Thursday, July 30, 2009

Invention Is The Mother Of Necessity

Those of us raised on old studio movies know that Don Ameche invented the telephone a year before Spencer Tracy worked through the night to come up with the light bulb which he may or may not have put to his ear and said, “Hello.” He was exhausted, of course, and the world was waiting to be electrified.

We learned from movies the basics of life. Namely, that most everyone wore tuxedos, all navy men were great dancers, babies came from towels and hot water and a cough meant certain tuberculosis curable only by a Viennese doctor who had developed a new procedure.

New discoveries happened to meet a crisis. Columbus was sent out for some Chinese food and returned with a continent for Izzy and Ferd. Now Columbus, disguised as Bill Gates has returned with his cargo of information. The world is still round but it just got smaller.

Those of us caught on the super highway with a typewriter and nothing cordless have been denounced for resisting the new orthodoxy. We’ve been put to the rack where every Luddite bone in our bodies has been deleted.

Who’s your mother? Not necessity; it’s invention, itself. Build it and they will buy it, so it seems. Ever since the answering machine I‘ve asked myself whether this or that will make my life more meaningful, or dimensional, or help get me through the night.

Now I’m making room for all the new "essentials of life" I’m told I must own to keep up. I’m dropping my old baggage, Archimedes Principle and Pi. There goes Newton’s Law. My spelling is an approximation and the multiplication table is exhausted. I’ve been purged of all things retro and confessed to thinking in syllogisms. Like a plane circling the ocean might jettison fuel to lighten its landing I am dumping theorems like bricks. All that’s left of me is my pin number and a few sentences from the Gettysburg Address.

Without understanding how anything works I am taking my place at the threshold, learning the new speak as a second language and clicking on the latest breakthrough without which tomorrow is unthinkable.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Not In So Many Words

Mark Twain is credited with defining an "expert" as any damn fool away from home. Today we regard an expert as anyone who can boil down a complex issue into a digestible sound bite.

Groucho Marx is having his way with us. The smart-aleck quip along with a raised eyebrow could overthrow governments. On his show, "You Bet Your Life" Groucho engaged in a little banter with each contestant. "I see that you have eleven children and you're 30 years old", Groucho observed, "how do you explain that?"

"I love my wife", the gentleman replied.

Groucho gave him a faux-startled look and answered, " I love my cigar but I take it out of my mouth every now and then."

The Marx brothers tapped into our psyche with their iconoclastic and zany antics. Their brand of subversion won our hearts more than Karl Marx. Groucho and Chico spoke the language of the streets, of the immigrant masses in New York City in the early 20th century. They channeled the quick repartee, the moxie, the pushcart swindle and survival in the urban jungle.

While those two brothers pierced the pretensions in our name with machine-gun rapidity it was Harpo who said his piece with a nod, a shrug and a honk. He carried silent film into the fourties as the wisecrack his brothers never said. He was the interval in the fast-talk, the mute in the clamor.

When humanity is all talked out, words at our feet exhausted, we can look to Harpo who distilled the pain and the frolic to the essentials inside his coat - a telephone, one ice skate, a cup of coffee. Junk man, collage artist, archeologist,
he gave us back the artifacts of our fractured civilization.

He saw the world as a broken piano and made a harp of it. When he embraced the strings it was almost too private to watch. His arms reached the firmament making waves that moved the tides and his eyes stared down the stars with the human lament.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Umps Versus Imps

John Keats would have made a terrible umpire.

Umpires live in a world of absolutes. You're either safe or you're out, it's fair or foul, ball or strike. It is either raining or it isn't. It can't be both and it can't be neither.There is no time for indecision, nor the inclination.

The imp is full of mischief. He's the trickster,the elf and as such, the poet. Keats encouraged "Negative Capability"; being comfortable with doubt and ambiguity. The poet's trade is nuance, ellipsis, even irresolution.

If the umpire is the reigning patriarch the imp is the misbehaved child.

One umpire famously declared, "I don't call them as I see them, I call them as they are." This a triumph of objective reality over the subjective; as if the umpire, as a supreme being,is more than an expert observer, he is the teller of truth itself.
It is a declaration that truth exists independent of us; he is merely reporting what already exists.In his formidable black suit he signals his decree and walks away.

My rational mind also believes that the tree in forest needs no witness to fall. However I have found that this sort of thinking doesn't serve the imagination, the imp. The now archaic meaning of "imp" was one who furnishes wings. It is those wings that the poet insists upon. While the umpire defines the box and makes it his address the imp/poet/artist finds portals through the box walls.

In baseball we cede that power to his authority in order to get through the innings. In the real world we reject infallibility unless you have assigned your autonomy to one Ayatollah or another.

The closest we come to such irrefutable decision-making is our Supreme Court justices and we all know how astigmatic their lens can be. They are our umpires with a touch of the imp.

A book I am reading describes the fraternity of umpires as generallly conservative Republican, misogynist, WASP and homophobic. Pray that our high court is comprised of no more than four of such in their black robes.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Jury Nullification

After hearing a presentation by Paul Butler, law professor from George Washington Univ.,I learned about this little-known right of every citizen. Though this option is never announced in the courtroom every juror has the constitutional right to vote for acquital if he/she believes the law, itself, to be unjust.

It cuts both ways. In the antebellum period Northeners who aided in the escape of a fugitive slave to Canada were arrested for commiting a crime.However many were releassed when the jury found the Fugitive Slave law an abomination contrary to their higher moral standards.

However in the sixties civil rights workers were often beaten and even murdered. If perpetrators were found and tried they were often exonerated by the white-supremist jury employing the same privilege.

Mr. Butler argues that black juries can exercise this same authority by not convicting black or Hispanic drug users or even sellers of drugs as they see fit. The justification is that the enforcement of the law is unequally applied. 13% of both Whites, Blacks and Hispanics are drug users but 60% of the prison population
is Black or Hispanic.

The precedent could lead to lawlessness but so could democracy in theory. It is a way for people to redress grievences as they see fit and dramatize their plight to the legislators.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Whaz New? I Dunno, Whaz New With You?

I never got around to thanking my mother for giving birth to me at such a propitious moment in history. FDR and I got inauguerated together and he said,"Infamy" when I was approaching my ninth birthday. For the next four years war news dominated the newspapers and the maps of Europe and the Pacific were my daily geography lessons. When it all ended in the summer of 1945 I wondered if that spelled the end of newspapers. What could they possibly write about?

Many of the ten papers in NYC have since withered away but none of them have any trouble filling their pages with calamities, scandals, police blotters, menacing weather or real or imagined nefarious acts. Even as good news is hard to find, hard news makes good copy.

The newsroom as depicted in His Girl Friday, Citizen Kane or The Daily Planet of Clark Kent have long ago faded into the tapestry of Americana but the investigative reporting that nailed Nixon continues to expose the lies and misdeeds in high places.

I've never counted them but I read that there are currently 29 wars or skirmishes happening at this moment; enough to insure that fish will be always find a wrapping paper......were it not for the Internet.

Even if universal peace broke out there are always bulletins such as the one I read about just last week. The ruling governors in the U.K. have concluded (after five centuries) that the "i" before "e" except after "c" rule is to no longer be taught due to the ever-growing listof exceptions. I'm glad they've finally cleared that up.

Now we are on the verge of a virtual world. It's tough on folks like me. My tactile sense is threatened. Even as the news is stale by the time I'm reading about it over my morning cereal I still require the feel and fold of the newspaper. And what is there to soak up the spilled milk?

It does seem that the big news at the close of the first decade of the millennium is the demise of print media. As newspapers disappear their final headline announces their own obituary.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Baseball As Life

As those of us know who live the well-examined life and yet are still seventeen while pushing eighty, baseball makes life coherent. It's the geometry of the thing, the measured dimensions of the infield which seem divinely inspired along with the random configurations of the outfield which lend it the frailty of humanity. More than most sports baseball is a game of defeat. A 70% failure rate almost ensures a place in the Hall of Fame.

It's the permutations of the game that made it playable on the streets of the city with manhole covers and fire hydrants serving as bases and sawed-off broomsticks as bats. For many of us baseball became punchball or stickball with a list of ground rules that might served a paralegal mind.

Why, I ask myself, has my interest persevered lo these many decades? The game must have a corresponding resonance with the rhythm of my life; an appeal in ways elusive to analysis.There is the on-going dialog between the pull of statistics and the allure of the hunch and the illusion that life is under control in this alternative universe.

Baseball seems to be teeming with metaphors; its pastoral beginnings, the inherent disregard for the clock, the arcane hand signs, the safety of the base and risk of stealing or stretching, the smell of green grass and hot dogs, the way a batter comes to the plate with his own ritual to keep from thinking too much and even the counter-clockwise path of the baserunner as if winding back time itself and finally the exhilaration and exhaustion at the end of life's odyssey....home plate

So many of our geo-political dramas unfold according to lines drawn years ago and articulated in altogether expected ways. Spectator sports can serve as a form of unscripted theatre which incite great passions and seem closer to our understanding if not control.

I am particularly interested in the relationship between fans and the game. How many of us believe,on some level, that our actions determine the outcome? The scene was Kirk Gibson hobbling to the plate in the 9th inning. Raise your hand if you think that my dear step-son, who remained seated while the crowd was on its feet, did not cause that home run. He never saw the immortal drive into the rightfield stands but can take credit for it. Ron stayed in contact with the wood, the tree, the bat, the forces of nature. Crazy but lovable.

On a more rational level I wonder how we fans (the Greek chorus) are complicit with the players (the actors). Do we not push them up on a pedestal as if to extend ourselves only to tear them down when they are detected with suspicious pee or even when they lose some bat speed and half a step? How much can we forgive? And how much do we forgive ourselves.

I wonder, too, about slumps and streaks. After all the numbers are in and films of past performances are studied no one seems to know what went wrong or what went right. There is always an X factor just as we go through our lives in inexplicable ways.

My earliest baseball memory happened in the 1941 World Series when my beloved Dodgers let the 4th game get way after the Yankee hitter seemingly struck out to end the game. The pitch eluded Mickey Owen, the catcher,(or was it the Hugh Casey spitter?) and Tommy Henrich took first base starting a rally they never got over. Nor did I. My team was a perennial loser and the Yankees were a product of providential intervention.

My guess is that Yankee fans grew up with an expectation of success; perhaps even a sense of entitlement. For years they bought their teams using other clubs as their farm system.They were paragons of capitalism. Don't tell me identification doesn't work on the psyche.Are they not the ones who bought Intel at three...and sold the day before the crash?

I owned my subordinate role; the hard-luck but well-intentioned guy identified with underdogs and the down-trodden. When it was Dodgers who broke the color line with Jackie Robinson it seemed a given to me. When they followed me to Los Angeles it felt like compensation for all those losing seasons and almost made me a believer in that great puppeteer in the sky.

Through the years my team has won their share and their ownership has displayed greed and stupidity. The players also have tested my threshold of tolerance but none of this is subject to rational scrutiny. In the last inning maybe that is its appeal.