Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Churchill makes the cut

By Bob Gaydos

“October is a fine and dangerous season in America. a wonderful time to begin anything at all. You go to college, and every course in the catalogue looks wonderful.”
-- Thomas Merton

Yes, I’m back to The List. The 20/20 if you will. Choosing the 20 most influential thinkers of the 20th Century, as laid down in a challenge by a friend who has since failed to participate in the actual choosing and who shall, hence, go nameless until he deigns to join in the process.

Tim and Ernie, though, they’re a different story. Both have taken a sincere interest in the project and both said I should take a look at Thomas Merton. And since I respect both of their opinions, I did.

Quite the man, Merton. I confess that with Merton, as with quite a number of names mentioned in previous columns, my personal data bank did not go much beyond the superficial labels. Catholic. Monk. Pacifist. Author. Poet. Social activist.

But he was so much more than the sum of his parts. As a priest and author he preached a gospel of peaceful co-existence, including among religions. His too-brief life was a spiritual journey seeking to discover and praise the common threads of people’s different beliefs and to put those beliefs into action, protesting against war and racism. His writings and teachings influenced thousands and figured prominently in the 1960s anti-war and civil rights protests and the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh to this day carries on his crusade for peace and social justice.

Coincidentally, the Center in November will present the annual Thomas Merton Award to Noam Chomsky, another renowned thinker, scholar, writer and long-time activist and potential member of The List.

The Merton quotation at the top of this column is not necessarily representative of his life’s work, but I like the simple truth it conveys as well as the timely convenience. It makes October a perfect time to start whittling The List to 20. This is not going to be easy, so I will start with those I think have to be on it and then consider the rest, the way baseball teams do in spring training.

So, not in any order, here’s the proposed foundation of the 20-person roster (If you object, speak now or start your own list):

  • Albert Einstein
  • Gandhi
  • Henry Ford
  • The Wright Brothers (count as one)
  • Thomas Edison
  • Picasso
  • Nikola Tesla
  • Mark Twain
  • James D. Watson and Francis Crick (again, count as one)
  • Winston Churchill

Churchill is the only statesman on The List, suggesting to me that most of them, while having influence because of their positions, are not necessarily great thinkers. I think Churchill was the exception in the 20th Century. His oratory, courage and vision, not to mention leadership, were profoundly important in saving the world from the Axis powers in World War II and in shaping the modern world. He was also an artist and prolific writer, who enjoyed cigars and brandy. A sampling of his quotations provides a good snapshot of the multi-dimensional man:

  • “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”
  • “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
  • “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”
  • “If you're going through hell, keep going.”
  • “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
  • “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
  • “I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”

What can I say? I like the way he thinks.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Jimmys: Murray, Cannon and Palmer

By Bob Gaydos

At one point in my four-plus decades in newspapers, I was a sports editor. It was for a paper in Binghamton, but it was still a great job. I got to go to sports editor seminars where everybody talked sports, hung out, ate and drank. I got to cover some Yankee games. Jerry Izenberg, former columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger once lent me his typewriter (see Wikipedia) so I could file my story after a game because I had left my machine in Binghamton. I also once interviewed Baltimore Orioles ace pitcher Jim Palmer as he soothed his aching body in the whirlpool. Yes, au natural. And yes, the sonofagun was as handsome in person as he was on TV.

But the best part of being a sports editor was that I also got to write a column on whatever I pleased. The bosses preferred local topics, of course, but it was Binghamton so they let me wander off to professional sports. And when their travels brought them to the Southern Tier, I talked with the likes of Roger Staubach (polite, if dull), Rocky Graziano (the textbook image of a pug) and, too briefly, Jackie Robinson. All in all, it seemed like the best job in the world and I often wondered wistfully, as my career veered back to the hard news side, what life might have been like if I had pursued a career as a sports columnist.

Now I know and now I have no regrets. I found the answer in a discarded copy of Jim Murray’s autobiography, which I picked up for a buck at the Thrall Library used book store (still the best deal in town if you read without the aid of a Kindle). Murray, one of the founding fathers of Sports Illustrated, was also a nationally syndicated sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He covered everything from NASCAR to golf and his style was unique. Murray was not a numbers guy. He didn’t cover events so much as the people participating in them.

On Muhammad Ali: “He didn’t have fights, he gave recitals. The opponent was just the piano, the backdrop. All eyes were on Ali. He loved it. It was his stage, his life. He was like Bob Hope with a troop audience. Olivier at the Old Vic.”

And what of the column that won him a Pulitzer and made him famous? Murray: “(It) came into my life in 1961. And took it over. A column is more than a demanding mistress. It is a raging master. It consumers you. It is insatiable. It becomes more you than you. You are not a person, you are a publicly owned facility. Available on demand.

“It has a calamitous effect on family relations. It confuses the kids’ identities. It rearranges your priorities -- and not for the better.

“Jimmy Cannon had the right idea. He apparently accepted the fact early that he was wedded to the column. And he lived alone in a midtown Manhattan hotel and devoted his whole life to it.”

Maybe it‘s just me, but it sounds like Jimmy Cannon (one of my other favorites) shortchanged himself on the whole “we only have one life to live” deal. I was thinking about the two Jimmys because I had just spent the weekend watching some of the most godawful professional football games that people were ever asked to fork over a couple of grand for. The kind of games that rekindle the romance of high school football Friday nights.

Take the Jets. “Please,” as Henny Youngman (whom I once met in an art gallery in Woodstock) famously said.

Maybe it’s just me, but if Mark Sanchez is ready for prime time, so is Jimmy Fallon. The Ravens’ best play was pass interference on third and long. But hey, don’t beat up on Sanchez too much. Tony Romo and Philip Rivers and Drew Brees and Bret Favre -- established stars all -- all stunk up the joint in their first games.

Maybe it’s just me, but when most opening games were comedies of errors and penalties (Washington vs. Dallas was almost unwatchable) and ex-con Michael Vick is your standout quarterback, if you’re the NFL you should think twice about cutting the preseason by two weeks and adding two games to the regular schedule.

And don’t get me started on Joe Girardi. He makes Keanu Reeves seem animated. Girardi doesn’t manage games so much as he scans actuarial reports. He has all the instincts of a computer. If he has the best job in baseball, how come he never smiles? Just asking.

One more thought before I get too carried away with this whole sports column thing: If, as some observers claim, Tiger Woods being unable to play golf at a high level is good for the game because it has opened the field to so many other unknown golfers to make their names, how come the golf writers keep writing only about Tiger’s struggles and we still don’t know the names of those other golfers?

Maybe it’s just me, but I think the two Jims -- Murray and Cannon -- would have loved writing about Tiger. After all, he doesn’t just win in grand style, leaving the rest of the field in shambles, he loses in epic fashion, his life burning down around him like some tragic Greek hero out of Aeschylus. Win or lose, all eyes are on the Tiger. The score is secondary.

And I apologize for all the name-dropping.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Bristol Palin and DNA

By Bob Gaydos

And the beat goes on.

Apparently, thinking about thinkers is contagious, or at least a welcome diversion from thinking about how Bristol Palin is so much her mother’s daughter.

In case you somehow managed to avoid the news, the unmarried 19-year-old daughter of the former governor of Alaska and former vice presidential candidate, recently, in rapid succession, reunited with the father of her 18-month-old son, getting a hefty fee to announce it on the cover of People magazine, broke up with the scoundrel when he apparently told her he had gotten another woman pregnant, also rejecting his offer to be on a family reality show ("He's just obsessed with the limelight and I got played.") and announced she would appear on TV‘s “Dancing with the Stars,’ wearing “modest” lace and fringe outfits. Charming.

She’s also been ordered by Mom to move back home, apparently to obtain the continued benefits of her responsible adult supervision. Which is all a kind of cheesy, roundabout way to sheepishly admit I had somehow left off The List the names of the guys whose thinking broke the code on DNA.

The omission was brought to my attention in a humbling e-mail:
“How can you not include those whose thoughts led to the genomic era?  At the very least, Watson & Crick (Nobel laureates for their work on DNA) should be on your list. Genomics has revolutionized medicine and deepened our understanding of evolution, genetic susceptibility to disease, etc.
Toby G. Rossman, Ph.D.
Professor of Environmental Medicine
NYU Langone School of Medicine”

Before I get to Watson and Crick, let me say I am thrilled that a seriously heavy thinker is reading and commenting on this blog. This is not to suggest that the rest of you are not legit thinkers, but I Googled Dr. Rossman and she’s the real thing. Plus she’s local and is actively involved in the Science CafĂ©, which is, oddly enough, exactly what it sounds like -- a bunch of scientists sitting around drinking coffee or wine and talking about the kind of topics that switched my major from engineering to writing.

So welcome, Dr. Rossman, and thanks for the double helix duo, unarguably two of the most influential thinkers of the past 110 years. Not that I’m too thrilled with some of the other stuff that came out of Watson’s mind … and mouth. You know, how genetic screening and engineering could be useful I curing the “really stupid” 10 percent of the people and turning out lots of pretty girls. Or letting a woman abort a child if she didn’t want is to be homosexual or heterosexual. Or his infamous "[I am] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours —whereas all the testing says not really."

The profoundly positive significance of DNA science would seem to overwhelm Watson’s other thinking and Crick, his fellow Nobel scientist, had no such socially dubious baggage.

Moving on, Valerie Lucznikowska had some thoughts on Nikola Tesla, the focus of my previous column: “Tesla should be there at or near the top. He also invented sonar during WWI, and when he died, at the beginning of WWII, the U.S. government whisked his papers away, and to the best of my knowledge, still have them under lock and key. In his studio in NYC he had lamps with no electric cords, and he played with others, tossing a ball of light back and forth; that has never been reproduced. Yes, he was very sensitive, strange and a compulsive, counting the spoonfuls of soup he ate. But his unusual love of a white pigeon whom he fed at his window reminds me that years later, pigeons were found to have internal magnetic sensors that locate them and point their way home. Did he know or sense something there?”

Gotta love the guy.

The other suggestions continued to attest to the wide range of interests of our readers:
-- Jeffrey Page (fellow Zester): Groucho? (Love him.) Clarence Darrow? John Ford?
-- Carrie Jacobson: Ted Williams? (Huh?) Al Gore? (Hmm.).
-- Michael Kaufman: “Glad you included Dorothy Day. I saw her speak a couple of times in Union Square on May Day. I don’t know why you didn’t go with Charlie Parker, considering his influence on jazz musicians to this day, but how about Louis Armstrong? As Miles Davis said, “You can’t play nothing on modern trumpet that doesn’t come from him…” And/or Duke Ellington, of whom Miles said, “At least one day out of the year all musicians should just put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington.” (OK, but how influential was jazz in the big scheme of things?)
-- Christine Young: Jon Stewart. Ah. A woman after my own heart.

Here’s my original List of 29: Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers (they count for one), Thomas Edison, Picasso, Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky, Carl Jung, Jean Paul Sartre, Sigmund Freud, T.S. Eliot, George Carlin, Albert Camus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rachel Carson, John Dewey, Bill Wilson, Dorothy Day, Bill Gates, Thomas Watson, Sam Walton, George Orwell, Margaret Sanger, Winston Churchill, Khalil Gibran, Philo Farnsworth, Betty Friedan and Isaac Asimov.

I can keep going as long as you can.

Bob can be reached at