Almanac: Walter Matthau on success

INK BOTTLE“When you become successful you lose what it is that made you successful. You start going to exclusive clubs. You see the most boring people—they’re successful just like you. They have no need to use their bodies and their brains and their charm and don’t need to be generous emotionally. They become large buckets of goatshit.”

Walter Matthau (quoted in Rob Edelman And Audrey Kupferberg, Matthau: A Life)

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Lookback: advice to young authors

LOOKBACKFrom 2004:

Anyone who writes a serious book with the expectation of making a lot of money and/or becoming famous is a fool. If you can’t afford to write a book in your spare time for its own sake, you’re in the wrong business….

Read the whole thing here.

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Almanac: Thoreau on the dangers of doing good

INK BOTTLE“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

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Adoring the impossible

220px-Mozart_(unfinished)_by_Lange_1782Four years ago I wrote a Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column about what has come to be known in this country as “the 10,000-hour rule”:

The theory is known in England as “the 10-year rule” and in the U.S., where it has been popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, the author of “Outliers,” as “the 10,000-hour rule.” The premise is the same: To become successful at anything, you must spend 10 years working at it for 20 hours each week. Do so, however, and success is all but inevitable. You don’t have to be a genius—in fact, there’s no such thing.

K. Anders Ericsson, the psychologist who is widely credited with having formulated the 10,000-hour rule, says in “The Making of an Expert,” a 2007 article summarizing his research, that “experts are always made, not born.” He discounts the role played by innate talent, citing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as an example: “Nobody questions that Mozart’s achievements were extraordinary…What’s often forgotten, however, is that his development was equally exceptional for his time. His musical tutelage started before he was four years old, and his father, also a skilled composer, was a famous music teacher and had written one of the first books on violin instruction. Like other world-class performers, Mozart was not born an expert—he became one.”

It’s easy to see why the Ericsson-Gladwell view of genius as a form of skill-based expertise has become so popular, for it meshes neatly with today’s egalitarian notions of human potential. Moreover, there is much evidence for the validity—up to a point—of the 10,000-hour rule. My own favorite example is that of Charlie Parker, the father of bebop. As a teenager, Parker embarrassed himself by sitting in at Kansas City jam sessions before he had fully mastered the alto saxophone, thereby acquiring a city-wide reputation for incompetence. In 1937 the humiliation overwhelmed him, and he took a summer job at a Missouri resort and began practicing in earnest for the first time in his life. Eight years later, he had metamorphosed into the glittering virtuoso who teamed up with Dizzy Gillespie to record “Ko-Ko,” “Groovin’ High” and “Salt Peanuts,” thereby writing himself into the history of jazz.

The problem with the 10,000-hour rule is that many of its most ardent proponents are political ideologues who see the existence of genius as an affront to their vision of human equality, and will do anything to explain it away. They have a lot of explaining to do, starting with the case of Mozart….

Nannerl, Mozart’s older sister, was a gifted pianist who received the same intensive training as her better-known brother, yet failed to develop as a composer. What stopped her? The simplest explanation is also the most persuasive one: He had something to say and she didn’t. Or, to put it even more bluntly, he was a genius and she wasn’t.

I thought of this column the other day when Mark Ainley posted on his Facebook page a YouTube video of a recording of Chopin’s B Major Nocturne, Op. 32, No. 1, by Alicia de Larrocha, the great Spanish pianist:

It’s an exquisite performance, immaculate and sensitive—and it was recorded in 1932, when she was nine years old.

Nor was de Larrocha thrust headlong and unwillingly into the crushing vise of premature hard work that made such a performance possible. Instead, she insisted on it. According to Allan Kozinn’s 2009 New York Times obituary:

Ms. de Larrocha began to demand piano lessons when she was 3, after visiting her aunt as she taught students. At the keyboard on her own, Ms. de Larrocha imitated what she had seen her aunt’s students do, and impressed her aunt sufficiently that she took Ms. de Larrocha to Marshall [Frank Marshall, her first piano teacher]. He was less encouraging. He said it was too early to start lessons, and suggested that Ms. de Larrocha be kept away from the piano. Ms. de Larrocha said that once her aunt locked the instrument, she banged her head on the floor until Marshall relented and began to teach her.

She made progress quickly. At 5 she made her concert debut, performing works by Bach and Mozart at the 1929 International Exhibition in Barcelona. She made her orchestral debut with a Mozart concerto in Madrid when she was 11.

Alicia 1Of course she received first-class training—Marshall was a distinguished pianist in his own right—and you can bet that she practiced a lot, too. But when it comes to art, practice alone doesn’t make perfect. Most of the time, in fact, it doesn’t make anything at all. It is nothing more than the enabling condition that permits innate talent to flower, and in the absence of that talent, nothing happens.

I spoke in my 2010 column of “the impenetrable mystery that enshrouds such birds of paradise as Bobby Fischer, who started playing chess at the age of six. Nine years later, he became the U.S. chess champion. His explanation? ‘All of a sudden I got good.’” As much as some people hate to admit it, it can happen just like that. But hate it they do, just as other people hate any kind of ultimately inexplicable phenomenon, preferring a mystery-free world where everything makes sense and anyone can be a genius. And who shall blame them? On such naïve optimism is much, perhaps most of our daily drudgery based. Perhaps only the artist knows better.

Orson Welles said it: “The optimists are incapable of understanding what it means to adore the impossible.”

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Almanac: Jeanine Basinger on serious actors in comic roles

INK BOTTLE“Most great actors, certainly most serious actors, can’t really play comedy well. Audiences applaud their efforts, but the applause is a form of pity, the good sport award for their being jolly good fellows who generously give their pants permission to fall down.”

Jeanine Basinger, The Star Machine

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Never such innocence again

In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I review important New York revivals of plays by two major American playwrights, Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth and A.R. Gurney’s The Wayside Motor Inn. Here’s an excerpt.

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Kenneth Lonergan has finally made it to Broadway—courtesy of a trio of millennial pop-culture idols whose stage experience ranges from modest to nonexistent. Don’t let that discourage you, though: “This Is Our Youth,” Mr. Lonergan’s career-making 1996 comedy about three disaffected Manhattan kids, couldn’t be better suited to the varied abilities of Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson, and Anna D. Shapiro’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company production, which has transferred here from Chicago, is a highly effective revival of one of the best American plays of the past quarter-century.

Tavi-Gevinson-and-Michael-Cera-in-This-Is-Our-Youth-Steppenwolf_thumbI call Mr. Lonergan’s first play a comedy because that’s what it says on the marquee. In truth, though, it’s a Chekhov-style “sad comedy” about the children of New York’s upper middle class. Warren (Mr. Cera), a clumsy, self-conscious 19-year-old, steals $15,000 from his father and brings it to Dennis (Mr. Culkin), his best friend, an arrogantly self-confident drug dealer. Dennis goads Warren into peeling off a fistful of cash and taking out Jessica (Ms. Gevinson), on whom he has what appears to be a hopeless crush. First things go well, then they don’t, and at length the two boys see one another—and themselves—in a new light.

Mr. Lonergan uses his flawlessly tuned ear (as well as, one suspects, his memory) to bring his three youngsters to life through what they say and how they say it. Every sentence that comes out of their mouths sounds as real as a confessed humiliation: “I’m sure you love me, man, and you’re totally like my personal hero, but I really don’t get the feeling that you are.” This exactitude is of enormous help to his three actors, especially Mr. Cera, who has done very little stage acting, and Ms. Gevinson, who has done none at all. They are unformed artists playing unformed personalities, and even if some of what they’re doing in “This Is Our Youth” perhaps can’t quite be called acting, it’s wholly engrossing on its own unmediated terms…

In “The Wayside Motor Inn,” first performed in 1977, A.R. Gurney borrowed a page from Alan Ayckbourn’s playbook, writing a ten-character script whose five unrelated plot lines are all enacted on the same anonymous-looking motel-room set—only simultaneously, in the manner of Mr. Ayckbourn’s “How the Other Half Loves.” In addition, the characters pair off to illustrate different points in the life cycle of the WASP: Phil and Sally (David McElwee and Ismenia Mendes), for instance, are a college-age couple who have come to the Wayside Motor Inn for a night of illicit love, while Ray (Quincy Dunn-Baker) is a traveling salesman who aims to make time with his room-service waitress (Jenn Lyon). Lila Neugebauer, the director, contrives without visible difficulty to maintain the spatial clarity of the separate-but-equal plot lines, and every member of the ensemble cast makes a bold impression…

* * *

To read my review of This Is Our Youth, go here.

To read my review of The Wayside Motor Inn, go here.

Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, and Tavi Gevinson talk about This Is Our Youth:

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To a poet dying youngish

sissman1In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I pay tribute to the American poet L.E. Sissman. Here’s an excerpt.

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Now that the baby boomers, who are accustomed to talking in public about every aspect of their private lives, are approaching the end of their long run in the spotlight, it’s becoming more and more common to read first-person narratives by writers of all ages about what it feels like to suffer from a terminal illness. Not surprisingly, some people squirm at the thought of reading about such things, and a few actually seem to regard them as inappropriate for general consumption. Earlier this year, Emma Keller wrote a column for the Guardian in which she attacked Lisa Bonchek Adams, a blogger and mother of three who is also a stage-4 cancer patient, suggesting that her courageous postings and tweets were “a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies.” Bill Keller, Ms. Keller’s husband, backed up his spouse in a New York Times column that dismissed Ms. Adams as “the standard-bearer for an approach to cancer…that may raise false hopes.”

If, like me, you’re an admirer of the writings of such bloggers as Ms. Adams and D.G. Myers, a literary critic who is chronicling his own experiences with prostate cancer, you will doubtless find what the Kellers wrote to be—to put it very, very gently—insensitive. But in my own case, it also put me in mind of a near-forgotten American poet of great gifts whose subject matter included the prospect of his own fast-approaching death.

36198L.E. Sissman isn’t even a name to most modern-day readers, but a modest number of people can recall his brief vogue, which lasted for a bit more than a decade. Sissman, known to his friends as “Ed,” was an advertising man from Boston who in his spare time wrote poems, book reviews, and familiar essays that appeared regularly in the Atlantic and the New Yorker between 1964 and his death in 1976. He learned in 1965 that he had Hodgkin’s disease, and his first book of poems, “Dying: An Introduction,” which came out in 1968, is most striking—harrowing, in fact—when it deals with the illness that killed him at the unripe age of 48…

Cancer was discussed frankly in print far less often when the title poem of “Dying: An Introduction” appeared in the New Yorker in 1967, which is one reason why Sissman’s work was so widely noticed at the time. But his modest renown didn’t outlive his death, and not even the posthumous publication of “Night Music,” a collection of his poetry that came out in 1999, was able to restore it.

Yet Sissman’s poems are both stunning and disquieting. Their crisply rhyming iambs were a perfect embodiment of the highly individual sensibility of a poet-businessman who looked his fate in the eye without blinking. In “A Deathplace,” for instance, he envisioned his ultimate demise: “Then one fine day when all the smart flags flap,/A booted man in black with a peaked cap/Will call for me and troll me down the hall/And slot me into his black car. That’s all.” That seems to me at least as good as Aubade, Philip Larkin’s 1977 poem about his fear of death, not to mention braver. Like all of Sissman’s best poems, it’s utterly free of sentimentality and (unlikely as it may sound) coolly witty in its unswerving acceptance of the inevitability of the dark encounter that awaits us all….

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

To order a copy of Night Music, go here.

To hear Sissman read his poetry at Canada’s Sir George Williams University in 1972, go here.

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Almanac: Steve Jobs on death

INK BOTTLE“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.”

Steve Jobs, Stanford University commencement address (2005)

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In memoriam

BT7jYZsCIAA3vtqHerbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic perform the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony:

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