Back in the day, when sports columnists were a daily presence, my job description included having an opinion on the national college football championship.
Often, this entailed being in warm places on New Year’s Day, which is the best thing I can say about covering the loopy methods of judging teams with differing schedules playing in different bowl games. Bowl games got me to Pasadena or Miami. What can I say?
Now that I am retired, I pay no attention to any form of football. Instead, I am free to follow another highly imperfect ratings system, closer to my heart and ear – the annual vote for the best classical music, as conducted by the invaluable station emanating from my home town (and live on the Web) WQXR-FM, 105.9 on the dial.
The station has been conducting this poll since the mid-‘80s, asking listeners to rank their favorites. The results are played in the annual countdown in the last week of the year, generally reflecting the programming of the station – the old favorites, often presented one movement at a time.
During the countdown, the station also conducts a running blog (results not updated as quickly as listeners would like) including commentary from the faithful in distant states and foreign lands. Many of respondents are passionate about wanting" More variety! More medieval music! More Reich and Glass! More music by African-American composers! More music by women!
Plus, there is the rampant suspicion that some Gilbert & Sullivan supporters pack the ballot box, just like voters in some towns and states I could name.
And some listeners question whether Gilbert & Sullivan is actually classical music. I pass on that one.
My feeling is, the annual countdown reflects the tastes of people who support WQXR and live classical music in New York. More power to them.
Still: every year I make a small list of music I play at home, and I hope some of it will slip into the countdown. As my friend Vic Ziegel, who introduced me to the strange charm of the racetrack, used to say about the track announcer: “At least give my horse a call.”
In the past few couple of years, I have been trending toward chamber music at home because it is self-contained, providing a welcome alternative to the toxic earworms on the air waves.
--In an ugly time, I have become infatuated with Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” for its beauty and pace and dignity.
--I often choose “Butterworth/Parry/Bridge,” its three composers taking me back me to lazy summer days, visiting a friend in the Brecon Beacons of Wales.
-- I was rooting hard for something by Florence Price, the composer whose work is often championed by the wonderful Terrance McKnight on his evening gig, not just in Black History Month, either.
--Because we are blessed to have two good friends comprising half of the New Zealand String Quartet, we have their works by Bartok, among others.
-- But the work I was really hoping for was Sir William Walton’s Violin Concerto, performed by Kyung-Wha Chung. I still remember the first time I heard it: I was a news reporter in the late ‘70s, driving to meet some nuns in jeans and sweatshirts who did the Lord’s work in the South Bronx. But when this stunning piece appeared on my car radio, I sat and listened for the full half hour.
Alas, this beautiful piece is not easily found on vinyl or CD – and is not in the WQXR top 120, either. Not even, in racetrack parlance, a call.
The 2019 list does include many things I love, including a few pieces by Erik Satie, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” and – No. 4 in the poll -- Dvorak’s “From the New World.” The older I get, the more I appreciate Dvorak, for his music and also for his love for two worlds, Bohemia and America.
I missed it live, but there on the list at No. 68 was a very modern already-classic, "The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace," by Karl Jenkins, first performed in 2000, which I heard for the first time in the past year.
However, the piece that really knocked me out was No. 109, Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 8 in E-Flat, Symphony of a Thousand,” by the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, with wonderful soloists and choruses. It made me stop what I was doing and just listen.
At the end, Beethoven placed six in the top 10. I have no quarrel with the selections because the voters care about “their” music. It’s up to us to seek out the music we love, and play it, and pay for it, early and often.
Happy New Year.
* * *
The current results:
Plus, check out the blog with informed and passionate comments by listeners: .
And for comparison, the two most recent results.
I am thankful for the Wampanoags who flocked to the Plymouth settlement in November of 1621 when they heard white people firing off their guns, and stayed three peaceful days to partake of the “feast.” Nobody spoke of “thanksgiving,” but rather a celebration of survival.
Tribal ways were more complex than most people today know; the Narragansetts in what became Rhode Island welcomed Roger Williams, banished from Massachusetts for his inclusive Christian beliefs. All the “Indians” deserved better than the genocide that was coming down on them.
I am thankful for the Americans who arrived as slaves in shackles and were treated cruelly. I am thankful for the modern-day Africans who flee failed societies and continue to add talent and energy and spirituality to the United States.
I am thankful for the Latino people in my part of the world, who do the hard work that immigrants always do. In recent months we have had painters, gardeners, plumbers’ assistants and a mason’s assistant around our house, most of them quite willing and skillful. Their children speak colloquial English and contribute in the schools; some are going to college – the American dream.
I am thankful for the immigrants who served in the military, many of them on the promise of citizenship for their contributions. I am sickened by a country that welshes on its promises, both domestic and foreign. People come to America in hope, the way the “pilgrims” did, and their children are put in cages.
I am thankful for some of the best and brightest in this country, who left their homelands, escaping the Nazis or the Soviets, for what America said about itself -- the promise of education and opportunities and honest government.
I am thankful for the true believers who testified in Congress in recent days, speaking of their hope in America. Some of them are Jews, like Marie Yovanovich and Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman,, who served so diligently and speak so eloquently about this country.
Lt. Col. Vindman acknowledged his father for bringing the family from Ukraine to America, saying: “Here, right matters.”
They should put his saying on the next new dollar bills.
For their pains, Yovanovich and Lt. Col. Vindman have heard sneering overtly anti-Semitic sentiments from some of the “patriots” in government. Shades of Father Coughlin in the ‘30s, Roy Cohn (Donald Trump’s mentor), with Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the ‘50s, and Richard Nixon blaming the Jews during his last days in the bunker in the ‘70s. In America, it never goes away.
Finally, I am thankful for Dr. Fiona Hill, a non-partisan government expert on Russia, and an American by choice, a coal-miner’s daughter from Northeast England with a Harvard degree. (Having helped Loretta Lynn write her book, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” I heard Dr. Hill’s background and said, “They are messing with a coal miner’s daughter. Not a good idea.”)
Dr. Hill caught everybody’s attention by speaking so knowledgeably in what sounded like the finest British accent to our unsophisticated ears but which Dr. Hill termed working-class.
She besought the legislators not to swallow Russian propaganda. The Republican firebrands seemed to know they were outmatched; a few panelists scampered to safety. One of the remaining Republicans, Dr. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, spoke of his non-partisan volunteer service as a doctor of podiatry in Iraq; it is also known that he administered to a colleague shot on a ball field, and rushed to a train crash near Washington.
After delivering some remarks with a scowl, Dr. Wenstrup was not about to ask questions of Dr. Hill. After she requested the chance to respond, Dr. Hill produced the little miracle of the hearings:
As Dr. Hill spoke passionately about fairness and knowledge, the anger drained from Dr. Wenstrup’s face. He was listening – he had manners -- he maintained eye contact -- and he seemed touched, perhaps even shocked, that she was speaking to him as an intelligent adult. How often does that happen in politics? “He’s going to cry,” my wife said.
As Dr. Hill finished, she thanked Dr. Wenstrup, and he nodded, and we saw the nicer person behind the partisan bluster. (I am including a video, but nothing I find on line captures the ongoing split-screen drama that we saw in real time. Maybe somebody can find a better link of this sweet moment, and let me know in the Comments section below.)
I am thankful for Dr. Fiona Hill’s educated hopes for a wiser country. I am thankful to Dr. Wenstrup for listening. I wish them, and Ms. Yovanovich, and Lt. Col. Vindman and all the other witnesses a happy and civil Thanksgiving.
(In other words: Don’t yell at your cousin for not agreeing with you!)
* * *
(In the video below, you might want to skip forward 5 minutes or so, to the point where Dr. Hill asks, "May I actually...." . The video, alas, does not show the split-screen version.)
After months of home-repair madness, it was a treat to spend a quiet Easter at home. Then the pinging began on the phone.
I was puttering around, trying to restore order from the detritus of repairs. Marianne made a delicious vegetable-and-chicken soup.
New England: Easter Egg Atelier checks in
WNYC-FM was playing weekly jazz show. Two versions of "April in Paris," first by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, then by Count Basie ("one more -- once") Homage to the stricken Cathedral de Notre-Dame. Mel Torme. Bob Dylan. An American blues singer acing a song. Not American, my wife said. It's Adele. As always, she was right.
Our granddaughter Anjali came over Sunday to pick up some cookie utensils.
She's driving now. Having a very good year.
Marianne took out her assortment of cookie-decorator tools from holidays past. The two of them huddled over a kitchen table, trying to put together one gadget for spreading icing.
There was Christmas music on WQXR-FM. I stood and watched this very sweet moment as.two artistic and orderly minds collaborated to get it together.
I thought about our holidays when our children were young; I thought about the way my parents managed to have a clutter of presents for five children. How did they do that?
What a blessing to have two of our three children in town with us -- one grandchild in a school concert the other night, another popping over since she earned her driver's license,
Grandmother and granddaughter smiled and agreed. All systems go. Anjali tootled home to work with her parents on their cookies.
A few hours later this photo came pinging onto the smartphone.
Tomorrow we get to sample.
From our family to all our friends, including those who glance at this little therapy web site:
Be Well. Happy Holidays.
“It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” -- Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Hindus celebrate Diwali at different times of the year. We once saw uniformed bobbies dancing with celebrants in Trafalgar Square, London. Very sweet. This October, 35,000 people celebrated in Leicestershire, England, my mother's ancestral roots.
This year Hanukkah begins the same evening my family celebrates Christmas Eve. We have had a menorah in our home for years.
In the next few days we will go for a good meal at a modest Halal restaurant near us – and celebrate the diversity of this blessed country.
This came over the electronic transom, a mass posting by Bishop Sally Dyck of the United Methodist Church, about the symbolism of an inverted tree, in a store near her:
“Jesus’ birth over 2000 years ago was in the midst of unrest, oppression and violence as the people of Israel labored under the Roman Empire. He brought a message of hope, peace and justice in the midst of a time and place where there was no hope, no peace and no justice. Jesus came to turn the values of the Empire upside down!”
Here’s a Santa’s workshop for you – the local bicycle shop, packed with gleaming machines with that nice-new smell.
But here’s the problem: I dropped into Port Washington Bicycles at 18 Haven Ave. in Port Washington, L.I., the other day, to say hello to the staff that keeps me rolling all year long.
Things were way too quiet for December. People are not making a big rush on bicycles for holiday presents for children, the staff told me.
Apparently, kids hunker in their homes, flicking their smartphones, playing games and gaping at who-knows-what. They are using their thumbs when they should be using their knees.
“It used to be that when kids were punished, they were made to stay indoors,” said John Pappas, one of the bosses. “Now if they are being punished, they are sent outside.”
It is a true social phenomenon. As American children grow heavier, they do less. Helicopter parents drive them to play dates. In our neighborhood park, we have modern play equipment with all the apparatus clustered, so parents can hover, holding cellphones and Starbucks cups.
Gone are the days when kids could swing or climb in a corner of the park, daydreaming, or take a walk or ride a bike, looking for their friends in the neighborhood.
At least, that is how it looks to me, as well as Ralph Intintoli, the owner of Port Bicycles, and his two colleagues, Pappas and Mike Black. Over the years they have sold me a Schwinn and more recently a Trek Hybrid, as well as a treadmill and an exercise bike. They also sell car racks and are terrific at service.
Pappas also gives paid lessons when it’s time for children to stop using training wheels and take off on a two-wheeler.
However, at holiday time, when the newest electronic gadget is the present kids absolutely must have, parents don’t buy the traditional new bike to put under the tree.
Actually, grandparents buy bicycles for kids more than parents do, Intintoli said.
When I was there, a guy my age was buying a beautiful Trek to bring to a grand-daughter on a Christmas visit. I hope the girl appreciates the gift, and takes off down the block to play with a friend.
At this holiday of homecoming and giving thanks, I want to thank the Obamas for giving all people the image of a wholesome and functional American family.
Through all of it, they have been an example for positive, enlightened living. I am always touched that Marian Shields Robinson, the mother of Michelle Obama, lives with them, is part of so many activities.
I have a friend in the White House press corps who sometimes travels with the President. He once told me there is an Obama rule, when possible: home by suppertime. Excursions to American cities are often planned with a mid-afternoon getaway, so the President can be at the table to ask, "So, how was your day?" That may have changed as the girls grew older, but his priority for family life was a factor for years.
I will miss having a President who can imitate Al Green, sing "Amazing Grace," and preside over his last medal ceremony with such eloquence and knowledge -- about athletes, about scientists, about pioneers.
Michelle Obama has been a passionate advocate for education, for women's rights, for exercise and healthy eating. And she always has her husband's back, as an equal. I look forward to her next acts, and those of their children. I hope they enjoy this Thanksgiving,
For so many years, the schedule of a sports columnist took me far from home on the birthday of my country, on my own birthday.
“Do you remember all the places you’ve been?” my wife asked. Sometimes she was with me. Sometimes she wasn’t.
Companions get used to journalists being away -- weekends, nights, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries. My wife recalls my taking a day's drive to the mountains on our first month in Kentucky -- and being gone for New Year's after a mine blew up in Hyden. (After that, I kept a change of clothes in the car.)
Reporters head toward danger, not totally unlike police and fire officers. But I was a family guy and could be hard to find by the office when a child had a big game or we had company. But sports reporters often work on scheduled events and cannot avoid being away holidays and weekends.
It's easier for a man than a woman to forage for a meal on the road. In her Sunday column, Maureen Dowd describes the snooty reaction to a single female diner in a Paris hotel. Alas, her good meal was spoiled by the rancid presence of Boris and Donald in her active mind.
My birthdays were often spent on the road. When I was at Wimbledon, I would scan the Times, which ran a daily box of birthdays of notables. I never expected to see my name – and never did – on July 4 but I was always happy that George Steinbrenner was a non-person in the UK, and I hoped Pam Shriver would be mentioned.
I never mentioned my birthday to colleagues; why draw attention in a press room? But in the age of the blog, here are birthday highlights of a travelling journalist:
1939: Born the day Lou Gehrig delivered his farewell speech in Yankee Stadium, I was a Brooklyn Dodger fan at birth.
The ‘60’s: a blur of Mets and Yanks, three children being born, great times. Was I in Minnesota…or Shea Stadium….or home? Can’t remember.
1970: We took the family to Italy for a glorious month. I can’t remember where we were on July 4 – possibly the side trip to Switzerland – but I do know that on July 9, Corinna’s birthday, my wife arranged a cake on the hotel patio, off the Via Veneto.
1976: Bicentennial Day. Now a news reporter, I was assigned to a destroyer in the Hudson, where Henry Kissinger was on board. Asked about the raid on Entebbe the night before, the Secretary of State said in his gravelly accent, “You people know more than I do.”
1982: I was alone in Barcelona, covering my first World Cup. On the night of the Third, I went to a concert by Maria del Mar Bonet in a plaza. The next day I went to El Corte Inglés and bought a vinyl record of hers, which I still play, in memory of a lonely but beautiful night.
1986: We landed in Moscow for the Goodwill Games. A grim customs agent inspected my passport and suddenly he smiled and said, “Happy birthday” in English – the start of a lovely three weeks, glasnost in summery Moscow.
Wimbledon: The English always honor the Original Brexit with flags flying, burgers in pubs. I would buy a bag of cherries in Southfields and sit with a friend and listen to the military band play American music before the tennis began.
1990: We woke up in Naples after Argentina beat Italy on penalty kicks in the semifinals of the World Cup, and we took the train back to Rome, celebrating the day in the trattoria beneath our flat near the Piazza Navona.
1994: Tab Ramos was cold-cocked by Leonardo in the round of 16 at Stanford. I bought a great t-shirt with American and Brazilian flags; it recently fell apart. After dinner with Filip Bondy and Julie Vader in Palo Alto, I caught the red-eye to Boston for another match.
1998: Dennis Bergkamp scored in the 90th minute as the Netherlands beat Argentina, 2-1, in Marseilles. We were staying in Aix; my wife had gone shopping in a market for presents.
1999: A joint birthday celebration, for me and ace photographer John McDermott in San Francisco, with family, the night before steamy July 4 semi of Women’s World Cup, a 2-0 victory over Brazil.
2004: Alone in a motel in Waterloo, on the Lance watch, reading David Walsh’s book that pretty much convinced me Lance was cheating. (The masseuse who was ordered to lie about saddle sores!) Watched Greece beat host Portugal in Euro final and wrote paean to underdogs.
2005: Roger Federer beat Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon finals. Next morning we took the Eurostar to France to pick up Lance’s bid for a fifth. Two days later, we heard that nihilists had set off explosions in the London transit.
2006: In our hotel in Berlin, watched Italy beat Germany, 2-0, in semifinals, then went out in streets to interview rollicking fans, celebrating a good run with beer and curry and ever-present wurst.
2010: Jeffrey Marcus drove from cold, inland Johannesburg to the fresh salt air of Durban for the Germany-Spain semifinal two days later. My unexpected birthday present: chatty Indian staff and glorious smell of curry from the dining room -- a treat for a journalist who picked an odd day to be born.
(Birthday wishes to Pam Shriver, John Hewig and John McDermott, all over the globe.)
Uncle Harold is cooking duck, because Barbara always loved it for Thanksgiving.
Since it is Maine, three families have invited him over on Thursday but he wants to be alone, with Barbara, he says. They were together for more than six decades until she died last December. Someone is bringing dessert, and I am sure they will stay a while.
Thanksgiving is for remembering people. My mother-in-law, Mary, who passed early this year, always set a great table and made superb pies the kids still talk about.
I am sure that on Thursday a few of the older grand-daughters will talk about visiting my father in his bedroom on Thanksgiving evening in 1984, and how Pop surveyed the anxiety on their faces and said, “What is this, a death watch?” He passed a few hours later.
The Band played its Last Waltz on Thanksgiving of 1976. We still have the music, and the Scorsese movie, and thanks for that, rocking in my earphones.
Thanksgiving is also for people who are with us. The other day I wished a waiter from Central America “Buen Dia del Pavo” – Happy Turkey Day. He said, “Lo mejor” -- the best.
I give thanks for the higher power who is there for me, for my wife and our children and their children, and for so many friends from Jamaica High and my student-athlete buddies from Hofstra and my writer pals from the round table, thankful that we still meet, and for the people who protect us, including the good man who has gone gray in six years of a brutal job.
And while I am saying thanks, I include the correspondents who enlighten the Comments on my little therapy web site. Every click is part of a community I value.. Thank you.
Haven't gotten around to decorating the outside.
May not, thanks to John and Mary, Mark and Marisa.
And whoever hung that glowing white ball.
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: