Jan. 17, 2011

The Accompanist

by William Matthews

Don't play too much, don't play
too loud, don't play the melody.
You have to anticipate her
and to subdue yourself.
She used to give me her smoky
eye when I got boisterous,
so I learned to play on tip-
toe and to play the better half
of what I might. I don't like
to complain, though I notice
that I get around to it somehow.
We made a living and good music,
both, night after night, the blue
curlicues of smoke rubbing their
staling and wispy backs
against the ceilings, the flat
drinks and scarce taxis, the jazz life
we bitch about the way Army pals
complain about the food and then
re-up. Some people like to say
with smut in their voices how playing
the way we did at our best is partly
sexual. OK, I could tell them
a tale or two, and I've heard
the records Lester cut with Lady Day
and all that rap, and it's partly
sexual but it's mostly practice
and music. As for partly sexual,
I'll take wholly sexual any day,
but that's a duet and we're talking
accompaniment. Remember "Reckless
Blues"? Bessie Smith sings out "Daddy"
and Louis Armstrong plays back "Daddy"
as clear through his horn as if he'd
spoken it. But it's her daddy and her
story. When you play it you become
your part in it, one of her beautiful
troubles, and then, however much music
can do this, part of her consolation,
the way pain and joy eat off each other's
plates, but mostly you play to drunks,
to the night, to the way you judge
and pardon yourself, to all that goes
not unsung, but unrecorded.

"The Accompanist" by William Matthews, from Foreseeable Futures. © Houghton Mifflin, 1987. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Nobel Prize-winning economist George Stigler, (books by this author) born exactly 100 years ago today in Renton, Washington (1911), a Seattle suburb. Along with his close friend Milton Friedman, he helped lead the Chicago School of Economics.

He's most famous for developing the notion of "regulatory capture," something he talked about in his famous 1971 paper "The Theory of Economic Regulation." In essence, he wrote that government agencies often have a hard time successfully regulating an industry, since it often happens that the people who are supposed to be doing the regulating have vested interests in the industry being regulated. Stigler wrote, "As a rule, regulation is acquired by the industry and is designed and operated primarily for its benefit."

There have been a several classic cases of how industry-friendly regulators failed to regulate properly — leading to disastrous results. Recently, there was the case of the Office of Thrift Supervision, a federal agency whose job was to make sure that big financial institutions like AIG and Countrywide were playing by the rules. Another regulatory agency in the news a lot last year, after the BP Gulf Oil Spill: Minerals Management Service, whose job it was to enforce safety regulations of the oil industry and also collect billions of dollars in revenue from it. George Stigler had written about these perils decades prior.

There's a diet named after Nobel laureate economist George Stigler. The Stigler Diet is actually a mathematical model for the cost of subsistence eating — a linear programming problem on how to get the most nutritional bang for your buck. Specifically, Stigler's math problem was this: Say you have a man who weighs 154 pounds. Out of 77 foods commonly available, how much of each one should be eaten daily so that the man gets the right amount of nine essential nutrients — at the cheapest cost? The nutrients Stigler took into consideration: calories, protein, iron, and some vitamins.

The solution to the optimization problem: In one year, that man should consume 370 pounds of wheat flour, 57 cans of evaporated milk, 285 pounds of dried navy beans, 23 pounds of spinach, and 111 pounds of cabbage. In 1939, dollars, this would cost about 11 cents a day. Today, it'd be close to $1.75 per day. Stigler was subjected to a barrage of ridicule for suggesting this dull and bland diet, and he tried to remind people that it was just a mathematical model. He issued a statement: "No one recommends these diets for anyone, let alone everyone."

It was in 1982 that he won the Nobel Prize in economics. His essays are collected in The Intellectuals and the Marketplace (1963), The Citizen and the State (1975), and The Economist as Preacher (1982). He also wrote an autobiography called Memoirs of an Unregulated Economist (1985).

It's the birthday of Luis López Nieves, (books by this author) born in San Juan, Puerto Rico (1950). He's been called "the great novelist of Puerto Rico" by a Colombian newspaper and "the first novelist of Puerto Rico" by one of Spain's papers. A Chilean said that "he has created urban legends that Puerto Ricans assume as historical truths." His books The True Death of Juan Ponce de León (2000) and Voltaire's Heart (2005) each won the National Literature Prize, Puerto Rico's highest literary award.

As a child, he would wait for his mom to tuck him in at night, turn off his bedroom light, and go to bed — and then when he was sure that she was asleep, he would sneak out of bed, turn on the light, and furtively read until 4 or 5 each morning. He wrote his first poem when he was 13, and for the next six months he carried it with him everywhere he went, folded up in the pocket of his pants, aspiring to be a poet but afraid to show his one poem to anyone. Then he read Albert Camus' The Stranger, and he decided that he'd rather be an existentialist prose writer than a profound lyrical poet. He threw the poem in the trash can and never wrote another.

Instead, he wrote short stories, and he starting living a bohemian teenage life. He dropped out of college when he was 16 and convinced his girlfriend to run off to New York City with him. It was the mid-1960s. Her parents disapproved, trekked up to New York City, found the couple in Greenwich Village, hauled their daughter back to Puerto Rico, and forbade her to speak with him again.

So he left the Village and started backpacking around the world. A few years later, he felt obliged to go back to college. He hated studying, though, and spent most of his time working on campus literary magazines, even founding a couple of new ones. Then he went back to New York, did a Ph.D. in comparative literature, and turned in a novel for his dissertation rather than a scholarly thesis.

In 1984, he published the short-story collection Seva, which became one of the best-selling story collections in Puerto Rican history and made him famous. His most recent novel is Galileo's Silence (2009).

It's the birthday of first lady Michelle Obama, (books by this author) born Michelle Robinson in Chicago (1964). She grew up on the South Side of Chicago, with a stay-at-home mom and a dad who worked for the city water plant and was active in local politics. She skipped the second grade, went to Chicago's first magnet high school, ranked second in her graduating class, went off to college at Princeton, and then to law school at Harvard. She met Barack Obama at the law firm in Chicago where they both worked. For their first date, they went to a Spike Lee movie called Do the Right Thing. In 1992, the two married.

From the archives:

It's the third Monday in January, so today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In 1983, after years of petitions, conferences, and advocacy on behalf of the holiday, Ronald Reagan signed a bill into law that made Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday.

It's the birthday of boxer Muhammad Ali, (books by this author) born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky (1942).

It's the birthday of Benjamin Franklin, (books by this author) born in Boston (1706). Books were hard to come by when he was a young apprentice in his brother's printing shop, but he got hold of an odd volume of Addison and Steele's The Spectator and used it to teach himself how to write. He took notes on each of the pieces, then hid the book and tried to reconstruct the essays from the notes alone. He toyed with the idea of becoming a poet, but his father assured him that "verse-makers were generally beggars," and he turned his attention to the cultivation of virtue and the aid of humanity. He became better known than any of the leaders of the Revolution except George Washington; he signed every document associated with the founding of the Republic, and took Paris by storm when he appeared at court to secure an alliance with France. He invented bifocals and the glass harmonica, charted the Gulf Stream on his way across the Atlantic, and chased tornadoes on horseback. His only weakness was flirtatiousness; when he was in his 70s, he wrote to a Frenchwomen named Madame Brillon: "You renounce and exclude arbitrarily every thing corporal from our Amour, except such a merely civil Embrace now and then as you would permit to a country Cousin."

In 1731, Franklin founded America's first circulating library so that people could borrow books to read even though they might not have been able to afford to buy them. He was the author, printer, and publisher of Poor Richard's Almanac, an annually published book of useful encouragement, advice, and factual information, beginning in 1732. It contains maxims such as "Little strokes fell great oaks," "Plough deep while sluggards sleep," and "Early to bed and early to rise, Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."

One day when Franklin was dining out in Paris with some friends, one of the diners posed the question, "What condition of man most deserves pity?" Each guest proposed an example and Benjamin Franklin said, "A lonesome man on a rainy day who does not know how to read."

And he said, "I should have no objection to go over the same life from its beginning to the end: requesting only the advantage authors have, of correcting in a second edition the faults of the first."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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