Monday, July 26, 2010

Memorable quote from Seabiscuit

They called it the car for every man. Henry Ford himself called it a car for the great multitude. It was functional, and simple, like your sewing machine, or your cast-iron stove. You could learn to drive it in less than a day. And you could get any color you wanted, so long as it was black. When Ford first conceived the Model-T, it took thirteen hours to assemble. Within five years he was turning out a vehicle every ninety seconds. Of course the real invention was the assembly line that built it. Pretty soon other businesses had borrowed the same technologies. Seamstresses became button sewers. Furniture makers became knob turners. It was the beginning and the end of imagination, all at the same time.

Pearls Before Breakfast

Pearls Before Breakfast
Can one of the nation's great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let's find out.

By Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 8, 2007

HE EMERGED FROM THE METRO AT THE L'ENFANT PLAZA STATION AND POSITIONED HIMSELF AGAINST A WALL BESIDE A TRASH BASKET. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L'Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?

On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?

The musician did not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest. That was not the test. These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls.

The acoustics proved surprisingly kind. Though the arcade is of utilitarian design, a buffer between the Metro escalator and the outdoors, it somehow caught the sound and bounced it back round and resonant. The violin is an instrument that is said to be much like the human voice, and in this musician's masterly hands, it sobbed and laughed and sang -- ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring, flirtatious, castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal, sumptuous.

So, what do you think happened?


Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked the same question. What did he think would occur, hypothetically, if one of the world's great violinists had performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people?

"Let's assume," Slatkin said, "that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician . . . Still, I don't think that if he's really good, he's going to go unnoticed. He'd get a larger audience in Europe . . . but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening."

So, a crowd would gather?

"Oh, yes."

And how much will he make?

"About $150."

Thanks, Maestro. As it happens, this is not hypothetical. It really happened.

"How'd I do?"

We'll tell you in a minute.

"Well, who was the musician?"

Joshua Bell.


A onetime child prodigy, at 39 Joshua Bell has arrived as an internationally acclaimed virtuoso. Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston's stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. Two weeks later, at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, he would play to a standing-room-only audience so respectful of his artistry that they stifled their coughs until the silence between movements. But on that Friday in January, Joshua Bell was just another mendicant, competing for the attention of busy people on their way to work.

Bell was first pitched this idea shortly before Christmas, over coffee at a sandwich shop on Capitol Hill. A New Yorker, he was in town to perform at the Library of Congress and to visit the library's vaults to examine an unusual treasure: an 18th-century violin that once belonged to the great Austrian-born virtuoso and composer Fritz Kreisler. The curators invited Bell to play it; good sound, still.

"Here's what I'm thinking," Bell confided, as he sipped his coffee. "I'm thinking that I could do a tour where I'd play Kreisler's music . . ."

He smiled.

". . . on Kreisler's violin."

It was a snazzy, sequined idea -- part inspiration and part gimmick -- and it was typical of Bell, who has unapologetically embraced showmanship even as his concert career has become more and more august. He's soloed with the finest orchestras here and abroad, but he's also appeared on "Sesame Street," done late-night talk TV and performed in feature films. That was Bell playing the soundtrack on the 1998 movie "The Red Violin." (He body-doubled, too, playing to a naked Greta Scacchi.) As composer John Corigliano accepted the Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score, he credited Bell, who, he said, "plays like a god."

When Bell was asked if he'd be willing to don street clothes and perform at rush hour, he said:

"Uh, a stunt?"

Well, yes. A stunt. Would he think it . . . unseemly?

Bell drained his cup.

"Sounds like fun," he said.

Bell's a heartthrob. Tall and handsome, he's got a Donny Osmond-like dose of the cutes, and, onstage, cute elides into hott. When he performs, he is usually the only man under the lights who is not in white tie and tails -- he walks out to a standing O, looking like Zorro, in black pants and an untucked black dress shirt, shirttail dangling. That cute Beatles-style mop top is also a strategic asset: Because his technique is full of body -- athletic and passionate -- he's almost dancing with the instrument, and his hair flies.

He's single and straight, a fact not lost on some of his fans. In Boston, as he performed Max Bruch's dour Violin Concerto in G Minor, the very few young women in the audience nearly disappeared in the deep sea of silver heads. But seemingly every single one of them -- a distillate of the young and pretty -- coalesced at the stage door after the performance, seeking an autograph. It's like that always, with Bell.

Bell's been accepting over-the-top accolades since puberty: Interview magazine once said his playing "does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live." He's learned to field these things graciously, with a bashful duck of the head and a modified "pshaw."

For this incognito performance, Bell had only one condition for participating. The event had been described to him as a test of whether, in an incongruous context, ordinary people would recognize genius. His condition: "I'm not comfortable if you call this genius." "Genius" is an overused word, he said: It can be applied to some of the composers whose work he plays, but not to him. His skills are largely interpretive, he said, and to imply otherwise would be unseemly and inaccurate.

It was an interesting request, and under the circumstances, one that will be honored. The word will not again appear in this article.

It would be breaking no rules, however, to note that the term in question, particularly as applied in the field of music, refers to a congenital brilliance -- an elite, innate, preternatural ability that manifests itself early, and often in dramatic fashion.

One biographically intriguing fact about Bell is that he got his first music lessons when he was a 4-year-old in Bloomington, Ind. His parents, both psychologists, decided formal training might be a good idea after they saw that their son had strung rubber bands across his dresser drawers and was replicating classical tunes by ear, moving drawers in and out to vary the pitch.

TO GET TO THE METRO FROM HIS HOTEL, a distance of three blocks, Bell took a taxi. He's neither lame nor lazy: He did it for his violin.

Bell always performs on the same instrument, and he ruled out using another for this gig. Called the Gibson ex Huberman, it was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master's "golden period," toward the end of his career, when he had access to the finest spruce, maple and willow, and when his technique had been refined to perfection.

"Our knowledge of acoustics is still incomplete," Bell said, "but he, he just . . . knew."

Bell doesn't mention Stradivari by name. Just "he." When the violinist shows his Strad to people, he holds the instrument gingerly by its neck, resting it on a knee. "He made this to perfect thickness at all parts," Bell says, pivoting it. "If you shaved off a millimeter of wood at any point, it would totally imbalance the sound." No violins sound as wonderful as Strads from the 1710s, still.

The front of Bell's violin is in nearly perfect condition, with a deep, rich grain and luster. The back is a mess, its dark reddish finish bleeding away into a flatter, lighter shade and finally, in one section, to bare wood.

"This has never been refinished," Bell said. "That's his original varnish. People attribute aspects of the sound to the varnish. Each maker had his own secret formula." Stradivari is thought to have made his from an ingeniously balanced cocktail of honey, egg whites and gum arabic from sub-Saharan trees.

Like the instrument in "The Red Violin," this one has a past filled with mystery and malice. Twice, it was stolen from its illustrious prior owner, the Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman. The first time, in 1919, it disappeared from Huberman's hotel room in Vienna but was quickly returned. The second time, nearly 20 years later, it was pinched from his dressing room in Carnegie Hall. He never got it back. It was not until 1985 that the thief -- a minor New York violinist -- made a deathbed confession to his wife, and produced the instrument.

Bell bought it a few years ago. He had to sell his own Strad and borrow much of the rest. The price tag was reported to be about $3.5 million.

All of which is a long explanation for why, in the early morning chill of a day in January, Josh Bell took a three-block cab ride to the Orange Line, and rode one stop to L'Enfant.

AS METRO STATIONS GO, L'ENFANT PLAZA IS MORE PLEBEIAN THAN MOST. Even before you arrive, it gets no respect. Metro conductors never seem to get it right: "Leh-fahn." "Layfont." "El'phant."

At the top of the escalators are a shoeshine stand and a busy kiosk that sells newspapers, lottery tickets and a wallfull of magazines with titles such as Mammazons and Girls of Barely Legal. The skin mags move, but it's that lottery ticket dispenser that stays the busiest, with customers queuing up for Daily 6 lotto and Powerball and the ultimate suckers' bait, those pamphlets that sell random number combinations purporting to be "hot." They sell briskly. There's also a quick-check machine to slide in your lotto ticket, post-drawing, to see if you've won. Beneath it is a forlorn pile of crumpled slips.

On Friday, January 12, the people waiting in the lottery line looking for a long shot would get a lucky break -- a free, close-up ticket to a concert by one of the world's most famous musicians -- but only if they were of a mind to take note.

Bell decided to begin with "Chaconne" from Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Bell calls it "not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It's a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect. Plus, it was written for a solo violin, so I won't be cheating with some half-assed version."

Bell didn't say it, but Bach's "Chaconne" is also considered one of the most difficult violin pieces to master. Many try; few succeed. It's exhaustingly long -- 14 minutes -- and consists entirely of a single, succinct musical progression repeated in dozens of variations to create a dauntingly complex architecture of sound. Composed around 1720, on the eve of the European Enlightenment, it is said to be a celebration of the breadth of human possibility.

If Bell's encomium to "Chaconne" seems overly effusive, consider this from the 19th-century composer Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Clara Schumann: "On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind."

So, that's the piece Bell started with.

He'd clearly meant it when he promised not to cheap out this performance: He played with acrobatic enthusiasm, his body leaning into the music and arching on tiptoes at the high notes. The sound was nearly symphonic, carrying to all parts of the homely arcade as the pedestrian traffic filed past.

Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man kept walking, but it was something.

A half-minute later, Bell got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened.

Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

No, Mr. Slatkin, there was never a crowd, not even for a second.

It was all videotaped by a hidden camera. You can play the recording once or 15 times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent newsreels. The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts, cups of coffee in their hands, cellphones at their ears, ID tags slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia and the dingy, gray rush of modernity.

Even at this accelerated pace, though, the fiddler's movements remain fluid and graceful; he seems so apart from his audience -- unseen, unheard, otherworldly -- that you find yourself thinking that he's not really there. A ghost.

Only then do you see it: He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts.


It's an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?

We'll go with Kant, because he's obviously right, and because he brings us pretty directly to Joshua Bell, sitting there in a hotel restaurant, picking at his breakfast, wryly trying to figure out what the hell had just happened back there at the Metro.

"At the beginning," Bell says, "I was just concentrating on playing the music. I wasn't really watching what was happening around me . . ."

Playing the violin looks all-consuming, mentally and physically, but Bell says that for him the mechanics of it are partly second nature, cemented by practice and muscle memory: It's like a juggler, he says, who can keep those balls in play while interacting with a crowd. What he's mostly thinking about as he plays, Bell says, is capturing emotion as a narrative: "When you play a violin piece, you are a storyteller, and you're telling a story."

With "Chaconne," the opening is filled with a building sense of awe. That kept him busy for a while. Eventually, though, he began to steal a sidelong glance.

"It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . ."

The word doesn't come easily.

". . . ignoring me."

Bell is laughing. It's at himself.

"At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change." This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

Before he began, Bell hadn't known what to expect. What he does know is that, for some reason, he was nervous.

"It wasn't exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies," he says. "I was stressing a little."

Bell has played, literally, before crowned heads of Europe. Why the anxiety at the Washington Metro?

"When you play for ticket-holders," Bell explains, "you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I'm already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don't like me? What if they resent my presence . . ."

He was, in short, art without a frame. Which, it turns out, may have a lot to do with what happened -- or, more precisely, what didn't happen -- on January 12.

MARK LEITHAUSER HAS HELD IN HIS HANDS MORE GREAT WORKS OF ART THAN ANY KING OR POPE OR MEDICI EVER DID. A senior curator at the National Gallery, he oversees the framing of the paintings. Leithauser thinks he has some idea of what happened at that Metro station.

"Let's say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It's a $5 million painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: 'Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'"

Leithauser's point is that we shouldn't be too ready to label the Metro passersby unsophisticated boobs. Context matters.

Kant said the same thing. He took beauty seriously: In his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Kant argued that one's ability to appreciate beauty is related to one's ability to make moral judgments. But there was a caveat. Paul Guyer of the University of Pennsylvania, one of America's most prominent Kantian scholars, says the 18th-century German philosopher felt that to properly appreciate beauty, the viewing conditions must be optimal.

"Optimal," Guyer said, "doesn't mean heading to work, focusing on your report to the boss, maybe your shoes don't fit right."

So, if Kant had been at the Metro watching as Joshua Bell play to a thousand unimpressed passersby?

"He would have inferred about them," Guyer said, "absolutely nothing."

And that's that.

Except it isn't. To really understand what happened, you have to rewind that video and play it back from the beginning, from the moment Bell's bow first touched the strings.

White guy, khakis, leather jacket, briefcase. Early 30s. John David Mortensen is on the final leg of his daily bus-to-Metro commute from Reston. He's heading up the escalator. It's a long ride -- 1 minute and 15 seconds if you don't walk. So, like most everyone who passes Bell this day, Mortensen gets a good earful of music before he has his first look at the musician. Like most of them, he notes that it sounds pretty good. But like very few of them, when he gets to the top, he doesn't race past as though Bell were some nuisance to be avoided. Mortensen is that first person to stop, that guy at the six-minute mark.

It's not that he has nothing else to do. He's a project manager for an international program at the Department of Energy; on this day, Mortensen has to participate in a monthly budget exercise, not the most exciting part of his job: "You review the past month's expenditures," he says, "forecast spending for the next month, if you have X dollars, where will it go, that sort of thing."

On the video, you can see Mortensen get off the escalator and look around. He locates the violinist, stops, walks away but then is drawn back. He checks the time on his cellphone -- he's three minutes early for work -- then settles against a wall to listen.

Mortensen doesn't know classical music at all; classic rock is as close as he comes. But there's something about what he's hearing that he really likes.

As it happens, he's arrived at the moment that Bell slides into the second section of "Chaconne." ("It's the point," Bell says, "where it moves from a darker, minor key into a major key. There's a religious, exalted feeling to it.") The violinist's bow begins to dance; the music becomes upbeat, playful, theatrical, big.

Mortensen doesn't know about major or minor keys: "Whatever it was," he says, "it made me feel at peace."

So, for the first time in his life, Mortensen lingers to listen to a street musician. He stays his allotted three minutes as 94 more people pass briskly by. When he leaves to help plan contingency budgets for the Department of Energy, there's another first. For the first time in his life, not quite knowing what had just happened but sensing it was special, John David Mortensen gives a street musician money.

THERE ARE SIX MOMENTS IN THE VIDEO THAT BELL FINDS PARTICULARLY PAINFUL TO RELIVE: "The awkward times," he calls them. It's what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn't noticed him playing don't notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment. So Bell just saws out a small, nervous chord -- the embarrassed musician's equivalent of, "Er, okay, moving right along . . ." -- and begins the next piece.

After "Chaconne," it is Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria," which surprised some music critics when it debuted in 1825: Schubert seldom showed religious feeling in his compositions, yet "Ave Maria" is a breathtaking work of adoration of the Virgin Mary. What was with the sudden piety? Schubert dryly answered: "I think this is due to the fact that I never forced devotion in myself and never compose hymns or prayers of that kind unless it overcomes me unawares; but then it is usually the right and true devotion." This musical prayer became among the most familiar and enduring religious pieces in history.

A couple of minutes into it, something revealing happens. A woman and her preschooler emerge from the escalator. The woman is walking briskly and, therefore, so is the child. She's got his hand.

"I had a time crunch," recalls Sheron Parker, an IT director for a federal agency. "I had an 8:30 training class, and first I had to rush Evvie off to his teacher, then rush back to work, then to the training facility in the basement."

Evvie is her son, Evan. Evan is 3.

You can see Evan clearly on the video. He's the cute black kid in the parka who keeps twisting around to look at Joshua Bell, as he is being propelled toward the door.

"There was a musician," Parker says, "and my son was intrigued. He wanted to pull over and listen, but I was rushed for time."

So Parker does what she has to do. She deftly moves her body between Evan's and Bell's, cutting off her son's line of sight. As they exit the arcade, Evan can still be seen craning to look. When Parker is told what she walked out on, she laughs.

"Evan is very smart!"

The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother's heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

IF THERE WAS ONE PERSON ON THAT DAY WHO WAS TOO BUSY TO PAY ATTENTION TO THE VIOLINIST, it was George Tindley. Tindley wasn't hurrying to get to work. He was at work.

The glass doors through which most people exit the L'Enfant station lead into an indoor shopping mall, from which there are exits to the street and elevators to office buildings. The first store in the mall is an Au Bon Pain, the croissant and coffee shop where Tindley, in his 40s, works in a white uniform busing the tables, restocking the salt and pepper packets, taking out the garbage. Tindley labors under the watchful eye of his bosses, and he's supposed to be hopping, and he was.

But every minute or so, as though drawn by something not entirely within his control, Tindley would walk to the very edge of the Au Bon Pain property, keeping his toes inside the line, still on the job. Then he'd lean forward, as far out into the hallway as he could, watching the fiddler on the other side of the glass doors. The foot traffic was steady, so the doors were usually open. The sound came through pretty well.

"You could tell in one second that this guy was good, that he was clearly a professional," Tindley says. He plays the guitar, loves the sound of strings, and has no respect for a certain kind of musician.

"Most people, they play music; they don't feel it," Tindley says. "Well, that man was feeling it. That man was moving. Moving into the sound."

A hundred feet away, across the arcade, was the lottery line, sometimes five or six people long. They had a much better view of Bell than Tindley did, if they had just turned around. But no one did. Not in the entire 43 minutes. They just shuffled forward toward that machine spitting out numbers. Eyes on the prize.

J.T. Tillman was in that line. A computer specialist for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he remembers every single number he played that day -- 10 of them, $2 apiece, for a total of $20. He doesn't recall what the violinist was playing, though. He says it sounded like generic classical music, the kind the ship's band was playing in "Titanic," before the iceberg.

"I didn't think nothing of it," Tillman says, "just a guy trying to make a couple of bucks." Tillman would have given him one or two, he said, but he spent all his cash on lotto.

When he is told that he stiffed one of the best musicians in the world, he laughs.

"Is he ever going to play around here again?"

"Yeah, but you're going to have to pay a lot to hear him."


Tillman didn't win the lottery, either.

BELL ENDS "AVE MARIA" TO ANOTHER THUNDEROUS SILENCE, plays Manuel Ponce's sentimental "Estrellita," then a piece by Jules Massenet, and then begins a Bach gavotte, a joyful, frolicsome, lyrical dance. It's got an Old World delicacy to it; you can imagine it entertaining bewigged dancers at a Versailles ball, or -- in a lute, fiddle and fife version -- the boot-kicking peasants of a Pieter Bruegel painting.

Watching the video weeks later, Bell finds himself mystified by one thing only. He understands why he's not drawing a crowd, in the rush of a morning workday. But: "I'm surprised at the number of people who don't pay attention at all, as if I'm invisible. Because, you know what? I'm makin' a lot of noise!"

He is. You don't need to know music at all to appreciate the simple fact that there's a guy there, playing a violin that's throwing out a whole bucket of sound; at times, Bell's bowing is so intricate that you seem to be hearing two instruments playing in harmony. So those head-forward, quick-stepping passersby are a remarkable phenomenon.

Bell wonders whether their inattention may be deliberate: If you don't take visible note of the musician, you don't have to feel guilty about not forking over money; you're not complicit in a rip-off.

It may be true, but no one gave that explanation. People just said they were busy, had other things on their mind. Some who were on cellphones spoke louder as they passed Bell, to compete with that infernal racket.

And then there was Calvin Myint. Myint works for the General Services Administration. He got to the top of the escalator, turned right and headed out a door to the street. A few hours later, he had no memory that there had been a musician anywhere in sight.

"Where was he, in relation to me?"

"About four feet away."


There's nothing wrong with Myint's hearing. He had buds in his ear. He was listening to his iPod.

For many of us, the explosion in technology has perversely limited, not expanded, our exposure to new experiences. Increasingly, we get our news from sources that think as we already do. And with iPods, we hear what we already know; we program our own playlists.

The song that Calvin Myint was listening to was "Just Like Heaven," by the British rock band The Cure. It's a terrific song, actually. The meaning is a little opaque, and the Web is filled with earnest efforts to deconstruct it. Many are far-fetched, but some are right on point: It's about a tragic emotional disconnect. A man has found the woman of his dreams but can't express the depth of his feeling for her until she's gone. It's about failing to see the beauty of what's plainly in front of your eyes.

"YES, I SAW THE VIOLINIST," Jackie Hessian says, "but nothing about him struck me as much of anything."

You couldn't tell that by watching her. Hessian was one of those people who gave Bell a long, hard look before walking on. It turns out that she wasn't noticing the music at all.

"I really didn't hear that much," she said. "I was just trying to figure out what he was doing there, how does this work for him, can he make much money, would it be better to start with some money in the case, or for it to be empty, so people feel sorry for you? I was analyzing it financially."

What do you do, Jackie?

"I'm a lawyer in labor relations with the United States Postal Service. I just negotiated a national contract."

THE BEST SEATS IN THE HOUSE WERE UPHOLSTERED. In the balcony, more or less. On that day, for $5, you'd get a lot more than just a nice shine on your shoes.

Only one person occupied one of those seats when Bell played. Terence Holmes is a consultant for the Department of Transportation, and he liked the music just fine, but it was really about a shoeshine: "My father told me never to wear a suit with your shoes not cleaned and shined."

Holmes wears suits often, so he is up in that perch a lot, and he's got a good relationship with the shoeshine lady. Holmes is a good tipper and a good talker, which is a skill that came in handy that day. The shoeshine lady was upset about something, and the music got her more upset. She complained, Holmes said, that the music was too loud, and he tried to calm her down.

Edna Souza is from Brazil. She's been shining shoes at L'Enfant Plaza for six years, and she's had her fill of street musicians there; when they play, she can't hear her customers, and that's bad for business. So she fights.

Souza points to the dividing line between the Metro property, at the top of the escalator, and the arcade, which is under control of the management company that runs the mall. Sometimes, Souza says, a musician will stand on the Metro side, sometimes on the mall side. Either way, she's got him. On her speed dial, she has phone numbers for both the mall cops and the Metro cops. The musicians seldom last long.

What about Joshua Bell?

He was too loud, too, Souza says. Then she looks down at her rag, sniffs. She hates to say anything positive about these damned musicians, but: "He was pretty good, that guy. It was the first time I didn't call the police."

Souza was surprised to learn he was a famous musician, but not that people rushed blindly by him. That, she said, was predictable. "If something like this happened in Brazil, everyone would stand around to see. Not here."

Souza nods sourly toward a spot near the top of the escalator: "Couple of years ago, a homeless guy died right there. He just lay down there and died. The police came, an ambulance came, and no one even stopped to see or slowed down to look.

"People walk up the escalator, they look straight ahead. Mind your own business, eyes forward. Everyone is stressed. Do you know what I mean?"

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

-- from "Leisure," by W.H. Davies

Let's say Kant is right. Let's accept that we can't look at what happened on January 12 and make any judgment whatever about people's sophistication or their ability to appreciate beauty. But what about their ability to appreciate life?

We're busy. Americans have been busy, as a people, since at least 1831, when a young French sociologist named Alexis de Tocqueville visited the States and found himself impressed, bemused and slightly dismayed at the degree to which people were driven, to the exclusion of everything else, by hard work and the accumulation of wealth.

Not much has changed. Pop in a DVD of "Koyaanisqatsi," the wordless, darkly brilliant, avant-garde 1982 film about the frenetic speed of modern life. Backed by the minimalist music of Philip Glass, director Godfrey Reggio takes film clips of Americans going about their daily business, but speeds them up until they resemble assembly-line machines, robots marching lockstep to nowhere. Now look at the video from L'Enfant Plaza, in fast-forward. The Philip Glass soundtrack fits it perfectly.

"Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi word. It means "life out of balance."

In his 2003 book, Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life, British author John Lane writes about the loss of the appreciation for beauty in the modern world. The experiment at L'Enfant Plaza may be symptomatic of that, he said -- not because people didn't have the capacity to understand beauty, but because it was irrelevant to them.

"This is about having the wrong priorities," Lane said.

If we can't take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that -- then what else are we missing?

That's what the Welsh poet W.H. Davies meant in 1911 when he published those two lines that begin this section. They made him famous. The thought was simple, even primitive, but somehow no one had put it quite that way before.

Of course, Davies had an advantage -- an advantage of perception. He wasn't a tradesman or a laborer or a bureaucrat or a consultant or a policy analyst or a labor lawyer or a program manager. He was a hobo.

THE CULTURAL HERO OF THE DAY ARRIVED AT L'ENFANT PLAZA PRETTY LATE, in the unprepossessing figure of one John Picarello, a smallish man with a baldish head.

Picarello hit the top of the escalator just after Bell began his final piece, a reprise of "Chaconne." In the video, you see Picarello stop dead in his tracks, locate the source of the music, and then retreat to the other end of the arcade. He takes up a position past the shoeshine stand, across from that lottery line, and he will not budge for the next nine minutes.

Like all the passersby interviewed for this article, Picarello was stopped by a reporter after he left the building, and was asked for his phone number. Like everyone, he was told only that this was to be an article about commuting. When he was called later in the day, like everyone else, he was first asked if anything unusual had happened to him on his trip into work. Of the more than 40 people contacted, Picarello was the only one who immediately mentioned the violinist.

"There was a musician playing at the top of the escalator at L'Enfant Plaza."

Haven't you seen musicians there before?

"Not like this one."

What do you mean?

"This was a superb violinist. I've never heard anyone of that caliber. He was technically proficient, with very good phrasing. He had a good fiddle, too, with a big, lush sound. I walked a distance away, to hear him. I didn't want to be intrusive on his space."


"Really. It was that kind of experience. It was a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day."

Picarello knows classical music. He is a fan of Joshua Bell but didn't recognize him; he hadn't seen a recent photo, and besides, for most of the time Picarello was pretty far away. But he knew this was not a run-of-the-mill guy out there, performing. On the video, you can see Picarello look around him now and then, almost bewildered.

"Yeah, other people just were not getting it. It just wasn't registering. That was baffling to me."

When Picarello was growing up in New York, he studied violin seriously, intending to be a concert musician. But he gave it up at 18, when he decided he'd never be good enough to make it pay. Life does that to you sometimes. Sometimes, you have to do the prudent thing. So he went into another line of work. He's a supervisor at the U.S. Postal Service. Doesn't play the violin much, anymore.

When he left, Picarello says, "I humbly threw in $5." It was humble: You can actually see that on the video. Picarello walks up, barely looking at Bell, and tosses in the money. Then, as if embarrassed, he quickly walks away from the man he once wanted to be.

Does he have regrets about how things worked out?

The postal supervisor considers this.

"No. If you love something but choose not to do it professionally, it's not a waste. Because, you know, you still have it. You have it forever."

BELL THINKS HE DID HIS BEST WORK OF THE DAY IN THOSE FINAL FEW MINUTES, in the second "Chaconne." And that also was the first time more than one person at a time was listening. As Picarello stood in the back, Janice Olu arrived and took up a position a few feet away from Bell. Olu, a public trust officer with HUD, also played the violin as a kid. She didn't know the name of the piece she was hearing, but she knew the man playing it has a gift.

Olu was on a coffee break and stayed as long as she dared. As she turned to go, she whispered to the stranger next to her, "I really don't want to leave." The stranger standing next to her happened to be working for The Washington Post.

In preparing for this event, editors at The Post Magazine discussed how to deal with likely outcomes. The most widely held assumption was that there could well be a problem with crowd control: In a demographic as sophisticated as Washington, the thinking went, several people would surely recognize Bell. Nervous "what-if" scenarios abounded. As people gathered, what if others stopped just to see what the attraction was? Word would spread through the crowd. Cameras would flash. More people flock to the scene; rush-hour pedestrian traffic backs up; tempers flare; the National Guard is called; tear gas, rubber bullets, etc.

As it happens, exactly one person recognized Bell, and she didn't arrive until near the very end. For Stacy Furukawa, a demographer at the Commerce Department, there was no doubt. She doesn't know much about classical music, but she had been in the audience three weeks earlier, at Bell's free concert at the Library of Congress. And here he was, the international virtuoso, sawing away, begging for money. She had no idea what the heck was going on, but whatever it was, she wasn't about to miss it.

Furukawa positioned herself 10 feet away from Bell, front row, center. She had a huge grin on her face. The grin, and Furukawa, remained planted in that spot until the end.

"It was the most astonishing thing I've ever seen in Washington," Furukawa says. "Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn't do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?"

When it was over, Furukawa introduced herself to Bell, and tossed in a twenty. Not counting that -- it was tainted by recognition -- the final haul for his 43 minutes of playing was $32.17. Yes, some people gave pennies.

"Actually," Bell said with a laugh, "that's not so bad, considering. That's 40 bucks an hour. I could make an okay living doing this, and I wouldn't have to pay an agent."

These days, at L'Enfant Plaza, lotto ticket sales remain brisk. Musicians still show up from time to time, and they still tick off Edna Souza. Joshua Bell's latest album, "The Voice of the Violin," has received the usual critical acclaim. ("Delicate urgency." "Masterful intimacy." "Unfailingly exquisite." "A musical summit." ". . . will make your heart thump and weep at the same time.")

Bell headed off on a concert tour of European capitals. But he is back in the States this week. He has to be. On Tuesday, he will be accepting the Avery Fisher prize, recognizing the Flop of L'Enfant Plaza as the best classical musician in America.

Emily Shroder, Rachel Manteuffel, John W. Poole and Magazine Editor Tom Shroder contributed to this report. Gene Weingarten, a Magazine staff writer, can be reached at He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

How Much Land Does a Man Need? Leo Tolstoy


An elder sister came to visit her younger sister in the country.
The elder was married to a tradesman in town, the younger to a
peasant in the village. As the sisters sat over their tea talking,
the elder began to boast of the advantages of town life: saying how
comfortably they lived there, how well they dressed, what fine
clothes her children wore, what good things they ate and drank, and
how she went to the theatre, promenades, and entertainments.

The younger sister was piqued, and in turn disparaged the life of a
tradesman, and stood up for that of a peasant.

"I would not change my way of life for yours," said she. "We may
live roughly, but at least we are free from anxiety. You live in
better style than we do, but though you often earn more than you
need, you are very likely to lose all you have. You know the proverb,
'Loss and gain are brothers twain.' It often happens that people who
are wealthy one day are begging their bread the next. Our way is
safer. Though a peasant's life is not a fat one, it is a long one.
We shall never grow rich, but we shall always have enough to eat."

The elder sister said sneeringly:

"Enough? Yes, if you like to share with the pigs and the calves!
What do you know of elegance or manners! However much your good man
may slave, you will die as you are living-on a dung heap-and your
children the same."

"Well, what of that?" replied the younger. "Of course our work is
rough and coarse. But, on the other hand, it is sure; and we need
not bow to any one. But you, in your towns, are surrounded by
temptations; today all may be right, but tomorrow the Evil One may
tempt your husband with cards, wine, or women, and all will go to
ruin. Don't such things happen often enough?"

Pahom, the master of the house, was lying on the top of the oven,
and he listened to the women's chatter.

"It is perfectly true," thought he. "Busy as we are from childhood
tilling Mother Earth, we peasants have no time to let any nonsense
settle in our heads. Our only trouble is that we haven't land
enough. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn't fear the Devil himself!"

The women finished their tea, chatted a while about dress, and then
cleared away the tea-things and lay down to sleep.

But the Devil had been sitting behind the oven, and had heard all
that was said. He was pleased that the peasant's wife had led her
husband into boasting, and that he had said that if he had plenty of
land he would not fear the Devil himself.

"All right," thought the Devil. "We will have a tussle. I'll give you
land enough; and by means of that land I will get you into my power."


Close to the village there lived a lady, a small landowner, who had
an estate of about three hundred acres. She had always lived on
good terms with the peasants, until she engaged as her steward an
old soldier, who took to burdening the people with fines. However
careful Pahom tried to be, it happened again and again that now a
horse of his got among the lady's oats, now a cow strayed into her
garden, now his calves found their way into her meadows-and he
always had to pay a fine.

Pahom paid, but grumbled, and, going home in a temper, was rough
with his family. All through that summer Pahom had much trouble
because of this steward; and he was even glad when winter came and
the cattle had to be stabled. Though he grudged the fodder when
they could no longer graze on the pasture-land, at least he was free
from anxiety about them.

In the winter the news got about that the lady was going to sell her
land, and that the keeper of the inn on the high road was bargaining
for it. When the peasants heard this they were very much alarmed.

"Well," thought they, "if the innkeeper gets the land he will worry us
with fines worse than the lady's steward. We all depend on that estate."

So the peasants went on behalf of their Commune, and asked the lady
not to sell the land to the innkeeper; offering her a better price
for it themselves. The lady agreed to let them have it. Then the
peasants tried to arrange for the Commune to buy the whole estate,
so that it might be held by all in common. They met twice to
discuss it, but could not settle the matter; the Evil One sowed
discord among them, and they could not agree. So they decided to
buy the land individually, each according to his means; and the lady
agreed to this plan as she had to the other.

Presently Pahom heard that a neighbor of his was buying fifty acres,
and that the lady had consented to accept one half in cash and to
wait a year for the other half. Pahom felt envious.

"Look at that," thought he, "the land is all being sold, and I shall
get none of it." So he spoke to his wife.

"Other people are buying," said he, "and we must also buy twenty
acres or so. Life is becoming impossible. That steward is simply
crushing us with his fines."

So they put their heads together and considered how they could
manage to buy it. They had one hundred roubles laid by. They sold
a colt, and one half of their bees; hired out one of their sons as a
laborer, and took his wages in advance; borrowed the rest from a
brother-in-law, and so scraped together half the purchase money.

Having done this, Pahom chose out a farm of forty acres, some of it
wooded, and went to the lady to bargain for it. They came to an
agreement, and he shook hands with her upon it, and paid her a
deposit in advance. Then they went to town and signed the deeds; he
paying half the price down, and undertaking to pay the remainder
within two years.

So now Pahom had land of his own. He borrowed seed, and sowed it on
the land he had bought. The harvest was a good one, and within a
year he had managed to pay off his debts both to the lady and to his
brother-in-law. So he became a landowner, ploughing and sowing his
own land, making hay on his own land, cutting his own trees, and
feeding his cattle on his own pasture. When he went out to plough
his fields, or to look at his growing corn, or at his grass meadows,
his heart would fill with joy. The grass that grew and the flowers
that bloomed there, seemed to him unlike any that grew elsewhere.
Formerly, when he had passed by that land, it had appeared the same
as any other land, but now it seemed quite different.


So Pahom was well contented, and everything would have been right if
the neighboring peasants would only not have trespassed on his corn-
fields and meadows. He appealed to them most civilly, but they
still went on: now the Communal herdsmen would let the village cows
stray into his meadows; then horses from the night pasture would get
among his corn. Pahom turned them out again and again, and forgave
their owners, and for a long time he forbore from prosecuting any
one. But at last he lost patience and complained to the District
Court. He knew it was the peasants' want of land, and no evil
intent on their part, that caused the trouble; but he thought:

"I cannot go on overlooking it, or they will destroy all I have.
They must be taught a lesson."

So he had them up, gave them one lesson, and then another, and two
or three of the peasants were fined. After a time Pahom's
neighbours began to bear him a grudge for this, and would now and
then let their cattle on his land on purpose. One peasant even got
into Pahom's wood at night and cut down five young lime trees for
their bark. Pahom passing through the wood one day noticed
something white. He came nearer, and saw the stripped trunks lying
on the ground, and close by stood the stumps, where the tree had
been. Pahom was furious.

"If he had only cut one here and there it would have been bad enough,"
thought Pahom, "but the rascal has actually cut down a whole clump.
If I could only find out who did this, I would pay him out."

He racked his brains as to who it could be. Finally he decided: "It
must be Simon-no one else could have done it." Se he went to
Simon's homestead to have a look around, but he found nothing, and
only had an angry scene. However' he now felt more certain than
ever that Simon had done it, and he lodged a complaint. Simon was
summoned. The case was tried, and re-tried, and at the end of it
all Simon was acquitted, there being no evidence against him. Pahom
felt still more aggrieved, and let his anger loose upon the Elder
and the Judges.

"You let thieves grease your palms," said he. "If you were honest
folk yourselves, you would not let a thief go free."

So Pahom quarrelled with the Judges and with his neighbors. Threats
to burn his building began to be uttered. So though Pahom had more
land, his place in the Commune was much worse than before.

About this time a rumor got about that many people were moving to
new parts.

"There's no need for me to leave my land," thought Pahom. "But some
of the others might leave our village, and then there would be more
room for us. I would take over their land myself, and make my
estate a bit bigger. I could then live more at ease. As it is, I
am still too cramped to be comfortable."

One day Pahom was sitting at home, when a peasant passing through
the village, happened to call in. He was allowed to stay the night,
and supper was given him. Pahom had a talk with this peasant and
asked him where he came from. The stranger answered that he came
from beyond the Volga, where he had been working. One word led to
another, and the man went on to say that many people were settling
in those parts. He told how some people from his village had
settled there. They had joined the Commune, and had had twenty-five
acres per man granted them. The land was so good, he said, that the
rye sown on it grew as high as a horse, and so thick that five cuts
of a sickle made a sheaf. One peasant, he said, had brought nothing
with him but his bare hands, and now he had six horses and two cows
of his own.

Pahom's heart kindled with desire. He thought:

"Why should I suffer in this narrow hole, if one can live so well
elsewhere? I will sell my land and my homestead here, and with the
money I will start afresh over there and get everything new. In
this crowded place one is always having trouble. But I must first
go and find out all about it myself."

Towards summer he got ready and started. He went down the Volga on
a steamer to Samara, then walked another three hundred miles on
foot, and at last reached the place. It was just as the stranger
had said. The peasants had plenty of land: every man had twenty-
five acres of Communal land given him for his use, and any one who
had money could buy, besides, at fifty-cents an acre as much good
freehold land as he wanted.

Having found out all he wished to know, Pahom returned home as
autumn came on, and began selling off his belongings. He sold his
land at a profit, sold his homestead and all his cattle, and
withdrew from membership of the Commune. He only waited till the
spring, and then started with his family for the new settlement.


As soon as Pahom and his family arrived at their new abode, he
applied for admission into the Commune of a large village. He stood
treat to the Elders, and obtained the necessary documents. Five
shares of Communal land were given him for his own and his sons'
use: that is to say--125 acres (not altogether, but in different
fields) besides the use of the Communal pasture. Pahom put up the
buildings he needed, and bought cattle. Of the Communal land alone
he had three times as much as at his former home, and the land was
good corn-land. He was ten times better off than he had been. He
had plenty of arable land and pasturage, and could keep as many head
of cattle as he liked.

At first, in the bustle of building and settling down, Pahom was
pleased with it all, but when he got used to it he began to think
that even here he had not enough land. The first year, he sowed
wheat on his share of the Communal land, and had a good crop. He
wanted to go on sowing wheat, but had not enough Communal land for
the purpose, and what he had already used was not available; for in
those parts wheat is only sown on virgin soil or on fallow land. It
is sown for one or two years, and then the land lies fallow till it
is again overgrown with prairie grass. There were many who wanted
such land, and there was not enough for all; so that people
quarrelled about it. Those who were better off, wanted it for
growing wheat, and those who were poor, wanted it to let to dealers,
so that they might raise money to pay their taxes. Pahom wanted to
sow more wheat; so he rented land from a dealer for a year. He
sowed much wheat and had a fine crop, but the land was too far from
the village--the wheat had to be carted more than ten miles. After
a time Pahom noticed that some peasant-dealers were living on
separate farms, and were growing wealthy; and he thought:

"If I were to buy some freehold land, and have a homestead on it, it
would be a different thing, altogether. Then it would all be nice
and compact."

The question of buying freehold land recurred to him again and again.

He went on in the same way for three years; renting land and sowing
wheat. The seasons turned out well and the crops were good, so that
he began to lay money by. He might have gone on living contentedly,
but he grew tired of having to rent other people's land every year,
and having to scramble for it. Wherever there was good land to be
had, the peasants would rush for it and it was taken up at once, so
that unless you were sharp about it you got none. It happened in
the third year that he and a dealer together rented a piece of
pasture land from some peasants; and they had already ploughed it
up, when there was some dispute, and the peasants went to law about
it, and things fell out so that the labor was all lost.
"If it were my own land," thought Pahom, "I should be independent,
and there would not be all this unpleasantness."

So Pahom began looking out for land which he could buy; and he came
across a peasant who had bought thirteen hundred acres, but having
got into difficulties was willing to sell again cheap. Pahom
bargained and haggled with him, and at last they settled the price
at 1,500 roubles, part in cash and part to be paid later. They had
all but clinched the matter, when a passing dealer happened to stop
at Pahom's one day to get a feed for his horse. He drank tea with
Pahom, and they had a talk. The dealer said that he was just
returning from the land of the Bashkirs, far away, where he had
bought thirteen thousand acres of land all for 1,000 roubles. Pahom
questioned him further, and the tradesman said:

"All one need do is to make friends with the chiefs. I gave away
about one hundred roubles' worth of dressing-gowns and carpets,
besides a case of tea, and I gave wine to those who would drink it;
and I got the land for less than two cents an acre. And he showed
Pahom the title-deeds, saying:

"The land lies near a river, and the whole prairie is virgin soil."

Pahom plied him with questions, and the tradesman said:

"There is more land there than you could cover if you walked a year,
and it all belongs to the Bashkirs. They are as simple as sheep,
and land can be got almost for nothing."

"There now," thought Pahom, "with my one thousand roubles, why
should I get only thirteen hundred acres, and saddle myself with a
debt besides. If I take it out there, I can get more than ten times
as much for the money."


Pahom inquired how to get to the place, and as soon as the tradesman
had left him, he prepared to go there himself. He left his wife to
look after the homestead, and started on his journey taking his man
with him. They stopped at a town on their way, and bought a case of
tea, some wine, and other presents, as the tradesman had advised.
On and on they went until they had gone more than three hundred
miles, and on the seventh day they came to a place where the
Bashkirs had pitched their tents. It was all just as the tradesman
had said. The people lived on the steppes, by a river, in felt-
covered tents. They neither tilled the ground, nor ate bread.
Their cattle and horses grazed in herds on the steppe. The colts
were tethered behind the tents, and the mares were driven to them
twice a day. The mares were milked, and from the milk kumiss was
made. It was the women who prepared kumiss, and they also made
cheese. As far as the men were concerned, drinking kumiss and tea,
eating mutton, and playing on their pipes, was all they cared about.
They were all stout and merry, and all the summer long they never
thought of doing any work. They were quite ignorant, and knew no
Russian, but were good-natured enough.

As soon as they saw Pahom, they came out of their tents and gathered
round their visitor. An interpreter was found, and Pahom told them
he had come about some land. The Bashkirs seemed very glad; they
took Pahom and led him into one of the best tents, where they made
him sit on some down cushions placed on a carpet, while they sat
round him. They gave him tea and kumiss, and had a sheep killed,
and gave him mutton to eat. Pahom took presents out of his cart and
distributed them among the Bashkirs, and divided amongst them the
tea. The Bashkirs were delighted. They talked a great deal among
themselves, and then told the interpreter to translate.

"They wish to tell you," said the interpreter, "that they like you,
and that it is our custom to do all we can to please a guest and to
repay him for his gifts. You have given us presents, now tell us
which of the things we possess please you best, that we may present
them to you."

"What pleases me best here," answered Pahom, "is your land. Our
land is crowded, and the soil is exhausted; but you have plenty of
land and it is good land. I never saw the like of it."

The interpreter translated. The Bashkirs talked among themselves
for a while. Pahom could not understand what they were saying, but
saw that they were much amused, and that they shouted and laughed.
Then they were silent and looked at Pahom while the interpreter said:

"They wish me to tell you that in return for your presents they will
gladly give you as much land as you want. You have only to point it
out with your hand and it is yours."

The Bashkirs talked again for a while and began to dispute. Pahom
asked what they were disputing about, and the interpreter told him
that some of them thought they ought to ask their Chief about the
land and not act in his absence, while others thought there was no
need to wait for his return.


While the Bashkirs were disputing, a man in a large fox-fur cap
appeared on the scene. They all became silent and rose to their
feet. The interpreter said, "This is our Chief himself."

Pahom immediately fetched the best dressing-gown and five pounds of
tea, and offered these to the Chief. The Chief accepted them, and
seated himself in the place of honour. The Bashkirs at once began
telling him something. The Chief listened for a while, then made a
sign with his head for them to be silent, and addressing himself to
Pahom, said in Russian:

"Well, let it be so. Choose whatever piece of land you like; we
have plenty of it."

"How can I take as much as I like?" thought Pahom. "I must get a
deed to make it secure, or else they may say, 'It is yours,' and
afterwards may take it away again."

"Thank you for your kind words," he said aloud. "You have much
land, and I only want a little. But I should like to be sure which
bit is mine. Could it not be measured and made over to me? Life and
death are in God's hands. You good people give it to me, but your
children might wish to take it away again."

"You are quite right," said the Chief. "We will make it over to you."

"I heard that a dealer had been here," continued Pahom, "and that
you gave him a little land, too, and signed title-deeds to that
effect. I should like to have it done in the same way."

The Chief understood.

"Yes," replied he, "that can be done quite easily. We have a scribe,
and we will go to town with you and have the deed properly sealed."

"And what will be the price?" asked Pahom.

"Our price is always the same: one thousand roubles a day."

Pahom did not understand.

"A day? What measure is that? How many acres would that be?"

"We do not know how to reckon it out," said the Chief. "We sell it
by the day. As much as you can go round on your feet in a day is
yours, and the price is one thousand roubles a day."

Pahom was surprised.

"But in a day you can get round a large tract of land," he said.

The Chief laughed.

"It will all be yours!" said he. "But there is one condition: If
you don't return on the same day to the spot whence you started,
your money is lost."

"But how am I to mark the way that I have gone?"

"Why, we shall go to any spot you like, and stay there. You must
start from that spot and make your round, taking a spade with you.
Wherever you think necessary, make a mark. At every turning, dig a
hole and pile up the turf; then afterwards we will go round with a
plough from hole to hole. You may make as large a circuit as you
please, but before the sun sets you must return to the place you
started from. All the land you cover will be yours."

Pahom was delighted. It-was decided to start early next morning.
They talked a while, and after drinking some more kumiss and eating
some more mutton, they had tea again, and then the night came on.
They gave Pahom a feather-bed to sleep on, and the Bashkirs
dispersed for the night, promising to assemble the next morning at
daybreak and ride out before sunrise to the appointed spot.


Pahom lay on the feather-bed, but could not sleep. He kept thinking
about the land.

"What a large tract I will mark off!" thought he. "I can easily go
thirty-five miles in a day. The days are long now, and within a
circuit of thirty-five miles what a lot of land there will be! I
will sell the poorer land, or let it to peasants, but I'll pick out
the best and farm it. I will buy two ox-teams, and hire two more
laborers. About a hundred and fifty acres shall be plough-land, and
I will pasture cattle on the rest."

Pahom lay awake all night, and dozed off only just before dawn.
Hardly were his eyes closed when he had a dream. He thought he was
lying in that same tent, and heard somebody chuckling outside. He
wondered who it could be, and rose and went out, and he saw the
Bashkir Chief sitting in front of the tent holding his side and
rolling about with laughter. Going nearer to the Chief, Pahom
asked: "What are you laughing at?" But he saw that it was no longer
the Chief, but the dealer who had recently stopped at his house and
had told him about the land. Just as Pahom was going to ask, "Have
you been here long?" he saw that it was not the dealer, but the
peasant who had come up from the Volga, long ago, to Pahom's old
home. Then he saw that it was not the peasant either, but the Devil
himself with hoofs and horns, sitting there and chuckling, and
before him lay a man barefoot, prostrate on the ground, with only
trousers and a shirt on. And Pahom dreamt that he looked more
attentively to see what sort of a man it was lying there, and he saw
that the man was dead, and that it was himself! He awoke horror-struck.

"What things one does dream," thought he.

Looking round he saw through the open door that the dawn was breaking.

"It's time to wake them up," thought he. "We ought to be starting."

He got up, roused his man (who was sleeping in his cart), bade him
harness; and went to call the Bashkirs.

"It's time to go to the steppe to measure the land," he said.

The Bashkirs rose and assembled, and the Chief came, too. Then they
began drinking kumiss again, and offered Pahom some tea, but he
would not wait.

"If we are to go, let us go. It is high time," said he.


The Bashkirs got ready and they all started: some mounted on horses,
and some in carts. Pahom drove in his own small cart with his
servant, and took a spade with him. When they reached the steppe,
the morning red was beginning to kindle. They ascended a hillock
(called by the Bashkirs a shikhan) and dismounting from their carts
and their horses, gathered in one spot. The Chief came up to Pahom
and stretched out his arm towards the plain:

"See," said he, "all this, as far as your eye can reach, is ours.
You may have any part of it you like."

Pahom's eyes glistened: it was all virgin soil, as flat as the palm
of your hand, as black as the seed of a poppy, and in the hollows
different kinds of grasses grew breast high.

The Chief took off his fox-fur cap, placed it on the ground and said:

"This will be the mark. Start from here, and return here again.
All the land you go round shall be yours."

Pahom took out his money and put it on the cap. Then he took off
his outer coat, remaining in his sleeveless under coat. He
unfastened his girdle and tied it tight below his stomach, put a
little bag of bread into the breast of his coat, and tying a flask
of water to his girdle, he drew up the tops of his boots, took the
spade from his man, and stood ready to start. He considered for
some moments which way he had better go--it was tempting everywhere.

"No matter," he concluded, "I will go towards the rising sun."

He turned his face to the east, stretched himself, and waited for
the sun to appear above the rim.

"I must lose no time," he thought, "and it is easier walking while
it is still cool."

The sun's rays had hardly flashed above the horizon, before Pahom,
carrying the spade over his shoulder, went down into the steppe.

Pahom started walking neither slowly nor quickly. After having gone
a thousand yards he stopped, dug a hole and placed pieces of turf
one on another to make it more visible. Then he went on; and now
that he had walked off his stiffness he quickened his pace. After a
while he dug another hole.

Pahom looked back. The hillock could be distinctly seen in the
sunlight, with the people on it, and the glittering tires of the
cartwheels. At a rough guess Pahom concluded that he had walked
three miles. It was growing warmer; he took off his under-coat,
flung it across his shoulder, and went on again. It had grown quite
warm now; he looked at the sun, it was time to think of breakfast.

"The first shift is done, but there are four in a day, and it is too
soon yet to turn. But I will just take off my boots," said he to himself.

He sat down, took off his boots, stuck them into his girdle, and went on.
It was easy walking now.

"I will go on for another three miles," thought he, "and then turn
to the left. The spot is so fine, that it would be a pity to lose
it. The further one goes, the better the land seems."

He went straight on a for a while, and when he looked round, the
hillock was scarcely visible and the people on it looked like black
ants, and he could just see something glistening there in the sun.

"Ah," thought Pahom, "I have gone far enough in this direction, it
is time to turn. Besides I am in a regular sweat, and very thirsty."

He stopped, dug a large hole, and heaped up pieces of turf. Next he
untied his flask, had a drink, and then turned sharply to the left.
He went on and on; the grass was high, and it was very hot.

Pahom began to grow tired: he looked at the sun and saw that it was noon.

"Well," he thought, "I must have a rest."

He sat down, and ate some bread and drank some water; but he did not
lie down, thinking that if he did he might fall asleep. After
sitting a little while, he went on again. At first he walked
easily: the food had strengthened him; but it had become terribly
hot, and he felt sleepy; still he went on, thinking: "An hour to
suffer, a life-time to live."

He went a long way in this direction also, and was about to turn to
the left again, when he perceived a damp hollow: "It would be a pity
to leave that out," he thought. "Flax would do well there." So he
went on past the hollow, and dug a hole on the other side of it
before he turned the corner. Pahom looked towards the hillock. The
heat made the air hazy: it seemed to be quivering, and through the
haze the people on the hillock could scarcely be seen.

"Ah!" thought Pahom, "I have made the sides too long; I must make
this one shorter." And he went along the third side, stepping
faster. He looked at the sun: it was nearly half way to the
horizon, and he had not yet done two miles of the third side of the
square. He was still ten miles from the goal.

"No," he thought, "though it will make my land lopsided, I must
hurry back in a straight line now. I might go too far, and as it is
I have a great deal of land."

So Pahom hurriedly dug a hole, and turned straight towards the hillock.


Pahom went straight towards the hillock, but he now walked with
difficulty. He was done up with the heat, his bare feet were cut
and bruised, and his legs began to fail. He longed to rest, but it
was impossible if he meant to get back before sunset. The sun waits
for no man, and it was sinking lower and lower.

"Oh dear," he thought, "if only I have not blundered trying for too
much! What if I am too late?"

He looked towards the hillock and at the sun. He was still far from
his goal, and the sun was already near the rim. Pahom walked on and
on; it was very hard walking, but he went quicker and quicker. He
pressed on, but was still far from the place. He began running,
threw away his coat, his boots, his flask, and his cap, and kept
only the spade which he used as a support.

"What shall I do," he thought again, "I have grasped too much, and
ruined the whole affair. I can't get there before the sun sets."

And this fear made him still more breathless. Pahom went on
running, his soaking shirt and trousers stuck to him, and his mouth
was parched. His breast was working like a blacksmith's bellows,
his heart was beating like a hammer, and his legs were giving way as
if they did not belong to him. Pahom was seized with terror lest he
should die of the strain.

Though afraid of death, he could not stop. "After having run all
that way they will call me a fool if I stop now," thought he. And
he ran on and on, and drew near and heard the Bashkirs yelling and
shouting to him, and their cries inflamed his heart still more. He
gathered his last strength and ran on.

The sun was close to the rim, and cloaked in mist looked large, and
red as blood. Now, yes now, it was about to set! The sun was quite
low, but he was also quite near his aim. Pahom could already see
the people on the hillock waving their arms to hurry him up. He
could see the fox-fur cap on the ground, and the money on it, and
the Chief sitting on the ground holding his sides. And Pahom
remembered his dream.

"There is plenty of land," thought he, "but will God let me live on
it? I have lost my life, I have lost my life! I shall never reach
that spot!"

Pahom looked at the sun, which had reached the earth: one side of it
had already disappeared. With all his remaining strength he rushed
on, bending his body forward so that his legs could hardly follow
fast enough to keep him from falling. Just as he reached the
hillock it suddenly grew dark. He looked up--the sun had already
set. He gave a cry: "All my labor has been in vain," thought he,
and was about to stop, but he heard the Bashkirs still shouting, and
remembered that though to him, from below, the sun seemed to have
set, they on the hillock could still see it. He took a long breath
and ran up the hillock. It was still light there. He reached the
top and saw the cap. Before it sat the Chief laughing and holding
his sides. Again Pahom remembered his dream, and he uttered a cry:
his legs gave way beneath him, he fell forward and reached the cap
with his hands.

"Ah, what a fine fellow!" exclaimed the Chief. "He has gained
much land!"

Pahom's servant came running up and tried to raise him, but he saw
that blood was flowing from his mouth. Pahom was dead!

The Bashkirs clicked their tongues to show their pity.

His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for
Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to
his heels was all he needed.


1. One hundred kopeks make a rouble. The kopek is worth about
half a cent.

2. A non-intoxicating drink usually made from rye-malt and rye-flour.

3. The brick oven in a Russian peasant's hut is usually built so
as to leave a flat top, large enough to lie on, for those who want
to sleep in a warm place.

4. 120 "desyatins." The "desyatina" is properly 2.7 acres; but in
this story round numbers are used.

5. Three roubles per "desyatina."

6. Five "kopeks" for a "desyatina."

Monday, July 5, 2010

About life

Let me tell you something you already know.

The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. Its a very mean and nasty place, and I don't care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there if you let it be.

Neither you, me or anybody is gonna hit as hard as life, but it ain't about how hard you get hit. Its about how much you can withstand getting hit and keep moving forward.
How much hardships you can take and keep moving forward? That is how winning is done!

If you know what's your worth, go and get what's your worth! But you got to be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain't where you wanna be becoz of him or her or anybody!

Cowards do that,and that ain't you. you are better than that!

from Rocky Balboa

On bullshit

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false . . . . He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purposes.

Harry G. Franfurt , On Bullshit

Comtemplative Prayer - Thomas Merton

In the language of the monastic fathers, all prayers, reading, meditation, and all the activities of the monastic life are aimed at purity of heart, and unconditioned and totally humble surrender to God, a total acceptance of ourselves and of our situation as willed by Him. It means the renunciation of all deluded images of ourselves, all exaggerated estimates of our own capacities, in order to obey God's will as it comes to us.

Thomas Merton's Contemplative Prayer.