Monday, March 29, 2010

Book Thoughts: Churchill on Painting

Note: I decided recently to comment on things I've noted in books over the years. I'm calling these Book Thoughts. This is the fourth post.

I recently read a tiny book (I suspect it was originally just an article) by Winston Churchill called, Painting as a Pastime, because I'm an amateur painter and wondered what this great man had to say about my hobby.

What impressed me was the whole theme of the article. It was not simply that you need some time off with a good, engaging hobby (though it did say that), but that you really don't need to be any good at it. It can, in Churchill's words, simply be a "pastime."

Coming from anybody else I would regard that with deep suspicion. I might think he was advocating being halfhearted and sloppy, but coming from a man who was anything but that, who was one of the greatest and most productive men of the twentieth century, a master statesman, master speaker, master author, and anything but halfhearted, I have to take it seriously.

So here is the quote, in which he is advising older people who are thinking of taking up his hobby of painting:

There really is no time for the deliberate approach. Two years of drawing-lessons, three years of copying woodcuts, five years of plaster casts -- these are for the young. They have enough to bear. And this thorough grounding is for those who, hearing the call in the morning of their days, are able to make painting their paramount lifelong vocation. The truth and beauty of line and form which by the slightest touch or twist of the brush a real artist imparts to every feature of his design must be founded on long, hard, persevering apprenticeship and a practice so habitual that it has become instinctive. We must not be too ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joy ride in a paint-box. And for this Audacity is the only ticket.

"A joy ride in a paint box." I love that phrase. And his recommendation? Audacity! Don't be intimidated by that blank canvas. Just put a bold splash of color right on its face!

So if a man like Winston Churchill occasionally needed to switch his mind to an engaging and peaceful hobby, knowing full well that he'd never be great at it, maybe we should consider it as well. Not that we shouldn't strive to be excellent in some areas, but why not be happily mediocre at other things?

I have a friend who, if I suggest he try something, always says, "Oh, I'd never be any good at that."

Drives. Me. Up. The. Wall!

So WHAT if you're no good at it. If you enjoy it and it refreshes your mind and spirit, isn't that enough?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Scandinavian Club

"A Scandinavian club?"

Ms. Stoneman, the multi-cultural coordinator at Robert Frost High School, frowned and looked appraisingly across her desk at Walter Lim.

"But you're not Scandinavian," she said.

"Oh no, Ms. Stoneman," he said, leaning against her desk. "I'm Chinese. Or, I guess I was six months ago. I'm an American now. But I was born Chinese, if that's what you mean. Do I gotta be Scandinavian?"

"Well... uh, no... But why do you want to start a Scandinavian club? Why not a Chinese club?"

"Excuse me," he said, slipping into a subservient attitude that barely skirted the edge of mockery. "I did not know. Is there probrem with Scandinavia?"

"Well, no, but it is European."

"Yes! That's right!" said Wally, his face lighting up to show that he and Ms. Stoneman were now communicating clearly.

"But..." Ms. Stoneman was becoming flustered, "why not a Chinese club?"

"We already have a Chinese club, but no Scandinavian club."

Ms. Stoneman sighed. She knew almost nothing about Scandinavia and had never met a Scandinavian, at least not one from Scandinavia, but she knew Scandinavia was in Europe, and she found that vaguely distasteful.

"Well, yes. I suppose you can start a Scandinavian club. I can't think of any reason why not," she said, though in the back of her mind she wished she could.

"Hey, thanks Ms. Stoneman!" Wally said, taking the forms.

"So, uh.. what does a Scandinavian club do?"

"Oh, same sort of stuff a Chinese club does, I guess. Eat Scandinavian food, learn a few Scandinavian words, wear Scandinavian flags on our clothes. Stuff like that I guess."

"What kind of food do the Scandinavians eat?"

"No idea," said Wally, turning on his heel. "Thanks again!" he said, walking out the door.

Ms. Stoneman sighed, and thought that a Scandinavian club headed by a Chinese kid would make an curious addition to Multicultural Day.

Wally turned in the paperwork the next day and Ms. Stoneman approved it. The club election procedures were standard. There was nothing wrong with the activities. No hate speech. No religious emphasis. Nobody excluded. It was just what Walter had said. But still, something troubled Ms. Stoneman. She couldn't quite put her finger on it... but her workload was heavy and she was soon distracted.

That day after school the Scandinavian Club met for the first time. It wasn't really the first time, since all six of the members - none of them Scandinavians - had hung out together since the start of school. There were Tom and Robert and Larry and Sarah and Gabe and Wally, whom they unanimously elected president since it was his idea. Though it was not the first time they had met, it was the first time they had officially met as The Robert Frost High School Scandinavian Club.

And they met every afternoon that week, since Multicultural Day was coming up and they needed to be ready.

On the morning of Multicultural Day, Wally and Tom, Robert, Larry, Sarah and Gabe walked together through the front door of Robert Frost High School wearing white t-shirts with a large blue cross from their necks to their waists.

"Hey, you guys," a girl called out, "You can't wear a cross in school. You're gonna get in trouble!"

But Tom and Robert and Larry and Sarah and Gabe and Wally did not seem to be bothered. They each went to their own class.

"You can't wear a cross in school!" said Mrs. Tonkatsu.

"You can't wear a cross in school!" said Mr. Tikka.

"You can't wear a cross in school!" said Ms. Lamb.

"You can't wear a cross in school!" said Mr. Hagis.

"You can't wear a cross in school!" said Ms. Brie.

"You can't wear a cross in school!" said the substitute teacher in Mrs. Limberger's class.

"But it's Multicultural Day," said six voices in six classrooms.

"What does that have to do with it?" asked Mrs. Tonkatsu and Mr. Tikka and Ms. Lamb and Mr. Hagis and Ms. Brie and the substitute teacher in Mrs. Limberger's class.

"This is the Finnish flag," said the six students in six giggling classes.

Mrs. Tonkatsu and Mr. Tikka and Ms. Lamb and Mr. Hagis and Ms. Brie and the substitute teacher in Mrs. Limberger's class each paused for a moment. They weren't sure what to do but it looked like a serious offense. So they sent Tom and Robert and Larry and Sarah and Gabe and Wally to the principal's office.

"You guys!" said the smiling principal, who liked to think that he was everybody's pal, "You can't wear those in school."

"But," said Wally, all innocence, "our club charter, which says we will wear Scandinavian flags on our clothes, was approved by Ms. Stoneman."

"Well, I'm sorry, but you're going to have to take them off."

"But why, Mr. Andrews?" said Wally.

"Because it is promoting Christianity."

"It's promoting Finland, sir. Why should Finland be excluded from Multicultural Day?"

Mr. Andrews stared at the six for a moment. And then for another moment. And another.

"You know," he said, finally, "You're not fooling anybody. They've got to come off."

The six stared at Mr. Andrews for a moment, and then for another moment, and another.

Finally Wally said softly, "No Finland?"

"No," the principal said kindly. "No Finland."

"Yes sir," said the six, for they were all very polite.

"So call your parents or do whatever you have to do," the principal said, "but get out of those shirts."

"Yes sir," they said quietly.

The principal chuckled to himself after the students had left. "Not bad kids overall," he thought. "A bit misguided, but not bad."

At three o'clock Mr. Andrews stationed himself at the bus stop to wave goodbye to the students. After all, he thought, the principal should be your pal.

But suddenly the smile froze on his face.

"WALTER!" he yelled.

"Yes sir," said Walter, coming over to him.

"I thought I told you no crosses in school!"

"No sir, I believe you said no Finnish shirts. We all switched into our Danish shirts as soon as you told us, sir. Did you know Denmark is also a Scandinavian country? Isn't it interesting that they use a cross, too?"

"I am not amused! And I want you out of those shirts immediately."

"Yes sir," said Wally as the other five club members walked up. "We'll go home right away and change."

"Good bye sir." Wally waved, then the six started down the street, quietly grinning until they were out of sight, then laughing all the way home.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Book Thoughts: Road to Serfdom

Note: I decided recently to comment on things I've noted in books over the years. I'm calling these Book Thoughts. This is the third post.

One book that had a profound effect on my economic thinking was FA Hayek's Road to Serfdom. It is old but very new. (I think I first heard of it from a college economics professor. He was from some Central American country and I could barely understand what he was saying, but what he said made a whole lot more sense than dozens of other instructors I've had.) Here are a few quotes from Road to Serfdom along with my comments:

The delegation of particular technical tasks to separate bodies, while a regular feature, is yet only the first step in the process whereby a democracy which embarks on planning progressively relinquishes its powers.

The preceeding quote makes me think of how the U.S. Congress - in particular - hands off rule-making to unelected governmental agencies which promulgate "regulations," which are, by another name, "laws." It angers me that laws should be made by unelected individuals and I think all regulations should have to be ratified by Congress once a year, and while they could be passed in a single batch, I think any representative or senator should be able to demand that specific regulations be pulled out and dealt with separately.

The Rule of Law could clearly not be preserved in a democracy that undertook to decide every conflict of interests not according to rules previously laid down but "on its merits."

I've heard this before! What "on its merits" seems to mean is that a judgement should not be made on the basis of what the law says, but on the basis of the personal feelings and prejudices and whims of the judge or bureaucrat.

Security tends to become stronger than the love of freedom. The reason for this is that with every grant of complete security to one group the insecurity of the rest necessarily increases. If you guarantee to some a fixed part of a variable cake, the share left to the rest is bound to fluctuate proportianally more than the size of the whole.

I think it is talking mostly of financial security here. An astute and sad observation.

I understand the book is receiving renewed interest. If so, it is well deserved.