Saturday, January 19, 2019

Before the Refrigerator: How We Used to Get Ice



Before the Refrigerator: How We Used to Get Ice by Jonathan Rees was a brief and enthralling history of the ways people kept their food cold before modern refrigeration. The first electric refrigerator that was produced on a mass scale came out in 1927, Before then, people had to rely on ice to keep their food fresh. Rees wrote about ice harvesting and the industry behind it, which started with cutting the ice from rivers and lakes and ended with a system of delivering the ice door-to-door. He supplemented the text with maps and historic photos. 

Technological innovation led to the development of artificially manufactured ice. Places where ice could never form naturally now had the capacity to make their own. Rees provided a wonderful map from 1905 showing all the US states and the number of artificial ice establishments in each. Customers preferred manufactured ice because it was made from pure water and had no sediment as was always found in ice culled from rivers and lakes. Ice produced in manufacturing plants could be designed to turn out crystal clear, which in spite of it offering no additional benefit to the product it was refrigerating, was nevertheless always a crowd-pleaser. People gravitated to thick transparent slabs of ice produced in factories over cloudy gritty slabs found in nature.

The capacity for all states to have ice available year-round had the profound effect of changing the American diet by preserving perishable food:

"The advent of artificial ice broke that stranglehold by making ice available in places where it did not appear naturally. Lower transportation costs drove down the price of the perishable food, which in turn increased the consumption of California produce." 

and:

"Besides expanding the range of distribution for perishable products of all kinds, refrigeration cut waste due to spoilage. This increased the supply of all perishable products, which in turn lowered their price and therefore made it easier for more people to consume it. In some cases, the increased availability of ice also made those products safer to consume since they were preserved better throughout their journey along the cold chain." 

As artificial refrigeration developed, reducing the size of ice manufacturing plants, those in the ice harvesting industry could see the writing on the wall. It would not be long before people would be able to make ice in their own homes. There was still a market for natural ice as long as the places they were supplying it to lacked electricity and access to an ice manufacturing plant. The last ice deliveries in the US ceased in 1960. 

As home refrigeration developed with the introduction of the electric refrigerator in 1927, consumers suddenly had a smorgasbord of foods to choose from. Natural ice wasn't as cold as artificial ice, yet with a refrigerator in your home you didn't need to worry about storing ice at all. You could set your fridge to whatever temperature you wanted and thus keep foods fresh for longer. Ice, regardless of its natural or artificial provenance, ironically spoiled food:

"The first attempts to use ice for cold storage involved placing the ice in direct contact with food. That method worked only with foods that could stand up to water--like fish. Anything else would end up soaking and moldy before too long. Once people realized that the ice had to be separated from the food, they built two-story warehouses with the ice on top and the food on the bottom, with holes in between to let the cold air circulate." 

I learned that the term icebox is in fact a retronym. The first appliances used at home to chill food were called refrigerators. Ice was stored in the lowest compartment of these refrigerators and the cool air circulated throughout the sealed compartment. With the advent of electricity refrigerators did away with needing huge slabs of ice. Those who bought one of these fancy new electric appliances had a new refrigerator, while those who still relied on slabs of ice to keep their food cold created a new name for their outmoded device: an icebox.

Before the Refrigerator was a short book of 104 pages and filled with endnotes. I found it however to be highly repetitious, and I rolled my eyes whenever I encountered yet again the line about ice increasing the diversity of American diets. Still, I never thought that I would say a book about the history of refrigeration would be such an interesting can't-put-down read.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

#DoNotDisturb: How I Ghosted My Cell Phone to Take Back My Life




Jedediah Bila wrote #DoNotDisturb: How I Ghosted My Cell Phone to Take Back My Life after she came to the realization that she was spending far too much time--wastefully--poking around people' social media pages and not living her own life. Messages or alerts from friends of friends and exes of exes would buzz on her phone and she would jump to attention, her Pavlovian stimulus fully charged. These distant people demanded (and got) her attention even though what she got out of their posts or alerts was entirely useless information. Bila would stare into her phone all day and into the night. #DoNotDisturb shares her story of how she got her life back when she turned off her phone. She didn't only get her life back when she did so: she also got a husband. Talk about a reward for turning off your phone!

I approached this book with the prejudice that I was going to rip into the author and all cellular-obsessed people like she used to be. I still am going to be merciless in my condemnation of 95% of the population as weak and impulsive lazy non-thinkers. I use that percentage based on Bila's assertion that 95% of the American population now owns a cell phone. I do not believe this figure. I think that Bila just chose the highest percentage she could find when researching how many Americans who currently had cell phones. The larger the figure, the more dramatic the effect. My own opinion--opinion, mind you, not anything based on my own research--is that this percentage is about twenty points lower. In any case, the number of people who have a cell phone far exceeds the number who don't. And they're ruining the peace and quiet of those around them.

The disappearance of quiet is nothing new. I work in a public library, an institution that long ago ceased to be an empire of shushing. Our library used to have a no-cell phone policy. Can you imagine anyone enforcing that now? What sound irritates you the most? For me, it's that five-note high-pitched bird tweet that signals a new Twitter message. I hate that sound. It is too loud, too frequent, and always invasive. As I turn into a crabby old man I have no compunctions telling people who are being too loud on their mobile phones "You have a mobile phone. Be mobile." I must admit that I stole that line from a TV show. I recall watching Hyacinth Bucket walking around her house with her new cordless phone just because she could. I wish cell phone users would realize they don't have to be anchored to one spot--like landline users such as myself--when they are having a conversation. Noise, interference, interruptions...all part of the modern world and I realize that fighting it would be a losing battle. Some steps have been made to restore the peace, and I do appreciate the phone-free train cars I have travelled in. Bila however had to come to the realization that she couldn't wait for other people to design phone-free train cars for other aspects of her life. She had to restore the peace herself. And one way to do that was to go phone-free. 

She couldn't stop her phone use on the spot. She had some weaning to do. First of all she dropped scores of Facebook people (they weren't "friends" at all) and deleted some apps entirely. Bila grew amazed at how less stressed her life was when she wasn't devoting so much of her time in other people's lives. She could appreciate the blue sky, and the different shades of blue within it. She was aware of people, animals, sounds and not centred on her little screen as she shuffled from place to place. It was as if she had discovered the real world for the first time:

"...I now had my eyes open to it all and had made the decision to put my phone away. I was like the sober friend in a room full of drunk people, the only one seeing things clearly." 

Bila had an epiphany when she rejoined the real world and started to live life again in the moment. Her personality and overall outlook changed immediately. She was happy to walk around Manhattan, looking up, not down. She was living life in the moment, appreciating sunsets and not obsessively taking photos of sunsets. She was enjoying the beauty and serenity of sunsets, and not taking selfies with sunsets, or editing or filtering her photos of sunsets before posting them on Instagram. She is not kind to people who seem to let the pleasure of the moment pass them by for the sake of social media:

"Back then, before these digital doohickeys dominated our world, we lived the lives we were living, instead of constantly trying to capture a perfect representation of those lives to post on social media, for us to then check obsessively for views. Or likes. Or whatever. Over and over." 

She has no sympathy for parents who would prefer to watch their children's concert through a tiny phone screen versus watching the wide scope of the event in an auditorium:

"When I'm at a cousin's kid's middle school chorus concert, seeing all the parents there with their phones up in front of them, recording, taking near-constant photos and selfies, texting them, posting them on social media instead of actually listening to and feeling the music, I wonder...is anyone ever actually just where they are at the moment, in the moment? Do we even know how to do that anymore?" 

When I saw the original lineup of Bananarama in concert this past February, I was the only person in the front row who was not filming the show on an iPhone. I might be overthinking this, but I did get special attention from Siobhan Fahey, my favourite group member. She smiled at me and gave me the thumbs-up. It could have been in response to me knowing all the words to their songs, but perhaps it was in appreciation for seeing me actually enjoy the show in the moment, and for not preoccupying my attention by recording it. Would I ever watch a video I took of the concert anyway? All YouTube clips of the Toronto concert are of horrible quality. How many parents play back--even once--the cell phone recordings they made of their children's concerts? They miss the show the first time in real life by recording it, and don't even bother to see a woeful recording on the narrowest of screen playbacks. It's one thing if you're not in attendance at a concert: you're not there. Nor are you even if you are present, ostensibly watching it in real life in real time, but if you're recording it all by watching it through a tiny screen, you're not there either:

"What I find unappealing: when I'm at a performance, and the audience is recording, checking their phones for something, taking a photo, sending it, posting it, FaceTiming their friend in the middle of it all. Awful. How about going back to the idea that--if you're not there, YOU'RE NOT THERE."

#DoNotDisturb was a rapid read because it was written in an oral style. Bila even included some dialogues. She used lengthy hyphenated phrases to excess, starting from page 2: 

"That said, I'm not one of those I-had-to-walk-five-miles-to-school-barefoot-in-the-snow-uphill militant memorialists..." 

and continuing almost to the end at page 233:

"Venmo often becomes yet another look-at-me, look-what-I'm-buying-and-doing, I'm-important-because-you're-paying-attention-to-what-I'm-doing sad by-product of the tech boom."

While indeed oral stylizations, this superabundance of hyphens was still an annoying sight to stumble across the printed page. I wish the author had restructured her sentences to express the same sentiments by avoiding all hyphens. 

Bila answers those who claim they carry a cell phone only in case of an emergency. I get that so-called concern whenever I explain why I don't have a phone:

"'But what if I'm needed in an emergency?'
"Which brings me back to the hundreds of years that people existed and survived without cell phones, emergencies included."

As a former teacher, Bila is worried about the next generation. Children are growing up using cell phones and laptops while still toddlers. Parents are nose-deep in texting rather than tending to their children. When she was a teacher, Bila frequently had to deal with interruptions in class:

"...the second a phone would buzz or light up, they'd stare at it momentarily, then lose all attention in the project or assignment at hand. Additionally, so many students I taught wound up being on medication for attention deficit disorder. I wasn't sure if the increase in this diagnosis correlated with the onslaught of devices, but I had a suspicion." 

Her suspicion is bang-on. I do not shy away from debating why I believe AD(H)D is a myth. Tough love from parents by removing their children's electronic devices will go a long way to save the underused brains of our youngest generation. No one, not just children, thinks anymore. People are not testing their memories or their power of recall. When I walk home from work I am obviously not plugged in. If I'm thinking about something and can't recall a fact or figure, I try to remember what it is. I test myself to try to recall it. I have twenty-five minutes to do so before I can check the Internet at home. Those who have Internet on the go on their devices would simply type their question into Google and get the answer within seconds. Do they even pause to think about anything? Do they have any skills of patience when the knowledge they want can be found in seconds? This continual state of having immediate information and providing only partial attention severely limits one's ability to focus, and could possibly also lower one's IQ.

Bila laments:

"It's been a while since I've seen a child hang out in a park, crouched over a puddle after a rainstorm, stick in hand, tracing through the surface area, watching the water ripple toward the edges, thinking, daydreaming. Or a kid on an airplane staring out the window, intrigued by the movement of the baggage handlers coordinating the freight on the tarmac. Nowadays, what do I see? Children glued to big tablets in their hands, clueless to their surroundings, entranced by the make-believe, engaged in a process that pulls them mindlessly along a predetermined trail engineered by some Silicon Valley twenty-something.
"But alas, who am I to judge those kids? I only started noticing so much of the world when I finally put my own phone down."

Indeed. No one has to totally give up his or her cell phone. Just put the damn thing down. You might--just like Bila--meet your future spouse because you looked up.



Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Eaton's: The Trans-Canada Store


Eaton's: The Trans-Canada Store by Bruce Allen Kopytek was a weighty paperback about Canada's preeminent department store chain. At 464 pages, I approached the book thinking that although it would be highly informative, it would nevertheless be a slow read. My first impression was pleasantly disproved the moment I started reading. Kopytek managed to write a lengthy and super-detailed corporate history of the retail giant while maintaining a personal touch. The result was an addictive read, a page-turner, especially since I knew something about Eaton's and was waiting for the author to arrive at certain parts about the company's history. The author filled the book with testimonials from Eaton's customers and employees going back decades, which made the read all the more enticing.

The book started at the time of Timothy Eaton's birth in 1834 (although the Eaton family tree in Appendix B stated his year of birth as 1843) and his emigration to Canada as a young man of twenty. He was a merchant who built an empire literally from coast to coast in all ten provinces. Eaton's was not strictly a chronological read, which was fortunate because that would have made it a boring book. The first Eaton's Santa Claus Parade was held in 1905 yet the chapter about the parade only followed the chapter about store expansion and renovation in British Columbia in the 1970's. I knew that Kopytek had to write about the Eaton's parade tradition as well as the company's decision to cancel the parade in 1982. I just didn't know when he'd eventually get to it. This element of suspense--as I never rush ahead to peek at the pages to come--kept me on the edge of my seat as I ended each chapter. You could say I was waiting for Santa, and in a sense I was.

I can remember the Eaton's store on Queen Street in Toronto, and that the Queen subway platform had an escalator that led directly into the store. You did not have to leave the subway station first. If my memory serves me correctly, I remember the synesthetic pleasure of arriving from the subway platform into a bakery. Now wasn't that a smart idea for greeting customers? What better way to attract customers and to fill their heads with good thoughts than to tempt them with the aromas of freshly-baked goods? Timothy Eaton would have been proud.

Eaton's expanded from coast to coast, always trying to keep itself modern by updating its stock as well as renovating its premises. What might have seemed like a marketing blunder or over-the-top egotism was the establishment of a second major Eaton's store in downtown Toronto, merely blocks from its original location. The two stores managed to stay in business for over forty years, until the opening of the major retail colossus known as the Eaton Centre in 1977. Kopytek spent extreme detail on the architecture of each Eaton's building, whether it was the new Eaton Centre or a suburban mall anchor store. I do not have an architectural background so I had to look up some terms, such as "chamfered corners", but other structural terminology was satisfied by a photo of the store or design in question.

Kopytek filled his book with photos from Eaton's interiors, Eaton's catalogue images and store ephemera. I remember the store's metallic shopping bag dispensers, often found by the escalators. While one would certainly get a bag with every purchase, it wouldn't be one of these large shopping bags, which were made of a thicker paper and had U-shaped handles. One year in the 1970's I fell in love with the TV commercial and jingle "Eaton's Uncrates The Sun", and I bought one such shopping bag as a memento. I still have it:



I also have a small collection of old Eaton's boxes, going back to the fifties. I always place these boxes--unwrapped, of course--under my Christmas tree. I decorate "under" the tree until Christmas Eve when I place real wrapped presents there. Kopytek included photos of Eaton's ephemera from various decades. I only wish that he could have included colour pictures as some of Eaton's themes (green and, at the very end, aubergine) were quite vivid.

In the summer of 1982 Eaton's announced that it would be cancelling the Santa Claus Parade due to its extravagant costs. The store could not have foreseen the backlash of negative publicity it would receive. What the store did not realize was that people still fondly thought of Eaton's and knew the store by name as the sponsor. I enjoyed this recollection of the need for having multiple Santas on parade day:

"A dark-blue and red Eaton's van following Santa carried a second Santa, in case of a problem, along with a nurse and doctor should the excitement of the day overwhelm the parade's celebrity. In most cases, the backups were not needed, but mishaps during the parade were not unknown, ranging from an alcohol-soaked Santa who announced, 'Merry Christmas, you little bastards!' when greeting the crowd assembled to receive him to the sober but no less comical one whose 'jolly' stomach, padded out with a feather pillow, had become soaked by rain, causing his pants to drop as he ascended the ladder to the store."

Yet the downfall of Eaton's did not start with its cancellation of the parade. Eaton's ended its catalogue sales in 1976, not being able to compete with rival Simpson's. In effect Eaton's "handed over $300 million in sales to its greatest rival." The writing was on the wall. Consumer shopping was changing and Eaton's became less relevant with lower-priced retailers and having to fight a reputation that it was a store only your mother (or grandmother) shopped at.

The only criticism I had with the book was that the original newspaper advertisements were reproduced such that their text was wholly unreadable. That's what happens when you reduce a newspaper page to fit onto the page of a book. I could still read all the original copy with a magnifying glass. I am however most appreciative that Kopytek included so much detail about Eaton's culled from the nation's newspapers. He also filled the book with photos of every department store from across the country.

Kopytek ended his book with a timeline of the T. Eaton Co. Limited. It summed up major company events on a single line, but he erred with two dates. I know this, because the dates do not exist:

"1929 Calgary Eaton's opens (February 29)" and "1969 Eaton's Highfield Square (Moncton, NB) opens (February 29)".

Neither 1929 nor 1969 was a leap year. Did he mean 1928 and 1968? Or a different day in February?

The last book I read and reviewed was Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China by Jan Wong, and by coincidence Wong is quoted in Kopytek's book, where she shared her memories of shopping at Eaton's in Montreal (known in Quebec as Eaton) and Toronto. I am happy to say that I awarded five stars to Wong's book as well, and both she and Kopytek wrote to me after I complimented them on each of their books.

As with Eaton's merchandise, Eaton's: The Trans-Canada Store by Bruce Allen Kopytek comes highly recommended.
 


Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China




Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China is the latest work by Jan Wong, an author whose work I thoroughly love. I read everything she writes. Apron Strings chronicled her experiences travelling with her adult son Sam as they roamed the world, looking for places where they could learn local home cooking in the three countries in the title. The Wongs didn't seek classes they had to enrol in, or registration in a famous culinary institute. Jan and Sam sought live-in arrangements where they would not only share the living spaces but also the kitchens and dining areas with the locals. Through extended networks of friends they managed to find such accommodations in all three places. They also shopped for the food they would cook and as live-in guests--nobody would take a euro or renminbi in payment--they were part of each family, taking part in intimate discussions and doing so with competence in each native language. Although not classed as a cookbook, Wong provided recipes for all the dishes she learned to make or witnessed others make. I even learned a cooking tip on how to prepare fresh mushrooms. I tried it and it worked.

Wong writes exactly as she thinks and this makes her writing seem alive: I feel her wit and often laugh out loud, wrinkle my nose at her dislikes and cringe with each word she put into italics. There were plenty of passages with words in italics; this rendered them thus visually as well as audibly distinct. I could imagine Wong's voice change in inflection as if she were reading her book aloud to me. I never wanted to end a reading session with any of Wong's books, and if I had no time restraints I could read her all day. My notes were full of passages that caused me to laugh out loud and read again. Wong's observances often left her dumbfounded and would make perfect cut-to takes if ever this book was made for television. Read about her encounter with the preeminent French cookbook, Je sais cuisiner by Ginette Mathiot, a giant tome at 773 pages:

"I flipped through the cookbook while Bernadette unwrapped the veal. Among its two thousand recipes were a hundred and twenty-six for sauces alone, everything from sauce à l'abricot to sauce Zingara, and even 'ketchup à la crème.' Each of the hundred veal recipes were only a single paragraph, even for blanquette de veau. Julia Child's nearly four-page recipe for blanquette de veau à l'ancienne made me want to lie down in a darkened room with a damp towel over my forehead. Child's 684-page tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I, would discourage all but the most enthusiastic novices. In contrast, Mathiot's was encouraging. Who couldn't follow one paragraph of instructions? At other homes in France and Italy, I discovered similarly minimalist cookbooks. They presumed a level of technical competency that everyone had learned at their grandmother's knee. Recipes didn't explain how to make a roux. They didn't even provide the correct proportions of flour and fat. They merely said, 'Make a roux.'"

I still laugh as I read this! Classic Jan Wong, that is. Same for her reaction whenever she was served French food. First there is surprise. Then, you deal with it:

"In France, no one asks what dressing you want on your salad--it comes with vinaigrette. French chefs don't care how you'd like your steak cooked--it comes medium rare. When I think back, no one we cooked with in France or Italy or China ever asked whether I disliked anything, whether I was a vegetarian, or whether I was allergic to nuts or gluten or dairy. You ate what was cooked. Those with special needs adapted, including Philomène and Pierre-Marie."

Apron Strings was a delight of culture-shock moments and really, there is no better way to depict this than just by letting Wong's words speak for themselves. The following are all highlights from the text that make me laugh every time:

"I sulked and turned to washing stupid organic lettuce. I say 'stupid' because it was coated in black dirt, which required eight washes before the water ran clean. After that, I vowed to buy only chemically poisoned greens." 

About the contrast between what constitutes cooking versus baking:

"When you bake, you measure. You had to sit up straight and pay attention. Thus, I have failed almost every time I attempted to bake a pie or a cake. Once, my cookies stuck to Teflon. I couldn't pry them loose even after I soaked the pan in the sink. The only solution was to throw out the tray, cookies and all."

The best image in the book was the description for a particular vegetable. Even if you had never seen such a cauliflower, you would know exactly what it looked like:

"Bewitched by chartreuse-green peaks resembling an avant-garde architect's take on a Thai temple, Sam bought a Romanesco cauliflower."

On learning about local cuisine in mainland China, Wong realizes that the freshest of meat is not found in a supermarket:

"Some mothers take their sons to natural history museums. I thought Sam should witness a chicken slaughter." 

Yet some Chinese cooking traditions are negatively stereotyped and Wong has no patience for them:

"'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome' had been thoroughly debunked. I now roll my eyes and grow uncooperative when Canadian friends ask me to transmit their no-MSG request to Chinese waiters, who of course speak fluent English. Aside from my friends' presumption that I alone can communicate with the waiter, I resent the innuendo that only Chinese food uses MSG. In fact it is in everything from Goldfish crackers to seasoned fries to ranch dressing to the hydrolyzed vegetable protein in fast food." 

For more of these zingers and spot-on observances, you'll have to read Apron Strings.





Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Florence Foster Jenkins: The Inspiring True Story of the World's Worst Singer



I rarely see feature films, but I did see "Florence Foster Jenkins" where Meryl Streep played the title role. I have known about this notorious singer since childhood, as she was always listed in the Guinness Book of World Records (which I read annually since I was about nine) under the category Singers. Her "world record" entailed:

"While no agreement exists as to the identity of history's greatest singer, there is unanimity on the worst." 

That's, surprisingly, quite a subjective statement from a source known for its objective argument-settling reputation. At least the book was worth reading under the McWhirters' editorship. So when the new biography Florence Foster Jenkins: The Inspiring True Story of the World's Worst Singer by Nicholas Martin and Jasper Rees came out, in tandem with the movie, I had to read it. First of all, in spite of the cover art, this is not a book adaptation of the movie. It merely capitalizes on it. While the movie concentrates only on Jenkins in her later years as a singer, Martin and Rees have told Jenkins's story starting from before her birth. The authors have done their research into Jenkins's family and birthplace history and provided valuable insight into the development of the woman known, and loathed, for her singing. They do not race through her childhood and time as a young woman. In fact, if the reader only wanted to read about her concert performances as a singer, he'd have to wait until the second half of the book. 

While the juiciest parts of this biography relate to audience reactions and newspaper reviews of her concerts, I found her early life--she was married at fourteen--to be equally captivating. Her marriage to a doctor (a disaster doomed from the start if she was a bride at fourteen) and her troubles with her father's will instilled in her a distrust of all authority figures, and not only doctors and lawyers. 

Jenkins moved to New York City after she separated from her husband and ascended the vibrant social scene, climbing the ladder of high society at tea parties, afternoon dances and music clubs. Jenkins formed her own such club, the Verdi Club, of which she was the president, and sponsored and hosted many musicians and singers over the years. She was a skilful pianist in her own right, and performed at various clubs herself. Jenkins soon became a grande dame of the wealthy social set, and was well respected for her charitable work and for organizing concerts and benefits at her own club. 

An arm injury prevented her from playing the piano at her club's own concerts, and that could be the reason she took to singing later in life. The authors made a solid case for the late blooming of Florence Foster Jenkins: 

"While it is conceivable that Florence's stories of thwarted musical ambition were exaggerated, there are enough different sources which talk of her parents banning her from singing to confirm that, in later life, Florence at least believed she had been held back." 

Her repressive parents and husband hindered her creativity and Jenkins could never break out on her own until they had all died. This psychological straitjacket now removed, she could do whatever she wanted and had the money, her own music club as well as subservient friends to help her along. As long as the Verdi Club's members were partaking of their president's extravagant concerts and parties, the least they could do was indulge her if she decided to take to her own stage:

"Thus the cycle began: in return for her vast social and cultural largesse, Florence received uncritical approbation for her singing." 

None of her close friends dared laugh or tell her how awful a singer she was. To do so might have meant instant banishment from her club and being blacklisted from the New York social scene. So people sat through her concerts by grinning and bearing it:

"It was very difficult for anyone to tell her the unvarnished truth: not Verdi Club membership, not the many opera singers launched upon New York thanks to Florence's patronage, not charities who profited from her fundraising, not journalists (real critics being uninvited), certainly not St. Clair [Bayfield, her common-law husband]. In whatever spirit they were offered, Florence chose to believe every compliment and accept every invitation." 

Her disdain for authority figures carried over towards journalists. She dismissed any critical reviews of her singing and recordings as being from uneducated uncultured heathens. No one knew opera as well as she did and her critics were not in any position to judge her. 

Sadly, her distrust of lawyers had a devastating impact on her common-law husband St. Clair Bayfield. Since Jenkins died intestate (the authors however claimed that she did in fact have a will) Bayfield could not inherit. Jenkins died in 1944 and common-law spouses who did not even share the same residence had no legal standing. Therefore Jenkins's estate went to her next of kin blood relatives: all twenty of her second cousins. Bayfield managed to prove in court a common-law relationship and was awarded only a fraction of her estate. 

Her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, was known to laugh while playing for her and hamming it up for the audience. His testimonials about working for Jenkins are known to be exaggerated, however the few (soundless, thankfully) movie clips that exist of Jenkins in concert prove his point:

"'She added histrionics to every number.' recalled Cosme McMoon, 'generally acting the action, if it were an aria, or other appropriate action if it were a descriptive song, or else she would go into different dances during these numbers, which were extremely hilarious.'"

According to McMoon:

"the audience nearly always tried not to hurt her feelings by outright laughing, so they developed a convention that whenever she came to a particularly excruciating discord or something like that, where they had to laugh, they burst into these salvos of applause and whistles and the noise was so great that they could laugh at liberty." 

Jenkins would often break out of song and acknowledge the applause, bow and catch a few breaths, and then resume singing. Jenkins recorded nine songs on 78 rpm and all of them are available on CD. I own one such CD and can attest to her need for frequent inhalations. She could not see her own need to draw breath mid-song, yet the listeners could:

"And if others could not be relied upon to sing her praises, Florence sang them herself. In one Verdi Club programme she wrote, '[Luisa] Tetrazzini took three breaths to sing this phrase, I do it in one.' A woman at a recital begged to differ: 'She did it in twenty-four.'"

The line that bowled me over and continues to do so upon subsequent rereadings is the reaction of audience members who did not have to act so sycophantic:

"Verdi Club concerts were free to the members but tickets could be bought by the public, which meant that audiences soon started to swell with non-loyalists who had never been to a Silver Skylark ball or a Rose Breakfast. Word spread in the early 1930s about the unique phenomenon of the singing president. In 1934 the audience contained a rogue element who paid $2 for a guest ticket, made their way to the back of the auditorium and laughed their heads off."

Jenkins's common-law husband sums up his wife's talent quite succinctly:

"The recitals acquired a cult popularity. In St. Clair's estimation this was down to what he called her 'star quality'...'There is something about her personality that makes everyone look at her with relish. That is what my wife had.'"

Monday, August 13, 2018

Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search For The Afterlife, Immortality and Utopia


By day Michael Shermer is the author of several bestsellers including The Moral Arc and The Believing Brain by night he is a world-renowned skeptic. How exactly does one build one’s reputation as a skeptic? In Shermer’s case he founded the Skeptics Society and is editor-in-chief of its periodical Skeptic magazine he also contributes a column here and there to Scientific American. Shermer is perhaps best understood as a scientific skeptic, that is, a skeptic whose opinions are informed by science in its procedures and what it accepts as evidence. Heavens on Earth is Shermer’s latest book and in it he tackles the human obsession with death and legacy.

Why can’t we live forever? Would we want to live forever?

These are a few of the seminal questions humans have contemplated for millennia. For human beings it is not enough to simply desire life everlasting we also burn to know why mortality is our lot—all the better to fight inevitable demise, one supposes. Human history is dotted with written accounts of individuals who have claimed access to an eternal realm, or seen the abode of the gods, or have experienced God himself in his divine home. It is hard to know what to make of these claims. They seem extraordinary and tantalizingly mysterious. For anyone who has lost a loved one belief in continued existence after death may provide joyful solace. But are these claims of proof in a life beyond the grave verifiable? The answer ultimately is no they are not. Why not? Because science provides our best standards for verifiability and these extraordinary claims of post-mortem survival do not stand up to the rigours of the scientific method.

The same verifiability standards set against the proofs for heaven are applied with equal precision to beliefs in immortality, broadly conceived, and to the attainment of utopian existence here on earth. None of these ideas and the evidence that supports them fairs well under the lights of the scientist’s microscope.

The pattern in all cases is the same. Shermer takes a belief and then subjects it to the scientific sniff test. Beliefs (thoughts and feelings) turn out to be nothing more than chemical reactions in the brain. Things that are seen or felt beyond the grave as, for example, some have claimed to have experienced after a so called near-death experience are illusions or the distortions that naturally occur when the physical brain is under stress or in some cases damaged. After the analysis ideas of heaven, immortality, even God are deemed unverifiable and likely false. One can’t help feeling that we are left with a purposeless universe of atoms moving in a void.

So no heaven no meaning to life, right? Not according to Shermer. He argues that a purposeful life is achievable despite the apparent purposelessness in the universe.  Meaning and purpose in life is personal. You get out of life what you put into it. Love and family, career, social and political involvement, setting goals for oneself these are all ways that people can have meaning in their lives without the need for any transcendent deity or eternal heavenly abode.

It is hard to argue against Shermer because he will accept no other court of appeal than the physicalism of scientific experiment and verification. Atheists will find much in this book to bolster their opinions. Shermer, it should be noted, isn’t arguing against the fact that humans have hopes and dreams of immortality and utopia. His point is much more circumscribed. He looks at what has been offered as proof for the existence of a heavenly realm, and claims people make for immortality. Each bit of evidence on offer is scrutinized and found inadequate. 


To begin this brief book review I wrote that Shermer was a scientific skeptic. I want to return to that. To be a scientific skeptic is to accept as evidence for an argument such experiential criteria that can be observed and quantified.  Science is extraordinarily effective (and useful) as an exercise in telling us what something is, what its parts are, and also how that something works, that is, science can provide categories of analysis and functional explanations for most of what surrounds us in the universe. I wrote “most”. Beliefs about the afterlife and ideas concerning immortality and utopias have much more to do with human desires, hopes and aspirations. Hope is a notoriously difficult concept to pin down on the petri dish of scientific experimentation. Why? Because there is something non-physical about thoughts and ideas. Defining exactly what that “something” is, well that is another story. The usual strategy for a scientific skeptic is to reduce all experience to objective, physical stuff, but is this reductionism legitimate? Do we not lose something … something important? I think we do. Life (or experience) has an inside and an outside. The outside can most definitely be analyzed by scientific methods and we can learn much from examining the world in this way. But the inside subjective quality of experience cannot be reduced to atoms and void so it remains stubbornly beyond the reach of scientific method. Physical proof of heaven, nope, but hope springs eternal.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

There Is Simply Too Much To Think About: Collected Nonfiction


When the author Saul Bellow died in 2005 at the age of 90, I was saddened and disappointed by the scant attention paid to his passing. Bellow was one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. His novels are still relevant, in a way that many of past generations are not. And his writing... his writing is simply astounding.

With this in mind, and my love of nonfiction, I looked forward to reading There Is Simply Too Much To Think About, a collection of Bellow's nonfiction. I assumed that Bellow's intelligence, insight, compassion, and precision command of language would make for some fascinating reading. I was right.

The essays, speeches, and literary criticism collected in this volume display a towering intellect, but not a cold one. Bellow's view of the world is always humane and compassionate. He observes keenly, he understands deeply, but he also feels deeply. His gift is the ability to convey that feeling in a way that feels completely novel, bringing the reader new insights into the human condition.

There Is Simply Too Much To Think About recalls, for me, my favourite nonfiction collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. Both Bellow and Wallace are willing to play out a train of thought as far as it will take them, both broadly and deeply. Both were gifted observers who possessed an astounding command of language. But beyond all that (which is a lot), both observed with compassion, and with love.

At the time Wallace was writing the essays collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing, novels, film, and visual arts were stuck in the ironic mode. Everyone was jaded; everything was viewed with rolled eyes. Wallace wrote about the overuse of irony, and in his own work, he eschewed that orientation for something more meaningful, and more compassionate. (If you're not familiar with this, this piece in Salon may be useful, and if you want more, Wallace's "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction".)

Bellow, of course, didn't grow up in a world of ironic observation, but he similarly comments on an orientation from his own eras -- the academy, and the theoretical approach to literature. In many of the essays in There Is Simply Too Much, Bellow discourses on his own methods as being free from theory. He digresses to tell us, in essence, that he writes from his heart and his mind -- and he hopes you will read with yours. Bellow wants us to stand in front of a work of art and gasp at its beauty, and be awed by the emotions that beauty stirs in us -- not read about that art in a guidebook, or worse, be told what it symbolizes.

The writing collected in There Is Simply Too Much, selected by Benjamin Taylor, is organized chronologically, but there's no reason to read it that way. For me this is a book to dip into, to read it bits and pieces, perhaps in between novels. The writing is extremely clear and precise, lively and not dense, but it's heady stuff, requiring time and thought. Reading it from start to finish could be a test of endurance, and there's no point turning such good writing into a drudgery.

These essays contain a huge number of references to people that readers may not be familiar with, both because their fame may not have made it to our era, and because Bellow must have been the most well-read man in the world. Some of the references I knew, others I was able to understand through context, and for a few, I employed Google. In the end notes, editor Benjamin Taylor explains:
Bellow's references are typically to well-known persons and phenomena and I have preferred not to impose on the reader with unnecessary footnotes. If certain of his allusions are less familiar, details about Viscount Bryce, Elbert Hubbard, Freud's Rat Man, Boob McNutt, Colonel Bertie McCormick, Billie Sol Estes and Oh! Calcutta! are nowadays at one's fingertips.
Given how many footnotes would have been needed -- how often the flow of Bellow's writing would have been interrupted -- I applaud Taylor's choice.

The book jacket blurb calls this book "a guided tour of the twentieth century...conducted by one of modern life's most inspiring minds". I'll go with Taylor's words, as he thanks Janis Freedman Bellow, Bellow's wife and partner: it is "a book of wonders". [This review was also posted on wmtc.]