Some Miscellaneous Thoughts On Turning 200

It’s hard for me to believe that this is my 200th post.  Frankly, I never thought I could come up with enough ideas to furnish so many posts.  There was also a question of existence;  I never thought I’d live to be 62.  But, here I am and I still have ideas for further posts.  I’m so grateful for my 100 followers, who continue to read my posts and offer helpful comments.  That I have forged strong links with people from Australia, Canada, the Philippines, Russia and the Ukraine, makes me very proud.

Our world is a tempestuous one, and now that the U.S. has broken open the magic bottle of the Middle East, not so nice genii have spread their wickedness throughout the region.  While the Cold War had well-defined enemies, the current wars often have shadowy figures that lurch between good and evil, making them hard to pin down.  The concept of “freedom fighter” has often appealed to gullible Americans, who often give aid to “fighters” of dubious character.  Throw “religious motivation” into the mix and you have a real mess.  The malignancy of misguided hate has spread throughout the world, and only time will show if we have experienced and intelligent enough “doctors” to cure it.

On a more technical note:  We humans tend to be rather bad at long-term reasoning.  Our history confirms this fact over and over.  One reason that this is so is because we cannot predict all possible outcomes of a given event.  Hence, it follows that we cannot predict the collection of events that form what we call future.  Is this an inevitably fatal flaw in our mental structure?  Again, time will tell.

“Man’s a kind of missing link.  Fondly thinking he can think.”–Piet Hein

One of the most disturbing books I’ve read in the last twenty years is Dale Peterson’s stupendous and highly insightful biography of Jane Goodall.  Disturbing, because it reveals often surprising connections between the lives of chimpanzees and the lives of humans.  At times, it’s hard to differentiate the two worlds.

I know that French naturalist, Francois Buffon, tried to show that there is an unbridgeable gap between animals and humans. He thought that man was the reasoning being, while all animals were irrational beings.  Alas, scientific research has shown that this gap is not as large as Buffon suspected.  We now know that the rational aspect of the human brain developed late in our development.  Those primal desires that we inherited from our cave ancestors dominate our lives.  We have only to look around us to see the proof.  Most of our TV programs thrive on greed, vanity, cruelty and other basic human instincts.  How many programs deal with the nature of mathematics, forms of problem solving, or what we can learn from peoples other than ourselves?

“Who is to say that we’re born and we die, and what’s in between doesn’t matter?”–Charles Kalme, Assistant Professor of Mathematics, University of Southern California, 1970.

What is my philosophy of life?  I think it’s a mixture of Samuel Beckett, Thornton Wilder and Walter Kaufmann.  From Beckett I take the tenuous quality of life;  from Wilder the belief that some moments are special and Kaufmann’s belief that reason is our best defense against chaos and madness in the political realm.  As to free will and determinism, I see life as a boat ride in Disneyland;  you think you’re doing the steering, but you don’t realize that your boat is being guided by unseen underwater tracks.  Let us hope that we are guided by tracks that will take us to greater understanding and the light of unbounded human potential.  In the end, nobody knows what is really at stake on this tiny planet.  That is the great mystery.

 

Allegro: The Musical That Couldn’t, Part 2.

In 1938, Our Town premiered on the American stage.  Written by Thornton Wilder, it gave a universal outlook to a few lives in Grovers Corners.  The rituals of birth, marriage, and death were commented on by a matter-of-fact Stage Manager, played by Frank Craven.  Suddenly, small town life gained a cosmic significance.  Oscar Hammerstein was influenced by this play and tried to create a musical that would follow a man from his birth to his death.  He chose for his character the son of a rural doctor and called him Joseph Taylor, Jr.  He hoped to show how significant and miraculous one human life was by tracing its early influences, obstacles, loves, career struggles, and, ultimately, decline and death.  However, in the middle of his second act, he began to lose focus, so he could not fulfill his goal completely.  Yet, his failure resulted in a dynamic, dramatic, innovative, unforgettable musical that in many ways did accomplish some of Oscar’s goals.

The musical begins with the celebration of Joseph Taylor, Jr.’s birthday.  The mayor has declared the event a legal holiday, so there is no school.  The opening chorus of celebration involves the whole town, from a church choir to drunks, stumbling along to grotesque rhythms.  And even the children cry out:  “Look what Marjorie Taylor’s done…  Hail him, hail him, everyone!  Joseph Taylor, Jr.!”  So, the simple birth is magnified in importance, and we feel that the country doctor, Joseph Taylor is quite an important man in the minds of the town’s citizens.

Grandma Taylor introduces the theme of time flow that is so critical to the first act:  “The winters go by. The summers fly.  And, all of a sudden you’re a man.  I have seen it happen before, so I know it can happen again.”  Growth is as much a human ritual as birth.  In her generalizing, Grandma Taylor sounds like Wilder’s Stage Manager.  Growth does occur when Joseph Taylor, Jr. takes his first steps in “One Foot, Other Foot.”  Richard Rodgers uses the music from this song as a “growing up” motif, indicating the steps Joe will take throughout the show.  Once Joe can walk, he emerges as a truly living character.  The play concludes with him taking another major step in his life to the same motif.

During Joe’s childhood, Grandma Taylor dies, though she will appear together with his mother as ghosts during his wedding and at crucial moments of Act 2.  So, now it is time for another childhood rite:  the encounter with the opposite sex.  In an eerie, often grotesque Children’s Dance, punctuated with fragments of nursery rhymes, Jennie Brinker and Joseph Taylor, Jr. are pushed into each other through a children’s game, displaying the inexorability of fate.  Jennie Brinker, the winsome daughter of wealthy lumberman, Ned Brinker, is a beautiful blond with insouciant charm and Joe is smitten immediately.

Soon, it is time for Joe to go to college to study medicine as his father did.  The 1920s college atmosphere is evoked through dance music, college cheers and excerpts from professors’ lectures.  But Jennie continues to haunt Joe in his thoughts and desires:  “You are lovelier by far, my darling, than I dreamed you could be!”  Joe is obsessed with Jennie’s external beauty, but of her deeper motivations he hasn’t a clue.

While in college, Joe meets fellow student, Charlie Townsend, a more worldly hedonist, without Joe’s hometown values.  All Charlie can think about is girls, and when Jennie is seeing another boy, Bertram, Joe decides to go out with Charlie’s acquaintance, Beulah for a date.  She sings “So Far”, a song about the romantic possibilities of their beginning friendship.  However, upon finishing her song, Beulah notices that “the little louse is asleep!”  No competition for Jennie!

When Joe returns home, Jennie and Joe become engaged.  Shortly before the wedding, Marjorie Taylor and Jennie Brinker have a major argument, and Jennie reveals her true intent by telling Marjorie the plans she has for Joe’s success, and by demonstrating her indomitable will and determination to achieve them.  Marjorie is shattered, realizing that Joe has fallen into the arms of a ruthless schemer, but is helpless to change matters.  In fact, she dies soon after their confrontation.  With her major antagonist out of the way, Jennie is free to control Joe the way she wants.  In Act 2, she does just that.

Another ritual:  the wedding.  “What A Lovely Day For A Wedding!’ is a satirical song, showing how the Brinker relatives and Taylor relatives despise one another as they come from different social milieus and have completely different values and expectations, even Ned Brinker laments:  “What I’m about to get, I don’t exactly need.  A doctor for a son-in-law, another mouth to feed!”   But the wedding must go on.  And it does!  During the ceremony, Marjorie appears, and her doubts and concerns are voiced.  Grandma Taylor, too, is there.

Act 1 ends with a choir wishing the newlyweds well: at first in soft, encouraging tones, then climaxing in daring, shrieking sounds.  Finally, the orchestra ends in total discord, hinting at what disasters lie ahead.  Grandma Taylor and Marjorie shake their heads in horror as to the coming future.  And we, as the audience, can only wait for Act 2!