Headmaster’s Thoughts: December 2022

As we approach the winter holidays, let me wish all of my readers, few as you may be, a very joyful New Year.
I started writing these thoughts in December 2004. So, this month, to celebrate the beginning of my 19thyear of producing the pieces known as “Headmaster’s Thoughts”, I thought I would leave the essay format and indulge myself in making up a list. I really like lists. Good bibliographies have helped direct me to reading great works that I otherwise might not have read. Recommendations by friends have led me to places that I greatly enjoyed, and also to watch productions that I probably would have missed. I do know that every list is very personal, and, arguably, a self-indulgence on the part of the list maker, but this is a case of hoping that if I share my list with you, that you might share your list with me. I would certainly appreciate that.

I have made myself one rule in writing this list, namely that I would not include something that I had only read, watched, or been to, once. So, such works as War and Peace are off, because, although I marvel at them, I would not go back and read such masterpieces twice.  With this criteria, I have found that the list got easier to write and, hopefully, is more authentic.   Maybe you will be tempted to try one of the items listed. I would certainly be tempted if you sent me your list.
So let us begin:
Literature: This is clearly such a large group that I have sub-divided it.
Favorite Play: Not truly a fair category because of Shakespeare, of whom Goethe observed that the English did not deserve.  So, since I believe that no one comes near the Master, I should add, after my favorite play which is Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, my favorite non-Shakespeare play which is Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Ernest.” Both are comedies. Shakespeare’s is superior (in my opinion only), but Wilde’s is extremely funny, and although I normally do not have a particular hankering to act as a woman, I have always had a secret hankering to play the part of Lady Bracknell (recently played by David Suchet of Poirot fame, and Brian Bedford). It is, again only my opinion, a genderless part.
Favorite Novel Written in English: This is an easy one for me. It is Jane Austen’s Emma. Personal information; my wife, Jayme, was the sister of an Oxford friend and we met as counselors at her parent’s girls’ camp, Tripp Lake. Jayme fixed me up to go out with other women counselors until…our next wedding anniversary is our 55th.  While certainly not set in a girl’s camp, there are parallels to our story in Emma.
Favorite English Language Book: Another easy selection except that they were printed as two books. But I merge the Alice books into one duology. So Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass are probably the “books” I have re-read the most. They can be read on many different levels: at once a children’s book, a philosophical treatise on the use of language, a satirical view of society, and a book of charming fantasy.
Favorite English Short Story: This was the easiest pick of the whole list. P. G. Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth and the Girlfriend seems to me to be the perfect short story. Its charm is wrapped very concisely, without a wasted word. Unquestionably my favorite short story. 
Favorite English Work of Humor: This is also personal because I first read Jerome. K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat when I was about 14. If I ever feel glum, this is the book I return to, knowing that it will always make me laugh.
Favorite English Poet: Obviously William Shakespeare. The Sonnets. Look no further for perfection.
Favorite non-Shakespeare English Poet: Because it is only fair. There is Shakespeare and then everyone else. The “everyone else” category was a tough one for me. I have a very serious favorite, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and a very funny one, namely e.e.cummings (lower case deliberately used). It is almost impossible to compare the two. So I have cheated and divided the category into two: serious and humorous. What joins them together is that they were both ground-breakers for their time.
Favorite English Mystery Writer: Josephine Tey. Her works represent the best of the twentieth century English female mystery authors, and my favorite of hers, by far, is The Daughter of Time in which her detective, Inspector Grant, is hospitalized and starts to look at the history of King Richard III.
Favorite Non-English Novel: Another easy one. Carlos Luis Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, brilliantly translated by Lucia Graves, who, interestingly, is the daughter of the poet, Robert Graves. This is the best example of Spanish magical realism that I know. It can be read again and again, and still give the reader pleasure in its beauty.
Okay, let us move to other genres.
Favorite Movie: Based on pure enjoyment, and the many times of watching it, the top of my list is Young Frankenstein written by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, and directed by Mel Brooks.  The Producers, also directed by Mel Brooks, is a very close second. Zero Mostel’s performance is a joy to watch.
Favorite TV Series: Once again, I have to split this group into outstanding mystery series, and hilarious humorous series. The first is Foyle’s War, written by Anthony Horowitz and starring Michael Kitchen in the eponymous role, and the second is Good Omens, written by Neil Gaiman, and starring David Tenant and Michael Sheen. Personal note, the voice of God is played by Frances McDormand, parent of a student who graduated from York Prep.
Favorite Comedian: Jim Gaffigan is not only very funny, but he is also self-deprecating, and topical. Personal admission; the Gaffigans send three of their children to York Prep.
Favorite Opera: Another easy pick. Madame Butterfly by Puccini. The current Minghella production at the Metropolitan Opera is superb. How fortunate we are that they produce this every year. If you have not seen it, Jayme would tell you that she takes a handkerchief for me every time. You probably should take one too.
Favorite Musical: I have to admit bias here. Stephen Schwartz has been a friend for a long time. I have always loved his Pippin, and I liked the recent revival even more than the original with Ben Vereen. At York, we had Lin Manuel Miranda’s adopted brother from his 6th through his 12th grade, and Lin Manuel came and spoke several times (including at graduation). So Hamilton should get equal billing. I have seen it once on the stage, but several times broadcast on television, so it passes the “not only once” test.  Both musicals are extraordinary but very different. Maybe they, too, should be in different categories like the non-Shakespeare poets.
Favorite Composer: Sir Edward Elgar. At our graduation each year, as a favor to me, the organist at the Christian Science Church plays Elgar’s “Mass”. Daniel Barenboim’s conducting of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra recording of Elgar’s “Nimrod” from his “Enigma Variations”, is a masterful example of control of the gorgeous piece.
And so, on to Places. 
Favorite City: Edinburgh. A beautiful City, with better food than expected, and natives who understand most of what I say.
Favorite Places to Visit: This is very easy for me. The Galapagos Islands. I have been 14 times. Jayme and I took our children every March for six straight years. We both believe that those visits changed their lives. My bias may show because I am on the Board of the Charles Darwin Foundation, which is the NGO charged with the preservation of the fauna and flora of the Galapagos.
Favorite Museum: The Frick. Easy! The intimacy of the Mansion means that a visitor can see all the art presented (if they so wish) in one visit. Not true of most of the famous museums of the world. And Frick personally chose the art. Thus the lack of violence in any of the paintings. To see one man’s vision is rare. To see that vision presented in the magnificence of the Frick Mansion is unique.
Finally, Favorite School: York Prep. Surprised? No!
I look forward to getting your list.
Ronald. P. Stewart
December 2022