The front page of last Friday’s New York Times had a fascinating story headlined “When Climate Talks Stall, She’ll Find the Words.” It was about Sue Biniaz, a veteran attorney for the U.S. State Dept. who is known as “The Closer” for her toughness as a negotiator, her mastery of language, and her brilliance at forging agreements among adversaries.
“Ms. Biniaz is a word fiend who once wrote an academic paper about how punctuation is wielded in climate treaties,” the Times reported. “She is the one negotiator among thousands who is most trusted to find the elusive word or phrase that can allow leaders at loggerheads to agree on a climate deal.”
Her boss, John Kerry, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, said, “She’s the unsung hero.”
I was riveted by that article, staring at the photographs of Biniaz and thinking, “I know this person” — but I had no idea how. It was a strange and disorienting sensation.
Finally, the memory came back to me.
I had met Sue many years ago at a summer chamber music conference at Bennington College. She was an excellent violinist. (I play the viola.) We played string quartets with two friends of hers from Washington, D.C., where she lived.
Almost all the participants at the conference were serious amateur musicians whose everyday careers were in nonmusical professions. Everyone came to immerse themselves in ensemble playing from morning till night and to be coached in groups by professional chamber players. We mostly had no inkling of what others did in their working lives, even as we shared intense and often emotional experiences in our musical sessions.
In one famous Bennington story, Don Cohen, a cellist from Los Angeles, got into an argument with Richard Friedberg, a pianist from New York City, over lunch in the college dining hall. They had conflicting interpretations of some abstruse mathematical theory, and the conversation grew heated.
“Well,” Don said at length, drawing himself up, “Friedberg’s proof of Bell’s inequality shows that I’m right and you’re wrong!”
“But … but …,” Richard sputtered, “I’m Friedberg!”
Indeed, Richard, a superb pianist (and a great composer of limericks, too), also happened to be a world-renowned theoretical physicist at Columbia University.
It’s not unusual, really, for talented artists and musicians to make their livings in other ways. Some great composers had rather ordinary day jobs. Charles Ives was an insurance salesman; his compositions were largely ignored until he won the Pulitzer Prize for music at age 73. Alexander Borodin was an organic chemist, Antonio Vivaldi was a priest, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was an officer in the Russian navy.
I’m grateful that a newspaper can be a way for us to get to know our neighbors better and to be surprised by their hidden talents. Maybe a police chief writes novels, an oysterman restores vintage trucks, a bookkeeper makes art out of discarded maps, or a corporate lawyer has an amazing collection of blues recordings. Small-town stories worth singing about.