Former player Charles Barkley greets fans before a game in Auburn, Ala., in 2017. (Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports)
A Q&A on some favorite subjects
In a recent article, I spoke of “infield practice,” a term adopted by Bill Buckley. He used it to mean the asking and answering of basic questions. “I had a little infield practice with the BBC this morning on American conservatism.” That sort of thing.
Recently, a friend of mine gave me something akin to infield practice. She was hosting a dinner gathering, which was part of a series of such gatherings with various figures. Later, I asked her for a list of her questions. Do you want to go through them along with me?
The first section, she called “If Jay Were King.” I protested that I am a republican, small “r,” all the way. In any event, here are the questions in that section.
What grammatical error would you make vanish?
Well, I’ve noticed something lately — like the last five years. Young people around me say, “If I would have known it was going to be cold, I would have worn a sweater.” “If he would have been there on time, he would have met her.”
How did this creep in? Whatever the case, I would like to see it creep out.
Also, there’s the perennial “between you and I.” In general, people don’t know how to use “I” and “me.” Because of this ignorance, or uncertainty, they fall back (incorrectly) on “myself.” Blech.
Furthermore, there’s this: People say, “This is one of those things that bothers me.” They think the verb goes with the “one.” Actually, it goes with “those things”: “This is one of those things that bother me.”
Buckley was a stickler for this. In my presence — on separation occasions — he corrected two eminent writers on this score! (Both were longtime friends of his, I hasten to add.)
What dictator would you topple?
I would not want to topple one who would just be succeeded by someone equally bad. But — my mind runs to Syria and North Korea. They are the two worst places on earth, almost certainly. The Assads, father and son, have ruled since 1970. The Kims, father, son, and grandson, have ruled since right after World War II.
Bashar has killed so many. He has killed more than his father — no slouch in this department — ever dreamed of. I would give Bashar my vote. Gone.
But it’s hard to vote against Kim (any of them).
To whom would you give the Nobel Peace Prize?
Ah. Good question. (My hostess asked it because I wrote a history of the prize, Peace, They Say.) I would like to give it to a Cuban democracy leader: Dr. Óscar Elías Biscet, say. Or the Ladies in White, collectively.
Speaking of “White”: I would also give the prize to the White Helmets, the Syrian civil-defense group. They try to rescue people from the rubble. They risk life and limb to do so. Naturally, they are subject to the worst Russian, Iranian, and other propaganda. Great and noble people.
Okay, the next section, my hostess titled “Either-Or.”
Mozart or Beethoven?
I’m sorry, I can’t. I just can’t. I hate to be a party pooper — but it’s impossible. I can say this: I think of the composers as a group, a family, if you will. I think of the Founding Fathers the same way. There are partisans where the Founders are concerned: Jeffersonians versus Hamiltonians, for example. I never get into that. I think of them as a group, with each one vital, and I’m grateful for them all.
The same is true of the great composers: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and so on. They belong to one another. They talk to one another. They borrow from one another (or the later ones borrow from the earlier ones). They build on one another. They interlock.
Gun to my head, I’d probably say Bach, for reasons we can get into another time …
The Gershwin brothers or Rodgers & Hammerstein?
Ooh, that is cruel — almost as cruel as the previous question. I’m going to have to duck this one too. Who would want to live without either pair? All those songs that flowed from those guys …
I am sitting here trying to pull the trigger. I am trying and trying. I just can’t. Maybe I can put this another way, leaving songs and lyricists out of it: Gershwin has meant a lot more to me in my life than Rodgers has, much as I love the latter, too.
Lenny or André?
She means Leonard Bernstein or André Previn. I wrote about Bernstein on the occasion of his centennial last year (here). I wrote about Previn after he passed away in February (here). They were a lot alike: Americans who could do it all, musically. They composed (both classical and popular music), they conducted, and they played the piano. They did all of these things at a very high level. Also, they could talk and write like pros. They wrote prose like pros.
André was the better jazz pianist. He also did more of it than Bernstein did. Classical division? Probably a tie, though André may have the edge. Composing? Well, Bernstein wrote West Side Story, case closed. Classical division? Lenny probably has the edge there too (though I should think further about this).
Conducting? They were both great conductors, and different from each other, but you have to give Bernstein the edge, though you really don’t want to do the ranking at all …
Incidentally, I have just been writing about Thomas Adès, the British musician born in 1971. Like Bernstein and Previn, he is a triple threat: composer, conductor, pianist. Gifted son-of-a-gun.
The next section, my hostess called “Favorite Things.”
Well, if I could name a class, it would probably be dissidents, democracy leaders, former political prisoners (and political-prisoners-to-be). They are astonishing. I have interviewed presidents and prime ministers (and kings). Sopranos, golfers, Nobelists. A constant, motley parade. I would have to name the dissidents, the freedom fighters, as a class.
And I would further single out the North Koreans — the defectors, the escapees. Mind-blowing. Also Sharansky.
Favorite freedom fighter?
Ah! We were just on the subject …
Frankly, they are a lot alike: in every clime, in every era, of whatever language, no matter the dictatorship they are fighting. They are a lot alike: gutsy, reckless, principled, absurdly brave — sometimes hard to understand. Sometimes not so likable. Always admirable.
I could not name one or two. But — maybe to say it again — Sharansky was, and, is, something.
For the uninitiated, “WFB” stands for William F. Buckley Jr. He would sometimes say, “Beat that.” He would point out something remarkable, or someone else would, and he would say, “Beat that.”
Also, he once said to me, in reference to one of his spaniels, “Isn’t that the sweetest dog in the history of dogs?” I picked up this formulation. Many years ago, I texted a friend of mine, saying, “I’ve just met the most beautiful girl in the history of girls.” I have sent the same text to him — the identical text — in the ensuing years. My friend will occasionally say, “So, who’s the most beautiful girl in the history of girls? Who’s the incumbent?”
Favorite Mark Helprin book?
There are so many. I think I will nominate … In Sunlight and in Shadow, a blockbuster romance. Enthralling.
Favorite child of a monster?
Several years ago, I wrote a book called “Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators.” I would have to say Svetlana Stalin. I give chapter and verse in my book. She did the best she could to overcome her parentage and upbringing. She was dealt an extraordinary hand — you wouldn’t have wished it on anybody — and she did her best to play it in some reasonable way. Fascinating woman.
Favorite presidential campaign?
Hmmm. Let me name three, please — three presidential years. First, 1860 — Lincoln against those other three. It mattered greatly. Crucially. Second, 1912 — fascinating race: the president (Taft), the ex-president (Theodore Roosevelt), Wilson, and Debs. Third, 1980, mainly because the election left an imprint on me, in my coming of age. (I was 16.)
The last section, Cristina labeled, “Google This.”
Leontyne Price track?
Oh, there are so many. She sang everything from Monteverdi until yesterday. She sang every type of song, in every language, and a huge range of opera roles. I could give you a Handel aria. I could give you a Strauss song. I could give you spirituals.
Well, how about a Puccini aria, from a little-known opera called “Edgar”? Pretty damn good.
Clip from The Simpsons?
Oh! I cherish the Simpsons playing Scrabble. Homer has on his rack before him “OXIDIZE.” He says, “How could anyone make a word out of these lousy letters?” Then he plays “do.” Etc.
Also, I cherish the Simpsons’ outing to the opera: Carmen.
Moment in golf?
Well, let me name a victory: Jack Nicklaus’s triumph in the Masters, 1986. The last time. I watched in my dorm room. That was an amazing, emotional Sunday afternoon. I was almost ridiculously happy. The very next Sunday afternoon, I watched Vladimir Horowitz, in his return to Moscow. Similar sort of thing, frankly. (Triumph over age, for example.)
I don’t think I have ever had another two such Sundays in a row …
Charles Barkley moment?
You ever heard him pick on the women of San Antonio? (Not pick them up, but pick on them.) One of the most delightful long-running gags in America. Even the women of San Antonio — comely, all, no doubt — must smile a bit. (Try here.)
Last year, I wrote a feature called “Death Row Meals.” That was really a stand-in for favorite meals. What would be your last supper, so to speak? The answers, from readers, were very interesting, and even moving (in addition to appetizing).
At our gathering the other night, Cristina asked each guest for his “Death Row meal.” One of the purest answers was “a good French baguette and excellent cheese.” There were more elaborate answers, naturally.
These days, I’ve been hitting Junior’s, the souped-up diner in New York. Hitting it hard (frequently). I get a grilled-cheese sandwich on challah, with cheddar; a side salad; and a bowl of coffee ice cream with hot fudge. On the nights I don’t go — I wish I had.
Thank you, Cristina and Stephen, and thank you one and all. If you’d like to ask me a question — or comment on the above — try me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a great one. See you later.