Monday, June 24, 2013


A smart ex-girlfriend of mine always started her matutinal Times reading with the obituaries. At the time, this struck me as peculiar: what kind of spiritual necrophilia induced a vivacious, with-it young woman to evince such retrograde interest? Wasn’t there enough news from the quick to supersede that about the dead?

Well, I was wrong. Obituaries are easily as fascinating as anything else in the morning paper. An obit is really a miniature biography, a life rendered as a short-short story, breakfast food quite as nutritive as Cheerios. But does short-short story, vignette, anecdote or whatever you want to call it do justice to what is essentially stranger than fiction? And please don’t accuse me of peddling platitudes; the phrase “stranger than fiction” has been slathered on any number of lives and become worn as thin as the slice of meat in a bargain ham sandwich.

Stranger than fiction, why not? Many, if not most, lives are that—can’t help being that. Fiction, however avant-garde or post-modern, must play by some rules, if only those circumscribing a lone writer’s imagination. But life, which shuffles events more thoroughly than a professional gambler does cards, is under no obligation to obey any rules. Otherwise would my vita be what it is?

When I was sick as a little boy, I would want my favorite movie star, Jeanette MacDonald to come to my bedside and nurse me back to health. Responding to my urging, my parents assured me that they had wired her, and that most likely come she would. Alas, not even life was quite that strange. But it was when the little boy from Yugoslavia (which no longer exists) came unaccountably to America, and actually could turn on his radio to hear his other favorite, Loretta Young, as it were live on the air waves.

Stranger yet, could he have dreamed that someday he would be married to a girl from Ohio? Not that fiction I had read wasn’t strange enough. As a boy, I devoured the books of Karl May, the German young-adult novelist who had never set foot in America, but made the Wild West as real as possible in his many novels, about, among other things, the blood brotherhood between the magnificent Indian chief Winnetou and the great white hunter, trapper, adventurer (or whatever he was) Old Shatterhand, who turned out to be, of all things, German.

Even stranger than the Apache chieftain were some of the white characters, who went by names like Old Firehand and Old Surehand (which in those days I mispronounced as trisyllabic), but were small potatoes compared to Old Shatterhand, whose very stallion was smarter than some of these Old This and Thats.

How strange was it that, besides loving Erich Kastner (add umlaut on the a) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (for the Martian novels, not the Tarzan ones), I shared the beloved Karl May with another May enthusiast, Adolf Hitler. (No snide comparisons, please.) Later I got to James Fenimore Cooper, Jack London and Mark Twain, but could they really compare with Kastner’s “Emil and the Detectives” and the May novels, including his equally great ones about the Beduins of North Africa and the Incas of South America?

Strange that only the French made a movie based on May, entitled “Winnetou” (played by a French actor), a flop. What could the French know about the German Wild West? They even made the noble savage the protagonist (shades of Rousseau?) rather than the matchless, omniscient German American, Old Shatterhand.

You don’t think life is that strange? Then how about that party at the Persian Shah’s ambassador to the U.N.? One attended those parties mostly for the abundant caviar, and it was there that I encountered a bright young Iranian, Farhad Diba, who had briefly attended M.I.T., where I, equally briefly, had taught Humanities.

Diba said he had had only one good teacher at M.I.T, and I responded that, similarly, I had only one really good student, an Iranian. Did you guess it? I turned out to have been that teacher, and Farhad, that student. A good thing, too, because he was a cousin of the queen, or empress, or whatever the Shah’s royal spouse was known as. So when, later, I was a member of a group of Americans invited to the Tehran Film Festival, it emerged that I was the only one for whom a hotel room had not been reserved. Luckily, however, there was one for Buster Keaton, who had been dead for many years, which I was allowed to inherit.

Thanks to Farhad’s royal cousin, I was provided with a limousine, which none of the others were, but which I generously shared with them, who included Otto Preminger, Paul Mazursky, Sally Kellerman and Brenda Vaccaro. I forgave Otto his cheekiness, when, upon arrival and no room for me, he offered me the space underneath his bed.

But back to the strangeness of life per Times obituaries. Where else would I have read about Anna Merz, guardian and champion of the rhinoceros, “a species that is often misunderstood”? A photograph shows Anna (born Florence Ann Hepburn in England and married successively in Ghana to two husbands both Swiss) cheek to cheek with a hippo. Let me quote from her obit by Douglas Martin.

“Anna Merz, who went to Kenya seeking a serene retirement but became so appalled by the slaughter of black rhinoceroses that she helped start a reserve to protect them, becoming a global leader in the fight against their extinction. . . . She left no immediate survivors, but more than 70 black rhinos, including one born the day she died, continue to thrive in the sanctuary.”

Among other things, she hired, likewise mostly from her own pockets, 100 guards for the expanded sanctuary and bought a surveillance plane, as well as developing a  network of spy informants, all to protect against the numerous armed poachers killing the hapless beasts for their horns, which, ground to a powder, are sold for prices often higher than gold to Asiatics as a medicine or aphrodisiac, and to Arabs whole, to be carved into dagger handles.

A law-school graduate, Mrs. Merz was previously saved as a child during World War Two from attack by a German plane, when a stranger covered her body with his own and paid for it with his life. This started her on preservation, as did also, in Kenya, hearing the yelp from the next room of her favorite dog being swallowed by a python. She grabbed her pistol and shot the snake in the head, and gradually unraveled the dog from its maw.

She revealed rhinos to be far from mean or stupid as commonly held, and able to communicate by altering their breathing rhythms. She read them Shakespeare to soothe them. It is just that they have poor eyesight, “leading them to charge first and ask questions later.” More from the obit:

“Samia, an orphan rhino whom she raised from babyhood, even crawled into bed with Mrs. Merz—not entirely to her delight. Samia would follow her around like a dog, even after leaving Mrs. Merz’s immediate care and returning to the reserve, where she mated and had her own calf. If Mrs. Merz fell, Samia would extend her tail to help her up.

Not realizing how big she had grown, Samia once tried to sneak back into the house where she had been nursed and became jammed in the dining room door. Mrs. Merz had to pour a gallon of cooking oil on her rough skin to ease her through.”

This April 22, 2013 obit (try to seek out the whole article) brings me close to tears. Conversely, I smile at the one of June 10 for Paul Soros, Hungarian-American billionaire shipping entrepreneur, philanthropist, and older brother of the even richer and more famous George Soros. It ends by quoting Paul, “My story is riches to rags to riches again. I was lucky to survive. The rest was relatively easy.”

Not all that easy, what with imprisonment and near shipment to a Nazi death camp. But what brings on the smile is Paul’s “losing a kidney in a skiing accident in which a buried slalom pole popped up and speared him in the back.” Later, in New Canaan, he “lost an eye while taking an indoor golf lesson at a country club.” Is that something out of Monty Python or what?

Today, June 23, I read about the death of the French fashion designer Jean-Louis Scherrer, whose clients included Jacqueline Kennedy, Sophia Loren, Raquel Welch, and French first lady Anne-Aymone Giscard d’Estaing. Now I, a collector of neckties from most of the famous Italian and French couturiers, including Jean-Paul Gaultier, Claude Montana and, bought in Hong Kong, Milla Schon (sorry I haven’t the umlaut for her), still lack any by Thierry Mugler and Scherrer, assuming that Scherrer designed ties.

Anyway, my point is that Scherrer’s wife, whom he subsequently divorced, was called Laurence, and that their daughters were Laetitia and Leonor (sorry again for lacking an acute accent). Just think how euphonious a house it was that resounded with calls for Laurence, Laetitia and Leonor. Just read aloud those gorgeously alliterative names in L, and allow me a distich: “Laurence, Laetitia, Leonor,/ Vocables sonnant comme de l’or.”

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

No Wasps in the Bees?

“Queens boy, 13, wins Scripps Spelling Bee with ‘knaidel’ ” reads a headline in the New York Times of May 30, 2013. But a headline on June 1 announces, “Some say the spelling of a winning word just wasn’t kosher.”

The contest, open to kids up to the age of 15, seems like a good idea on paper. Theoretically at least, it introduces youngsters to a respect for words and their spelling, and so, presumably, to a love of language with a full sense of its importance, and to the satisfaction of spelling correctly. But upon closer consideration, I find this nationally televised event rather more problematic. Could it possibly do more harm than good?

As I peruse the two Times articles and a longer one from the Associated Press of May 31, I find my disapproval mounting. Let us look, first, at some of the words that were to be spelled, or, at any rate, those cited in the various articles.

Take, to begin with, “knaidel” itself. It is a Yiddish word, perfectly unnecessary in English, where “matzo ball” does very nicely, thank you. Now if that dumpling is to be spelled in the form given in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, we should realize that Webster’s Third, as it is usually called, has elicited powerful disapproval from such pundits as Dwight Macdonald among a good many others.

Yiddish, moreover, is a tricky language. Derived mostly from German--some would say a corruption of it—it is a labile lingo, varying somewhat from country to country. There is thus, strictly speaking, no single Yiddish, but rather a number of clearly related yet nevertheless different Yiddishes. Consider merely “knaidel,”  the Yiddish version of “Knodel,” the German for dumpling. Because the “o” with an umlaut was foreign to Jewish speakers emigrating to Germany from Slavic countries, the vowel morphed into a diphthong, more congenial to Jews from Poland and Russia.

How is the word to be transliterated into English? YIVO, the acronym for the Yiddish Scientific Institute for Jewish Research, postulates “kneydl” as the correct Anglicized spelling. But the YIVO people are not considered legislators by many Jews who, for example, do not accept “chutzpah” as spelled “khutspe” by YIVO, which avoids the “ch” as apt to be mispronounced “sh” as in sugar. Be that as it may, the dumpling appears as “kneidel” on the menu of the venerable Second Avenue Deli, whose owner remarks that “there is no real spelling of the word, so who determines how a word is spelled?”

Leo Rosten’s highly regarded “The New Joys of Yiddish” does indeed spell it as “kneydl,” although the famous author Sholem Aleichem preferred “knaydl.”  But Gloria Birnbaum, a teacher of Yiddish, spells it “knadel.” “I wouldn’t have spelled it with an I,” she declares. A respectable old lady, May Schechter, 90, of Romanian origin, says she doesn’t consider variety wrong: “You can spell it any way you want,” she observes, so long as it is understood. There is similar disagreement about other words, e.g., Hanukah and YIGO’s Khanike, with the popular former version prevalent.

My own feeling on the mater is that Yiddish words should not pop up on American spelling bees. They can manifestly be spelled in too many ways, and who is to say that the not universally respected Webster’s Third should be the unquestioned authority?

I haven’t even mentioned “knadle” or “knaidle.” “Knaidel” is attacked even by experts who worry that it might lead people into pronouncing the word as “knydel,” which they say would be definitely beyond the pale (not pail). Couldn’t we just stick to “matzo ball” which nobody seems to spell as “matzoh ball” though that would, apparently, be permissible. And why pick, as the contest repeatedly does, words that are unlikely to figure in most contestants’ or any other people’s lives?

Other words in the Spelling Bee cited in the three articles are cyanophycean, tokonoma, dehnstufe, hallali, and zenaida. When, I ask, would one need to know how those vocables are spelled? But now let us look at the actual contestants whose names appear in the abovementioned articles: Pranav Sivakumar, Nupur Lala, Sriram Hathvar, Vismaya Kharkar, the sisters  Vanya and Kavya Shivashankar and, above all, the current winner, Arvind V. Mahankali,13, from Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School in Bayside, Queens. Only one name mentioned, Amber Born, does not sound Indian.

It is nice that Arvind is the first New York champion since 1997. But as the son of immigrants from Hyderabad in southern India, he continues the tradition of  winners and runner-ups  of Indian descent. This was his fourth trip to Washington for the contest, eventually winning a competition in which he came in third in 2011 and 2012.

Arvind has never eaten a matzo ball, is not Jewish, and speaks also Telugu, a southern Indi tongue, Spanish and some Hindi. Not only are Indians by upbringing more disciplined and motivated than cosseted monolingual Caucasian-American  kids (and don’t let me get started about American education), but also, speaking at least both English and one Indian tongue, Indian-American youths have the polyglots’ greater interest in, and feel for, languages. Still one wonders: why such knowledge? Arvind is headed for a career in physics, like his idol Albert Einstein; all these words hardly loom important in his future. What he did is spend numerous hours every day perusing the dictionary, and even more hours (6 to 8) on weekends. Isn’t that avoidance of healthier pursuits, and turning a kid into a swotting nerd?

Contestants, to be sure, are presented a word in some kind of context—a single sentence not necessarily very helpful with its meaning and no help at all with its spelling.

In particular, the question arises: How does a winner do it? All we read is that, influenced by a father who loudly chanted Telugu poems backwards and forwards, Arvind started in fourth grade memorizing words that his dad collected from the dictionary. When he began to win spelling bees, Arvind himself proceeded to browse in dictionaries for uncommon words. He also researched their derivations and languages of origin “as a way of better implanting the correct spelling in his mind.” And because he previously stumbled over Germanic words, concentrated on them—thus also on Yiddish words of German origin, llke knaidel.

All very well, but given the thousands upon thousands of words in the dictionaries, the vast majority of them uncommon, how many must one implant to sprout (or spout) correct answers to the particular ones chosen for spelling? The chance of having hit on the right ones may well compare to that of winning the grand prize in the lottery. And even if the words thrown at a kid in the competition might be recalled eventually, that is very different from summoning them up under stress in the few allocated seconds. So winning might be a matter of superior cool and memory rather than greater knowledge.

This year a novelty was introduced, announced a mere seven weeks before the contest. In small separate rooms, contestants were given some kind of multiple-choice vocabulary test, before the televised spelling bee. No detail about this is provided in the articles I’ve read, but it sounds rather like television’s “So You Want to Be a Millionaire,” where luck and good guessing matter more than learning.

Now back to those pesky words in the contest. Take “hallali,” a huntsman’s bugle call known to French speakers, but not to be found even in the huge Random House Complete Unabridged Dictionary, although it evidently sneaked into Webster’s Third. Well, how esoteric can you get? And I’m not even talking about cyanophycean.

So I pronounce the Scripps Spelling Bee not much different from any other television game show, no more educational than, say, “Jeopardy”—in fact rather less so. But it did win Arvin $30, 000 and a $2,500 savings bond, which I do not begrudge him. And one of his teachers has even promised to bring him a matzo ball to class, which should increase his gustatory experience. Perhaps his mother will even learn to alternate matzo ball soup with mulligatawny.