Saturday, September 14, 2013


You don't hear the expression "Renaissance Man" used much these days, certainly not as an ideal, and not for an adult but rather for how a kid should develop.  I looked it up in Wikipedia and found there it identified with polymath, conjuring up images of Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci. This is not how the expression was used when I was a kid, where diversity of interest was implied but world-class expertise was not.  "Hobby" is another word you don't hear too often nowadays.  My conception of a Renaissance Man is somebody with many hobbies. It was an ideal embodied in my dad's approach to the education of me and my siblings.  Some outdoor activities we did serve as example. 

In our backyard we had a gazebo, a screened in structure that we used mainly for storage of the bikes and lawn furniture, but on the weekends during the spring and summer we would eat a lunch out there on a picnic table, with the food cooked in the outside fireplace.  Though the food variety was pretty similar to what I'd grill today, mostly hot dogs and hamburgers and also baked potatoes, the quality of it was quite different.  The fireplace was wood burning.  The wood we simply gathered in the backyard from fallen branches (we had a lot of trees).  My father would use old newspaper to start the fire.   There was a grating to place over the burning wood.  You wouldn't put the meat directly on the grating, but you could rest a hand grill on it so the meat would could cook several inches above the fire.  Even this way, the hot dogs often came out blackened on the outside.  And for the potatoes, my dad simply threw them directly into the fire, without any aluminum foil on them.  They'd come out completely charred, with the black coating thicker than your fingernail.  Mostly you didn't eat that, but scraped it off instead.  What was left over was remarkably tasty.  We liked doing this sort of thing so much that sometimes we'd replicate it in the winter at Alley Pond Park, bringing along a thermos of hot chocolate to help keep us warm.

I want to be clear about what this was. Sometime in the 1980s after I had been a faculty member at Illinois for while, I became aware of Paul Proudhomme and Cajun cooking.   The particular delicacy that everyone was raving about was Blackened Redfish.  My dad's stuff, also blackened, might seem similar.  It wasn't.  My dad called the potatoes Mickeys (see definition 3), an expression that emerged during the Great Depression.  In other words, it was cooking that came out of utter desperation and it was cooking that my dad was still comfortable with, although in the 1960s the poverty he had lived through as a young adult happened long ago.   Further, the cookout was lunchtime fare and in that a contrast to what we'd otherwise have.  It wasn't meant as a substitute for going out to dinner as grilling on the Weber is meant for my family now.  Lunch wasn't supposed to be fancy.  It just had to be good enough.  That was my dad's philosophy in a nutshell. 

In the fall we had to rake the leaves, particularly in the front yard.  There were a couple of trees that produced a prodigious amount of droppings.  Each kid would have an area to cover and rake the leaves  in that area into a pile, then make another pile nearby, and continue in that manner until the lawn had been done.  Here my dad explicitly said, "you don't have to do a perfect job."  Indeed, you couldn't because as you were raking the trees were delivering more of their deposit.  When the piles started to accumulate it became somebody's job to put the leaves into a trashcan.  I recall our trash was picked up three times a week and when I was young they would allow leaves and other yard waste to be put into the trash, done directly with no bag to contain them.  Later, either because the city outlawed it or because my dad just became ecologically minded, I'm not sure which, we'd take the trashcan full of leaves and dump it in a pile in the backyard where my dad intended to make mulch.  Once in a while we'd splash down into that pile.  I recall my sister doing that and then burying her under more leaves after. Work and fun were interwoven that way.

Also in the fall on many Saturday afternoons my dad would play football with us and my friends.   It was different than what most people think of as touch football.  He said this particular game was invented by the Kennedys and he called it association football.  There was only one down.  Forward laterals were okay.  One hand touches were also okay.  The game featured improvisation more than running a play, because if you had the ball and were about to be touched, you had to get rid of it quickly. Also, my dad imposed his own ground rule, that was put in place because we were of different ages and different skills.  At the start of the down he would say, "give him a chance" and not allow an immediate touch before the play really had gotten started.  My dad was plenty competitive.  You'd see it on the tennis court.  But he understood that when kids play participation beats winning.

I should add that my dad was the only parent among my friends to play with us on the weekends.  I became a Cub Scout and there were definitely other parents involved in that.  I think I was not quite eight when Cub Scouts started and somehow I was allowed to join at the time because I was bigger than my friends who were in the Cub Scouts even though I was younger than them. When I was eleven I played in Little League.  As with Cub Scouts, there was parental supervision.  What made my dad's participation unique in our football games was that was unmediated by any formal structure.  He adapted to the kids environment, not vice versa.  We played on 212th street, where parked cars were natural obstacles on the field and where the neighbors could watch us if they had nothing better to do.

We also did a variety of arts and crafts.  For a while my siblings and I would go to some Center in Whitestone off of Francis Lewis Boulevard where our time was divided between arts and crafts and physical fitness.  For the former, we made sculptures out of paper mache, strips of newspaper and some godawful smelling glue to bind it together.  My memory of this is rather unpleasant, the foul odor dominating over any sense of creativity in action.  In the gym we passed a medicine ball around, although that was not literally true.  It was too heavy for us to lift.  So we'd role it to the next person, not quite a real workout but some activity nonetheless.

My dad had us doing arts and crafts at home as well.  We often made tiled ashtrays.  Our job was first to get the right shape of tiles, which were on a mesh backing, to fit the metal ashtray.  Then we'd glue the mesh to the ashtray, possible using a few different pieces of tiles in mesh to get a good covering.  Most of the work was in making the grout and filling the spaces between the tiles with the grout.  The result was an interlacing of the tiles, usually in a variety of different colors, with white spacing in between.  You could buy fancier ashtrays in the department store, but these were functional and not unattractive.  We also did leather work on occasion.  My dad had metal tools to make imprints in the leather.  I know I made a bookmark for my mom this way.  I don't recall other things we made, but I know we did this multiple times and got somewhat proficient at imprinting the various shapes.

We had a live-in maid when my brother and I were very young.  She slept in the basement.  We went through quite a number of different people in this job.  As we got older we switched to a day person who was with us for many years, Louise.  She cooked the dinner in addition to doing the cleaning.  During the first summer of the World's Fair, my cousin Kim from Denmark stayed in our basement and sold Danish Hot Dogs at the World's Fair.  After he left the basement no longer needed to serve as an extra bedroom and we got a ping pong table down there.  It was a tight fit.  We had a built in bar in the northwest corner of the room.  It had a sharp corner that would hurt you if you bumped into it.  And the east wall was quite close to the table, which was set up at a bit of angle though more or less in a north-south direction.  The particulars of the setting encouraged me to learn an unorthodox inside-out backhand so that when I was standing next to the bar my follow through wouldn't go into it and the spin imparted on the ball angled it toward that east wall in a way that would make a point for me if the opponent didn't reach it quickly.

I'd like to know the cumulative effect of these activities on me now.  Before trying to get at that, however, let me talk about one other activity, playing the piano.  When I started, we had what was once a player piano but then was converted for normal use.  After some time, my parents bought a new upright, which probably had a better sound, though I can't really recall.  My brother now has that piano in his house in Ann Arbor.

I took lessons from Mr. Anson, who came to the house.  My sister had been taking lessons from Mr. Anson for some time and I would occasionally watch and listen to these.  It was why I was interested in having lessons as well.  I started when I was eight.  Each year Mr. Anson would give you a statuette of a great composer.  Since my brother also took lessons from Mr. Anson, starting a year or two after me, we ultimately ended up with quite a collection of statuettes.

Lessons were part review of the music that was practiced during the week and part introduction to new pieces that would be practiced the following week.  The music itself was also divided into two categories, classical (think Sonatinas by Muzio Clementi) and show music by such composers as Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Rogers and Hammerstein, and with other popular music thrown in, such as some of the hits by the Beatles. For the classical stuff, you had to learn the proper fingering as well as the correct notes and doing so was work as much as it was pleasure.  For the show music, Mr. Anson taught a style where the right hand played the melody and the left hand could improvise on the accompaniment, playing either block chords, possibly at different positions on the keyboard and in rhythms that might vary from one play to the next, or playing arpeggios that also showed variation in how they were performed.

I was never great at the Classical stuff, ultimately getting as far as Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, Mozart's Fantasia in D-Minor, and Chopin's Waltz in C Sharp Minor.  These were delivered in a tolerable but certainly not elegant manner.  I most definitely could not reproduce that level of delivery now.

It was different for the show music.  I got to the point where if I knew the tune ahead of time I could give a decent rendition the very first time through.  It was easier to do this with slower moving pieces, for sure, but I could even attempt the quick ones this way.  This skill has stayed with me and in that way I continue to enjoy playing the piano as an adult.  I would do it more often if the font on our sheet music was somewhat larger.

The downstream impact of the piano lessons is most obvious to me.  On occasion the family would sing at the piano, where I'd be playing.  We did this with some frequency, sometimes even when company would be over.  Singing along at the piano is quite an enjoyable activity.  I have a distinct memory during my last semester at MIT (before I transferred to Cornell) where we had a party in the dorm.  Slightly bombed on Gin and Tonic, I was at the piano playing.  I didn't have the gumption to ask a girl out on a date at the time, but a rather attractive blonde who lived a floor below me sat down on the bench next to me to sing along.  A number of other people stood behind us, also joining in on the singing.  The sheet music Mr. Anson had given us included the lyrics. (He had his own ditto machine and would bring copies of individual songs that we'd put into a loose leaf binder.)  So I learned the words to these pieces as well.  I too would sing along to the piano accompaniment.

Indeed the singing of the show tunes became its own thing even when there was no piano around.  When I was in Vancouver and then living with my not-yet-wife, we would on the weekend often drive past North Vancouver into the hills for a walk and a picnic.  On the drive we'd be singing the entire time.  Old Man River was a particular favorite as was the opening number from Fiddler on the Roof.

After my kids were born one of my favorite activities was to hold one of them next to my chest with their head on my shoulder, my ear touching their head.  I would gently start singing to them, the graveling voice seemed a wonderful way to get them to sleep.  Haul Away Joe was a particularly good number for this.  When it took a little longer I would go through more of my repertoire.  Night and Day is an octave or two higher, so perhaps not quite as good for getting the baby to fall asleep, but I was entertaining myself as well as the baby and I enjoyed the variety.

There are no such obvious derivative activities that are a consequence of the other lessons of childhood that I've describe above.  What endures, instead, is a tone and a certain approach to things.  In the book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink advises the reader to "celebrate your amateurness."  While my dad would never have embraced Pink's jargon, his philosophy to teaching us kids embodies that ideal.  It encourages a generalist's approach when most of us, instead, tend to become hyper professional, certainly in our work but also in our leisure pursuits.  Graduate school in economics encouraged me to be hyper professional with the economic theory and for ten to fifteen years afterward I was most comfortable when talking with other economists and still to this day find it harder to have reasonable conversation with folks entirely outside of academia if I don't know them already.

Becoming a parent and getting involved with online learning reversed that.  My more recent found pleasure in writing has pushed me further in the direction of the generalist.  Especially when I don't write overtly about economics (where the professional side still shows through on occasion) the hypothetical reader whom I write for is a generalist who is quite good at making sense of arguments expressed in plain English, but who has an aversion for ideas expressed too technically, for lack of expertise and for fear of missing the forest for the trees.

I have a feeling that if we had more generalists we'd be more tolerant of one another.  Amateurs can err in a benign way that offends no one.  Experts don't make mistakes, in the popular conception of expertise, and it offends the sensibilities of others when it appears that the expert has made an error.  In the opposite direction, experts often don't have the patience to engage in conversation with those less informed or talk down to them when they do.

Further, expertise is niched.  To get deep into a subject one must also become narrow.  In turn, the narrowness also contributes to a lack of tolerance, because we have less in common with one another.  It is a way in which "progress" is really more like regress.  Instead of moving forward toward democracy, we are sliding backward toward tribalism.  And it is why my dad's views about learning still seem powerful to me, rather than some quaint way of doing things from a bygone era.  

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