is time to resolve it, placing our relations on the better footing they once were.
1) Listen to your customers. They are the sole reason why you have a business in the first place.
2) Do not see the customer as the enemy but rather a fellow traveler with you on this planet, who has a right to your ear as well as your labor.
3) Do not casually listen to, or even ignore, what this customer says. Not only is that bad business; it is also bad human relations.
4) When the customer addresses you, listen… and see what you can do, not to ignore the point, but to implement it, as quickly and easily as possible.’
5) Where the customer has concerns respond to them with alacrity and with empathy. Then see what you can do about implementing solutions to them.
6) Even where you do not entirely agree with the customer, do what you can to accommodate that customer.
7) Where you know that such and such a thing disturbs your customer, go the extra mile to avoid such disturbance.
And, above all, ask yourself this fundamental and crucial question: have I done everything this day to ameliorate the situation, hearing, doing, improving the relations and so earning the trust and even admiration of this all important person. For, remember, each contact you have with your customer provides yet another occasion to earn this trust and admiration, and if you do not take it, you are yourself your own worst enemy… and that is unacceptable indeed.
But let’s end on the highest possible note of accommodation and joy, with “painfully fabulous” Siedah Garrett’s 2012 Academy Award nominated song, “Real in Rio.” Find it in any search engine… and samba. Just don’t do it when you’re polishing the silver.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Rock of ages. The pain and comfort locked in every piece of jewelry.

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
I am about to open a time capsule. It’s been waiting for me for some years now, and I am, I think, as ready as I shall ever be to look inside — and to be swept away by the strongest and most enduring memories… of mother, deceased, never more alive in my mind.
I am writing this article for just 4 people, first, my mother herself; she and I discussed this subject on several occasions and I want to keep faith with her.
Second, I am writing this article for me. I resolved some time ago that as incidents in my mother’s life rose to the top of my consciousness, I would write about them, the better to remember her and keep her memory green.
The third person for whom this is written is my only niece Chelsea; she’s the young woman (now just 21) who will get these pieces, and I want her to know her grandmother better; to at least know her through my eyes. Chelsea, your grandmother lives again here, and it is my hope you will understand just what that means and your role, for you are the one designated by fate, destiny and your grandmother and I to have, behold, savor this jewelry — and, in your turn, to pass them on with the seriousness and thoughtfulness they deserve.
Finally, I am writing this article for you, dear reader. Why? Because at some point in your life you will face the exact subject of this article and must do it completely right the first time. This article will enable you to do just that…
The intimacy of jewelry.
All jewelry is valuable, even that you find on the bargain table of the five-and-dime. Just what that value is depends on the materials used, the fame of the person who designed it, the company that sold it, and the overall impact of the work. On these things you have no influence whatsoever
But on the final point your opinion is everything: what emotional wallop does the piece pack, an intangible that emanates from the loved one who wore this beautiful item, what she thought of it, where and when she wore it, photographs in which the item is featured, etc. So does such an object become an apperture into the life of and memories about your departed beloved… and you must make a decision about their importance and intensity to you… and who might have them after you, too, are gone. All this is essential, not easy, and fraught with emotional dynamite.
Pen, paper, object, focus.
It is easy to get distracted when you’re sorting items as intimate as your mother’s jewelry. These items are, after all, of the greatest personal significance to you, as must be the case given the person they once adorned, brightening her life — and yours. Such memories, too, deserve your full attention… but not until the business is handled. For this you need the following items: pen, paper, camera and an easy-to-work-in space where you can unpack the items and work with them. Drawing up a list on your computer is also advisable and makes it easy to communicate with the people involved in this matter. Do this as soon as possible.
This is easier said than done.
As you can see from this article I deferred handling this matter for several years. This would have been irresponsible of me but for the unique circumstances of our family. There were only three ladies in the family who had and still have (in the case of the two juniors) any involvement in this matter, and one being removed from the scene, the other two, mother and daughter, did not demand or insist upon an instant resolution to the business… rather the reverse as Chelsea, the one who would get most everything, was not ready for ownership yet as still an undergraduate without fixed address or life’s work… and so the matter could be continued without inconvenience to anyone. This is why the objects waited so long for my detailed attention, inspection, report, and distribution.
But now the time capsule must be opened, each item evocative of its owner brought forth, and the important work begun, as I am doing here at my desk.
The importance of each object being marked and recorded, boxed, ready for the next owner, like Mary Regina did.
I take as my superb skill model Queen Mary, wife of King George V. She might have been a curator of a museum, and in all practical particulars she was, given the professional way she handled all items in the collection of the royal house of Windsor. Each was examined by the Queen and often all its important details clearly recorded in her own fair hand. Well, if it’s good enough for Queen Mary, it’s good enough for me. And so, with great care, I take the first box out of the shopping bag where the jewelry has lived for a prolonged period. It is now time for its renewed appearance, to be worn and treasured by another generation.
Open the first box and begin.
If you are lucky the recipient of the jewelry with which you are charged has been scrupulous about saving the box the item came in and any paperwork, like invoice or sales slip. These are important since they contain vital information which may bear on the value and rarity of the piece. Keep them safe… and always gather these details for your heirs. I have been a good guardian… that is my pride as I start to pull the dusty boxes into the light.
And, then, unbidden the insistent memories are here, demanding a sustained attention I feel compelled to give.
The penny-farthing bicycle pin in silver… a reduced version of her Baron’s coronet, set in gold, the ancient title hers in her own right… the golden Christmas wreath pin set in emeralds and sapphires she wore to every seasonal party, for she loved the gladdening smell, regretting only that this pin could not duplicate the original…
And so it went, items unearthed, opened, scrutinized, remembered… each one a memory tugging at my heart… but I had promised myself I would focus first and foremost on the business at hand… and I kept this promise until one very special piece of jewelry emerged, immediately catching the light and igniting.
It was the gold iridescent dragonfly with its dense green and gold motif. I recognized it at once; after all, I had given it to her. In addition to the card that accompanied the original gift, there was a message in my hand. “She always said she wanted to fly free as the curious dragonfly. And now she does…”
I broke down and sobbed, for at this moment human frailty, human limitations, human mortality were all too close, too painful, too real. And now this brilliant creature is in my hand half a world away… and here I shall keep it, until Chelsea is ready and knows why the tears flowed hot and heartfelt and will keep it safe as I have done.
* * * * We invite your comments below.

Monday, March 5, 2012

William Topaz McGonagall, (March 1825-29 September 1902), quite possibly the world’s worst poet, yet an admirable man well worth the knowing.

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. I first became aware of William McGonagall in 1967 when I was a student at Scotland’s oldest and proudest university, St. Andrews. “You must read McGonagall” people said with a twinkle. “He’s undoubtedly Scotland’s worst poet… indeed, quite possibly the single worst poet who has ever lived.”
Every person who told me — and there were many — offered their fervent recommendation, tongue firmly in cheek, with high good humor… but there was (odd mixture) more than a dollop of respect in their words, even admiration… and never, ever derision. McGonagall compelled their respect, and so while everyone smiled at his execrable verses… there wasn’t a soul who begrudged him a hard-earned encomium for his persistence, his tenacity in pursuing his evanescent, shimmering dream, and most of all his unyielding determination, a potent combination which made him an unlikely celebrity and a man about whom I now say to you in my turn “You must read McGonagall.”
For the incidental music to this article I have selected a tune from the 1954 musical “Brigadoon”, that magic place in the sweet-smelling heather, the pertinacious flower of Scotland; a place that emerges once every 100 years to remind you of a people, their unquenchable zest and undeniable genius. McGonagall deserves his hard-won place amongst the revelry and pageantry of Brigadoon… it would no doubt have inspired him to another (admittedly God-awful) effusion.
You will find my selection — “Heather on the hill” — in any search engine. Go now… for at this party we shall eat, drink, be merrie… and if we compel a tear, then it’s a willing tribute we pay to a land we revere and remember fondly too… and because McGonagall shared that sentiment he is always and forever one of us.
Born in Edinburgh, in 1825, or maybe 1830.
Like many aspects of McGonagall’s checkered career, his basic facts are either unknown or in dispute. He was, for instance, born in the Greyfriars Parish in Edinburgh in March, but just what date is not known… indeed the very year itself of his birth cannot be determined. What of it? He came to his Irish parents on a particular day… and it’s sufficient that he did so… and so began his race, a race for which he was well equipped in only one thing — true grit and assiduity.
… And sad to say, that wasn’t enough to win, as he wanted to win. But he refused to recognize this fact, and that’s the point of this tale…
The Weaver Poet.
If he were born today, McGonagall, hard-working weaver of long-wearing cloth, would no doubt qualify for a grant from some well-meaning foundation of liberal tendencies… but such like did not exist then… and so, despite the wife and 7 children he acquired along the way, he left his uncertain craft… in pursuit of… what? Different people said very different things about what he did. He never heard them, didn’t care, and didn’t let their advice, however earnest and sensible, determine his direction… and that, too, is the point of this tale.
And so his quest for himself and for the words that always eluded him began…
… appropriately enough with a role in “Macbeth” where he played the title role… embellishing it in this way: having paid Mr. Giles for the right to play this role at his theatre, he understandably wished to get his money’s worth. And so at Macduff’s great moment, McGonagall, as Macbeth, refused to die and stayed on the stage, extemporizing, to the consternation and amusement of all. Ah, this was most assuredly a portent of things — and poetry — to come.
A pivotal moment in 1877.
There comes to all people with a mission a moment of epiphany, a moment when they know beyond a shadow of doubt what they will do, what they must do to fulfill their destiny and high purpose. This moment occurred in 1877 for McGonagall, and it determined his fate. “I seemed to feel a strange kind of feeling stealing over me and remained so for about five minutes.” Another man must have seen it as dyspepsia brought on by a too fine dinner… McGonagall saw it as destiny…. his fate, poetry.
And now, then, we must unveil some of this poetry, ultimately about 200 works, perhaps the worst ever written, God bless him.
McGonagall, fervent royalist that he was, wrote often about his sovereign princess and lady, Queen Victoria. Indeed, on one well-known occasion he thought nothing of walking about 60 miles from Dundee to Balmoral where Her Majesty then resided. Undaunted by her failure to receive him, drenched to the skin though he was, not even gifted with a wee, warming dram, he still revered, for his loyalty was abiding and profound.
Thus for her Golden Jubilee of 1887, celebrating 50 years upon the throne, he wrote:
“Therefore let all her subjects rejoice and sing, Until they make the welkin ring; And let young and old on this her Jubilee be glad, And cry, ‘Long Live our Queen!’ and don’t be sad.’
Sadly such loyal sentiments so rendered did not enrich this most unpoetic of poets, no indeed. Thus his expedients were many. For instance, he took a job at a circus where he gave readings from his oeuvre and allowed his discriminating listeners to signify their disapprobation by pelting him with offal, dead cats, rotten tomatoes, lamb carcasses and other disagreeables. It was never enough, not even close, to making a living.
…. But still the torpid words, the wrong words, the words that mangled and hurt to hear kept coming, for this was a man possessed, though not gifted.
Until the collapse of the great Tay Bridge, one of the great engineering marvels of the age, gave him his great opportunity — and he seized it.
“Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay! Alas! I am very sorry to say That ninety lives have been taken away On the last Sabbath day of 1879, Which will be remember’d for a very long time.”
And so he rendered the catastrophe of 28 December 1879 when the bridge collapsed, taking with it the fast-speeding express and every passenger. McGonagall’s words were the high point of his bathetic career.
Let us leave it so, for now you know of McGonagall and his works, each one you can read, savor, and enjoy… though never, ever deride. For though he was a bad poet, perhaps the worst ever known, he was adamant in pursuit of his dream; perhaps more adamant than you. And so in the end, he endures; his awkward verses, every one of them, still in print…
“I am your gracious Majesty ever faithful to Thee, William McGonagall, the Poor Poet, That lives in Dundee.”
… And in our hearts.

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