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

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Good Manners

Kazunori Nozawa, one of the world’s premier sushi chefs, retired from his restaurant in New York City after 47 years. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/29/dining/kazunori-nozawa-of-sushi-nozawa-in-los-angeles-is-set-to-retire.html?src=dayp Patrons can no longer witness his ballet with a sushi knife; his elegant pirouettes and the graceful movements of a dancer combined with a tunnel-vision intensity.  All fish were not only sliced to the perfect, unique thinness appropriate for their flesh and contours, but done with the precision and speed of a laser. His intermezzo creations were simple but elegant placed before you at just the right time, perhaps after you have let the last bit of soft, velvety uni melt in your mouth.  They were miniature architectural masterpieces, little towers of radish and tiny bell flowers, or one piece of marinated fish garnished with a cross of dark green seaweed.

There is nothing like sushi for its clean, brisk, sea taste; or the buttery silkiness of toro, salmon, or yellowtail; or the pop of fishy, savory, ikura. I always eat sushi alone, and I always close my eyes as soon as the full flavor of fish and vinegary rice fill my mouth.  The taste, the texture, the blend of ingredients cannot be disturbed.  Sushi is a singular pleasure, one of the greatest discoveries of culinary history.  Once at a sushi bar, I only stop when I think I should not when my appetite says I have had enough. Neither the clickety-clack of the internal calculator, ringing up hundreds of dollars, nor feeling satisfied can stop me.  Only some sense of obligation – I am eating up the mortgage payments, spending ten times the normal lunch price – slows me; or the image of my Program Assistants eating wraps at Quiznos. 

One time a sushi chef did stop me.  After I had ordered three rounds and showed no sign of slowing up, did he say, politely but firmly, “Don’t you think you have had enough?”.  I obviously had gone way beyond the limits of Japanese propriety when it came to dining.  This interdiction came at a time when Makoto had just opened, its clientele was all Japanese, and when a gaijin was a rarity.  I suspect that he would have berated me five years later when the restaurant got so popular that the sushi rarely was made with fish, and that the atmosphere – the howled greetings and good-byes, the geisha-looking waitresses, and the formal sushi chefs behind the polished wood bar – dismally compensated for the exotic delights of real, fresh, artistically-prepared nigiri

Mr. Nozawa was also known for his strict discipline.  He, like me, felt that sushi – any good food for that matter – should be eaten with no distractions.  Patrons should look at him, quietly, as they would listen to Heifetz or Rubenstein, with respect, admiration for his artistry, and awe at the beauty and elegance of his creations.  Murmurs of appreciation among diners was the only conversation that he tolerated.

“I feel I’m responsible for teaching Americans what the etiquette is when eating at these kinds of places,” Mr. Nozawa said. “It’s customary in Japan to give the chef their full respect while dining in their venue. I have never appreciated people who can’t respect the art or the food itself when they come to this place. Disrupting the experience. Talking too loud. Not having good manners. I hated it when my customers who displayed great etiquette were disrupted in their dining experience by people talking loud.”

All of which got me thinking about manners in general. I had been brought up well enough, I think, and I don’t remember any special hectoring from my mother other than “Keep your elbows off the table”; but I was sure that whatever manners I had must have eroded after almost ten years eating at prep school, college, and university dining halls, when my wife – very politely and carefully-  suggested that I was eating like an animal in a zoo.  According to her I was hunched over my food, shoveled it in, ate with my mouth open, waved my fork around like an orchestra leader’s baton, flicking food around the dining room, smeared my clean cloth napkin with swaths of chicken grease and salad dressing, picked food off the serving platters, and far worse.  

Although I had been raised properly and went to the best schools, my era was one where certain habits – such as manners – were considered bourgeois.  Manners were reserved for the court of Louis XVI and we know what happened to his head, removed by the uneducated and mannerless, but democratically spirited rabble.

My manners took a turn for the worse during my many years travelling in the Third World. In Africa I felt very much at home because picking bits of fish and scooping handfuls of couscous out of a common pot was what one did as well as sucking the delicious juice from the chicken ti bou dienne off my fingers.  I liked Indian-style eating – sit around chatting for a couple of hours, belly up to the serving table, pile your plate high, and scarf down the alu gobhi, chicken murgh masala, and dhal makkani in minutes.  Belching was also permitted, although not in the best homes. My daughter could get through half of a belch alphabet when she was ten, and my poor wife could only groan, “Why did you teach her that?”.

I can’t blame my bad manners wholly on foreign culture.  I often ate alone on my two- and three-week in-and-out Lone Ranger consulting trips, so dining was rarely a leisurely, candle-lit affair.  I would search out the hotel buffets where I could put my Indian years to good use.  Before even sitting down at the table, I would fill my plate with meat, fish, vegetables.  Before even pulling in my chair all the way I had wolfed half my plate. 

My children in their early and middle years of course imitated my manners, such as they were.  It was far easier to slouch, scarf, suck, and wipe than to sit up straight, hand in the lap, cut properly, etc.  My son, catching on very quickly once asked why he should sit up straight.  His mouth was so far from his food.  “Because it is good manners”, my wife replied.

“Actually you have a point”, I said to my son.  My wife looked on quizzically. “Tomorrow I will get that old kiddie chair from the basement for you to sit on.  Then your mouth will be exactly at the level of your plate and you can just shovel the food in”.  He looked at me for a moment, wondering if I could possibly, hopefully, be telling the truth.  It was so plausible, reasonable; but somehow not right.  He darted a look to my wife who was grimacing.  “I’m kidding”, I said. 

“You always lie to us”, he replied angrily. 

“No”, I said, I test you.  That’s the way you will learn fact from fiction”.

One day, both my children and I were again hunched over our food.  It was like a perverse orchestra with many parts.  The oboes picked at their food with their fingers.  The violins chewed with their mouths open.  The bassoons shoveled it in and alphabet-belched.

“This is disgusting”, said my wife. “I can’t stand to look at you!”

“We’re just eating”, replied my son, innocently.

“Yeah, we’re just eating, Mommy”, echoed my daughter.

“You’re not eating, you’re feeding”, my wife retorted.  “That’s not food, it’s fodder.  We might as well install a trough outside and have you pigs eat out there”. Actually, I had thought of this when my daughter was very little, eating in her high chair, flinging food at the walls, dropping it on the floor, messing her bib, pants, and shoes.  “Why don’t we feed her in the bathtub”, I suggested to my wife. “Let her eat however she wants, and then we’ll hose her and the tub down together”. 

One evening after a particularly offensive mannerless meal, my wife, in total exasperation pleaded, “Can’t you please sit up straight and eat properly?  Please?”

“Why should we?”, asked my son.  “Daddy said it was bourgeois”.  Oops.

“You should do it for me!  I don’t care how badly you embarrass yourselves when you are out of this house, but here eat properly out of respect for me.  I’m the one who has to sit across from you and see your gross, slovenly eating.  Not you.  You’re doing it and I’m seeing it, and it is disgusting”.

Silence.  The real reason for manners had hit.  Respect and consideration for others, for the food, for the social experience.  After that, all our manners improved – not immediately, mind you.  It took more than a few weeks to cure the years of indifference; but gradually, the hunched shoulders and torso stoop disappeared, serving forks were used, mouths were patted clean rather than smeared, and fingers were reserved for corn and bread, nothing more.

So I thought of the purgatory we had put my well-mannered  wife through.  She had been infinitely patient and never for a moment considered going over to the dark, easy side to the trough.  Women are supposed to be the repository for and guardian of traditional mores; and this case was no different.  Manners, in the scope of things - in the long, difficult, and often turbulent years of child-rearing are but one, minor piece; but in retrospect an important one – one that has as much to do with being socialized as looking good at the table of Louis XVI. 

I have to admit that when no one is looking, when I am cooking my own dinner with no one to join me, I will eat standing over the sink, shoveling it in and letting the bits and pieces scatter as I push the food in, falling directly into the Disposal; but the point is manners are for when people are looking.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Story Of Needles Lerner And How Socialism Got A Start And A Finish In A Small New England Town

Miss Olsson's Sixth Grade class put on Captain Martin, a play written by Herman Neville, a local playwright.  The playwright was a fan of Jack London, taken with the socialist sentiments and rhetoric of The Sea Wolf and decided to adapt it for the stage.  Admittedly, the New Brighton theater was not much and catered more to Polish plays about the old country than anything as provocative as Captain Martin, but it was a stage nonetheless; and although Herman had hoped for more than the Vance School Sixth Grade, it was still a premiere of sorts, and got some attention in the local press.

Image result for images jack london

The only reason Miss Olsson put on the play was because she was a Socialist and Herman Neville’s lover.  This was the early 50s, and she and Neville could only meet in musty basements with a few other disaffected, unhappy idealists; yet they all were animated and encouraged by their fellowship and felt a particular solidarity and camaraderie.

Needles Lerner got his nickname when he was in grade school because he was so thin and tiny; and no matter how his mother tempted him with brisket, deli, and latkes, he picked like a bird and never gave weight.  Eventually she gave in and began feeding him the sponge cakes and apple tarts - delicious, home-baked delights - that he loved.

Needles eventually grew out of his ‘problem’, but it took years of progression, graduating from cakes and vanilla pudding to sweet potato pie to sweet potatoes to regular potatoes to French fries, and eventually to a normal meal.  Yet despite his progress, Needles always had some kind of food tic.  He would only eat fried eggs and only if they were cooked until the yolk was hard and the white rubbery. Or he could not eat the crusts of bread.  He would bore out the soft innards of Kaiser rolls, peel bagels, and meticulously slice off the edges of Wonder Bread.

How all of this morphed into Socialism no one knew, except that perhaps his empathy for the poor and downtrodden had something to do with his exclusion from all social groups in New Brighton. He was so eccentric, so unlike anyone else in the school, and so marginalized by students and teachers alike, that it was no wonder that he ended up a Socialist if only temporarily.

The playwright, Miss Olsson, and Needles Lerner were perfectly suited for each other.  They came to Socialism via very different but personally needy paths.  Miss Olsson’s father was a Lutheran preacher with the rigidity and ironclad morality of a New England Calvinist. He was far worse than the the rock-ribbed granite preachers of Nathaniel Hawthorne; more wild and fanatical than Faulkner’s Reverend McEachern in Light in August

Image result for images light in august

After her father's death, she and her mother moved to Akron where Margaret went to Normal School, and then to Connecticut where she got a job with the New Brighton schools.

Socialism for Margaret Olsson was the secular religion that she was denied in her youth.  Her faith in the kindness, generosity, and equality of Socialism was as powerful a motivating force as the blinding and distorted religious passion of her father, just quieter, more temperate and measured.

The playwright, Herman Neville, was a different story altogether.  He was a mental drifter – a dreamer who thought that Socialism with its lofty ideals was romantic; that theatre was romantic in its ability to distill human passion on the stage; and that the two together represented an apotheosis, a grand fulfillment of an artistic and intellectual vision.  He had no clue about Socialism or any political theory for that matter.  His plays were unformed plots within a brushy and indistinct setting.

His characters were formless and without substance, really only mouthpieces for his endless monologues which he thought were impassioned pleas for justice, but were just impossibly boring.

So Herman wrote the first draft of Captain Martin, Needles - high school senior - edited, and Margaret Olsson produced it at the Vance School. She put as much energy in the play as a Broadway producer.  She was producer, director, set and costume designer, musical coordinator, and acting coach, all in one.

At the very least, the parents of the Sixth Grade would come, and because it was going to be performed on Parents' Night, many more would attend.  The message would, finally, get out to the reactionary Republicans of New Brighton, even if it was spoken by the dismal students of the East End.

Margaret Olsson loved Herman Neville.  When others saw in him a maddening imprecision, an illogic, and a total inability to make sense, she saw an ineffable spirit in touch with himself and the beauty of the poetic world of ideas and their theatrical expression.  Both Herman and Margaret were very unattractive, and unlike the true Socialists of the Thirties, eschewing fashion and style as bourgeois affectations, their frumpy, rummage sale look was unintentional.  Margaret’s hair, bound in a bun – one of the last holdovers from her trussed and corseted days – was never successful.  Grey straggles fell over her face.

Herman was no different and no better.  He didn’t exactly look derelict, although some of the passers-by  on Main Street often mistook him for one.  He just had a tattered and disheveled look even though there was not a thread dangling from his suit jacket, nor a shirttail hanging out over his trousers.

Margaret and he had their assignations in his dingy tenement apartment on Arch Street. She went up the back fire escape and entered through the small door to his kitchen.  Some days after their lovemaking, they sat out on the fire escape in the dusk, watching the silhouettes of old industrial buildings disappear into black shapes and listening to the new arrivals from Poland chat on their back porches and stoops. 

Their lovemaking was tender and simple.  It wasn’t as though they wanted to get it out of the way so that they could talk about ideas; but it was quick and perfunctory.

Needles had no love life to speak of, but never expected any after the childhood he had had.  He had plenty of fantasies and tried to insert them in Captain Martin, but the playwright caught every innuendo, every oblique reference to sexual hi-jinks and erased them.  He accepted his lot, sublimated his passions to The Cause, and eagerly helped with the production.

Image result for logo world socialism

Billy Barnes, a particularly well-spoken, confident, communicative, but a slow and unimaginative boy had the lead in the play.  He liked Captain Martin, although he understood absolutely nothing of what he said.  Despite Needle’s editing and moderation, Barnes could only garble the carefully crafted, intellectually central, and most passionate lines in the play.

Herman, Needles, and Margaret Olsson made no concessions to the fact that these were Sixth Grade actors.  The performance was to introduce the philistines to great ideas.  The supposedly lyrical language talked of mountains, birth, bedsteads, jousting, pillories, and visions with no rhyme or reason.  Herman’s inner eyes saw a Socialist vision in a very particular poetic way.  Needles focused only on doing his job as a good lieutenant, and Margaret, smitten with love and with The Cause thought it all made perfect sense.

On the afternoon of the performance, Billy Barnes started off well, than hit some kind of hysterical wall.  He saw Herman’s image of a great carrion bird carrying the hand of a capitalist over the heads of the damned, and began to laugh.  The absurdity and absolute ridiculousness of the play appeared to him as surprisingly as if he had actually seen some awful bird overhead.  He repeated one line over and over again: “The bird of rotten flesh, dripping with carrion juices, flew over humanity, and dropped its decaying load”. 

He tried to control himself, but his giggles continued, and were infectious.  The entire cast started laughing.  They too, like a contact high, had seen what Billy had seen and not what poor Herman had written.  They started flapping their arms, crowing like roosters, and hopping around the stage. 

Miss Olsson, livid with rage, disappointment, and bitter shame grabbed Billy by the arm and roughly yanked him off the stage.  “Get up there”, she shouted to Art Michaels, the understudy.  She shoved a sheaf of papers at him and said, “Read these, you dummy”.  Art wasn’t a real understudy.  He was given the job of actually reading the play just in case, and he could fill in for anyone.  By this time even the most prim and composed matronly mother had cracked a smile.

For the Republican parents in the audience, the play was a metaphor for Socialism itself - overblown, overwrought, thick and gluey with metaphor and innuendo, ridiculous, and absurd.  The musty trysts of Miss Olsson and the playwright were exposed.  She was dismissed from the school system and he, a pharmacist's assistant, was let go.

She and Herman left New Brighton separately and alone.  Few people gave them a second thought.  There were enough current scandals to keep local interest, and the stuffy love affair of two Socialist amateurs and their one bad play was quickly forgotten.

Miss Olsson landed on her feet, got into retail, and gave up on Socialism. Her engagement in the cause had been, she realized, one less of political commitment than sexual adventure.  She felt good about her anti-establishment persona, the seedy Arch Street apartment, the smells of kielbasa and cabbage, and the shabby but romantic Herman Neville.  She worked her way up from store clerk to Assistant Manager and eventually to store manager of a clothing emporium in the West. Until her mid-forties she never felt comfortable with the idea of marriage - not so much because of any lingering romantic feelings for Herman but a general distaste of the whole idea of sharing.  She gave in finally, like many women.

Herman never recovered from the New Brighton fiasco.  It wasn't so much the failure of the play that bothered him - after all it was a sixth grade affair - but his exile.  He hadn't deserved such a summary dismissal.  New Brighton was just as bad as Salem.  He dawdled with Socialism for a time; but had neither the gumption nor intellect to pursue it seriously let alone be on its leading edge. 

Image result for images salem witch trials

Needles Lerner was given a bye.  He was too young to know any better, and his unfortunate physical disability could not be overlooked.  Socialism indeed had been a dalliance, an emotional affair easily forgotten; and he never looked backed.  Although he never grew much beyond five feet, he did put on some weight and lost the spindly look he had as a child. He lost most of his tics, learned how to dress appropriately - a fuller look in suits - and was never looked at as any more than just a small person.

Of the three partners in the ill-fated play, Needles was the only one who actually had read not only Jack London but Marx, Hegel, Lenin, and the Euro-Socialists of the 70s.  His interest turned to criticism, and as senior staff writer and editor of well-known conservative journals turned his attention to the millennial neo-socialists who were as enamored with the discredited political philosophy as Miss Olsson and Herman Neville.  The Soviets had merely made a cock-up of a good thing, they said.

One never knows where insignificance may lead.  Who would have thought that Captain Martin, a silly grade school play would have so upset the apple cart? Or sent unwitting idealists on their way?

Socialism is pretty much dead.  Needles Lerner is now at the helm of a major American newspaper, Miss Olsson has a child, and Herman Neville works as librarian in Salem Massachusetts of all places.

Body Image

This is a fascinating article about why black women feel better about their bodies than white women (http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/black-women-heavier-and-happier-with-their-bodies-than-white-women-poll-finds/2012/02/22/gIQAPmcHeR_story_2.html).  The article is interesting not only because of its specific socio-cultural focus on the black community, but because it illustrates how normative behavior is so important, and how behavioral change is so difficult. 

The poll found that although black women are heavier than their white counterparts, they report having appreciably higher levels of self-esteem. Although 41 percent of average-sized or thin white women report having high self-esteem, that figure was 66 percent among black women considered by government standards to be overweight or obese.

The most telling reason for this phenomenon, according to the author,  is the following:

In 2008, Heather Hausenblas, a University of Florida professor of exercise physiology, co-wrote a study looking at the role the media played in body image among white and black women. Both groups were exposed to the ideal tall, thin white woman’s physique, and their moods were compared before and after. White women felt badly about themselves after viewing the idealized physique; black women were unaffected. Black women “are just not comparing themselves to these white models,” Hausenblas says. Caucasian women are internalizing the images; black women are not.

Self-image is a complex phenomenon with social, cultural, physical, psychological, and historical roots. There appear to be three factors which are operating: 1) the class-income-education phenomenon where people in poor communities have higher BMIs ; and 2) the psycho-social phenomenon of conformity to the group.  Recent studies have shown that people tend towards the norm, even when it comes to weight. Bernheim and others have documented this fact.  That is, you tend towards the weight norm of the socio-economic and cultural milieu in which you live; and 3) the thesis of the author of the article – that the norms of the majority community (in this case white women) are rejected by the black minority. 

Regarding the first factor, low-income communities in the United States tend to be heavier and more obese because of: a) low income which prohibits them from purchasing higher-cost healthy foods; b) living in poor neighborhoods which are often underserved by upscale food chains such as Whole Foods which focus on organic and other ‘healthy’ options; c) low levels of education which limit an understanding of food and nutrition and the ability to negotiate claims, counterclaims, and nutritional data.

[The author of the study] attributes the higher BMI among African American women to work demands, which he says lead to fast-food lifestyles, less exercise and fewer healthful eating options in majority-black places such as Prince George’s County.

Income has always been a predominant factor in weight and image. A full-figured woman in the days of Rubens – a far cry from the svelte woman of today – was the norm, and has been during various periods of history.  Weight in poor societies (whether in 17th Century Holland or in Africa or Asia) was a sign of wealth and prosperity and therefore beauty.  Thinness today is also a sign of wealth, for trim women and men show that they have the money to afford imported fish and health spas. In low-income communities where weight gain is inevitable, given the factors indicated above, a full-bodied and –proportioned body has become the ideal.

Regarding the second factor, overweight people who live in an overweight community perceive obesity as the acceptable social norm even though they may be receiving information from the majority – commercial images, government-sponsored nutritional and health information, etc.

Middle class black communities, however, tend towards the majority (white) norms.  In Washington, for example, the many black lawyers, lobbyists, media personalities, and business executives conform to the white weight norm, and the article suggests that more black women, regardless of income or social class are beginning to look to slimmer black celebrity role models.  On the whole, however, the images of black beauty are likely to be slow to change:

[Black women] grew up listening to songs like the Commodores’s “Brick House” and hearing relatives extol the virtues of “big legs” and women with meat on their bones.

Essence and Ebony magazines offered their own visions of black beauty. The Ebony Fashion Fair took black glamour on the road. “There was no Anna Wintour saying yes or no. The aisles at church were a runway, ‘Soul Train’ was a runway, the first day of school was a runway,” Davis says. “Jet magazine began offering its beauty of the week — aspiring dental hygienists, complete with measurements — and skinny women need not apply.”

Every generation had celebratory songs blasting from the radio. “I have a very clear image of hearing the Commodores playing ‘Brick House,’ and all my cool aunties in high-waist jumpsuits got up to dance. It was an anthem for them to shine.” In the lexicon, women weren’t fat, they were “thick,” “healthy,” “big-boned.” They had “nice futures” behind them.

It is the third factor – the influence of media - which is the most complex.  Assuming that black women do in fact ignore the commercial image of svelte white women as irrelevant to their own body image, why is this true? There appear to be a number of principal factors: 1) the poor black community is still isolated from white society; and therefore individuals within it feel that white norms are irrelevant and/or unattainable; and 2) there is a more deliberate rejection of white norms regarding weight just as there has been a rejection of good black students who ‘act white’; and 3) members of this community feel that the socio-economic factors which have produced obesity are inescapable and inevitable, and that a potent psycho-social accommodation has taken place. 

Given the current focus on obesity, there are many articles, transcripts, and professional journal articles on the subject, many of which focus on black female obesity, most of which address the issues I have brought up here as well as many more.  Some are from the popular media:

1) NPR summary of radio program: “Obesity in America is a problem across the racial spectrum. But columnist Debra Dickerson suggests that African-American women are more inclined to be overweight because African-American men prefer them to be so. Dickerson defends her argument and is joined by a blogger who disagrees in this week's Behind Closed Doors.”

2) BET Online: Why Do Black Women Have the Highest Rates of Obesity in the U.S.? Kellee Terrell: "Some experts believe that poverty and lack of access to healthy foods are not the only factors in why African-American women are disproportionately large.

Others are scholarly: Explaining the Female Black-White Obesity Gap – A Decomposition Analysis of Proximal Causes, Johnston and Lee, Journal of Social Sciences.



The three factors mentioned above are suggestions based on some of this research, but a more detailed analysis is beyond the scope of this article.  

In summary, this article and the studies and surveys on which it is based, offer an insightful look into behavior and behavior change, and in particular the relationship between weight and body image.  Obesity is undeniably linked to health problems, yet changing behavior to reduce weight is a complex issue of which calorie in – calorie out is but one issue. Self-image is a potent and resistant factor in this equation.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Growing Up On Commonwealth Avenue

There may have been a reason behind Barky Hampstead’s stubbornness, but we never found out what it was.  He kept pissing on Mrs. Helander’s petunias and swearing it was the cat even though she yelled at him every time she saw the perky little blossoms brown and droopy from his urine.  “Now, Barky”, she would threaten, out on the front lawn in her smock, apron, and mules, yelling across two neighbors’ yards at him.  “Don’t you dare do that again, or I’ll tell your parents”.

“But I didn’t do it”, said Barky. “It was the cat”. So Mrs. Helander crossed the two yards and banged at the screen door of the porch.  Barky’s mother, dressed to kill by comparison to the dowdy Mrs. Helander – tailored suit, silk stockings, high heels, and stylish hat – opened the door.  “Why Mrs. Helander”, she said, “What on earth is the matter?”

“It’s your…your….”., Mrs. Helander spluttered, ready to spit out “vile…uncontrolled…nasty….intemperate” but settled simply on “your son”, this being a very quiet corner of New Brighton, Connecticut in 1948 where bad adjectives stayed indoors.  As much as she hated Barky’s mother – more because she was his mother than anything she had done herself (bringing this wild wretch into the world was a sin in itself, an original sin on Commonwealth Avenue) – she could only be polite.

Mrs. Helander loved birds and watched lovingly as a robin nested in the mountain laurel outside her kitchen window.  “Look at the lovely little blue eggs”, she cooed, for a moment forgetting the hellion at her side.  The next day the eggs were gone, and she found what was left of them, gooey and drying on the basement window, shards and fragments of the eggshells littering the window well where toads, hopping in the same petunia patch that Barky had watered, had fallen down the three feet to their doom, and where their bones were littered.

Mrs. Helander, a good Catholic nearly choked with rage as she sat in church behind the Hampsteads and watched evil Barky, head bowed, hands clasped in prayer, walk solemnly up the aisle to the communion rail. “No confession can cleanse that boy of his sins”, she hissed to Mr. Helander, who was nodding off.  “He has the devil in him, and only an exorcism can cure him; and maybe not even that”.

The Hampsteads became an obsession of Frieda Helander, especially Barky’s mother who left the house two times a week looking like the cover of Collier’s, all gussied up, putting on airs, sashaying down the walk to her Desoto, a car that they certainly couldn’t afford, not on a shoe salesman’s salary.  “Bleeding that poor man to death”, Frieda thought, “and for what?”.  She had plenty of ideas such as steamy assignations at the Burritt Hotel.

“You always look so lovely, Mrs. Hampstead”, she said one summery day.  “I wish I had your sense of style”.  She smiled, but her insides were all grimace.  The smile felt stretched and false, the tilt of her head a bit too perky, and it took every ounce of self-control to keep her from yelling and spitting at her like at Hester Prynne – adulteress, fornicator, seed of Beelzebub.

“Why, thank you, Mrs. Helander.  It’s nothing really, just something cool but stylish for a warm afternoon”.

“Why that bitch”, Frieda thought.  “Right out of Gone With The Wind.  ‘Something cool but stylish’ indeed.

“I’m going to play bridge.  Do you play bridge, Mrs. Helander?  If so, you might like to join our little group.”

“Of course I don’t play bridge, you presumptuous twit”, she thought to herself, “And neither do you!”; but instead demurred, thanking her for her interest, searching for a quick repartee, something insinuatingly nasty but not too obvious, but failing dryly, mumbling something about biscuits and Harry, her husband.

“Well, then”, said Mrs. Hampstead, “I’ll be running along.  Oh…before I forget, could I ask you a small favor?  Keep an eye out for Barkley.  He’ll be fine, I’m sure.  He’s up in his room reading comics, and I’ll be back before you know it”.

The scythe of the Grim Reaper had just come a little bit closer to this corner of New Brighton.  The skies had noticeably darkened.  Frieda looked up at Barky’s window, opened halfway.  A light breeze blew across the honeysuckle bushes by the back fence and carried a sweet perfume over her, ruffled the curtains, and softly entered his room. “How could such a beautiful expression of God’s grace end up in that vile demon’s den?”, she wondered.  She was a very religious person, but felt tested every day by the Hampsteads.

Laura Hampstead did, in fact, have steamy assignations every Tuesday and Thursday, but not at the Burritt.  She drove the five miles to the Berlin farmhouse of her lover, a very youngish retired doctor who managed an apple orchard off of Route 72.  His family had money, so at 50 he got divorced and decided to pack in the house calls and rounds at New Brighton General Hospital, and do what he had always wanted to do – grow things.  He bought the orchard from a Polish family who could not keep up the payments.  The orchard, cows, and chickens could not cover the mortgage and pay for the essentials.

The doctor had fixed the place up, turned it into a rustic Currier & Ives print.  It was so quaint and perfectly New England that you could almost see the sleighs, the horses, and the hounds.  Except that it was located in the Connecticut equivalent of Crackerland – a rural, run down, poor corner of the state where old goats and broken roofs were the rule; and upscale, seasoned wood-and-maple, hearth-warmed, houses appointed with Goddard and Townsend 18th Century cabinets were the exception.

Laura Hampstead was Dr. Moore’s tart.  She was dimwitted and slow, except in bed.  She was much younger than he, and her youthful and boundless sexual energy kept him young.  He couldn’t believe his good fortune – his reputation in the community was unimpeachable since he was a scion of one of the First Families of New Brighton, the ones with second homes on the Vineyard, large but tasteful residences on the Park, and memberships at Harthaven Country Club.  As a doctor – a working professional contrasted to the genteel no-need-to-work First Families – he had a universally untarnished reputation; and what’s more this double-whammy of a pedigree insulated him from the usual gossip.  “So what if Dr. Moore has a tart visit him every Tuesday and Thursday”, the First Families said.  “He deserves it”.

Mrs. Barkley was of course not a tart.  She was simply sexually charged, and the thought of her shoe salesman husband, coming home smelling of feet and leather, was enough to make her retch.  Even at her most needy, she had to bring herself off, turning to the wall away from her snoring husband, curled in a fetal position, exciting herself until, despite her effort, bucked and moaned when she came.  Her husband, opening an eye, pulling himself awake after feeling the rocking and shaking of the mattress, never guessed what she was doing and only spluttered something incoherent about chicken or Florsheims.

It wasn’t long before Laura Barkley came on to the good doctor.  She had gone to him just before he retired, and loved his strong hands on her as he palpated her abdomen, or rubbed her neck, trying to diagnose what he thought had to be psychosomatic ailments of the beautiful Laura Hampstead.  The ailments were not psychosomatic in the true sense of the word, but they were inventions to get his hands on her in as many different parts of her body as possible.  Since he was a good and responsible professional, he dismissed any thought of sexual overtures, but since he was divorced and ready to start a new life, he gave in, saw her complaints as what they were, and invited her to his newly-renovated farmhouse. 

Their sex was heroic.  Dr. Moore had no idea that this is what sex was all about.  Although his wife was nowhere near as stagnant and unresponsive as Laura’s husband, sex with her was almost as perfunctory; and, unlike Laura he remained a good sexual spouse until not long before their separation.  ‘Money hath its privileges’, he knew, and he could change wives like Henry VIII just because he was tired of them. 

Dr. Moore and Laura Hampstead were simply acrobatic in their lovemaking.  She was insatiable, coming three, four, even five times, each loudly and ecstatically.  It was good, the doctor thought, that they were way out in the country, for her screams and howls got the dogs barking in the next farmyard a quarter of a mile away. 

Meanwhile, back on Commonwealth Avenue, Mrs. Helander waited with fear and anxiety for Barkley Hampstead to get tired reading Captain Marvel, and to come out into the summery afternoon.  Every day it was something different.  One Tuesday he and an equally vile friend blew up Mrs. Fox’s trash can with explosive fireworks that he had saved from the Fourth of July.  They were the kind that went off underwater, so he sneaked around the side of Mrs. Fox’s house, filled the old zinc trash can full of water, dropped in three XXX Ashcans, and scurried behind the hedge between the two properties to watch.

In about ten seconds, there was a massive explosion, a great, thudding boom as the water in the trash can expanded, burst its seams, and blasted up and onto Mrs. Fox’s porch.  All scraggly-looking and dressed only in a ratty bathrobe, Mrs. Fox, yanked awake from her afternoon nap by the explosion, threw open the upstairs window and hollered, “Goddam you, Barkley Hampstead.  Goddam you!”.  But she, like Mrs. Helander could do nothing.  Mrs. Hampstead, if she was not off fucking her doctor, was at the beauty parlor or actually playing bridge; and Mr. Hampstead was so tired and dispirited by his horrible job of fitting New Brighton matrons with ugly shoes, that he simply didn’t give a shit about his son

Another day, Mrs. Helander heard the anguished cries of the Potters’ cat which Barky Hampstead and his vile band were chasing with a hoe, hacking away at it as it scrambled over the rose garden, under the privet hedge, and up the oak tree.  It was so badly mutilated that Mr. Potter had to take it to the Animal Hospital where, Mrs. Helander supposed, it was disposed of because she never saw it again. 

Barky loved rock fights, and he taunted the neighborhood kids to engage him.  They went up to the new road that was being built behind his house, squared off, and fired.  Barky practiced his throwing every day, knew exactly the size, heft, and feel of the best rocks – the ones that would fly most true and do the most damage.  One Sunday morning in church, Mrs. Helander noticed Billy Henninger with a great big, egg-sized, tumorous-looking bump on his forehead.  It was all purple and yellowish, with red streaks.  Dr. Moore had had to sew up split scalps and the ragged cuts which Barky, alternating between the round, symmetrical rocks for raising welts and the jagged, slimmer kinds that curved and slashed, inflicted on cheeks, arms, and heads.

In short, my little corner of New Brighton, so bland and conservative on the outside, was nothing more than the usual, predictable mess of rumor, lies, innuendo, sexual doings, indifferent husbands, and irremediably bad kids. The saga of Barky, his parents, Mrs. Helander and the rest eventually came to a close.  Barky got hauled off by the New Brighton police.  There were no progressive social service agencies in those days to ‘understand the needs of troubled youth’; and Barky got locked up in reform school.  His parents did not protest.

The torrid affair between the doctor and Mrs. Hampstead ended, as most do; and when he got tired of his tart and sent her packing, he found another lover.  So did she, but when the comatose Mr. Hampstead finally realized what was going on, they moved to another state, leaving Barky to finish his sentence in Meriden. 

By the time of this dénouement, Mrs. Helander was too old to care; but she did appreciate being able to walk into her back yard, smell the lilacs, honeysuckle, and roses without the menace of Barky Hampstead.  The neighborhood changed – new residents, some additions to the older houses.  It became more uniform and predictable.  Fewer Barkies and more serious college-bound students. 

I once told my son about the rock fights with Barky Hampstead.  “You actually had rock fights?”, he asked, incredulous but with admiration.  “Yes”, I said. “But that was a long time ago.”  

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Nature of Innovation–The Bell Labs Lesson

An important article in today’s New York Times (2.26.12) by John Gertner http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/26/opinion/sunday/innovation-and-the-bell-labs-miracle.html?pagewanted=1&ref=opinion chronicles the rise of Bell Labs, the institution responsible for some of the most important technological discoveries of the last century:

Consider what Bell Labs achieved. For a long stretch of the 20th century, it was the most innovative scientific organization in the world. On any list of its inventions, the most notable is probably the transistor, invented in 1947, which is now the building block of all digital products and contemporary life. These tiny devices can accomplish a multitude of tasks. The most basic is the amplification of an electric signal. But with small bursts of electricity, transistors can be switched on and off, and effectively be made to represent a “bit” of information, which is digitally expressed as a 1 or 0. Billions of transistors now reside on the chips that power our phones and computers.

The silicon solar cell, the precursor of all solar-powered devices, was invented [at Bell]. Two of its researchers were awarded the first patent for a laser, and colleagues built a host of early prototypes.  They created and developed the first communications satellites; the theory and development of digital communications; and the first cellular telephone systems; and they built the first fiber optic cable systems

The article goes on to suggest how Bell Labs was able to achieve such a startling degree of innovation and contrasts it with today’s Silicon Valley.  The difference he says is that while Facebook and Google are all based on ‘breaking things’, lightning speed and response, Bell took its time and not only developed new ideas but applied them to products:

[The experience of Bell Labs] shows us that to always “move fast and break things,” as Facebook is apparently doing, or to constantly pursue “a gospel of speed” (as Google has described its philosophy) is not the only way to get where we are going. Perhaps it is not even the best way. Revolutions happen fast but dawn slowly. To a large extent, we’re still benefiting from risks that were taken, and research that was financed, more than a half century ago.

It is worth looking at the specific elements of Bell Labs that contribute to innovation:

1. Physical Proximity. Kelly (the founder) was convinced that physical proximity was everything; phone calls alone wouldn’t do.  Bell Labs housed thinkers and doers under one roof – purposefully mixed together on the transistor project were physicists, metallurgists and electrical engineers; side by side were specialists in theory, experimentation and manufacturing.

2. Aspiration. Bell Labs was sometimes caricatured as an ivory tower. But it is more aptly described as an ivory tower with a factory downstairs. It was clear to the researchers and engineers there that the ultimate aim of their organization was to transform new knowledge into new things.

3. Organization. Kelly set up Bell Labs’ satellite facilities in the phone company’s manufacturing plants, so as to help transfer all these new ideas into things. But the exchange was supposed to go both ways, with the engineers learning from the plant workers, too.

4. Freedom. Some of his scientists had so much autonomy that he was mostly unaware of their progress until years after he authorized their work.

5. Time. One might see [allowing years to develop a product] as impossible in today’s faster, more competitive world.  Nobody had to meet benchmarks to help with quarterly earnings; nobody had to rush a product to market before the competition did.

Gertner asks what innovation should accomplish:

By one definition, innovation is an important new product or process, deployed on a large scale and having a significant impact on society and the economy, that can do a job  “better, or cheaper, or both.” However ‘innovation’ can describe a smartphone app or a social media tool; or it can describe the transistor or the blueprint for a cellphone system. The differences are immense. One type of innovation creates a handful of jobs and modest revenues; another, the [Bell Lab]type, creates millions of jobs and a long-lasting platform for society’s wealth and well-being.

He concludes:

To consider the legacy of Bell Labs is to see that we should not mistake small technological steps for huge technological leaps. It also shows us that to always “move fast and break things,” as Facebook is apparently doing, or to constantly pursue “a gospel of speed” (as Google has described its philosophy) is not the only way to get where we are going. Perhaps it is not even the best way. Revolutions happen fast but dawn slowly. To a large extent, we’re still benefiting from risks that were taken, and research that was financed, more than a half century ago.

The experience of Bell Labs, however, cannot be replicated because it is from an earlier era – one of big monopolies like Bell Telephone which, without competition, could afford to spend money and enormous amounts of time in basic research.  Bell did not tell the researchers at the Lab to come up with a laser, or the digital basis for communication.  It simply asked them to work within a general context – how to make communication faster, more efficient, and more economical.  From there, the workers were on their own. While the article does not spell out the innovative process at Google or Facebook, it suggests that it is more narrow, focusing on the smaller steps – e.g. a new phone app – than the larger, more fundamental and revolutionary changes to improve communications in ten years.

I am not so sure this is true.  Every day I read about computer ‘chips’ that are microns small.  Recently, a discovery was made that will enable one atom or a microscopic fragment of DNA to be today’s transistor.  These discoveries are not made in one, giant laboratory, but in university laboratories all over the United States. Innovation in basic research as well as in product design is now done by thousands of smaller institutions –start-ups and individual laboratories.  The market seems to be working well.  The research laboratories are working for profit – to be able to patent their new invention and realize royalties whenever their new discovery is used by Apple or Google. Start-ups work feverishly to outdo the competition for new product design and applications.  

While this narrows the focus of research facilities somewhat, and gives them a shorter time horizon, the end result appears to be the same.  The same is true for the product designers and manufacturers.  Apple, for example, recently upgraded its I-Phone.  This was not a product that would enable you to levitate – the quantum leap of technology sought by Bell Labs – but it did improve the camera, add advanced voice recognition software, and other features.  The voice software already existed as a Siri app, but the innovation of Apple was to integrate it into the I-Phone’s operating system.

Some of the other elements of Bell’s success are still important today, but in a different context. The functional link insisted upon by Kelly between ideas and things is still important, but Steve Job’s insistence on a glass screen, for example, heavier but better than a  plastic one that scratched easily – he almost instinctively understood the very nature of the device he had built and exactly how consumers used and valued it – was translated into a product within weeks by outsourced, inexpensive, disciplined, and tireless Chinese factory workers.

Kelly’s argument for an integrated workplace is still valuable and the basic idea has been expanded, adapted and modified for a modern setting.  Not only are workplaces more integrated, but they are integrated across product lines. A variety of creative people  working on different ideas and products, but all in the innovative phase of thinking, are put in proximity.  Entrepreneurs have understood that the very process of innovation is critical and common to all, and that by sharing space and thinking, all design work will be enhanced. 

Kelly’s insistence on two-way flow of communication has been a staple of management for decades, but with limited success.  Kelly understood that actual face-to-face communication was not essential, but that communication between people in different areas of the world or different stages of the design or manufacturing process was essential.  We are adapting slowly to virtual communication links.  The live, ‘real’ handshake, and ‘look-‘em-in-the-eye’ mentality still persists, but economics if nothing else will force a change.

Innovation is such a fascinating subject because as President Obama has said in his recent State of the Union address: “Innovation is what America has always been about.” Over the last 100 years, America has been the uncontested leader in innovation in manufacturing, finance, technology and communications, among other important areas; and, despite the remarkable and revolutionary new ideas and products that come from America, the future may not be as productive. 

Our educational system, for example, is still mired in the 19th century.  Innovation, entrepreneurial thinking, and risk-taking are discouraged rather than encouraged.  Religious conservatism has held back what could have already been dramatic life-saving innovations in stem cell technology.  Public outcry over what critics consider the negative impact of genetically modified products has slowed innovation which could help feed the world.  The practical potential of the spectacular discoveries concerning DNA, such as the understanding of the human genome and recombinant DNA techniques, have been held in check because of 18th century conceptions of human nature and reason.  Human nature itself is not outside the reach of an engineered genome.

Innovation, therefore, is possible only when the most favorable environment is possible within our very diverse democratic society – where politics, religion, philosophy, organization, economics, and genius coincide.  This conjuncture is very uncommon; and that is why the increased attention paid to innovation is critical and essential.