A Few of My Favorite Things
My tastes in most categories are very conventional, so most of my favorites probably will not surprise you. In poetry, for example, at the top of my personal list is the piece known as “Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard” – not to be confused with Gray’s Allergy. [Only kidding.] One reason I like it is that it has so many quotable lines. Perhaps without knowing their origin, you have seen these expressions:
“The short and simple annals of the poor.”
“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen.”
“Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife.” [No, it’s not “maddening.”]
“The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
Yes, they all came from this one poem by Thomas Gray (1716-71), which consists simply of a young man’s ruminations as he sits among a bunch of old gravestones.
Considering the last line I quoted, I’m very fond of the (probably true) story that General Wolfe, besieging Quebec in 1759, read the Elegy to some of his officers, and said “I would rather have written that poem than take Quebec.” As you may know, he did take Quebec, but was killed on that path of glory.
As for films, my favorite is Citizen Kane, a pseudo-biography which makes wonderful use of the movie medium, flashing back and forward through an eminent man’s life. Orson Welles made it and starred in it, in 1941, when he was still a young man – but, although he lived another 44 years, he never did anything as great again.
For artists, I’d have to choose Van Gogh, just because of his wildly courageous use of color – although in his most dazzling canvases, it seems to have been a case of courage mixed with madness.
In classical music, my inveterate choice is the “Light Cavalry Overture,” by Franz Von Suppé – an Austrian who wrote four dozen operas, yet none of them is as well-remembered – not even this opera itself – as the wonderful Overture to it.
For actual operas, I again go with the crowd, and choose Carmen, by Georges Bizet. One thing that seems remarkable is that Bizet, a Frenchman, was only one of many “foreign” composers, including Germans and Russians, who have been captivated by the spirit of Spanish music. (Incidentally, many national anthems sound like hymns, but my favorite is the Spanish, which sounds like a dance.) My favorite song from Carmen is the “Habanera” – although I have to confess that I first learned of it through a parody version in the Marx Brothers movie Coconuts, with the words, “He lost his shirt, He lost his shirt – He won’t be happy till he gets it back.”
But the reality is another of those tragic stories of young geniuses. Bizet died at 36 (in 1875, of a heart attack) not long after Carmen’s introduction to the French public, who didn’t receive it very warmly. Bizet never had much chance to enjoy his own greatness.
My favorite American President is Grover Cleveland, the only one (so far) who has had two non-consecutive terms. My favorite story about him concerns his first campaign, in 1894. Cleveland had a reputation for rectitude, and when it became known to his opponents (the Republicans) that he had once fathered a child out of wedlock, they marched through the streets chanting, “MA! MA! WHERE’S MY PA? – GONE TO THE WHITE HOUSE? – HA! HA! HA!” Cleveland responded by telling his supporters to “Tell the truth” (which in fact was not very dishonorable) and he went ahead and won anyway.
My favorite food is chocolate. (Had you any doubts?) And if anyone questions whether that is really a food, I need only call forth chocolate cake, pudding, drinks, ice cream etc. etc. As it says on one of my insightful cards, “ANYTHING IS GOOD, IF IT’S MADE OF CHOCOLATE.”
Favorite building: the Santa Barbara Courthouse. It looks like anything but a courthouse, is wonderfully asymmetrical, and full of imaginative touches, charmingly combining indoor and outdoor spaces, with flavors both of Hollywood and Seville. It was built in my favorite period of American History, the 1920s – an extremely colorful era between the Great War and the Great Depression.
Favorite books: Non Fiction – Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Despite its popularity, full of profound wisdom, which changed my own life. Fiction: Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne. Of all the stories I’ve ever read, it has the best and most surprising ending.