"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Reforming Education–Concepts

There is an interesting concept in teaching the concepts of math and science in early education.  Children as young as kindergarteners can learn the basic concept of number though simple experiential learning.  A 4-year old can learn that four popsicle sticks are always four sticks, no matter how they are arranged; or the equally important concepts of unity (the number 1) or zero by applying the same techniques.  As simple as it seems, learning the very underlying principles of mathematics – one thing is very different from many things; and no things counts as much as one thing or many things is critical not only for mathematical reasoning, but all reasoning. 

An article in the Wall Street Journal today (11/29) gives other examples of work done by the Early Mathematics Project of the Erikson Institute.

“Math instruction is omnipresent if not always apparent…It shows up when [a student] mimics a teacher’s syncopated clapping pattern….The students don’t know it, but they are learning fundamental math concepts such as connecting numerals to quantity, building patterns, and the idea that adding something or someone creates a larger number.

“’Now I work to make [students] mathematical thinkers and I want them to be able to tell me why and how they know things’, said [a teacher in the Erikson Project].

An Erikson professor…said proper math instruction [at an early age] helps students develop reasoning and logical thinking skills that prepare them to learn any subject.

[The Director of the Project] said the Project is designed to teach mathematical thinking rather than basic math procedures. Instead of learning, for example, to recognize the numeral 4 and it comes between 3 and 5, Erikson wants to understand that 4 represents a quantity and has meaning”

It is clear from this Project and others like it that very young children can understand and master basic concepts – not just mathematical ones, but even metaphysical ones.  I remember taking my 3-year old daughter up on the roof of our apartment building.  She loved to wander around amongst the pipes and cables, and was especially interested in holes.  She would look down the air pressure pipes and say “hole”.  When we walked along sidewalks and over grates, she would say “hole”.  I then realized that she understood the basic nature of a hole – that a hole was a hole no matter where it was found – and I encouraged her whenever we went out.  I then explained to her that a hole could be two-dimensional, but it still had the same basic properties as a three-dimensional hole – you could put your finger through it rather than down it, pour water through it rather than down it.  It was a hole.  She had learned a basic, fundamental rule – how to group objects into categories, and how to apply one definition to all objects that fell within that grouping.  She and other children her age and younger can learn when a thing is a thing and when it is not perhaps the essential building block of perception.

My daughter learned because of some natural hardwiring and intelligence (If Chomsky is right, and we are hardwired for language; and if language and thought are functions of each other - there can be no thought without language and vice-versa – then the ability to conceptualize may also be hardwired), and teaching.  I took every opportunity to strengthen in her what I knew was a particular intellectual ability.  There is no reason why we cannot do the same thing in formal education.

My son was in the third grade, and he had a love of raptors – eagles, hawks, any bird of prey.  I think it was part of the boy-dinosaur phenomenon, and through him I learned all about these elegant and fierce birds, how they are grouped, and most importantly when a bird of prey is a raptor, and when it is something else that resembles a raptor – like an owl – but is not in the same phylogenetic category. We went through all the raptors and discussed those that were clearly in the middle of the category – i.e. no doubt about classification – and those that were outliers about which there was still academic discussion.

The point was even at 8 years old, my son was forming the foundation of solid scientific inquiry.  Classification is at the heart of science, and the work of Linnaeus (plants) and Darwin (animals and everything) were based on that simple intellectual principle.

Causality and inductive reasoning can also be taught in the earliest grades.  If you place an apple on the edge of a table and push it off so it drops to the floor, you can ask the child “How did the apple get onto the floor?” to which you will usually get the correct answer.  However, when you place an apple on the floor near the table, and ask a different child how did it get there, you are encouraging and teaching deductive reasoning.

I have written earlier about the importance of encouraging behavioral abilities such as risk taking and innovative thinking in early education.  Children can learn about the importance of taking risks, setting goals, failing, and regrouping to succeed just by playing on the jungle-gym.  How much higher can I climb without falling?  If I fall, will I get hurt?  Bobby climbed to the top.  How was he able to risk falling and succeed in the climb.  Unfortunately because of liability concerns, old-fashioned, risky jungle-gyms are being dismantled in favor of safe equipment, and little learning can take place.

Similarly innovative thinking can be stimulated at a very young age.  In addition to learning simple facts of math, reading, history, and nature, children can be challenged to come up with something new – something based on perception, but equally a part of their imagination.  For example, “Look at a picture of a bird, then change something about it so that it can do something a bird cannot do”.  Or, display a number of randomly selected items that do not resemble any specific object – that is, they do not look like hammers, spoons, etc.; but have basic structural features that might allow them to serve as these tools and utensils.  “Take any object you see on the table, and tell me what it could be used for”.  The examples and ideas are far too many to list.

Learning how to compete is an intrinsic part of any early education whether it is specifically encouraged or not.  Grades reflect competition, even though in today’s PC atmosphere they are explained as useful tools for self analysis only.  Learning how to compete as a group with other groups on a design challenge is another story altogether.  That is two groups of children are given the same problem to solve with blocks.  “Which can be the first group to make something that moves?”.  This learning can be the basis for entrepreneurship and management. 

All of the above discussion has not point unless this type of education has a purpose.  Of course it is important to learn for the sake of learning, but we live in an increasingly competitive world and there are fewer chances for “its own sake”.  Our schools are not turning out the economically productive and civically aware citizens that are needed.  Strong cognitive skills, especially reasoning, are necessary for everything; but they are particularly important in being able to organize, manage, and utilize data; to be able to tell reliable information from that which is not; to judge the veracity of a source, etc.  The same reasoning is necessary to judge the reasonableness of a political statement, to sift through noise, rumor, innuendo, and speculation to get to the truth. 

There is no doubt that young children also need to have the very practical skills to thrive in the 21st century – to learn how to navigate through a complex, virtual world which will soon cease to resemble that of today; but they cannot really apply these tools, these new technologies unless they can think about how best to apply them in a cost-effective way.  This requires the same critical thinking that we use today.

In the same edition of the Wall Street Journal today, I saw an article about how Toyota has changed its assembly line.  Instead of cars coming down the line head to tail, they changed them so that they come down parallel to each other.  This, the Japanese found, cut down production time because it reduced by seconds the time it took for a worker to go from one car to another.  Some engineer looked at the assembly line, used his critical, analytical, and creative faculties and made a quantum leap – a drastic, dramatic change, the first after 100 years of car making.   It is this skill – looking at a familiar object, routine, or event and jumping way beyond tweaking, adjusting, or modifying – that can be taught in kindergarten and should be.

This article will be published in THE REAL STORY www.realstorypublishing.com


We live in a probabilistic world, with few certainties, and the process of assessing risk and probability is often perceived as worse than the risk itself. In olden times if I knew that I would die by 40, carted off and eaten, ravaged by pestilence, or slaughtered by marauding armies, or die from a fulminating infection from an innocuous cut on my finger, I would spend very little time thinking about which event would kill me, or what the probabilities of death from a particular event would be. Even if we had the ability to assess risk and determine probability, it wouldn’t have mattered; for if the bear didn’t eat you, the wolf would.  Living in a world of perceived certainty and comforted by the belief that you would certainly have a life after death, hopefully free from the tooth and claw of the one you were leaving, had its advantages after all.

Now, with the belief that we can reduce the risk of dying from certain events, thus reducing our chances of dying, we can easily come to the aberrant conclusion that maybe we can actually cheat death, period.  But this is what makes risk assessment so perilous and so stressful and which actually contributes to personal un-wellbeing.  It is not bad enough that you have cancer; you also have to worry and wonder whether or not it will kill you; whether or not the treatment that reduces mortality generally will do so for you.  You not only have a physiological disease, you now have a psychological one.

What is worse, you have to assess risk with an eye to cost.  Yes, you may be able to reduce your risk of cancer recurrence to 5 percent, but to do so it will cost you the beach house your were planning, or more respectfully, your children’s Harvard education. 

Scientific advances are wonderful – who wants to live a life that is nasty, brutish, and short, what most of us think of as the world of yesteryear with all its beasts and pestilence? But is a world that is filled with probable peril, shadows of likelihood, and paralyzing uncertainty that much better? 

I knew a man who honestly felt that he could live forever by reducing his risk.  He ate no fat, boiled chicken to death, ran in sub-zero cold, got his heart-rate down to an ideal physical ratio (something about respiration rate as a function of time exercising), stoked up on seven different vegetables per day, and frontloaded his diet with barely edible grains that would increase transit time.  All well and good, but the more he read, the more threats to his health he realized.  He had not worried about swimming in the lake that he had visited since he was young until new hyper-sensitive water analyses showed the presence of pathogens.  He read more and more about them, and tried to pin down the actual risk he ran by swimming in the lake.  The risk posed by getting any one of a number of waterborne infections was miniscule, but why take any chance, he reasoned?  Why run any risk if you don’t have to.  The last time I was invited out to the lake, he went swimming in a full wetsuit, goggles, and snorkel to avoid any contact with the water.

I happened once to mention indoor air pollution, a subject that a colleague of mine was working on at the World Bank.  My friend immediately saw ionizing asbestos, smelled noxious gases emitted from decaying plastic, felt assaulted by bacteria from the forced air furnace; and spent hours, days, even months of research on the best way to purify the air.  But no matter how much he tried, the investments could only decrease the probability of airborne problems. He became paranoid, and not only saw the world as an environment of threat, but became paralyzed at his inability to lower the probability to zero.

Another acquaintance became obsessed with reducing the risk of death and injury on the highways.  He consulted reams of statistics on the safest car, the safest highways, the safest tires, the safest time of day to travel.  He studied correlations between food, nutrition, and alertness, hoping to enhance his probabilities of avoiding accidents.  Armed with this information, he travelled long distances only between 2-5am, in a supersized SUV fitted with strobe lights and body armor.  He crashed one day because his behemoth could not agilely avoid the deer that bounded from the brush onto the highway. No studies had rated cars on their ability to avoid accidents.  This was a blow to his psyche – how could unforeseen risks still exist?  No researcher had confirmed what should be a logical assumption – yes, your chances of getting killed in a Smart Car are far greater than in a Cadillac Esplanade; but you are much more likely to get into an accident with the Esplanade, perhaps killing someone else.

Finance is another area that is subject to risk assessment.  In the old days you put your money in a local bank with a reinforced steel vault, took it out when you needed it, spent the modest interest on a new hat, and slept well at night.  Now, deciding where to put your money is devastatingly difficult and fraught with peril and anxiety.  Not only is there a bewildering myriad of choices (coffee futures, rare earths, derivatives, stocks, bonds, treasury bills, Chinese renminbi, or hedge funds), but there is no way to accurately predict their performance, even their relative performance.  Worse yet, even if statistics tell you that the investment is a good one, the books may have been cooked.  The quality of the estimated probability – the risk – might be compromised.  You never know.

There are many factors which complicate personal risk assessment.  Doctors now, fearing lawsuits, will not tell you what they recommend, but will only tell you the probability of success if you opt for Alternative A rather than B.  Financial managers will present you with an array of data, asking you to decide on the level of risk you want.  There are now evaluative tests which help you determine which risk group you are in, so again you rely on results which – of course – give you only a probability that you are in Group D rather than Group E. 

Parents today are obsessed with reducing all risk to their children.  They buy the most potent anti-bacterial agents and scrub surfaces for hours.  The 5 second rule (it’s OK to eat a piece of dropped food if you get it within five seconds) is long gone.  Sani-wipes are in every room of the house.  Playgrounds are now all plastic with gentle inclines.  Jungle-gyms are gone.  See-saws are history.  Teachers are taught how to identify and discipline bullies and eliminating them from the school environment, thus reducing the risk of psychological damage to the weaker students.

What has happened, however, is that by reducing one kind of risk, parents have increased others.  Apparently there is an emerging correlation between spotless kitchens and “bacteria free” homes and asthma and allergies; so exposure to dirt, grime, and more-or-less innocuous bacteria is a good thing, helping to prime the immune system in children. Playing in a risk-free playground environment inhibits normal developmental mechanisms – that is, how to learn to take risks, to be adventurous, bold, and determined.  Bullies are a part of life – they are everywhere and found at all ages.  Deal with them is perhaps a more sane solution to the problem than eliminating them. 

The point is, not only can you not reduce risk to zero; even if you do, the action is likely to raise risk in another, unexpected area.

If this nightmare of individual, personal risk assessment were not enough, we are all faced with important political decisions which involve assessing big risks.  Should I vote yes on the bond issue to build a nuclear plant in Homewood County, thus eliminating the noxious coal plant in the holler, but raising my risk of annihilation (yes, but is it a big risk?)

In my view risk assessment should always be accompanied by pleasure assessment.  There is a value, after all, to ignoring some risks – to swim in paradisiacal tropical waters without thinking of sea snakes or coral stings; to have an affair without obsessing about getting caught; to eat those delicious Angolan giant shrimp without thinking of shigella.  The middle way.  Do not always try to diminish risk, just understand it, and decide if the pleasure and satisfaction you seek is worth it. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Recipes - Penne all’ Arrabbiata with Bacon

Many people think that ‘arrabiata’ comes from an Italian or Latin word for ‘Arab’ but as French linguists say, they are faux amis  (false friends)– a very good guess since the words are similar, but as dissimilar as you can get.

In fact ‘arrabiata’ comes from the Italian word for anger – la rabbia, and by extension, hot with passion, and by further extension, just plain hot.  My Penne all’ Arrabbiata is a tomato-based pasta sauce with bacon, onions, red pepper, and celery, and a lot of hot pepper flakes. You can look online and find a wide variety of recipes called ‘Arrabbiata’, everything from anchovies to meat as long as it is hot; but the most innovative recipe, I think, is the one I give here.  I am not sure where I got the idea for using bacon,but it works. It is delicious, and a very nice change from the garlic-olive oil-basil-tomato sauce which was the basis for a classic Italian “gravy” as the goombas from The Jersey Shore and my old haunts, Down Neck in Newark, New Jersey called the thick, all-day sauce that was slathered on ‘macaroni’…which was called ‘macaroni’ in Newark, Neptune, and Bayside.

I have nothing at all against what I have always called ‘guinea’ sauce, an all-day sauce with the above ingredients plus pork.  Actually, the original guinea recipe which originated with my grandmother, had three types of meat which were simmered in the sauce – pork, veal, and beef; usually cuts of pork and veal shoulder and bracciole, a flank steak stuffed with parsley, garlic, and parmesan cheese, and tied up into a roll.  This sauce, which I watched cook all day, the aromas getting more intense as the sauce reduced and thickened, was a 50’s gourmet delight.  Few people cook this way these days – far too much fat, thought, and preparation time -  but the combination of the meats, especially chosen for their high-fat flavor, and the spices and cheese in the bracciole was ambrosia.

Arrabbiata sauce is itself hearty, thick, and intensely flavorful but does not need the all-day treatment.  The combination of bacon, onion, celery, and red pepper is a totally different taste from traditional Italian red sauces; but still quintessentially Italian. The recipe calls for no garlic (can you imagine??), and no red wine; for both will distort the very different complementary taste of smoky bacon and tomatoes.

For this recipe and for all my tomato-based recipes, I use San Marzano canned tomatoes (the best brand is Cento, available in supermarkets – classic, rich, and very low sodium).  They are delicious, and Wikipedia describes them as follows:

The story goes that the first seed of the San Marzano tomato came to Campania in 1770, as a gift from the Kingdom of Peru to the Kingdom of Naples, and that it was planted in the area that corresponds to the present commune of San Marzano. They come from a small town of the same name near Naples, Italy, and were first grown in volcanic soil in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. Compared to the Roma tomatoes with which most people are familiar, Marzano tomatoes are thinner and pointier in shape. The flesh is much thicker with fewer seeds, and the taste is much stronger, more sweet and less acidic. Many people describe the taste as bittersweet, like high-quality chocolate. Because of their high quality and origins near Naples, San Marzano tomatoes have been designated as the only tomatoes that can be used for Vera Pizza Napoletana (True Neapolitan Pizza).

My recipe is as follows:

* 6 strips bacon

* 1 medium onion, chopped

* 2 lg. stalks celery, chopped

* 1/2 red pepper, chopped

* 2 Tbsp. olive oil

* 1 can San Marzano tomatoes

* 1/2 can tomato paste (preferable one with low sodium, like Contadina)

* 1/2 cup grated Parmesan

* 1 lb. penne rigate (this is the ribbed penne which I prefer for some reason over the smooth penne.  You can also substitute rigatoni)

* [dried oregano and/or basil].  I always instinctively reach for the oregano and basil when I am cooking an Italian dish; but I really think that this one is good on its own.  However, when you taste the sauce after it has cooked down, and you personally think something is missing, don’t hesitate to add some oregano and/or basil flakes.

- Fry the bacon strips until very crisp, remove, cool, and crumble

- Fry the celery, onion, and red pepper in the bacon fat and added olive oil until soft

- Add the tomatoes and tomato paste, stir well, breaking up; the tomatoes

- Add the crumbled bacon

- Cook for approximately 3 hours, stirring occasionally.  The sauce when done should be thick, but not dry.

- Boil the penne in a large pot with lots of salted water until done, about 12 minutes.  NOTE:  A lot of environmentally friendly cooks reduce the amount of water.  However, pasta does best when boiled in copious amounts of water in a very large pot.  The room and the extra water lets the individual pasta pieces tumble and cook evenly without getting gummy.

- Plate the pasta and dress with the sauce

- Add chopped parsley as a garnish, along with grated pepper

- Sprinkle the grated parmesan and serve.

Friday, November 25, 2011

All’s Well That Ends Well–Manipulative Women and Mediocre Men

All’s Well That Ends Well is a play with no heroes or no villains, unusual for Shakespeare; and instead, as one critic has said, he has given us – again - manipulative women and mediocre men. As Bloom has written:

Portia happily settles for Bassanio, an amiable and perfectly useless fortune hunter, presumably because she thus implicitly gets back at her odd father, who imposed the casket ritual upon her (Merchant of Venice).

Julia, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, is foolishly in love with Proteus, but a Protean lover comes in so many guises that a much wiser woman might make the same blunder.  Hero, in Much Ado About Nothing,marries the feckless Claudio, but she is too young to know that there is nothing to him.  In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has one beautifully wild: the charming but zany Viola is delighted by the absurd Orsino, while Olivia snaps up Sebastian simply because he is Viola’s twin; as another zany, he is pleased to be so devoured. (Shakespeare, Invention of the Human).

Helena, however, is not quite so amiably guided in her pursuit of men, and she falls much closer to the women of the Histories who fight tooth and claw to assure their place and more importantly, their sons, in the monarchy.  It is the result of her aggressive and determined quest to secure the higher status and wealth that a marriage to Bertram will confer which places her in the same category as the women mentioned above.  Many critics, such as Bloom question Helena’s choice.

Bloom again:

Like Dr. Johnson, we cannot abide Bertram, the caddish young nobleman whom the evidently admirable Helena loves….Bertram has no saving qualities; to call him a spoiled brat is not anachronistic.  Dr. Johnson particularly represented the happy ending with Bertram settling into supposed domestic bliss:

“ I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram; a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helena as a coward and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness”

This isn’t the point, however.  Helena plots and manipulates (quite ingeniously, and with all the hidden exchanges of rings, love under cover with the duped man, carefully playing the King of France and her benefactor, seducing the widow and her pliable daughter, Diana) to get what all the women in the Histories (and tragedies, lest we forget Lady Macbeth, Goneril, and Regan among others) want – greater wealth, power, or station. 

Helena was born a commoner, but raised by an aristocrat, the Countess of Rosillion.  There she had a chance to see how rank hath its privileges, and nothing in a commoner’s life can compare with the influence, respect, wealth, and position afforded the aristocracy.  Forget the pastoral idylls of The Winter’s Tale or As You Like It – living high is always better than living low. 

References to class distinctions are common in the play.  Not many lines into Act I, Scene 1, Helena laments her low status and the impossibility of seducing an aristocrat like Bertram:

O, were that all! I think not on my father;
And these great tears grace his remembrance more
Than those I shed for him. What was he like?
I have forgot him: my imagination
Carries no favour in't but Bertram's.
I am undone: there is no living, none,

If Bertram be away. 'Twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star
And think to wed it, he is so above me:
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.

The ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love. (I.i)

She says her father, a commoner, has gone from her memory; and her sights are set on the noble Bertram.  She has not yet begun to plot, but the seeds of the takeover are already germinating.  Or, a little later in the same, early scene:

That wishing well had not a body in't,
Which might be felt; that we, the poorer born,
Whose baser stars do shut us up in wishes,
Might with effects of them follow our friends,
And show what we alone must think, which never/Return us thanks.

At the end of Act 1, Scene 1, she begins the plot – she, with her father’s medical knowledge and potions, can cure the King of France, and get from this genial but weak monarch all she wants – Bertram 

Much later in Act 4, Scene 4, her plot well underway and nearing completion, she is at her most honest and forthright:

Yet, I pray you:
But with the word the time will bring on summer,
When briers shall have leaves as well as thorns,
And be as sweet as sharp. We must away;
Our wagon is prepared, and time revives us:
All's well that ends well; still the fine's the crown;
Whate'er the course, the end is the renown..

So, we should have no pity for Helena who has been treated miserably by Bertram. She got exactly what she wanted and deserves.

It is interesting so see how some critics, too academic for my taste and incessantly in love with Freud, have dug into recesses I never would have thought of.  Here is Bloom on motives for Helena’s actions:

It is important to note Helena’s love for the dowager Countess of Rossillion, protector of the orphaned Helena.  Freud, Shakespearean in this also, divided object choices into two types, narcissistic and propped against, and Helena’s choice of Bertram participates strongly in both modes.  Narcissistically Bertram, an earliest playfellow [son of the Countess and with whom Helena grew up], is what Helena longed to be, the authentic child of her foster mother, while in the leaning-against mode, Bertram would have symbolized both lost fathers, his and hers.  Helena’s love therefore is overdetermined to a degree unusual even in Shakespeare, where the contingency of sexual passion is almost established for us.  It does not matter who Bertram inwardly is or what he does.  Helena is locked into loving him [my italics]. 


Some critics, Bloom and Nuttall included, actually begin to feel sorry for Bertram by the end of the play.  Whatever her motivation, Helena is a terror. Bloom likens her to Richard III, Iago, Edmund, and Macbeth.  Nuttall says “No man stands a chance against this alpha female”.  Bloom goes on:

[Helena] is formidable indeed, well-nigh monomaniacal in her fixation upon the glittering emptiness of Bertram.  Since her high-handedness in obtaining him is so outrageous, we can wonder why we are not moved to some sympathy for him, despite the usurpation of his choice by Helena’s alliance with the King….Humanly, Bertram has been wronged to an extreme…

There is even Helena’s own suggestion (and Shakespeare’s throughout his plays; and what we all know) that 'men will be men’ – lust-driven and insatiable.  I am reminded of the line spoken by Kathleen Turner in the movie Body Heat when she sees that William Hurt has, despite his demurral, been pursuing her.  “Some men when they get the scent of it…”.  She doesn’t have to finish the line.  Shakespeare simply changes ‘some men’ to ‘all men’.

But, O strange men!
That can such sweet use make of what they hate,
When saucy trusting of the cozen'd thoughts
Defiles the pitchy night: so lust doth play
With what it loathes for that which is away.
But more of this hereafter. You, Diana,
Under my poor instructions yet must suffer
Something in my behalf.

Men don’t even care who they are having sex with, which makes the ruse of substituting herself for Diana, plausible. So Bertram should be forgiven.

Another critic who feels somewhat sorry for Bertram is Mark Van Doren who writes:

Here [in the court of Rousillion] there is no surplus energy of any sort.  The atmosphere at Rousillion is one of darkness, old age, disease, sadness, and death; and of superannuated people who nevertheless hold on to the chill edges of their former styles.

Bertram, an “unseason’d courtier”….leaves this place where he has been crushed under the weight of death and generations to flourish in the freer air of the French court.  But even at Paris he meets a sick king who wants to talk only of other days…(Shakespeare).

In a famous and oft-quoted line, Bertram expresses his horror at “the dark house and the detested wife” (II.iii.309) – forced for one reason or another to lead a confined, unhappy domestic experience.  How many men have had similar thoughts both before and during their marriages?

In conclusion, the play is well-balanced.  There are no real heroes nor no real villains.  Helena gets the prize she has sought, but gets very damaged goods.  Bertram gets what he deserves – the wife that he hates and a consignment to his own hell (“the dark house, etc.).  As in most of Shakespeare’s Comedies, we are left with the feeling that after the happy marriage and celebratory wedding, the couples will fight and bitch and eventually end up in divorce.  These endings, for me and many critics, require a great deal of willing suspension of disbelief.  We don’t feel this way in All’s Well That Ends Well.  The reason why this play is never categorized as a pure comedy, but a ‘problem play’ is just because the dark forces persist and pervade.  We know that life is the way it is depicted; that we all may have self-serving dreams and needs, but the likelihood of a happy ending is scant.  Even Helena, in her “All’s Well” passage does not really say is well, but implies may be well.

I don’t like this play as well as the villain plays, because villainy is always more interesting than either romance or nihilism.  We are ineluctably drawn to Richard III.  We cannot take our eyes off him, can’t wait to see what unimaginable atrocity he will commit.  We love Goneril, Regan, and Albany because we want to see just how far human depravity will go.  We admire Cordelia, but we are not paying much attention to her.  “Oh, yeah, right.  She’s in exile in France, isn’t she?”

We are not exactly riveted to the fortunes of either Helena or Bertram, but I like this play – it is dark, plotting, and without unrealistic passion or hope.  Not electric spark villainy, but the way life usually is.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Jealousy–Leontes and Othello

Jealousy, despite its reputation as the green-eyed monster, destroyer of lives and marriages, has been an important survival feature for men, women, kings, and commoners.  Men have been jealous because they want to be sure – or as sure as they can be – about the paternity of their children.  Women have been jealous because once they have found what they consider a proper mate, they want to keep him so that his protection of her and the family are assured. 

Society has changed, and it doesn’t matter to women if they keep their man since they can survive quite well on their own or find another; nor does it matter to men who are not concerned as much with rights of succession and accession to the throne. If they are not convinced that a child is not theirs, they too can move on.

It is difficult to give up patterns of behavior, however, which must have started in pre-history and which only now, because of economic and social equality, are losing their reason for being.  We are still jealous, often as insanely jealous, even though we do not have economic or social reasons for being so.  It is as if jealousy was hardwired in us long ago for the purpose of natural selection, and we cannot help ourselves but be suspicious of our mates.

Which is why Shakespeare’s plays Othello and The Winter’s Tale hold such interest.  We have all been there.  We know what it is like to suspect infidelity, to picture our lovers in bed with others, to imagine the details of seduction, intercourse, and satisfaction.  Although we men are not as concerned with paternity as a financial issue, we still want to avoid being cuckolded at all costs.  It is now an issue of power and male pride, and we still can plot and murder if we suspect infidelity, and certainly plot and murder if our suspicions are confirmed. 

Image result for images shakespeare the winter's tale

Othello is interesting and compelling because it explores the nature of jealousy as well as the familiar descent into madness and the eating of oneself from within.  It is fascinating just because we cannot really understand how a man like Othello – a military genius and hero, a respected citizen, an honored man, one with confidence, a decision-making ability under fire – can so easily succumb to unfounded jealousy.  Some have suggested that Iago was simply a very villainous villain – that is, someone with perverse talents, without real motive, beyond good and evil, who simply enjoys the intellectual gymnastics of plotting and the blood-lust of victory. 

Others have said that Othello himself is at fault – he was too much a military man, too trusting of his fellows-in-arms (like Iago), used to order-and-obey and ill-versed in the more normal deciphering of human emotions that society rewards.  Still others have said that Desdemona was the problem, although for no fault of her own.  Othello could not handle her forthright sexuality.  He was, despite his field experience, a novice in affairs of the heart.  In any case, all three contributed to his tragic downfall.

The case of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale is even more intriguing, because the jealousy is first expressed in the very first scenes of the play, but there is no clear reason for it.  In Othello, the plot develops gradually, and as each character and each interaction is explored, we learn more, and have more reasons to surmise the reasons for Othello’s jealousy.  We ask why in both plays, but the investigation is more difficult in the case of Leontes. 

Early critics, like Hazlitt, and even Modern ones like Mark Van Doren, do not even discuss the motives for Leontes’ jealousy, preferring to focus on the second half of the play, the pastoral epic comedy played out by Florizel and Perdita.  Post-modern critics like Bloom and especially A.D. Nuttall do indeed spend considerable effort at deconstructing the text and deciphering the indirect clues that it leaves.  Both critics hone in on the early adolescent friendship of Leontes and Polixenes, the man he suspects has cuckolded him.  Nuttall is convinced that there had to be a homosexual relationship between the two, an innocent romp in a latter Garden of Eden.  As Polixenes describes it:
  • We were as twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' the sun,
    And bleat the one at the other: what we changed
    Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
    The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream'd 135
    That any did. Had we pursued that life,
    And our weak spirits ne'er been higher rear'd
    With stronger blood, we should have answer'd heaven
    Boldly 'not guilty;' the imposition clear'd
    Hereditary ours. 
Nuttall refers to J.I.M. Stewart in Character and Motive in Shakespeare who suggested that the very first lines of the play spoken by two courtiers who observe that there was absolutely nothing in the relationship for malice to seize on (I.i.33).  “The method here”, says Nuttall is analogous to that of the rhetorical occulatio, in which an idea is dropped into the listener’s mind and then ostentatiously withdrawn or minimized”.

Nuttall offers an even more compelling reason:
Readers of Freud will have already formed an explanation of this outburst [against Hermione].  Leontes cannot bear to see Polixenes…responding to an attractive lady, to his wife when he had got nowhere.  The only thing to do with this violent emotion, which cannot be expressed in its primary form, is to project it as guilt, onto Hermione (Shakespeare The Thinker). 
This makes a lot of sense, for I have always assumed that Hamlet’s real motivation for killing the usurper king, his uncle, was because of a jealous hatred for his mother, Gertrude who had slept with him.  Hamlet was jealous of his mother for having slept with his uncle; and he was jealous/envious of his uncle to have succeeded in a sexual liaison with his mother when he was incapable of doing so.
This invidious envy/jealousy is common in men and a frequent theme of Freud – we hate men with a sexual prowess and attractiveness to women greater than ours and at the same time envy them for it.  We transfer our own feelings of inadequacy into hatred for the other. 

Bloom (Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human) offers an equally intriguing speculation, suggesting that the love between Leontes and Polixenes was born of an innocence so pure that the friends would even be free from Original Sin if they died (see above quotation).  Anything else but such a purely innocent friendship would be sullied by reality.  Marriage, although necessary, would be a very poor second to adolescent friendship.  In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams draws the same conclusion.  The friendship between Brick and Skipper was of such a pure and innocent nature that marriage could never measure up.  Williams has stated in interviews that Brick was not a homosexual, and that we, the audience, should take Brick’s statements about a noble, true, and pure love at face value.

Bloom has another speculative reason, one which is familiar to anyone who has followed Bloom’s interest in nihilism, Nietzche, and amoral reasoning.
  • Is whispering nothing?
    Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
    Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
    Of laughing with a sigh?—a note infallible 390
    Of breaking honesty—horsing foot on foot?
    Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift?
    Hours, minutes? noon, midnight? and all eyes
    Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
    That would unseen be wicked? is this nothing? 395
    Why, then the world and all that's in't is nothing;
    The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
    My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
    If this be nothing. 
Bloom quotes Leontes in his nihilistic lament:
  • Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
    Of laughing with a sigh?—a note infallible 390
    Of breaking honesty—horsing foot on foot?
    Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift?
    Hours, minutes? noon, midnight? and all eyes
    Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
    That would unseen be wicked? is this nothing? 395
    Why, then the world and all that's in't is nothing;
    The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
    My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
    If this be nothing.
Yet can he never dye, buy dying lives
And doth himselfe with sorrow new sustaine,
That death and life attonce unto him gives.
And painefull pleasure turnes to pleasing paine.
There dwels he ever, miserable swaine,
Hatefull both to himself, and very wight,
Where he through privy griefe, and horrour vaine,
Is waxen so deform’d, that he has quight
Forgot he was a man, and Gealosie is hight.”

Bloom concludes that jealousy may be the only way to create some kind of significance – perverse though it may be – in a meaningless life.  From The Invention of the Human: “The fear that there will not be space enough and time enough for oneself.  Proust charmingly compared the passion of the jealous lover to the zeal of an art historian.  The tyranny of an insatiable curiosity becomes an obsession with the possible, in which one tries to fend off one’s own mortality and thereby risks the hideous immortality of Spenser’s Malbecco:
As mentioned earlier, The Winter’s Tale is a play in two parts – one, a powerful psychological drama; and the second a romantic comedy with familiar disguises, lost and found children (see Coriolanus), pastoral weddings, and marriage which resolves all.  As a comedy, the second half cannot compare with Shakespeare’s full-blown comedies such as As You Like It.  Perdita is charming, but she is not Rosalind.  Florizel is simple and deserving, but without much character.  The first part, however, is worth the price of admission.  Nowhere are there such passionate lines about jealousy:
Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now;
And many a man there is, even at this present,
Now while I speak this, holds his wife by the arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in's absence
And his pond fish'd by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour: nay, there's comfort in't
Whiles other men have gates and those gates open'd,
As mine, against their will. Should all despair
That have revolted wives, the tenth of mankind
Would hang themselves. Physic for't there is none;
It is a bawdy planet, that will strike
Where 'tis predominant; and 'tis powerful, think it,
From east, west, north and south: be it concluded,
No barricado for a belly; know't;
It will let in and out the enemy
With bag and baggage: many thousand on's
Have the disease, and feel't not. How now, boy! (I.ii.190-207)
And especially:
Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now;
And many a man there is, even at this present,
Now while I speak this, holds his wife by the arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in's absence
And his pond fish'd by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour:

Monday, November 21, 2011

Recipes–Spicy Collards and Beet Leaves

Collard greens are a sweet, flavorful vegetable – easy to cook in many different recipes.  They are now available in most supermarkets, and although they are hearty and will last a week or so, they are best when bought as fresh as possible.  Farmers’ markets sell a lot of them, particularly at this time of year, and Whole Foods’ selection is also very good.

Collard greens, common in the South, are usually made with a lot of fat, either cooked in lard or bacon.  They are delicious, for the pork/bacon taste nicely complements the taste of the greens.  Southern style got started, however, because of the availability of lard and bacon, provided to slaves as a ration, then introduced into common cooking by black servants who knew only one way to prepare them.  They are delicious without the pork fat, and I have posted recipes where they are steamed, then sauteed in browned garlic and olive oil.  Recently I have been making them Italian style al brodo, that is in a soup broth.  The collards are placed in a cup of water with one vegan bouillon cube (or any other low-sodium chicken or beef cube), then steamed and served in the broth.

Another vegetable I like is beet tops, and surprisingly these are usually thrown away even at farmers’ markets.  Although beets are sold leaves-on, many customers as the merchant to chop them off.  I have often been in line behind these off-with-their-heads shoppers and asked if I could have the leaves.  I steam them simply, with water, chop them well, and serve cold with olive oil, salt, and pepper.

I had both collards and beet tops (and two cups of green beans) left over last night, and I decided that I would cook them together.  I put all in a skillet, heated them up, and tasted; and found them rather bland.  I added some more olive oil and sprinkled garlic flakes and ground a lot of pepper.  Better, but still without character.  I added soy sauce, hot pepper flakes, and sesame oil.  Better still, but missing that zing which makes an interesting dish.  I then thought that fennel seed would add the right flavoring.  I am not sure why, because I have never added it to either collards or beet tops, but somehow I knew that it would be the right complement to the soy and sesame, and be the spark to the vegetables. I was right! The taste is a wonderful blend of East Asian/South Asian flavors.

Here is the recipe.  There are a number of steps (it is far easier when you have leftover greens in the refrigerator), but none are difficult, and the chopping and steaming can be done in about 15 minutes; and the cooking another 10:

Spicy Collard Greens and Beet Tops

* 1 bunch collard leaves, chopped in large pieces (the bunches are fairly standard size.  Don’t be put off by the amount of raw greens, for they cook down by at least half if not more

* 1 bunch beet tops, also chopped into large pieces.  Use the stems!  These greens cook down even more than the collards.

* 2 Tbsp. soy sauce

* 2 tsp. sesame oil

* 3 Tbsp. olive oil

* 1 Tbsp. dried garlic flakes

* 5 shakes hot pepper flakes

* 2 lg. cloves garlic, chopped

* 2 tsp. Bay Spice (Cajun spice can be substituted)

* 1 cube vegan bouillon (low-sodium beef can be substituted)

* 2 heaping Tbsp. whole fennel seeds, lightly pounded in a mortar

* 10 grindings fresh black pepper

- Dissolve the bouillon cube in 2 cups of water, then add collard greens.  Add the garlic flakes and Bay Spice.

- Cook over medium heat until the leaves are soft and tender

- Remove the greens from the liquid, squeezing as much liquid out as possible

- Chop the greens well and reserve.

- Place the beet tops in a steamer and steam in water (about two cups) until soft and tender

- Remove and chop, pressing knife blade down to squeeze out most liquid.

- Sautee the whole garlic in the olive oil until garlic is soft, but not browned

- Add the greens, and stir well over high heat, evaporating most of the remaining liquid

- Add the soy sauce, sesame oil, hot pepper flakes, ground pepper, and fennel seeds, and cook over low heat for about ten minutes

- Taste for all the ingredients of which more can be added at this point.

- Serve

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Measure for Measure–Rule of Law

Shakespeare never ceases to amaze.  Every play is different, and although I am now a bit weary of disguises and cross-dressing, Measure for Measure is an intriguing, challenging, and enjoyable play.  As in many of the Comedies, the ending is a bit too nicely tied up (everyone is forgiven, relationships are concluded, and the dukedom is back at rest); but the moral and legal debates which precedes it show insights into governance, the place of law in society and with respect to God’s law, and the impact of law or the lack thereof on society.

The reason why Measure for Measure is often characterized as a “Problem Play” is because it is not purely a comedy where the foibles of men and women (especially men) are in full display, recognition and repentance follow, and all live happily ever after.  There are more serious issues to be explored.  Some critics have called this a type of morality play, where moral dilemmas are faced and decided.  The saintly Isabella, faced with the sexual harassment of the Duke and his offer to lift the death sentence of her brother, Claudio, if she sleeps with the Duke, insists that Claudio die to preserve her virginity.  She and Claudio debate the issue; and when he hears that his sister wishes him to die, Claudio intones the following scary description of life after death, to be avoided at all costs:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling: 'tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

The sanctimonious, outraged Isabella replies:

O you beast!
O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?
Is't not a kind of incest, to take life
From thine own sister's shame? What should I think?
Heaven shield my mother play'd my father fair!
For such a warped slip of wilderness
Ne'er issued from his blood. Take my defiance!
Die, perish! Might but my bending down
Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed:
I'll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,
No word to save thee.

There is always logic in the utterances of Isabella, Angelo, and the rest of the play’s characters, even if this logic is circuitous or perverse, as in Isabella’s wonderful lines: “Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life From thine own sister’s shame?”.  These two passages set forth one of the central moral issues of the play – should a woman commit what to her is an egregious and unforgiveable sin to save the life of one she considers a sinner even if he is her brother?  (The other issue, woven in with the first is the perpetual conflict between law and individual morality and God’s law).

Critics have commented that this is a very Christian play, and the logic within the context of debatable morality is very Thomistic. Shakespeare uses this ‘logical morality’ to introduce the idea of the rule of law, and in the following and in many other passages, discusses Man’s law vs. God’s, the individual’s vs. the State, etc.; and it is this conjunction of logic, morality, and law which makes Measure for Measure such an intriguing play.

Take the following exchange between Angelo and Isabella:

Ang. Ha! fie, these filthy vices! It were as good
To pardon him that hath from nature stolen
A man already made, as to remit
Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven's image
In stamps that are forbid: 'tis all as easy
Falsely to take away a life true made
As to put metal in restrained means
To make a false one.

Isab. 'Tis set down so in heaven, but not in earth.

Ang. Say you so? then I shall pose you quickly.
Which had you rather, that the most just law
Now took your brother's life; or, to redeem him,
Give up your body to such sweet uncleanness
As she that he hath stain'd?

Isab. Sir, believe this,
I had rather give my body than my soul.

Ang.I talk not of your soul: our compell'd sins
Stand more for number than for accompt.

Isab. How say you?

Ang. Nay, I'll not warrant that; for I can speak
Against the thing I say. Answer to this:
I, now the voice of the recorded law,
Pronounce a sentence on your brother's life:
Might there not be a charity in sin
To save this brother's life?

Isab. Please you to do't,
I'll take it as a peril to my soul,
It is no sin at all, but charity.

Crimes are crimes, posits Angelo, and the law is the law.  The legal and moral decision is to bring all criminals to justice.  Yes, says Isabella, but it is God who gives and takes away, and who is the final judge, not Man.  Really?, say Angelo to Isabella.  If you agree that the law on which I based my condemnation is just; then why do say that sleeping with me – i.e. committing the same crime as your brother did with Claudio – is wrong to save his life? And, he goes on, sins that are compelled – such as my sleeping with you – are never counted against you in any earthly or heavenly court. 

Then Angelo introduces the concept of charity (which Isabella herself reiterates later in the play) – OK, so you sleep with me, but does not this act of charity to save your brother’s life trump sin? Perhaps, replies Isabella, but the peril to my soul trumps any act of earthly charity.

To others in the play, however, this debating the number of angels on the head of a pin holds no water.  Fornication is simply not a serious sin, but a common act commonly practiced.  It may be a sin, for certainly it is on the books of both God and Man, but not one punishable by death.  Angelo and Isabella are two ice-blooded, stubborn, pig-headed people.  Angelo, although he bases his edicts and decrees on the law, the extent of punishment exacted is more an expression of his desire to show the world who’s boss rather than apply the law justly.   Moreover, Angelo is completely out of touch.  There is no way that his decree outlawing houses of prostitution will be obeyed.  It is the world’s oldest profession and will remain a vibrant business.  Laws that prohibit prostitution are wrongfully decided laws and should be disobeyed, as in this exchange between Pompey, the bawd, and Escalus, an elder statesman:

Esc. How would you live, Pompey? by being a bawd? What
do you think of the trade, Pompey? is it a lawful trade?

Pompey. If the law would allow it, sir

Esc. But the law will not allow it, Pompey; nor it shall
not be allowed in Vienna.

Pompey Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the
youth of the city?

Esc. No, Pompey.

Pompey. Truly, sir, in my poor opinion, they will to't then.
If your worship will take order for the drabs and
the knaves, you need not to fear the bawds.

Esc. There are pretty orders beginning, I can tell you:
it is but heading and hanging.

Pompey If you head and hang all that offend that way but
for ten year together, you'll be glad to give out a
commission for more heads: if this law hold in
Vienna ten year, I'll rent the fairest house in it
after three-pence a bay: if you live to see this
come to pass, say Pompey told you so.

The issue of the rule of law, is also addressed outside the context of morality. Angelo, deputy to Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, has been left in charge by his boss to clean up the city, especially to deal with rampant prostitution.  Meanwhile, the Duke adopts the disguise of a friar so that he can observe what his deputy does and how the citizenry react.  The reason he gives for taking this action is that he, in his relaxed if not negligent rule, is the cause of the profligacy and degeneration of the city; and his subjects would react violently if he suddenly turned vigilant and condemning.

Angelo because of his narrow and unforgiving nature, and perhaps more because he wants to show results to his boss, is a merciless ruler, and one of his first edicts is to condemn to death Claudio who has done nothing more than sleep with the woman to whom he is betrothed and only waiting for the paperwork. Claudio observes the perennial phenomenon of new rulers:

And the new deputy now for the duke--
Whether it be the fault and glimpse of newness,
Or whether that the body public be
A horse whereon the governor doth ride,
Who, newly in the seat, that it may know
He can command, lets it straight feel the spur;
Whether the tyranny be in his place,
Or in his emmence that fills it up,
I stagger in:--but this new governor
Awakes me all the enrolled penalties
Which have, like unscour'd armour, hung by the wall
So long that nineteen zodiacs have gone round
And none of them been worn; and, for a name,
Now puts the drowsy and neglected act
Freshly on me: 'tis surely for a name.

The Duke, although weak and indecisive and unwilling to take unpopular political decisions, is a good leader, for he understands the principle of a just rule:

There is a kind of character in thy life,
That to the observer doth thy history
Fully unfold. Thyself and thy belongings
Are not thine own so proper as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.
Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike
As if we had them not. Spirits are not finely touch'd
But to fine issues, nor Nature never lends
The smallest scruple of her excellence
But, like a thrifty goddess, she determines
Herself the glory of a creditor,
Both thanks and use. But I do bend my speech
To one that can my part in him advertise;
Hold therefore, Angelo:--
In our remove be thou at full ourself;
Mortality and mercy in Vienna
Live in thy tongue and heart..

Angelo is just the opposite, but yet he understands certain principles of rule that the Duke may not.  Here he rightly observes that laws are nothing without enforcement:

We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror.

Or here he explicates the legal difference between intent and action, and the way the law disregards the goodness or righteousness of individuals when applying the law.

'Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,
Another thing to fall. I not deny,
The jury, passing on the prisoner's life,
May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two
Guiltier than him they try. What's open made to justice,
That justice seizes: what know the laws
That thieves do pass on thieves? 'Tis very pregnant,
The jewel that we find, we stoop and take't
Because we see it; but what we do not see
We tread upon, and never think of it.
You may not so extenuate his offence
For I have had such faults; but rather tell me,
When I, that censure him, do so offend,
Let mine own judgment pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial.

Later, in another debate with Isabella, similar to that quoted above, Angelo says “It is the law, not I, condemns your brother” stating clearly that there is no room for personality or personal judgment when it comes to the law.  Isabella raises the issue of precedent, saying, in reference to her brother’s sentence, “Who is it that hath died for this offense? There’s many have committed it”; but Angelo replies that the law simply has not been applied, which is the responsibility of the a ruler, and if it had been, many more would have died.

Perhaps the wisest and most telling statement of Angelo which confirms his understanding of the relationship between pity and mercy and the consequences of them within the law.  When Isabella asks him to show her some pity, he replies:

I show it most of all when I show justice;
For then I pity those I do not know,
Which a dismiss'd offence would after gall;
And do him right that, answering one foul wrong,
Lives not to act another. Be satisfied;
Your brother dies to-morrow; be content.

In other words, pity and mercy, while sparing one life may lead criminals to think that they can get away with crime, thus leading to more crime and more victims.  Angelo knows the law and understands the law.

In a plot twist that only Shakespeare could invent, all the theorizing about the law and morality by Angelo and Isabella, amounts to nothing.  It turns out that Angelo himself has been guilty of a serious moral failure – refusing to marry Mariana because her dowry was lost.  Caught in this legal/moral trap, and with some trickery (he sleeps with Mariana ‘disguised’ as Isabella), all’s well that ends well.  Isabella marries the Duke despite her rock-ribbed chastity and exaggerated sense of propriety.

So, everyone learned their lesson – Angelo: “People who live in glass houses, etc.”; Isabella, life is not so black and white; the Duke, have a more consistent rule – but the lesson for us is about the rule of law and its complexities; and Shakespeare has done a masterful job of using these themes within a comedic/dramatic format.  We are left a little disappointed at the end of the play, however.  Mariana marries someone who has been a little shit; Isabella was indeed spared from promiscuity by the Duke, but does she owe him marriage for that favor?  Angelo gets no banishment, public censure, or legal action – which he should to let the public know his errors; and the Duke goes back to being ruler, and given his character, Vienna will soon be as unruly as it was before.  

No less than my hero Harold Bloom lists Measure for Measure along with Macbeth as his favorite plays.  He says that Measure for Measure surpasses the four High Tragedies as ‘the masterpiece of nihilism’:

…there are no values available in Vincentio’s Vienna, since every stated or implied vision of morality, civil, or religious, is either hypocritical or irrelevant…

As I have written many times before, I am a fan of nihilism, Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, and Shakespeare’s amoral villains.  While I agree with Bloom that when the volte face of the main characters is taken into consideration, there are no consistent, recognizable values, the debate about them is what counts; and while we may well learn more about statesmanship and the rule of law from Shakespeare’s contemporary, Machiavelli.  All in all, this play leaves us unsatisfied and with an “OK….now what?” None of the characters are particularly likeable, even without their moral ambiguity.  The ending, as above, is not really consistent with the moral implications of the play.  However, like all of Shakespeare’s works, it is a tour de force – a dramatically intelligent, if not satisfyingly plotted play.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Innovation and Open Borders

Borderless Economics: Chinese Sea Turtles, Indian Fridges, and the New Fruits of Global Capitalism
Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

Featuring the author Robert Guest, Business Editor, The Economist; with comments by Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; moderated by Dan Griswold, Director, Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies Cato Institute.
An interesting panel discussion was held on the innovation that results from the emerging international network of ideas generated by migrants who, through their physical and virtual travel through social networks create an instant virtual and real environment.  Chinese, Indians, and Brazilians who study or work in the United States gain expertise, technical skills, and an appreciation of the open society which fosters innovation and productivity.  They then return to their countries and share that knowledge.  Those countries, in turn, adapt the ideas brought from abroad, innovate, and then export the innovation back to the US.

The somewhat cryptic title of the presentation refers to this return influx of ideas (in Mandarin, a ‘sea turtle’ is a returning emigrant); Indian fridges refers to the high level of innovative extremely low-cost products in health care, IT, and consumer products – products which were made possible by the fluid interchange of Indian talent and foreign ideas and training. 

Two particularly interesting anecdotes and points were discussed by the author:
1. Millions of Indians are ‘lost citizens’, for they are without passports, national ID, bank accounts, or land title.  They are therefore unable to travel, get credit, or have any of the tangible credibility that most people take for granted.  The Indian government wanted to create a national bio-ID system where by these disenfranchised citizens would be brought into the national and world economy.
The Government reached out to the Indian diaspora, particularly those residing in the US, especially Silicon Valley and gave them the challenge with the promise of significant rewards.  Thanks to social networking, various experts in hardware, software, networking, data management, etc. joined together to develop a plan for the government.  Because they had been imbued with the Silicon Valley ethos of work, deadlines, risk, and innovation, they were able to accomplish in weeks what the Indian government would have done in years.  The essential lesson was that migrants, working individually, but connected to each other through social media, and maintaining links to influentials in their home country, can be a powerful innovative force with the savvy to turn ideas into products. 
2. A Chinese woman with an American green card noticed something that no one else had – that huge Chinese container ships which had brought TVs, computers, and a myriad of other consumer products were going back empty because what the US sells to China is largely intellectual property. 
At the same time she noticed that tons and tons of paper is thrown out in the US, and only a fraction is being recycled.  She, therefore, set up a business which collects waste paper products in the US, ships them to China on formerly empty ships, sells them to Chinese recyclers who turn them into the very cartons which the TVs are shipped to the US!  She did this because of the special perspective of a foreigner who sees things locals do not; because of her training in innovation; and perhaps most importantly because of her contacts back in China – the way business is done there.  She is now one of the wealthiest people in China.

This transfer of innovation and technology has a very important secondary by-product – exposing ruling elites to the principles of an open society.  Over seventy-five percent of the ruling elite in China has studied in the United States or in other mature democracies.  Sooner rather than later, the Communist political system will necessarily change because these ‘foreign returned’ bureaucrats, who learned the importance of the free flow of ideas for economic progress and competitiveness in the modern world, will want to change. As importantly, as more and more Chinese citizens enter the global economy and are exposed to fully democratic systems, they will demand more intellectual and political mobility.

Therefore, concludes the author, open borders are important; and the current policies of the American government to restrict entry (word on the international street is that the US immigration system is the worst in the world) keep out the most talented foreigners.  Our visa policy is antiquated and still favors family integrity, longevity, stubbornness over ability and creativity.

This, says the author, is the result of 9/11 and a concern for national security.  Personnel within the Homeland Security apparatus are rewarded for keeping people out.  You will be fired if you let someone in who commits a terrorist act; so you have no incentive to let people in.

The key element of Silicon Valley success is risk.  Entrepreneurs and technicians are not only willing to take risks on small ventures but on big ventures, huge ventures, out of the box ventures. In other words innovation can only be truly innovative if radical new ways of thinking are practically applied and risks taken.

The combination of this international network of innovators, risk takers whose ambition and vision know no bounds; and an open society where the free flow of ideas is central, is exciting and only held back by government bureaucrats.

In the discussion about the role of government the real debate is not about size, but about appropriateness.  Where should it be active and where withdrawn?  Where interventionist, and where strict constructionist?

As the author points out, there is an inescapable link between immigration policies and innovation, global competitiveness, and world prosperity.  The immigration of talented foreigners is a good thing, and in today's highly competitive world economy, if they are kept out of the United States, they will go elsewhere.  They want to come here, to prosper here, to contribute here, and most importantly to become part of that global nexus of innovation and ideas which is the key to continuing economic progress both here and abroad.  Government has a definite role to play, and that is not playing a restrictive role to immigration.  Let ‘em in, and let ‘em prosper.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Antony and Cleopatra – NOT a Love Story

Most people think of Antony and Cleopatra the way they do Romeo and Juliet – lovers for all time; lovers of the ages; passion, romance, desire. In short, all things that most of us only dream of. The fact is, Antony was an old guy totally besotted by the younger, voluptuous, dramatic, sex goddess of the East who cared little for him as a man and used him in her single-minded pursuit of power. Sound familiar? Many of Shakespeare’s women had the same ambition – Constance, wife of King John, who seethes with mother-ambition for and a fierce she-bear protection of her son, Arthur, who she wants to accede to the throne; or Lady Macbeth who goads and taunts her husband, the Thane of Cawdor, to commit the bloody deeds that will propel him to the throne; or Lady Anne, who swallows all her pride and loyalty to a murdered husband and father-in-law and marries the arch-villain Richard III, their murderer, to assure her royalty, wealth, power, and future; or Goneril and Regan, not satisfied with the disposition of their father, King Lear’s lands, conspire and collude to rip every last bit of sanity from him to garner all.

Cleopatra was Queen of Egypt, and had had illegitimate children by the Roman emperors Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and had reported dalliances with yet another member of a Roman triumvirate, Pompey the Great. Egypt was a part of the Roman Empire and enjoyed the semi-autonomy of most of the Roman provinces; but Cleopatra, or any regent of Egypt, could never be entirely sure of her security and her future, nor that of her children. Although no historical details or dramatic representation of her relationships with Caesar and Pompey were recorded, based on her relationship with Antony and Shakespeare’s dramatic version of it, it is clear that she was a canny and brilliant sexual politician. She knew that she would add another surety to her claims to Roman authority if she had sons by the rulers of Rome.

Cleopatra played Antony like a violin. She knew his weaknesses – his fear and suspicion of Caesar Octavius; his political ties to his wife Fulvia (who like any good Roman woman, conspired for more power, joining forces with Antony’s brother against Caesar!) and consequent reluctance to leave her; and his dimming future as a martial hero in Rome’s pantheon; and she dug deeply into him body and soul to exploit this knowledge.

He had no defenses against her onslaughts, her parries and thrusts, her wounding insults and innuendoes. He clearly loved Cleopatra and was willing to give up his career and his life for her.

We can only wonder why? Was she that desirable? OK, she was the consort to emperors who could not resist her charms. She was reported to be ageless, of timeless beauty, and sensuality incarnate. She was theatrical – appealing to all men with dull wives and routine, political lives – and she was vital, full of energy and life. Who could resist her? But still – a commanding general and admiral of land and sea forces? A member of the ruling triumvirate? One of the most powerful men on earth? Antony was not unlike Othello who had similar martial credentials – both so poorly understood women and overestimated their own strength, that they both died a fool’s death.

It is easy to say that Antony was a fool – another over-the-hill male who could not resist one last fling with not only an attractive younger woman, but the sex goddess of the Roman Empire, which, by the way extended to most of the known world in 46BC. Even if he knew that she was playing him (Shakespeare’s text does not overtly suggest this, but it is possible), he might well have consciously risked his reputation and career for her. Why not?

I have never bought this. Men of extreme power never say ‘Why not?’; and have to be dragged kicking and screaming from their posts. No, Antony was simply a man caught in the spider’s web; and when he realized it, it was too late.

Antony, when he is defeated for a second time in an ill-advised sea battle, this time against Caesar himself with the fleet of Cleopatra, wants to end his life. He is as inept at this as he is at sexual politics, and asks Eros to kill him (rather than falling on his sword as any honorable Roman would have done). Eros refuses and kills himself instead. Antony finally realizes that he cannot escape the inevitable and does the deed.

Cleopatra, meanwhile, far from pining away at the death of Antony, is busy preparing her survival strategy and negotiates with Caesar to remain Queen and to assure the succession of her children. Yes, says Caesar, but turn over Antony. Too late, but she of course is willing. When she realizes that her terms are not acceptable and that she will face the taunts of the Roman unwashed, and will ride humiliated and spat upon through the streets of Rome does she kill herself. Not for the love of Antony as Romeo does for his beloved Juliet, but for herself. Caesar decrees that a monument to them both be built and revered, but this was neither the death of heroes or lovers; just the death of an outwitted woman, and a besotted man who had lost his senses.

Shakespeare was no believer in romantic love, and but for the unusual and unexplained exception of Romeo and Juliet, a true and pure love story, he was true to his credo. Even in the Comedies, he is cynical about love. Rosalind and Beatrice, two great female heroes of As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing do not love their men, although as in all Shakespeare’s comedies, they get happily married. They play with them, trick them, look down upon them, but ultimately marry them because that was what young women of good families did. However, as one critic suggested, they all would be divorced within a year.

I am all for this take on marriage. In the old days, marriages were arranged for purposes of power. Women were horse-traded and they were forced into roles of backstage shenanigans which they did quite successfully. Shakespeare’s women, although subservient to men, were clearly their intellectual and power equals. In today’s world, the power trading is much more subtle but there nonetheless. Marriages are all about achieving a balance – psychological, social, economic, personal. The best marriages are those in which the partners have successful negotiated a realistic and fair contract – a good deal for both.

Am I being cynical? Not in the least. The key to peace if not harmony, whether in marriage or between nations, is a matter of a fairly negotiated contract. Man is a devoutly economic animal, with antennae as sensitive as a moth’s, and if the balance is tilted, there will be struggle and battle until equilibrium has been reestablished.

Shakespeare’s ‘love’ stories are as illuminating as anything he has written. He, forever and always, has an uncanny insight into human nature and behavior; and this is why he is always the go-to source for figuring things out.

To be published this week in Real Story Publishing (www.realstorypublishing.com) later this week.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Little Foxes–Bad Family, Passionless Play

Regina, Ben, Oscar, and Leo Hubbard in Lillian Hellman's play The Little Foxes are unethical, greedy, and selfish. They cheat their clients and their partners, charge outrageous interest on loans to their black servants, and deceive, manipulate, and try to outmaneuver and even destroy each other.  The play, however, is predictable and obvious about the jealousies and suspicions which are common and inevitable. It remains narrow and familiar, a plot-driven display of family excesses but never achieves the dramatic impact It is about all families and their inevitable jealousies but never achieves even the simple melodramatic enthusiasm of the early plays of O'Neill, let alone the powerful works of Edward Albee.

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Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  is also a play about family greed, ambition, and duplicity. Williams wrote:
“ I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent – fiercely-charged! – interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of common crisis”
Within this storm were individual and powerful relationships, especially those between Maggie and Brick and Big Daddy and Brick.  While the central issue of the play is Big Daddy’s imminent death from cancer and the apportionment of his wealth and the deviousness and maneuvering of all characters to assure their fair share, the play is really about love – that between Brick and Maggie, as unsatisfying and troubled as that may be; and between Brick and his father who have had a standoffish relationship for years, but one which might now change.

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The Hubbards of The Little Foxes have none of the passion of Cat, a play which makes no simple assumptions or conclusions.  Brick and Maggie have histories, emotional records, social ambitions and sexual doubts.  Maggie is willful and ambitious, but almost necessarily so because of her background; and Brick is hobbled, indecisive, and inconclusive because of his family's privilege and his overweening sense of morality.  By comparison Regina, Ben, Oscar, and Leo are stick figures who move the plot along rather than feature at the center of it.  As a result The Little Foxes is a mechanical, obvious play.  One may be interested to know how far these unattractive characters will go and just how low they will sink to achieve their ends – but one doesn't care about any of them. 

In a complicated plot of business dealings, stolen bonds, deceit and deception, the play resembles The Perils of Pauline and other B-dramas of last century. The goodness of Birdie is admirable – how she can keep her moral rectitude and morality in a corrupt family – but she is no Cordelia, Lear’s loving and honest daughter who assembles and mounts an army to right the wrongs done to her and to reconcile with her father.  

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Nor is she a Constance in King John who fights for her son with passion, conviction, and honor or Anne, Elizabeth, the Duchess, and Margaret in Richard III
Anne, Elizabeth, the Duchess and Margaret each contribute in furthering Shakespeare's moral themes in three ways: through their roles as victims which is expressed in their intense lamentations, in their cries for revenge through divine retribution, and in alluding to a higher moral order that transcends men's actions. In all these ways, the women of Richard III help illustrate how destruction comes about when order is violated, either through the weakness of a king or through the machinations of those who cause civil war by wanting to take the king's place. Such chaos devastates the individual, the family, and the nation, resulting in moral decay, treachery, anarchy, and profound suffering. (Shirley Galloway, 1992)
Horace, Alexandra’s father and Regina’s wife is the sickly patriarch of the family whose wealth remains inaccessible to Regina and her evil brothers.  At first he acts responsibly if not nobly, refusing to invest money in their scheme:
I’m sick of your brothers and their dirty tricks to make a dime.  Why should I give you the money? To pound the bones of this town to make dividends for you to spend?  You wreck the town and live on it.  Not me….I’ll die my own way.  And I’ll do it without making the world any worse.  I’ll leave that to you (Act II).
When he finds out, however, that the brothers have stolen his bonds, he acts vengefully to destroy his wife.

If looked at more generously the play might have merit because of its unvarnished display of human nature.  Greed is placed within a larger context.  We are all like the Hubbards.  Yet O'Neill, far more convincingly than Hellman, wrote of the jealousies, contest of wills, manipulation, and selfishness of families and implied that such dysfunction was inevitable. Edward Albee hated families for their inbred deception and emotional cruelty but understood that they were necessary for maturity.  By comparison Hellman's play is predictable and misses the opportunity to suggest more.

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Regina is the only interesting, compelling character because she takes greed and venality to another level.  Like the heroines of Ibsen (Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, and Hilde Wangel) she is ‘beyond good and evil’.  She miscalculates, runs afoul of her simple and good-natured husband whom she mistakenly thinks she thinks she has dominated completely, and decides to murder him, blackmail her brothers, and get her money.  She does this without compunction, without a second thought.

Regina may be admired for her Nietzschean will, but she has none of the intricacies of character as Macbeth, Iago, Goneril, or Regan.  She is more like Edmund – the least attractive of Shakespeare’s villains because he is so practical and political in his scheming.

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In summary, The Little Foxes is a play about family members behaving badly but is predictable and melodramatic.  There no powerful individual relationships and any character could play these plotted roles.