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Friday, February 18, 2011

Old Man Walking—Just like a Train

Get Out of My Way, You Jerk, a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, examined the causes and consequences of pedestrian sidewalk rage. The feature cited average rates of locomotion in Manhattan for men (4.42 feet per second), women (4.10 fps), cellphone users (4.20 fps), tourists (3.79 fps), and others.

And it sparked my memories of an elderly Brit with two oversized canes and the air of a professor emeritus whose forward progress gave new meaning to the word glacial. Until last June’s heat wave, he would walk each day onto my campus (the University of Massachusetts at Amherst), eventually stopping for lunch at a campus cafeteria.

Although he moved at a tempo apart, no one who ever saw him failed to admire his grit and his walk ethic. Still, when he extended a cane onto the crosswalk at Massachusetts Avenue—a large thoroughfare that bisects the campus—he became the scourge of most drivers at directional cross-purposes. At those crossings, prominent Ped-X-ing signs and tight campus police enforcement ensure that foot traffic rules.

So how long might a driver on the wrong side of the cane wait for our friend? One day I timed his passage across the two east-bound lanes (15 feet across total). Getting across both took him 42 seconds—an eternity if you’re behind the wheel, perhaps an eternity and a day if you’re a student behind the wheel.

A 42 second stroll--15 feet across

Just like a train. “For me it’s not unlike coming up short at a train crossing,” observes a friend who studies the behavior and psychology of decision making by accountants. “At first there’s shock and disappointment that you just might have an indeterminate wait on your hands. How you adjust—how you shift gears mentally and emotionally—is critical, of course, to your short-term disposition. Why not count train cars from Peoria or root for the aging professor as he goes for the gold?”

Sometimes, though, a more pragmatic response can present itself. If you’re in the far lane, and the cane has just touched down on the crosswalk, you have 21 seconds before it reaches your lane. Many drivers, in fact, grab daylight while they can. But a strict interpretation of Massachusetts law, i.e., “law driving,”--the stuff you learn to get your license—requires that you stop your vehicle whenever anyone sets foot (or cane) on a crosswalk. Fortunately, there are broader interpretations of the law: “In a situation like that,” observed a campus police officer, "my recommendation is—use good driving judgment!"

Sunday, February 13, 2011

New iPhone App Will Not Replace Confession; Will Not Replace Priests

Say what you will about the Catholic Church--unlike many American institutions, it has protected its key employees—i.e, the priests, from the scythe of downsizing via outsourcing and replacement by new technologies. Heaven knows the American Catholic Church has bills to pay. To this end, it has embarked on an unprecedented fire sale of church property and parish consolidations. Priests, of course, have been shunted about, but it’s mostly the property that’s been downsized.

What a comfort, then, to learn that the Vatican disapproves of a new application that allows for fingertip preparation via iPhone for confession. Cooked up by the Indiana company Little iApps, the program, Confession: A Roman Catholic App, recently debuted after securing approval from Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Ft. Wayne, Indiana. But the Vatican doth protest:

I must stress. . . to avoid all ambiguity, under no circumstance is it possible to confess by iPhone, emphasized Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi last week.
The Vatican’s principal motive, of course, is not pecuniary but spiritual. “It is," continues Lombardi, "to require a personal dialogue between penitents and their confessor, [which] cannot be replaced by a computer application.”

Rightsizing: A Confession. But if a full-confession app did catch on and became confession-as-usual, it would no doubt cut into a priest’s workload. When Wig & Pen’s own priestly friend Guido headed up a medium size parish, he devoted three to five hours each week (more during the Lenten season) to the confessional. If you multiply 4 hours per week by the nation’s 19,000 Catholic parishes in 2006 (the number of parishes has undoubtedly declined after the recent consolidations), you get 77,000 hours. That would be quite a bone for Corporate America’s spread sheet “right-sizers,” who might crunch even a fraction of hours saved into fewer priestly positions.

Fortunately, the church has conservative values of a different stripe. How sinful it would be, for example, if an app were to obliterate the practices that inspired Jerry Seinfeld’s brush with the confessional in the clip below.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Nixon in China Artifact

This year’s long-overdue Metropolitan Opera production of John Adams’ Nixon in China (introduced by the Houston Grand Opera in 1987) is a big deal. It is coming (simulcast) to a cinema or auditorium near you this Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. (A reprise performance is planned for early March.) In Nixon, Adams moved well beyond minimalism, incorporating wafts of big band jazz; didactic, politicized Chinese ballet; and  reflective airs bordering on melancholy. Adams and librettist Alice Goodman teamed up with great deftness to portray characters that almost never became caricatures—quite an accomplishment considering the principals: Mao, Chou Enlai, Chiang Ch’ing (Mao’s wife), Pat Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Nixon Agonistes himself.

The bamboo curtain was cinched tightly around China before Nixon’s seminal visit in 1972 (think of today’s North Korea). Nixon—the bĂȘte noir of anyone left of center—deeply offended many Republicans with his visit—the price of which was to boot Taiwan (then known as the Republic of China) out of the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. itself. (Taiwan still hasn’t gotten back in; it needs China’s Security Council vote for readmission.)

Presidential Material: A Li River boat cruise
Wig & Pen Stumbles upon a Nixon in China Artifact Several years ago, this writer walked into a drab, two-room commercial gallery in a waterfront community on the outskirts of the southern Chinese city of Guilin, gateway to the Li River. (Although most Chinese have never visited the city, many American presidents have. Chinese hosts consider a boat cruise for top visiting dignitaries past the river's “floating-world” karst outcroppings as de rigueur.)

The gallery offered much forgettable artwork, but then I saw something really special. It was a framed gloss photo of the Nixons in 1972 on a Li River tour boat surrounded by a dozen crew members in cloned satin uniforms. As a friend and I admired the photograph, the gallery’s owner, a woman in her mid-40s who spoke no English, pointed to a uniformed teenage girl standing just behind the Nixons. Then she pointed to herself. In 1972 she had been an eyewitness to a historical watershed; 34 years later she had traveled far beyond, along a propulsive river of cultural and economic transformation.

A helping from the Met's Nixon in China Banquet Scene:

Friday, February 4, 2011

Greetings from Quebecachusetts!

A tip for New Englanders who are stressed out over the elements. Seek out a Canadian for a saner hibernal perspective. It worked wonders for me, especially after I had convinced myself that this Massachusetts winter might well rival a winter in Quebec.

Thankfully, my septugenerian Canadian mentor, born and bred in Fredericton, New Brunswick, set me straight. Yes, she conceded, the past month has suggested a winter in Quebec. But a timid one.

Now I'm warming up (maybe not); I'm less hounded by meteorological injustice.

Also, when you consult with your Canadian, remember that his kind are among the planet’s savviest cold-weather pragmatists. They have black belts in removing just enough snow from roofs, wrapping wet pipes with towels and other reachables, and striking a golden mean in sartorial layering.

And they offer advice with scarcely a trace of superiority. To do otherwise, of course, would be un-Canadian, even American.  All the better for them:  revenge, as they know, is best served cold.

Choose a Canadian regional forecast from the Weather Channel here.