Miscellaneous Thoughts & Musings
Languages and folklore are a constant source of amazement – and amusement – for many of us.
This obscure Japanese saying, in a southern regional dialect (Kyushu-ben), is a perfect example.
The literal meaning is “never lend money to a man who doesn’t have an erection in the morning.”
The implication is, he isn’t healthy and would likely die before repaying.
My First Instrument Making Experience, August,1963
With Chuck Young, a friend from the Folk-Song Society at San Diego State College, I built my first musical instrument: an Appalachian dulcimer, along with a fretless banjo neck which I put on a banjo-mandolin pot I had. Chuck, who I often called Charles Thomas because I envied the Early American aspect of his name – Chas. Thos. Young – had access to his father’s workshop in the garage and we each decided to build an instrument. Recently, Chuck, now Charles T. Young, Professor Emeritus of Geophysical Engineering at Michigan Tech, sent me these pictures. Wow.
Preston Sturges on the Banjo
[From the autobiography “Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges.”]
(Thanks to Adam Miller for this.)
Mother took a rotten little apartment for us on Twelfth Street, the only banal apartment I have ever known her to take, and one afternoon I arrived home with a big smile on my face and a peculiarly shaped package under my arm.
“What’s that?” asked my mother looking at the package apprehensively. Then in a pale gray voice, she added, “That wouldn’t happen to be a banjo by some remote chance, would it?”
“How did you guess?” I cried enthusiastically. “Just wait till you see it! The pawnbroker practically gave it to me for only three dollars, including the case, and it has real mother-of-pearl between the frets and around the scroll!”
“It’s a curse,” said my mother, putting her hand to her forehead, “a taint.”
“A what?” I asked, thinking I had misunderstood her.
“A pollution of the blood,” said my mother, “like leprosy. It has to be from the blood, there is no other possible explanation. With the utmost care and during your entire life, I have refrained from giving you even a hint about this vice of your father’s.
“I never let your Grandmother Biden or anyone else mention it to you for fear that it might awaken a dormant strain and encourage you to emulate him. But it has all been in vain. You may as well know now. Your father was considered, in banjo circles, to be one of the very best banjo players in America. Such was his talent that manufacturers would actually send him new models for nothing, just to get his opinion and endorsement of them.
“Your father always enjoyed playing a piece on the banjo for me, always a long one, and at the beginning of our marriage, I could stand it. Then as time passed, he was no longer satisfied with just plunking out a piece once, but immediately after finishing it, he would plunk it again in several different keys.
“Then I would get it with variations and countermelodies woven in – but still the same piece. He would wind up by plunking it behind his back in a sort of contortionist’s grip. One night he actually gave the finale while swinging by his knees from a trapeze he had strung up between the sliding doors.
“If any more loathsome instrument than the five-string banjo has ever been invented during the entire history of music, I have yet to hear of it. I thought I had suffered from that miserable thing for the last time in my life, but you can’t get away from heredity! So tune up your banjo, then go down to the corner and get me some poison.”
Bureaucracy & Chocolate
A STORY OF BUREAUCRACY
Anyone who has ever worked in a large organization – education, business, the military, or government – has encountered the occasional satisfactions and overwhelming frustrations of bureaucracy. It is the modern, literate antithesis of the traditional, oral way of handling interactions. In traditional societies everything is based upon personal relationships. Your status is based on your family, clan, village. When you seek a new relationship – marriage, employment, advancement – you turn to friends and relations. Arranged marriages, nepotism, old-boy networks, letters of recommendation, all sorts of go-betweens, extend this personal network. If you come from the wrong side of the tracks, the wrong clan, tribe, race, or other out-of-favor group, your personal achievements can be trumped by your inferior personal connections.
Bureaucracy, on the other hand, was developed to supersede these limitations. An action was to be judged on its merits, not on who desired it. All applicants, transactions, decisions were to be treated impartially. An individual no longer had the personal ability to decide: the “rules” were the final arbiter. The new era of equality was to ushered in on wings of logic and fact. However, deals could no longer be sealed with a handshake.
In reality, of course, the old system never died. A friend from Indonesia, after waiting for six months to have a visa to the U.S. processed, finally drove across town to have high-ranking relative expedite the process. In some countries nothing gets accomplished without a gratuity, a personal recognition of the transaction.
In the U.S. it may not be quite as obvious but there are still, as Tolstoy observed, circles within circles. When I worked for the Welfare Department the situation was infinitely worse than anything I had experience in business, education, or even the military. As in all organizations, the people in the trenches knew what was going on because they did the work. Their supervisors had different priorities currying favor with their bosses. And the policy makers, even when they had risen through the ranks, were living in a different world, breathing different air. No one familiar with this world was surprised when the FBI and CIA were caught flat-footed on 9-11; the field agents knew what was going on but no one cared what “the little people” thought. This is the (non-fictional) world of Dilbert.
In San Diego County, the Welfare Department is overseen by the Board of Supervisors who have been routinely re-elected for over twenty years by a somnambulant public. The members of the Board constantly complained about the aid programs we oversaw. Their feeling was that those on aid had somehow betrayed the American dream by failing and we were complicit by assisting (enabling) them. Case sizes grew, wages were idled, additional programs and requirements proliferated, reorganizations and redefinitions became a parlor game. Good supervisors were transferred and promoted while mediocrity, indifference, and corruption ruled. CYA was the mantra.
I enjoyed helping my clients, most of whom were genuine casualties of the failures of our educational and economic systems. And I liked most of my coworkers, mutually trying to fend off collapse with inadequate time and resources. I reported a coworker to Internal Security who was running an illicit business out of his office and carrying a .45, while ignoring his actual job. Nothing happened to him; I was threatened. After I was transferred I reported continuing unsafe working conditions to our Safety Office (including mold and non-functioning thermostats) on behalf of most of the workers who feared retribution. When I put up a makeshift deflector above an aged coworker who had continually complained about frigid air blowing down her neck, I was disciplined. Nothing else changed. During my last year at that office I wrote the following story; it was a big hit among my fellow workers. When I left, I reassured them any resemblance was fictional.
A PARABLE OF CHOCOLATE
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