Wednesday, June 22, 2005

In Memoriam William Block, Sr.

Since moving to Pittsburgh four years ago, I have been pretty impressed with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It's not on the level of the New York Times or the Washington Post, but I think it compares pretty favorably with the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Boston Globe. Considering those are the main dailies in metro areas about three times the size of Pittsburgh, I think the Post-Gazette staff ought to be proud of what they put out. One of the things that has most impressed me is that the paper remains a family owned paper in this era of mega media corporations.

William Block, Sr. was the long-time publisher of the Post-Gazette who died Monday at the age of 89. Read here for a nice tribute from one of the paper's columnists and here for the news obituary. I didn't know him at all and learned about his life from reading these two tributes.

Much ink has been written about the rise and fall of the WASP establishment. I think it's safe to say, however, that the late Mr. Block represented the best of a kind of American life and career that is fading into memory.

Rant of the Day

Here is a list of sociopathic behavior on the part of drivers that I have recently witnessed. Let me stress that I don't think this behavior is unique to Pittsburgh: I think it can probably be found in every area of the country if not the world. However, I call it sociopathic because this behavior becomes really annoying and often dangerous in older urban neighborhoods with narrow streets, many bus routes, stores designed to have things delivered from small trucks, and limited parking.

--Taking up two spaces in a lot.
--Parking large cars or SUV's in spaces marked for compact cars.
--Blocking intersections and busy driveways.
--Not stopping at the stop line. (When they are well back of the intersection, it's usually for a good reason. Or, did you just think the line painter was confused?)
--Not using turn signals.
--Taking up two lanes while waiting to turn left.
--Swerving to the left before a right turn.
--Not yielding to pedestrians at intersections. (How many of you remember from driver's ed that the pedestrian has the right of way at every intersection, not just controlled ones?)
--Honking at a driver who yields to pedestrians at intersections.
--Honking at a driver who does not make a right turn on red when there is a steady line of cars moving through the intersection.
--Honking at a driver who does not make a left turn when there is a steady line of oncoming cars.
(The last two really puzzle me: can the driver behind not see the cars with the right of way or does he/she assume that a good neighbor should commit suicide and/or manslaughter so that the honker can get home faster?
--SUV's with tinted windows. (Ever try to get out of a parking space with one of these next to you? I'm going to have to try to get X-ray vision with my next eyeglass prescription.)
--Gigantic delivery trucks parking at bus stops while making deliveries during rush hour.

Feel free to add your own in the comments section.

Monday, June 20, 2005

I am a Hasid of Rabbi Judith Martin

Catching up on the NYT Book Review from June 12, I was amazed to find that Julia Reed entirely missed the point of Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (the review is on pp.8-9). Apparently, Julia Reed thinks Miss Manners (aka Judith Martin) is mainly of interest for her 1) rigidity; 2) nostalgia; 3) wit. It's a very positive review, but apparently Miss Reed is unaware that Miss Manners is of interest not for her views on table settings but because she is one of the finest political and ethical philosophers of our day!

Yes she is witty but there's a lot more to it. And Reed’s notion that Miss Manners is nostalgic is easily misunderstood. She wants to preserve some elements of the way people behaved in the past, yes, but this just makes her not a radical. Whatever she is, Miss Manners is not the sort of a conservative who “stands athwart history.”

If I had to characterize her, I would say she brilliantly synthesizes a kind of classical liberalism with a progressive communitarianism. In the hands of Miss Manners, etiquette teaches that what you do in private is your own business but offers a system that allows for harmony--and decency--in social relations. One of her maxims is that law often steps in where etiquette has, in fact, broken down. One of my favorite teachings from the Great One: when asked how to greet the members of a gay couple when introduced to them, she answers: “How do you do. How do you do.” Let’s put it a different way: “etiquette” might be well translated as derekh eretz.

What I Did Before, During, and After Shavuot

1) Participated in an exchange of comments on the high cost of Jewish living over at Bloghead.

2) Led a discussion on interpretations of Exodus 20:2 by Halevi, ibn Ezra, and Mendelssohn at my synagogue's Tikkun Leyl Shavuot. If you're interested, we looked at Kuzari 1: 10-25; ibn Ezra ad. loc and Jerusalem, pp.97-98 in the Arkush translation. If you read Hebrew, I also recommend Warren Zev Harvey's article on the subject in Tarbiz 57 (1988): 203-216.

3) Took children to synagogue to receive little stuffed Torah toys, to parade down the aisle and place an orange and apple on the bimah, and to eat candy. My daughter believes very strongly that if one goes to shul, God will provide lollipops during Adon Olam.

4) Took children to see a great exhibit--"The Material World of Childhood"--at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The favorite thing was the "Bilibo". Go here to find out what this is.

5) Had dinner with our friends, the devout Christians. They are the librarians for their church and found in a box full of stuff in the basement an old Hebrew book. Well, as the name of the blog suggests, that's my cup of tea (cliche or ordinary language?). So after dinner they pulled out part 4 of Sefer Li-Felugot Reuven by Selig Reuben Bengis (Berlin, 1924). (Not that old by my standards.) Bengis, at the time he published this collection of sermons preached on the occasion of completing Talmud tractates, was the rabbi of Kalvarija, Lithuania. In 1938, he moved to Palestine and became second-in-command of Ha-Edah ha-Haredit in Jerusalem. He became head of this ultra-Orthodox community in 1949 shortly after the creation of the State of Israel. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, Bengis was a somewhat moderate anti-Zionist in his leadership of ha-Edah ha-Haredit, "curbing its most extreme wing, the Naturai Karta."

What I did not do over the Shavuot holiday: eat cheesecake. But we did have blintzes and cottage cheese muffins. And hold on--we did have to keep calling the cottage cheese muffins "mini cottage cheese cakes" since my daughter had wanted to make a cake out of cottage cheese. (Don't ask.) So maybe that counts as my cheesecake for the holiday.

Kicking the Shins of the New York Times (KSNYT)

Over the weekend, I was amused to see the following statement in the Saturday New York Times: “...when in the 17th century Isaac Newton paid homage to his intellectual predecessors, h expressed his humility with an image that was still fresh and evocative. ‘If I have seen further than others,’ he wrote, ‘it was only be standing upon the shoulders of giants.’”

Evocative yes, fresh no. In the appropriately titled On the Shoulders of Giants (1965), the late Robert K. Merton traced the history of this expression from the Middle Ages through early modernity.

The statement appears in an op-ed essay, “Standing on the Shoulders of Clichés,” by Guy Deutscher (NYT, 6/18/05, p.A29 in the national edition--I couldn’t find the link on-line).

Deutscher notes that Hillary Clinton recently used this imagery in a commencement speech. But given the passage of time, the imagery appears in Clinton’s speech as “not much more than a flourish of meaningless rhetoric.” In other words, Clinton used a cliché. (But that’s okay, as Deutscher ultimately argues that “cliché is a necessary state between new imagery and everyday vocabulary.”)

So Senator Clinton is not to blame or praise for anything here--she’s just using ordinary language. We can criticize Sir Isaac Newton, however, for some hackneyed prose. But we must also praise him for helping mid-wife this expression into our everyday language.