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Take Time To Stop And Smell The Gene Weingarten

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Congratulations to everyone who won a Pulitzer yesterday! I mean you no disrespect when I say that everyone seemed especially excited to see the Washington Post's Gene Weingarten win for Feature Writing for the delightful "Pearls Before Breakfast," which has no doubt been a boon to buskers everywhere. For the uninitiated — as I was, just yesterday (thanks, Sheila) — "Pearls Before Breakfast" is about Weingarten and WaPo's experiment in context, beauty, and willingness to ignore the rest of the world for the sake of your Blackberry: Virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell played for 43 minutes in a D.C. metro station, in a ballcap and jeans, an open violin case with a few bucks in it at his feet, and the Post watched to see if anyone noticed. Per Weingarten:

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?

It's a great article. I totally didn't have time to read it. I'm sure you don't, either, so here it is!

If you've already read it, congratulations! I hope you've had a chance to seriously re-evaluate your priorities since then. If you haven't, you can elect instead to watch the video below, but then you'd sort of be missing the point. If you've read and reread it and are craving a denouement, you will find it below in the form of Weingarten's speech in to his colleagues in the WaPo offices. It is fitting.



From Weingarten's speech, per his blog:

"I want to actually begin by thanking not a person but a principle, the principle of journalism that holds that communication between reporter and editor is sacrosanct, as privileged as that between priest and penitent, or doctor and patient. Which means that (managing editor) Phil Bennett can never ethically disclose which line in the story he wrote, which is actually too bad, because it was the best line in the story.

(many thank-yous follow, to Tom the Butcher, who edited the story, and to the people at dotcom, who helped it become global, to former Post classical music critic Tim Page, whose advice helped create the illusion that I know something about classical music, and to Rachel Manteueffel and Emily Shroder (Tom's daughter), who were reporters at the sight and who chased down passersby and persuaded them to cough up their phone numbers. We now pick up the speech again in midsentence...)

"If there is any message I am trying to deliver here at all, and I think it should be obvious by now, it is that I really didn't have anything to do with this story. I mean, I'll accept the award and everything. It does seem to be in my name. Life isn't fair.

"And finally, speaking of the profoundest reason why I don't deserve this award and someone else does: When Josh Bell and I first sat down to discuss this idea, we talked briefly about what might go wrong. I explained that we weren't really equipped to handle crowd control, so conceivably his $3 million Stradivarius might wind up in pieces no larger than a human pinkie toenail. But that was not likely. More likely was that he would suffer the single most humiliating experience in his life, and though he would do his best to ignore it, this rejection would remain in his brain, a little pulsing nugget of self-doubt that would haunt him every day for the rest of his life. It would be there at every performance, until critics began to notice that something indefinable was missing from the great Joshua Bell, and, his self confidence totally eroded, his career would collapse like a souffle in an earthquake, until years later he would find himself at L'Enfant Plaza again, a gin bottle in his pants, with a sign that says "Will Play for Food."

"Josh said, "This sounds like fun. Let's do it."

"Josh Bell is a hugely gifted and gracious and courageous man, and he is the reason I am standing here today. Can we give him, finally, the standing ovation he never got at L'Enfant Plaza?"

A thunderous ovation followed.

Pearls Before Breakfast [WaPo]
LiveChat with Gene Weingarten
[Chatological Humor - WaPo]