Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike, 1932-2009

One of the best essays ever written:
John Updike's essay "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" -- inspired by Williams's home run in his last at-bat - was published in the New Yorker magazine Oct. 22, 1960
Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man's Euclidian determinations and Nature's beguiling irregularities. Its right field is one of the deepest in the American League, while its left field is the shortest; the high left-field wall, three hundred and fifteen feet from home plate along the foul line, virtually thrusts its surface at right-handed hitters. On the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 28th, 1960, as I took a seat behind third base, a uniformed groundkeeper was treading the top of this wall, picking batting-practice home runs out of the screen, like a mushroom gatherer seen in Wordsworthian perspective on the verge of a cliff. The day was overcast, chill, and uninspirational. The Boston team was the worst in twenty-seven seasons. A jangling medley of incompetent youth and aging competence, the Red Sox were finishing in seventh place only because the Kansas City Athletics had locked them out of the cellar. They were scheduled to play the Baltimore Orioles, a much nimbler blend of May and December, who had been dumped from pennant contention a week before by the insatiable Yankees. I, and 10,453 others, had shown up primarily because this was the Red Sox's last home game of the season, and therefore the last time in all eternity that their regular left fielder, known to the headlines as "Ted, Kid, Splinter, Thumper, TW, and most cloyingly, MisTer Wonderful," would play in Boston. "What Will We Do Without Ted? Hub Fans Ask?" ran the headline on a newspaper being read by a bulb-nosed cigar smoker a few rows away. Williams' retirement had been announced, doubted (he had been threatening retirement for years), confirmed by Tom Yawkey, the Red Sox owner, and at last widely accepted as the sad but probable truth. He was forty-two and had redeemed his abysmal season of 1959 with a - considering his advanced age - fine one. He had been giving away his gloves and bats and had grudgingly consented to a sentimental ceremony today. This was not necessarily his last game; the Red Sox were scheduled to travel to New York and wind up the season with three games there.
I arrived early. The Orioles were hitting fungos on the field. The day before, they had spitefully smothered the Red Sox, 17-4, and neither their faces nor their drab gray visiting-team uniforms seemed very gracious. I wondered who had invited them to the party. Between our heads and the lowering clouds a frenzied organ was thundering through, with an appositeness perhaps accidental, "You maaaade me love you, I didn't wanna do it, I didn't wanna do it . . ."
The affair between Boston and Ted Williams was no mere summer romance; it was a marriage composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories. It fell into three stages, which may be termed Youth, Maturity, and Age; or Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis; or Jason, Achilles, and Nestor.
First, there was the now legendary epoch when the young bridegroom came out of the West and announced, "All I want out of life is when I walk down the street folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.' " The dowagers of local journalism attempted to give elementary deportment lessons to this child who spake as a god, and to their horror were themselves rebuked. Thus began the long exchange of backbiting, bat-flipping, booing, and spitting that has distinguished Williams' public relations. The spitting incidents of 1957 and 1958 and the similar dockside courtesies that Williams has now and then extended to the grandstand should be judged against this background: the left-field stands at Fenway for twenty years have held a large number of customers who have bought their way in primarily for the privilege of showering abuse on Williams. Greatness necessarily attracts debunkers, but in Williams' case the hostility has been systematic and unappeasable. His basic offense against the fans has been to wish they weren't there. Seeking a perfectionist's vacuum, he has quixotically desired to sever the game from the ground of paid spectatorship and publicity that supports it. Hence his refusal to tip his cap to the crowd or turn the other cheek to newsmen. It has been a costly theory - it has probably cost him, among other evidences of good will, two Most Valuable Player awards, which are voted by reporters - but he has held to it. While his critics, oral and literary, remained beyond the reach of his discipline, the opposing pitchers were accessible, and he spanked them to the tune of .406 in 1941. He slumped to .356 in 1942 and went off to war.
In 1946, Williams returned from three years as a Marine pilot to the second of his baseball avatars, that of Achilles, the hero of incomparable prowess and beauty who nevertheless was to be found sulking in his tent while the Trojans (mostly Yankees) fought through to the ships. Yawkey, a timber and mining maharajah, had surrounded his central jewel with many gems of slightly lesser water, such as Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, Rudy York, Birdie Tebbetts, and Johnny Pesky. Throughout the late forties, the Red Sox were the best paper team in baseball, yet they had little three-dimensional to show for it, and if this was a tragedy, Williams was Hamlet. A succinct review of the indictment - and a fair sample of appreciative sports-page prose - appeared the very day of Williams' valedictory, in a column by Huck Finnegan in the Boston American (no sentimentalist, Huck):
"Williams' career, in contrast [to Babe Ruth's], has been a series of failures except for his averages. He flopped in the only World Series he ever played in (1946) when he batted only .200. He flopped in the playoff game with Cleveland in 1948. He flopped in the final game of the 1949 season with the pennant hinging on the outcome (Yanks 5, Sox 3). He flopped in 1950 when he returned to the lineup after a two-month absence and ruined the morale of a club that seemed pennant-bound under Steve O'Neill. It has always been Williams' records first, the team second, and the Sox non-winning record is proof enough of that."
There are answers to all of this, of course. The fatal weakness of the great Sox slugging teams was not-quite-good-enough pitching rather than Williams' failure to hit a home run every time he came to bat. Again, Williams' depressing effect on his teammates has never been proved. Despite ample coaching to the contrary, most insisted that they liked him. He has been generous with advice to any player who asked for it. In an increasingly combative baseball atmosphere, he continued to duck beanballs docilely. With umpires he was gracious to a fault. This courtesy itself annoyed his critics, whom there was no pleasing. And against the ten crucial games (the seven World Series games with the St. Louis Cardinals, the 1948 playoff game with the Cleveland Indians, and the two-game series with the Yankees at the end of the 1949 season, when one victory would have given the Red Sox the pennant) that make up the Achilles' heel of Williams' record, a mass of statistics can be set showing that day in and day out he was no slouch in the clutch. The correspondence columns of the Boston papers now and then suffer a sharp flurry of arithmetic on this score; indeed, for Williams to have distributed all his hits so they did nobody else any good would constitute a feat of placement unparalleled in the annals of selfishness.
Whatever residue of truth remains of the Finnegan charge those of us who love Williams must transmute as best we can, in our own personal crucibles. My personal memories of Williams began when I was a boy in Pennsylvania, with two last-place teams in Philadelphia to keep me company. For me, "W'ms, lf" was a figment of the box scores who always seemed to be going 3-for-5. He radiated, from afar, the hard blue glow of high purpose. I remember listening over the radio to the All-Star Game of 1946, in which Williams hit two singles and two home runs, the second one off a Rip Sewell "blooper" pitch; it was like hitting a balloon out of the park. I remember watching one of his home runs from the bleachers of Shibe Park; it went over the first baseman's head and rose methodically along a straight line and was still rising when it cleared the fence. The trajectory seemed qualitatively different from anything anyone else might hit. For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill. Baseball is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging-out. Irrelevance - since the reference point of most individual contests is remote and statistical -- always threatens its interest, which can be maintained not by the occasional heroics that sportswriters feed upon but by the players who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art. Insofar as the clutch hitter is not a sportswriter's myth, he is a vulgarity, like a writer who writes only for money. It may be that, compared to such manager's dreams as the manifestly classy Joe DiMaggio and the always helpful Stan Musial, Williams was an icy star. But of all team sports, baseball, with its graceful intermittences of action, its immense and tranquil field sparsely settled with poised men in white, its dispassionate mathematics, seems to me best suited to accommodate, and be ornamented by, a loner. It is an essentially lonely game. No other player visible to my generation concentrated within himself so much of the sport's poignance, so assiduously refined his natural skills, so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy.
By the time I was in college, near Boston, the lesser stars Yawkey had assembled around Williams had faded, and his rigorous pride of craftsmanship had become itself a kind of heroism. This brittle and temperamental player developed an unexpected quality of persistence. He was always coming back - back from Korea, back from a broken collarbone, a shattered elbow, a bruised heel, back from drastic bouts of flu and ptomaine poisoning. Hardly a season went by without some enfeebling mishap, yet he always came back, and always looked like himself. The delicate mechanism of timing and power seemed sealed, shockproof, in some case deep within his frame. In addition to injuries, there was a heavily publicized divorce, and the usual storms with the press, and the Williams Shift - the manuever, custom-built by Lou Boudreau of the Cleveland Indians, whereby three infielders were concentrated on the right side of the infield. Williams could easily have learned to punch singles through the vacancy on his left and fattened his average hugely. This was what Ty Cobb, the Einstein of average, told him to do. But the game had changed since Cobb; Williams believed that his value to the club and to the league was as a slugger, so he went on pulling the ball, trying to blast it through three men, and paid the price of perhaps fifteen points of lifetime average. Like Ruth before him, he bought the occasional home run at the cost of many directed singles - a calculated sacrifice certainly not, in the case of a hitter as average-minded as Williams, entirely selfish.
After a prime so harassed and hobbled, Williams was granted by the relenting fates a golden twilight. He became at the end of his career perhaps the best old hitter of the century. The dividing line falls between the 1956 and 1957 seasons. In September of the first year, he and Mickey Mantle were contending for the batting championship. Both were hitting around .350, and there was no one else near them. The season ended with a three-game series between the Yankees and the Sox, and, living in New York then, I went up to the Stadium. Williams was slightly shy of the four hundred at-bats needed to qualify; the fear was expressed that the Yankees pitchers would walk him to protect Mantle. Instead, they pitched to him. It was wise. He looked terrible at the plate, tired and discouraged and unconvincing. He never looked very good to me in the Stadium. The final outcome in 1956 was Mantle .353, Williams .345.
The next year, I moved from New York to New England, and it made all the difference. For in September of 1957, in the same situation, the story was reversed. Mantle finally hit .365; it was the best season of his career. But Williams, though sick and old, had run away from him. A bout of flu had laid him low in September. He emerged from his cave in the Hotel Somerset haggard but irresistible; he hit four successive pinch-hit home runs. "I feel terrible," he confessed, "but every time I take a swing at the ball it goes out of the park." He ended the season with thirty-eight home runs and an average of .388, the highest in either league since his own .406, and, coming from a decrepit man of thirty-nine, an even more supernal figure. With eight or so of the "leg hits" that a younger man would have beaten out, it would have been .400. And the next year, Williams, who in 1949 and 1953 had lost batting championships by decimal whiskers to George Kell and Mickey Vernon, sneaked in behind his teammate Pete Runnels and filched his sixth title, a bargain at .328.
In 1959, it seemed all over. The dinosaur thrashed around in the .200 swamp for the first half of the season, and was even benched ("rested," Manager Mike Higgins tactfully said). Old foes like the late Bill Cunningham began to offer batting tips. Cunningham thought Williams was jiggling his elbows; in truth, Williams' neck was so stiff he could hardly turn his head to look at the pitcher. When he swung, it looked like a Calder mobile with one thread cut; it reminded you that since 1954 Williams' shoulders had been wired together. A solicitous pall settled over the sports pages. In the two decades since Williams had come to Boston, his status had imperceptibly shifted from that of a naughty prodigy to that of a municipal monument. As his shadow in the record books lengthened, the Red Sox teams around him declined, and the entire American League seemed to be losing life and color to the National. The inconsistency of the new super-stars - Mantle, Colavito, and Kaline - served to make Williams appear all the more singular. And off the field, his private philanthropy - in particular, his zealous chairmanship of the Jimmy Fund, a charity for chidlren with cancer - gave him a civic presence matched only by that of Richard Cardinal Cushing. In religion, Williams appears to be a humanist, and a selective one at that, but he and the abrasive-voiced Cardinal, when their good works intersect and they appear in the public eye together, make a handsome pair of seraphim.
Humiliated by his '59 season, Williams determined, once more, to come back. I, as a specimen Williams partisan, was both glad and fearful. All baseball fans believe in miracles; the question is, how many do you believe in? He looked like a ghost in spring training. Manager Jurges warned us ahead of time that if Williams didn't come through he would be benched, just like everybody else. As it turned out, it was Jurges who was benched. Williams entered the 1960 season needing eight home runs to have a lifetime total of 500; after one time at bat in Washington, he needed seven. For a stretch, he was hitting a home run every second game that he played. He passed Lou Gehrig's lifetime total, and finished with 521, thirteen behind Jimmie Foxx, who alone stands between Williams and Babe Ruth's unapproachable 714. The summer was a statistician's picnic. His two-thousandth walk came and went, his eighteen-hundredth run batted in, his sixteenth All-Star Game. At one point, he hit a home run off a pitcher, Don Lee, off whose father, Thornton Lee, he had hit a home run a generation before. The only comparable season for a forty-two-year-old man was Ty Cobb's in 1928. Cobb batted .323 and hit one homer. Williams batted .316 but hit twenty-nine homers.
In sum, though generally conceded to be the greatest hitter of his era, he did not establish himself as "the greatest hitter who ever lived." Cobb, for average, and Ruth, for power, remain supreme. Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Joe Jackson, and Lefty O'Doul, among players since 1900, have higher lifetime averages than Williams' .344. Unlike Foxx, Gehrig, Hack Wilson, Hank Greenberg, and Ralph Kiner, Williams never came close to matching Babe Ruth's season home-run total of sixty. In the list of major-league batting records, not one is held by Williams. He is second in walks drawn, third in home runs, fifth in lifetime average, sixth in runs batted in, eighth in runs scored and in total bases, fourteenth in doubles, and thirtieth in hits. But if we allow him merely average seasons for the four-plus seasons he lost to two wars, and add another season for the months he lost to injuries, we get a man who in all the power totals would be second, and not a very distant second, to Ruth. And if we further allow that these years would have been not merely average but prime years, if we allow for all the months Williams was playing in sub-par condition, if we permit his early and later years in baseball to be some sort of index of what the middle years could have been, if we give him a right-field fence that is not, like Fenway's, one of the most distant in the league, and if - the least excusable if - we imagine him condescending to outsmart the Williams Shift, we can defensibly assemble, like a colossus induced from the sizable fragments that do remain, a statistical figure not incommensurate with his grandiose ambition. From the statistics that are on the books, a good case can be made that in the combination of power and average Williams is first; nobody else ranks so high in both categories. Finally, there is the witness of the eyes; men whose memories go back to Shoeless Joe Jackson - another unlucky natural - rank him and Williams together as the best-looking hitters they have seen. It was for our last look that ten thousand of us had come.
Two girls, one of them with pert buckteeth and eyes as black as vest buttons, the other with white skin and flesh-colored hair, like an underdeveloped photograph of a redhead, came and sat on my right. On my other side was one of those frowning chestless young-old men who can frequently be seen, often wearing sailor hats, attending ball games alone. He did not once open his program but instead tapped it, rolled up, on his knee as he gave the game his disconsolate attention. A young lady, with freckles and a depressed, dainty nose, that by an optical illusion seemed to thrust her lips forward for a kiss, sauntered down into the box seat right behind the roof of the Oriole dugout. She wore a blue coat with a Northeastern University emblem sewed to it. The girls beside me took it into their heads that this was Williams' daughter. She looked too old to me, and why would she be sitting behind the visitors' dugout? On the other hand, from the way she sat there, staring at the sky and French-inhaling, she clearly was somebody. Other fans came and eclipsed her from view. The crowd looked less like a weekday ballpark crowd than like the folks you might find in Yellowstone National Park, or emerging from automobiles at the top of scenic Mount Mansfield. There were a lot of competitively well-dressed couples of tourist age, and not a few babes in arms. A row of five seats in front of me was abruptly filled with a woman and four children, the youngest of them two years old, if that. Someday, presumably, he could tell his grandchildren that he saw Williams play. Along with these tots and second-honeymooners, there were Harvard freshmen, giving off that peculiar nervous glow created when a sufficient quantity of insouciance is saturated with enough insecurity; thick-necked Army officers with brass on their shoulders and steel in their stares; pepperings of priests; perfumed bouquets of Roxbury Fabian fans; shiny salesmen from Albany and Fall River; and those gray, hoarse men - taxi drivers, slaughterers, and bartenders - who will continue to click through the turnstiles long after everyone else has deserted to television and tramporamas. Behind me, two young male voices blossomed, cracking a joke about God's five proofs that Thomas Aquinas exists - typical Boston College levity.
The batting cage was trundled away. The Orioles fluttered to the sidelines. Diagonally across the field, by the Red Sox dugout, a cluster of men in overcoats were festering like maggots. I could see a splinter of white uniform, and Williams' head, held at a self-deprecating and evasive tilt. Williams' conversational stance is that of a six-foot-three-inch man under a six-foot ceiling. He moved away to the patter of flash bulbs, and began playing catch with a young Negro outfielder named Willie Tasby. His arm, never very powerful, had grown lax with the years, and his throwing motion was a kind of muscular drawl. To catch the ball, he flicked his glove hand onto his left shoulder (he batted left but threw right, as every schoolboy ought to know) and let the ball plop into it comically. This catch session with Tasby was the only time all afternoon I saw him grin.
A tight little flock of human sparrows who, from the lambent and pampered pink of their faces, could only have been Boston politicians moved toward the plate. The loudspeakers mammothly coughed as someone huffed on the microphone. The ceremonies began. Curt Gowdy, the Red Sox radio and television announcer, who sounds like everybody's brother-in-law, delivered a brief sermon, taking the two words "pride" and "champion" as his text. It began. "Twenty-one years ago, a skinny kid from San Diego, California ... " and ended, "I don't think we'll ever see another like him." Robert Tibolt, chairman of the board of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, presented Williams with a big Paul Revere silver bowl. Harry Carlson, a member of the sports committee of the Boston Chamber, gave him a plaque, whose inscription he did not read in its entirety, out of deference to Williams' distaste for this sort of fuss. Mayor Collins, seated in a wheelchair, presented the Jimmy Fund with a thousand-dollar check.
Then the occasion himself stooped to the microphone, and his voice sounded, after the others, very Californian; it seemed to be coming, excellently amplified, from a great distance, adolescently young and as smooth as a butternut. His thanks for the gifts had not died from our ears before he glided, as if helplessly, into "In spite of all the terrible things that have been said about me by the knights of the keyboard up there . . ." He glanced up at the press rows suspended behind home plate. The crowd tittered, appalled. A frightful vision flashed upon me, of the press gallery pelting Williams with erasers, of Williams clambering up the foul screen to slug journalists, of a riot, of Mayor Collins being crushed. "... And they were terrible things," Williams insisted, with level melancholy, into the mike. "I'd like to forget them, but I can't." He paused, swallowed his memories, and went on, "I want to say that my years in Boston have been the greatest thing in my life." The crowd, like an immense sail going limp in a change of wind, sighed with relief. Taking all the parts himself, Williams then acted out a vivacious little morality drama in which an imaginary tempter came to him at the beginning of his career and said, "Ted, you can play anywhere you like." Leaping nimbly into the role of his younger self (who in biographical actuality had yearned to be a Yankee), Williams gallantly chose Boston over all the other cities, and told us that Tom Yawkey was the greatest owner in baseball and we were the greatest fans. We applauded ourselves lustily. The umpire came out and dusted the plate. The voice of doom announced over the loudspeakers that after Williams' retirement his uniform number, 9, would be permanently retired - the first time the Red Sox had so honored a player. We cheered. The national anthem was played. We cheered. The game began.
Williams was third in the batting order, so he came up in the bottom of the first inning, and Steve Barber, a young pitcher born two months before Williams began playing in the major leagues, offered him four pitches, at all of which he disdained to swing, since none of them were within the strike zone. This demonstrated simultaneously that Williams' eyes were razor-sharp and that Barber's control wasn't. Shortly, the bases were full, with Williams on second. "Oh, I hope he gets held up at third! That would be wonderful," the girl beside me moaned, and, sure enough, the man at bat walked and Williams was delivered into our foreground. He struck the pose of Donatello's David, the third-base bag being Goliath's head. Fiddling with his cap, swapping small talk with the Oriole third baseman (who seemed delighted to have him drop in), swinging his arms with a sort of prancing nervousness, he looked fine - flexible, hard, and not unbecomingly substantial through the middle. The long neck, the small head, the knickers whose cuffs were worn down near his ankles - all these cliches of sports cartoon iconography were rendered in the flesh.
With each pitch, Williams danced down the baseline, waving his arms and stirring dust, ponderous but menacing, like an attacking goose. It occurred to about a dozen humorists at once to shout, "Steal home! Go, go!" Williams' speed afoot was never legendary. Lou Clinton, a young Sox outfielder, hit a fairly deep fly to center field. Williams tagged up and ran home. As he slid across the plate, the ball, thrown with unusual heft by Jackie Brandt, the Oriole center fielder, hit him on the back.
"Boy, he was really loafing, wasn't he?" one of the collegiate voices behind me said.
"It's cold," the other voice explained. "He doesn't play well when it's cold. He likes heat. He's a hedonist."
The run that Williams scored was the second and last of the inning. Gus Triandos, of the Orioles, quickly evened the score by plunking a home run over the handy left-field wall. Williams, who had had this wall at his back for twenty years, played the ball flawlessly. He didn't budge. He just stood still, in the center of the little patch of grass that his patient footsteps had worn brown, and, limp with lack of interest, watched the ball pass overhead. It was not a very interesting game. Mike Higgins, the Red Sox manager, with nothing to lose, had restricted his major-league players to the left-field line - along with Williams, Frank Malzone, a first-rate third baseman, played the game - and had peopled the rest of the terrain with unpredictable youngsters fresh, or not so fresh, off the farms. Other than Williams' recurrent appearances at the plate, the maladresse of the Sox infield was the sole focus of suspense; the second baseman turned every grounder into a juggling act, the shortstop did a breathtaking impersonation of an open window. With this sort of assistance, the Orioles wheedled their way into a 4-2 lead. They had early replaced Barber with another young pitcher, Jack Fisher. Fortunately (as it turned out), Fisher is no cutie; he is willing to burn the ball through the strike zone, and inning after inning the tactic punctured Higgins' string of test balloons.
Whenever Williams appeared at the plate - pounding the dirt from his cleats, gouging a pit in the batter's box with his left foot, wringing resin out of the bat handle with his vehement grip, switching the stick at the pitcher with an electric ferocity - it was like having a familiar Leonardo appear in a shuffle of Saturday Evening Post covers. This man, you realized - and here, perhaps, was the difference, greater than the difference in gifts - really desired to hit the ball. In the third inning, he hoisted a high fly to deep center. In the fifth, we thought he had it; he smacked the ball hard and high into the heart of his power zone, but the deep right field in Fenway and the heavy air and a casual east wind defeated him. The ball died. Al Pilarcik leaned his back against the big "380" painted on the right-field wall and caught it. On another day, in another park, it would have been gone. (After the game, Williams said, "I didn't think I could hit one any harder than that. The conditions weren't good.")
The afternoon grew so glowering that in the sixth inning the arc lights were turned on - always a wan sight in the daytime, like the burning headlights of a funeral procession. Aided by the gloom, Fisher was slicing through the Sox rookies, and Williams did not come to bat in the seventh. He was second up in the eighth. This was almost certainly his last time to come to the plate in Fenway Park, and instead of merely cheering, as we had at his three previous appearances, we stood, all of us, and applauded. I had never before heard pure applause in a ballpark. No calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand, It was a sombre and considered tumult. There was not a boo in it. It seemed to renew itself out of a shifting set of memories as the Kid, the Marine, the veteran of feuds and failures and injuries, the friend of children, and the enduring old pro evolved down the bright tunnel of twenty-two summers toward this moment. At last, the umpire signalled for Fisher to pitch; with the other players, he had been frozen in position. Only Williams had moved during the ovation, switching his bat impatiently, ignoring everything except his cherished task. Fisher wound up, and the applause sank into a hush.
Understand that we were a crowd of rational people. We knew that a home run cannot be produced at will; the right pitch must be perfectly met and luck must ride with the ball. Three innings before, we had seen a brave effort fail. The air was soggy, the season was exhausted. Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around the corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.
Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was low with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass, the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and vanished.
Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs - hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted "We want Ted" for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he refused. Gods do not answer letters.
Every true story has an anticlimax. The men on the field refused to disappear, as would have seemed decent, in the smoke of Williams' miracle. Fisher continued to pitch, and escaped further harm. At the end of the inning, Higgins sent Williams out to his left-field position, then instantly replaced him with Carroll Hardy, so we had a long last look at Williams as he ran out there and then back, his uniform jogging, his eyes steadfast on the ground. It was nice, and we were grateful, but it left a funny taste.
One of the scholastics behind me said, "Let's go. We've seen everything. I don't want to spoil it." This seemed a sound aesthetic decision. Williams' last word had been so exquisitely chosen, such a perfect fusion of expectation, intention, and execution, that already it felt a little unreal in my head, and I wanted to get out before the castle collapsed. But the game, though played by clumsy midgets under the feeble glow of the arc lights, began to tug at my attention, and I loitered in the runway until it was over. Williams' homer had, quite incidentally, made the score 4-3. In the bottom of the ninth inning, with one out, Marlan Coughtry, the second-base juggler, singled. Vic Wertz, pinch-hitting, doubled off the left-field wall, Coughtry advancing to third. Pumpsie Green walked, to load the bases. Willie Tasby hit a double-play ball to the third baseman, but in making the pivot throw Billy Klaus, an ex-Red Sox infielder, reverted to form and threw the ball past the first baseman and into the Red Sox dugout. The Sox won, 5-4. On the car radio, as I drove home I heard that Williams, his own man to the end, had decided not to accompany the team to New York. He had met the little death that awaits athletes. He had quit.
The Globe's Bob Ryan remembered Updike this way:
It is well-known that author, poet, and critic John Updike identified Fenway Park as "a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark" in his celebrated 1960 New Yorker essay "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," his first-person account of Ted Williams's final game. But the description goes deeper than that.
"Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg," he tells us. "It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man's Euclidean determinations and Nature's beguiling irregularities."
"I think I might have stolen the idea of the 'lyric little bandbox of a ballpark' from someone else," laughs Updike.
Fine. But the Euclid and Nature references are pure Updike.
Forty-eight years ago today, John Updike, 28 years old and, though raised in Pennsylvania, a Ted Williams fan since childhood, decided it was a good idea to attend the afternoon game between the Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles. He, like all members of the public, knew only that it would be the final home game of Ted's career. Not until the game was concluded did people learn that it would be Ted's last game, period, that he had announced before the game he would not be making a season-ending trip to Yankee Stadium.
The times were different. The word "hype" had barely entered the language. Today, there would be special editions, minted coins, and live shots galore.
"The world was a simpler place," Updike notes.
But Wednesday, Sept. 28, 1960, was a dank, dreary day. And the Red Sox, Ted Williams aside, were a dank, dreary team on their way to a 65-89 record and a seventh-place finish. Accordingly, a mere 10,454 fans showed up. And it could very easily have been 10,453. John Updike's first choice that day was to visit a lady on Beacon Hill. Fortunately, the lady was not home.
Updike explains in a 1977 epilogue:
"I took a taxi to Beacon Hill and knocked on a door and there was nothing, just a basket for mail temporarily hung on the door. A bright brown basket. So I went, as promised, to the game and my virtue was rewarded."
Whatever reward Updike derived from attendance at that game does not begin to compare to the amount of pleasure his patronage has provided for others. For "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," published in the Oct. 22, 1960, New Yorker, is the most spellbinding essay ever written about baseball. Some, like critic Roger Dean, go even farther. "It is simply the greatest essay I have ever read," he insists.
"It influenced me in a big way," says Roger Angell, who would become the foremost baseball writer of the late 20th century, but in 1960 was merely a devoted follower of the sport who had yet to publish a word about it in the magazine. "And it has influenced just about every sportswriter who followed. The great thing is that he went expecting something amazing and incredible - and it happened. Only baseball provides in any number those totally unexpected turns."
"My one effort as a sportswriter," explains North Shore resident Updike. "It's had a longer life than I would have expected."
No one need be kept in suspense. We all know how the story ends. In the eighth inning, battling horribly adverse atmospheric conditions that have already cost him one shot at a homer, Ted Williams hits a 1-and-1 pitch from Jack Fisher onto the canopy covering a bench in the Red Sox bullpen. He runs the bases hurriedly amid relentless applause and does not tip his cap. He takes his place in left field at the start of the ninth and is replaced with Carroll Hardy by manager Pinky Higgins in the hopes he will acknowledge the crowd, and again he does not tip his cap. He has not tipped his cap since 1940 and he has no remote intention of deviating from his policy.
There are 10,454 eyewitnesses, and to our everlasting joy, one of them happens to be John Updike, who sets it all down on paper. I have read and reread what he has written about that dank, dreary afternoon and it is the visual equivalent of listening over and over again to a favorite song that never offends the ears.
"And it was all produced at lightning speed," marvels David Remnick, the current editor of the magazine and, in an earlier incarnation, a Washington Post sportswriter himself. Magazine articles are often handed in six weeks or more in advance of publication. This astonishing work had a publication 25 days after the game.
"By New Yorker standards, it was an amazing turnaround," Remnick points out. "It may not impress someone at the Associated Press - but it should."
Updike, it seems, was writing from the heart. Ted Williams had been a youthful obsession, with Angell claiming that Updike had once revealed that the Thumper was half the reason he had settled in Boston. In the essay, he recalls listening with fascination to the 1946 All-Star Game in which Ted had gone 4 for 4 with two home runs, and of seeing Williams play in Philadelphia.
"I remember watching one of his home runs from the bleachers of Shibe Park; it went over the first baseman's head and rose methodically along a straight line and it was still rising when it cleared the fence," he writes. "The trajectory seemed qualitatively different from anything anyone else might have hit."
"I was in love with him, you might say," Updike declares. "Although it was a chaste relationship. No other sports figure has moved me as much as Ted Williams."
Williams is his man, and for that he makes no apology.
"Williams," he writes, "is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill . . . No other player visible to my generation concentrated within himself so much of the sport's poignance, so assiduously refined his natural skills, so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy."
Ted Williams liked the piece. At least, that's what was conveyed to Updike by a third party. And Ted even suggested Updike be a collaborator on a biography, an offer Updike politely declined.
"I'd said all I had to say on the subject," he explains in the epilogue.
Here is Updike on the always controversial topic of whether or not Ted Williams was a team player: "For Williams to have distributed all of his hits so they did nobody else any good would constitute a feat of placement unparalleled in the annals of selfishness."
(By the way, that must have been some woman, if she was in legitimate competition with Ted for Updike's attention.)
But this is no hot August day. This is late September, early autumn in Boston. It is cold and damp. John Updike is there, and he is taking it all in.
"No one describes things like John Updike," Remnick notes. "I call him the 'Great Noticer.' "
Updike takes a seat on the third base side and looks around. "The crowd looked less like a weekday ballpark crowd than the folks you might find in Yellowstone National Park, or emerging from automobiles at the top of scenic Mount Mansfield."
And this: "Along with these tots and second-honeymooners, there were Harvard freshmen, giving off that peculiar nervous glow created when a sufficient quantity of insouciance is saturated with enough insecurity." Thus speaks John Updike, Harvard '54.
Those aren't the only college students he happens to see and hear. "Behind me, two young male voices blossomed, cracking a joke about God's five proofs that Thomas Aquinas exists - typical Boston College levity."
The pregame ceremony honoring Williams allows Updike to smile at the sight of "a tight little flock of human sparrows who, from the lambent and pampered pink of their faces, could only have been Boston politicians."
As for the ballplayers, the Red Sox, he decides, are "a jangling medley of incompetent youth and aging competence," while the Orioles are "a much nimbler blend of May and December."
Updike reviews Ted's career, dividing it into three stages, which, he says, "may be termed Youth, Maturity, and Age; or Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis; or Jason, Achilles, and Nestor." Explaining Ted's tortured relationship with the fans, Updike explains that Ted has "quixotically desired to sever the game from the ground of paid spectatorship and publicity that surrounds it. Hence his refusal to tip his cap or to turn the other cheek to newsmen."
A Ted at-bat, according to John Updike: "Whenever Williams appeared at the plate - pounding the dirt from his cleats, gouging a pit in the batter's box with his left foot, wringing resin out of the bat handle with a vehement grip, switching the stick at the pitcher with an electric ferocity - it was like having a familiar Leonardo appear in a shuffle of Saturday Evening Post covers."
We get to the eighth, when, Updike reminds us, "We knew that a home run cannot be produced at will; the right pitch must be perfectly met and luck must ride with the ball." But Ted has sent right fielder Al Pilarcik to the 380 sign in the fifth, and thus "there will always lurk, around the corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a destiny of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future."
Of Ted's stubborn refusal to tip his cap, despite being given three separate occasions to do so (coming to the plate, rounding the bases, and trotting in after being removed from the field), Updike sagely notes, "Gods do not answer letters."
But they sometimes leave behind epic accounts of epic events.
Thank you, sir.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Coffee Makes Life Worth Living

I have imagined that one day I will write a memoir called Coffee: A Love Story. Until then, here's Wikipedia's entry on it. Citizendium says much of the same.

By the way, for those who think Wikipedia is always a reliable source of information, here is the very first sentence of their article:
Coffee is a stimulant beverage prepared from roasted seeds that may cause heart attacks in fat guys, commonly called coffee beans, of the coffee plant.
As a fat guy, this makes me nervous!!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Roman Ingarden and Textual Editing - A Fragment from My Aborted Dissertation

To understand how different edited texts of the same literary work construct that work differently, we need a tool for capturing the structure and functions of literary language – that is, of literary language as it becomes represented in and through text. In The Literary Work of Art, first published in German in 1931, Roman Ingarden provides such a tool by demonstrating that the literary work has a heteronomous existence, existing both on its own and dependent upon the conscious activity of a reader. Ingarden gives us a sophisticated picture of the internal ontological constitution and articulation of the literary work and its world. Because edited texts result in part from the conscious, critical acts of editors, Ingarden’s model can be used to compare different edited texts and gauge the effects of their differences on our apprehension of them and their presented worlds.

According to Ingarden, “every literary work is a two-dimensional linguistic formation.” One dimension consists of four distinct layers that are interconnected and interdependent; the other concerns the sequence of individual parts in the literary work. Each layer, or stratum, corresponds to a primary linguistic feature of the literary work. These strata are: linguistic sound formations, meaning units, represented objects, and schematized aspects. In addition to these strata, each of which will be discussed in more detail, the literary work possesses a systematic sequence of its individual parts – sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, for example – that produces through reading the work’s internal dynamics. For Ingarden, individual parts of the literary work attain constitution and qualification from preceding ones; therefore, to say that a work has a “beginning” and an “end” is not to use these terms in a temporal sense but rather to refer to the arrangement of these parts. It follows, then, that in regards to that which “happens” in the represented world of a literary work, one cannot speak of time in the true sense because that which happens now in the world of the work is an illusion from the point of view of the world of physical space and time.

The stratum of linguistic sound formations is the level constructed out of the sounds of words. For Ingarden, the single word is made up of the word sound and its meaning: given sounds become word sounds only if they can determine a meaning, which establishes the primary function of the word sound as determining the meaning of a word through context and manner of articulation. However, word sounds, or phonetic formations, are not simply a means for revealing the literary work but form “the external, fixed shell of the literary work, in which all of the remaining strata find their external point of support or – if one will – their external expression.” The phonetic stratum is thus the means and the form through which the reader apprehends the literary work, with word sounds uttered by a reader – aloud or silently – influencing the ways that corresponding meanings get inflected. Word sounds, moreover, usually become operative in the context of the sentence, the phonetic formation that binds the meanings of given words to each other. In sentences, properties such as rhythm and tempo also become established.

With the stratum of linguistic sound formations, Ingarden uses a conception in which linguistic signs consist of sounds and meanings. He categorizes the sounds as a separate level of the literary work, a level that is nevertheless conditioned by its connections with the other strata and by the determinations of human actors. The stratum of word sounds and the operations of human consciousness assist in the construction of the stratum of meaning units, the level of sentences. According to Ingarden, the meaning content of sentences is partially a function of the exigencies of reading, the reader, and the temporal circumstances within which reading is performed. On the other hand, meaning content is not a simple sum or aggregate of word meanings but rather an entirely new construction with respect to them. Ingarden distinguishes between affirmative propositions and judgments. Affirmative propositions are statements that claim to be true; judgments are affirmative propositions that also are true or false. For example, the affirmative proposition “I live in town” claims to be factual, and, as a judgment, might actually be true at the moment for that speaker. However, if that speaker is a fictional character, it can never be a pure judgment because the fictionality of the affirmative proposition overrides the distinction between true and false: it cannot be actually true or false because the statement acquires the fictionality of its speaker and the represented world of the speaker.

According to Ingarden’s model, then, declarative sentences in the literary work are neither purely affirmative propositions nor pure judgments. The affirmative propositions of literary works are, ostensibly, hybrids: they are “quasi-judgments” that “have the external habitus of judicative propositions, though they neither are nor are meant to be genuine judicative propositions.” Unlike pure affirmative propositions, quasi-judgments “are capable of evoking, to a greater or lesser degree, the illusion of reality…. They carry with them, in other words, a suggestive power which, as we read, allows us to plunge into the simulated world and live in it as in a world peculiarly unreal and yet having the appearance of reality.” Because of this suggestive power, the stratum of sentences performs the central function in the literary work. At this level of the work, the conscious activity of the reader constitutes the represented world as objects become revealed. In other words, as objects get revealed in their various states, they are brought to representation. The meaning stratum thus has a representation function in addition to a constitution function.

Through the strata of linguistic sound formations and meaning units, Ingarden places sign-recognition and sign-interpretation at the center of apprehension of the literary work. The next level, represented objects, emerges out of the reader’s recognition of word sounds and their meanings in phrases and sentences. Every represented object and state of affairs that is constituted and represented in this stratum has its source in either the phonetic or meaning stratum, the two strata which together constitute the language element of the literary work. The stratum of represented objectivities thus encompasses presented things and the world created vis-à-vis literary language. Through these presented things, a reader engages a simulated reality constructed out of “a unique space which essentially belongs to the represented ‘real’ world.” However, the unique space of the represented world is always incompletely determined and marked by its partiality. Not everything in the space of the represented world gets determined explicitly, nor could it. The text used to imagine a represented space does not and cannot provide all of the information about every quality it holds. In a literary work, then, the form of a represented object is a schema which, unlike objects in real time and space, can never be entirely filled by material determinations. Because a represented object “is simultaneously formally intended as a concrete unit containing an infinite number of fused determinations and, consequently, intentionally created as such, ‘spots of indeterminacy’ arise within it, indeed an infinitely great number of them. These spots of indeterminacy in principle cannot be entirely removed by any finite enrichment of the content of a material expression.” For instance, to enrich a nominal expression like “the person” with more adjectives, as in “the strong, generous person,” does not render the represented person any less schematized. But the production of a partially determinate, simulated reality is not, Ingarden says, the most important function of the stratum of represented objectivities. Rather, the central function that represented objective situations perform is to exhibit and manifest metaphysical qualities, such as the elegiac, the heroic, the homiletic, and so on. The manifestation of metaphysical qualities depends not only on the attributes of represented objects and situations but also on the manner in which they are constituted and represented.

Recognizing that objects in the represented world of the literary work are not fully constituted or rendered present, Ingarden proposes that a fourth level of the work, the stratum of schematized aspects, prepares readers to apprehend represented objects. Since objects represented in the literary work cannot be represented completely or apprehended fully by a reader but instead contain spots of indeterminacy, the schematized, or inevitably unfulfilled aspects of objects “have the basis of their determination and, in a certain sense, their potential existence in the states of affairs projected by the sentences or in the objects represented by means of the states of affairs.” In other words, objects and the conditions in which they are presented help readers to intuit the unstated qualities that give the represented world an apparent vividness. The stratum of schematized aspects thus enables readers to apprehend represented objects intuitively: language, characterizing objects in various states of affairs, directs readers to apply their sensory faculties – vision, hearing, or touch, for example – in the conceptual domain of the represented world. Because readers take a conceptual and perceptual leap to get from schematized aspects to a sense of immersion in a “real” world, schematized aspects play a crucial role in the aesthetic experience of reading.

Monday, January 05, 2009

My Music Retrospective - The Rolling Stones, Part 1

Driving into work this morning, I heard a promotional fragment from a new tune by Nickelback, one of the world’s biggest bands. The song is called “Something in Your Mouth,” and the lyric I heard went something like this -
You look so much cuter with something in your mouth.
I’ve since read over the full lyrics. The song is basically an ode to a porn star/stripper. But I am totally floored at how unimaginative the lyric is. It’s not dirty and not provocative – it’s hardly even interesting. As a stripper song, certainly “Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard does a better job. How this song gets airplay and considered at all good is beyond me.

When I first heard the lyric (the melody didn’t do anything for me, either), my mind immediately compared it to the vintage Rolling Stones rocker, “Brown Sugar.” Now the Stones knew how to make art out of seedy sexual images.

“Brown Sugar” is a terrific name that can refer to heroin, a young girl, a black girl - the phrase allows and forces the listener to make an interpretation. If one wants to render sense from the song, one has to decipher the possibilities of "brown sugar." In effect, one has to traverse a slew of hedonistic ideas just to understand the song at all. It's just so sly. Reportedly, Mick Jagger wanted originally to call the song “Black Pussy,” but felt this title would be too “nitty-gritty.” Indeed.

The other spicy element of the song is where and when it’s located:
Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields,
Sold in a market down in New Orleans,
Scarred old slaver knows he’s doin’ alright,
Hear him whip the women just around midnight.
Where and when are we? On a slave ship and in the old South. We have to appreciate the dramatic boldness of a song that opens up a new time and place for us. Look at the dynamism of the four lines above, how the frames of reference move in sequence and how fertile the imagery is. History, commerce, race, power, sex and masochism all converge in the lyric.

The raucous melody and Richards’s backing vocals make "Brown Sugar" a wicked song, a work of mythic power. And it’s not mere sex-and-power fantasy; it’s topical, controversial, and fun. I mean, how do you get more exuberant than this?
I say yeah, yeah, yeah, Whooo!
More than any other group, the Stones created and played quintessential rock and roll songs. At their creative and musical best, they elevated rock and roll to its fullest potential, a music of raw energy and cultural antagonism. They made music that boogied but was suitably ironic for thinkers.

To be sure, they didn't do it all the time. They didn't even try to do it all the time. But they could do it, and when they did, no one was better.

Look at one of their second or third-tier songs, listed as "Star Star":
Yeah I heard about your Polaroids,
Now that's what I call obscene,
Your tricks with fruit was kinda cute,
I bet you keep your pussy clean.
Even with a song that isn't great, the Stones keep the sense of play. Perhaps this is the main thing the Nickelback song lacks. The Stones go right to kinky, but the Nickelback lyric is straight - no perversion whatsoever. I almost feel sad over it, as if they are drunks willing to take any cheap booze to get a fix. The Stones are connoisseurs and totally committed to the act, to the point of letting the audience see and know it is an act. That's the point. Enjoy your fantasy, but don't mistake it for reality.

This is why the Stones remain relevant now and why I think they will continue to be so.

2 of 43

Here are two items that should be on my list:
Birch Trees

My Music Retrospective - The Beatles

The Beatles were my first: first musical obsession, first time defining myself by the music I listened to, first time being an enthusiastic consumer of some product offered by my culture.

Discovering the Beatles in early 1981 was not inevitable for me, but it involved a timely convergence of factors. John Lennon had just been shot and killed, which put not only Lennon but the Beatles on the front page of the newspaper. And with Lennon gone, the Beatles were now irrevocably part of the past.

At 10-11 years old, I was at an age when learning to define and express my identity was important. Music was one way for me to assert myself by my tastes. Finally, and this shouldn't be underestimated, the contemporary music scene generally stank. It was an opportune time to listen to the Beatles because no current act on the radio seemed quite as good.

Abbey Road was the first Beatles album my family had in the house – yes, we owned it as an actual record on a turntable – and it became an almost endless source of critical discovery for me. I didn't know then that it might have been their best record. I spent hours listening to each song on both sides. Every tune offered layer upon layer of artistry. The vocals, the lyrics, the instrumentation, the changes, the hooks, the fades and transitions, the album cover – all of it allowed for grand archaeological exploration.

At one time or another, almost every song on the album became a favorite. "Come Together" is heavy and lyrically cryptic. In the break, the hand off from keyboards to guitar is at once polished and almost dirty, although I wouldn't have known at the time to characterize it this way.

"Something" immediately registered with me as intensely beautiful. George Harrison's voice is controlled and gentle, but the group's vocal layering in the bridge is simply fantastic.
You're asking me will my love grow,
I don't know, I don't know.
You stick around now it may show,
I don't know, I don't know.
The harmonization here makes the emotional power of the song three-dimensional. Without it, the song is just pretty.

"Here Comes the Sun" is another Harrison gem. Recordings by other artists never seem to measure up to the original. For me, the sound is exquisite, as it is on the entire album. While the song is optimistic, it is so in a way that I would call mature. When George, Paul, John and Ringo sing "It's all right," they mean it. They know it could turn out otherwise. They've seen darkness and light, and they have reason to think light will finally prevail. In other words, they are supremely credible. I might add that I feel not this way at all about so many current artists. Even Nirvana, a band that seemed to ooze authenticity, always appeared more about the chic of pain than working through it.

Until much later, I thought almost the entire album was sung by Paul. Even when I learned this was not the case, I remained knocked out by the whole sequence from "You Never Give Me Your Money" to "The End." Ringo's drum solo on “Golden Slumbers” is a high point. "Her Majesty" has always amused me. It comes after a 20-second or so break and then is so upbeat yet short. It's an odd fragment at the end of an album that is otherwise so coherent.

* * *

At one point, I may have I owned every studio album the Beatles ever recorded. I had most of the lyrics memorized. I bought very many of their solo albums. More than all this, I had plenty of books on the Beatles. I wanted to know their personal lives, their histories, their significant dates and milestones. I wanted to know what smart people thought about them, their music, their impact and their legacy. With the Beatles, as with all my other musical obsessions, music was only part of what I sought.

I can hardly do justice to the real significance of the Beatles on my early adolescence, as a music listener and as someone developing an identity. In many ways, the Beatles were like starting at the top. Listening to their catalog influenced my view of other artists and songs. Even the Rolling Stones very often fall short of the artistic standard that I absorbed from listening to the Beatles over and over, but of course the Stones have (almost) always been about something other than artistry, or at least they have focused on a different kind of artistry.

By my recollection, I was immersed in the Beatles from about 1981, just after Lennon's death, through 1984-5. Now, I don't think I listened to the Beatles exclusively, as I would later with Dylan, to some extent, and with the Stones, to a great extent. I guess in this way the Beatles were like a gateway drug for me. I started with them and became addicted hard-core later to others.

I don't really listen to the Beatles much anymore. Recently, I played Abbey Road in the car, but I never stocked up on Beatles CDs. I had them on record and cassette tape, but never pursued their recordings on CD. Why don't I listen much today? I'm actually not sure. It's as though I burned myself out on the music, as if my obsessive listening then sucked dry all my enjoyment. Perhaps if my children wind up interested in the Beatles, I'll re-discover them.

However, I suspect the real problem is that I'm no longer innocent. The music and story of the Beatles brought a certain light and color into the interior world of my adolescence. The music was new to me, it was expansive, and it had a depth - a charm and intelligence - that resonated with me. I cannot imagine another artist's music reaching me in the same way at that time in my life.

I still have that music in my mind. Quite a few songs bubble up in my mind as the real greats - "Michelle," "Norwegian Wood," "Ticket to Ride," "She's Leaving Home," "A Day in the Life," "Strawberry Fields," "Hey Jude," "Revolution," "Blackbird," "Let It Be," "Two of Us," "Girl," "The Long and Winding Road," "Good Day Sunshine," "I'm Only Sleeping," "I'm Looking Through You," "It's Only Love," I'm a Loser," "Hey, Bulldog," and probably many others.

For me the Beatles were great because they rewarded the kind of listener I wanted to be. I didn't only want to snap my fingers and know the words: I wanted to play and to learn. I wanted to be surprised with a neat bass line and by a sense that several things were happening at once. I wanted to believe the music was important and was saying something important. And I suppose I took all of this as related to whatever I felt about my own importance. Perhaps whatever this was still is, and perhaps it is also captured in a poem of mine from the past:
This music
as life:
its detail
simple moments unrepeatable
the players
changes –
I surround myself in it
and always am an honest person.

Friday, January 02, 2009

A Sticky Life

One of the key sections of the writing and living well book will be derived from another book that I own, "Made to Stick." This second book, by the Heath brothers, explores why some ideas - even bad or false ideas - thrive in the public domain while others don't resonate. The Heath brothers suggest that six attributes tend to underlie sticky ideas:
(1) Simplicity
(2) Unexpectedness (i.e., a surprising outcome)
(3) Concrete details
(4) Credibility
(5) Emotions
(6) Stories
Obviously, writers will be very interested to consider their work in these terms. Is my writing clear? Does it surprise or drive the reader along? Do I include some details so that my reader gets a picture of what I'm talking about? Am I a credible voice on the subject of discussion? I can go on; clearly, strong writing lessons emerge from the rubric.
N.B.: I'll need to include 2 or three examples of before and after writing examples for some of this. Don't skimp!
But the life-lessons, as usual, make up the more interesting part. I particularly like the stories part as a model because it makes a really neat suggestion: we should have a battery of personal stories at hand. We should know our own stories. We should share them, exchange them, and develop them. We have so many stories, too. We have stories of what we have done. We have stories of what's happened to us. We have stories of others, the strories in which we have been observers. And we have the stories we have learned, the ones we love. What a shame we don't pay more attention to these and care for these.

Perhaps this is one reason why high school and college are such great times, generally speaking. When we are young and newly social, our stories begin to take shape. We become the heroes of the stories we tell, the heroes of stories others tell. This is how we engage with who we are and who we wish to be. Stories help us take a proper distance - not embroiled and not detached.

The other five attributes make for good life lessons too, and I think I can easily talk to them in prose.

Perhaps this should be the first chapter I develop.

New Year Tags

Though I will post on Jan. 2, I’m actually writing this on the first day of 2009, whatever that means. I don’t know why I give any special significance to the so-called new year. At any rate, I don’t mind re-setting some things and moving forward on new ideas.

The old stuff includes a preface I need to draft for my author friend. I’m having trouble with how to open the darn thing. I mean, I want to say something interesting, intellectual, and maybe even provocative. Nothing comes to mind, however. If I am able to get over the writer’s block of the thing, the rest should come out in short order. I have no plans to drag this out; besides, I have new ideas that need to take center stage.

Idea #1 is to use the tags function of the blog to categorize some of my 2009 initiatives. My top initiative involves training for the 2009 Bay State Marathon – which I want to complete at a 4:15 pace. My tag will be “marathon training 2009,” and I’ll use the blog as a running journal.

Other initiatives include my book aspirations. One tag will be “43 Things” for an idea I have to make a list of (small) things that make life worth living. I have six categories – mind, touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste – and I will talk about seven individual items in each. The idea came to me when I was thinking about the joys of nougat. I wanted to learn about nougat and write about it, and then I thought perhaps many other little niceties could be compiled in one place for a good read – good on the beach, good by the fire, and good fun. The 43 sections will each have a regular structure – maybe a brief story to lead off, and then whatever else I can dream up. I can probably finish in a year or year-and-a-half.

Another tag will be “Jewisher” for my idea in ordinary voices on Judaism. My goal will be to establish my voice, create an outline/storyboard, and write to it. For the book, I hope to use my author friend’s Jewish values as a template. I’ll also need to draft a call for stories and get my author friend’s blessing, assuming he doesn’t laugh me out of cyberspace for the audacity to approach him when we clearly do not play well together. I would like a nice draft done – and reviewed by my wife – by the end of March 2009.

I also want a tag for “writing/living,” which addresses my project on writing and living well. I’m excited about this one, so I hope to make good headway in 2009 on it.

A final tag I will discuss is “music.” I want to develop a series of short essays on the music that has affected me most in my life. My approaching 40th birthday has something to do with it. Prufrock measures his life in coffee spoons. I measure mine in songs and artists. We’ll start with the Beatles and maybe earlier in my life, but then we’ll talk about Dylan, John Coltrane, the Stones, Keith Jarrett and John Zorn. I’ll also discuss particular songs I love. Eventually, I want to develop a soundtrack for my 40th birthday.

These projects make me pretty excited about the year ahead and all that is to come. Perhaps I should acknowledge the general gloom and doom that surrounds everyone right now. Yes, the economy is dreadful and getting worse. War seems everywhere and endless. The environment seems not only to be transforming in front of us but exacting revenge. Heartache and head-shaking inanity – not to mention insanity – seem to underlie the behavior of ordinary people everywhere. I recognize this, but I don’t care. I can only do what I do, and that must be enough.