Thursday, January 20, 2011

Paul Schiffman

In my e-mail inbox this morning was the following message: "Paul Schiffman died last night in his apartment." I got to know Paul in the 1970s when he was a bartender at the Lion's Head and I was a young lawyer living in Greenwich Village. At the time, I was taking the waters at the Head, which was a few blocks from my apartment. I'd heard that Paul had been a captain in the Merchant Marine, so one night, after he'd gone off duty (Paul worked the early shift, from noon to eight in the evening) and taken a seat next to me at the bar, I told him of my four sea crossings of the Atlantic during my childhood and my continuing fascination with ships and the sea. After a while, he growled something about having made his living on the sea and not needing to hear about it from "landlubbers and bollard squatters." A few months later, I was once again sitting next to him and, undeterred by our previous encounter, I said I had read that the Liberté, on which I had crossed the Atlantic twice, had gone to the breakers. "When I read that I damn near cried," I said. "I loved that ship." He put an arm across my shoulders and said, "Claude, that's something you and I understand that landlubbers and bollard squatters never will."

Paul was emphatic in his likes and dislikes. Any drink with more than two ingredients was anathema. I was at the bar when four young men in suits came in. As one approached the bar, Paul said, "What can I get you, mate?" "Four tequila sunrises" was the answer. As Paul slammed four glasses down and was filling them with ice, the customer tried to make conversation, asking Paul what he thought about a scandal involving Bess Meyerson, a former Miss America who'd gotten involved in city politics. "None of my affair," Paul said, gruffly. "But did you see..." the man continued. "Look," Paul said, "I don't give a damn if they hang her or shoot her!" After the Head's owner installed TVs at each end of the bar, I was in one evening and got enthusiastic about a college basketball game. I noticed Paul glaring at me, and when our eyes met, he said, "We used to have a portable TV that we kept in the cabinet under the dry bar, and we brought it out once every year--for the Kentucky Derby!"

Over the years, Paul and I had many conversations. We never became close friends, but I came to cherish his company and his opinions. He was unsparing of any tendentiousness or bullshit. I last saw Paul about a year ago, at a reunion of Lion's Head alumni at the Kettle of Fish, the bar that now occupies the space formerly taken by the Head. As I was parting, I shook Paul's hand, and, sensing that it might be the last time, said something a bit awkward (I don't recall just what), and he gave me a sharp look. Just a few days ago, I was recalling this and wondering if I'd get the chance to see Paul again.

Update: there was a memorial gathering for Paul at the Kettle of Fish on Sunday, February 27. Read Dermot McEvoy's account of it here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

News of the very old and the old: dinosaurs and wine

PBS Newshour
This has been a productive time for paleontologists. From Argentina, a dinosaur hot spot in recent years, comes news of what may be one of the most primitive of theropods, Eodromaeus ("dawn runner") murphi (see illustration at left). This scrawny four-foot-long critter lived in the Triassic Period, about 230 million years ago, when dinosaurs were just beginning to emerge, and before they attained the dominance they would enjoy in the succeeding Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods. Eodromaeus is early in a family tree that would later branch to include such diverse progeny as T. Rex and Tweety Bird. Read more about it in this PBS Newshour story.

Utah, long a preeminent source of dinosaur fossils, produced eight new species (see this Deseret News article) in 2010. One of these, Seitaad ruessi, named for a Navajo legendary sand demon because its fossils were found in petrified sand, is a small, early member of the sauropod group, the familiar long-necked herbivores that evolved into giants like Apatosaurus. Another, Abydosaurus mcintoshi, is a later, larger sauropod. Two are iguanadonts, bipedal herbivores that are relatives of Iguanadon, the second dinosaur ever to be described and named. One, Hippodraco ("horse dragon") scutodens, is relatively small for this group, while the other. Iguanacolossus fortis, as its name proclaims, is massive (See their comparative sizes, and read more about them, in this Open Source Paleontologist article). Three, Diabloceratops eatoni, Utahceratops gettyi, and Kosmoceratops richardsoni, are ceratopsians; horned dinosaurs similar to Triceratops. Only one is a carnivorous theropod: Geminiraptor suarezarum. This dinosaur got its name, which means "twin predatory thief of the Suarezes", in honor of the twin sisters Marina and Selina Suarez, both graduate students at Temple University, who studied the geology of the area where the fossils were found (see this Environment News Service article). Geminiraptor is an early troodontid, a group of small, agile predators related to Velociraptor.

Now, from paleontology to archaeology and anthropology, and to one of my favorite topics: wine. I've posted before about the role of alcoholic beverages in the development of civilizations. This Washington Post article reports the discovery of the remains of "a surprisingly advanced winemaking operation" that dates to about 6,000 years ago, located in a cave near an Armenian village. As Slate notes: "It gives 'mis en bouteille dans nos caves' a literal flavor".

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Martin Luther King, Jr. on hatred and love.

Wikimedia Commons
From a sermon delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on November 17, 1957:
There’s another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. We usually think of what hate does for the individual hated or the individuals hated or the groups hated. But it is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates. You just begin hating somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things. You can’t see straight when you hate. You can’t walk straight when you hate. You can’t stand upright. Your vision is distorted. There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate. He comes to the point that he becomes a pathological case. For the person who hates, you can stand up and see a person and that person can be beautiful, and you will call them ugly. For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does. You can’t see right. The symbol of objectivity is lost. Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.

So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, "I love you. I would rather die than hate you." And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed.
See the complete sermon at Martin Luther King Online. Thanks to the Rev. Steven Paulikas, Assistant to the Rector, Grace Church, Brooklyn, for citing this in his sermon this morning.