Friday, July 30, 2010

Baseball and The Gods

There is something about baseball that attracts poets and writers. Is it the statistics or the pastoral pace? My guess is the divinely-inspired proportions of the field, or so it seems.

The game has a certain logic which is overturned, the more you embrace it, by an illogic. Unlike all those oblong sports, played against a ticking clock and the suggestion of opposing armies gaining real estate or aiming a projectile, baseball runs on a kind of squared-off circle and proceeds heedless of the clock. In fact a batter hits a ball and runs counter-clockwise, as if unwinding the clock. The duration of a game is measured in innings and intervals theoretically stretching to infinity.

The pace of the game and layout of the stadium allows the tactician to chew on a multitude of contingencies. Consider the precision of the infield diamond contrasted with the indeterminacy of the outfield grass. The game is a metaphor of human possibility.

Every so often a player comes along who seems to possess the fast wrist and the eagle eye to make it all look simple. When this happens we, as fans, are lifted vicariously as if it translates to our reaching the unattainable.............even if he happens to be on the hated Giants. Such a player is the rookie, Buster Posey who inspired this poem.

Buster Posey

Did your mother name you that
or did you pick it up to show the world where to get off?
Sorry but as a Buster you just don't pass muster
Never mind Buston Brown or Keaton,
my idea of a Buster is a greasy guy with a Fu Manchu,
weighing in at 240, the guy in the subway
no one wants to inhale,
hanging on to an overhead strap.
But you, look at you. You're no Buster
I’ll bet you never swore, spit or shaved.
Can you really be a catcher with a choir boy’s face
and a voice that hasn’t changed?
You are the Boy Scouts of America, still tenderfooted,
yet you soar so near the sun
and your wax isn’t even sweating.
You’ve got the gift of the great eye / hand
returning me to that season of ‘41
when DiMaggio hit for a string of pearls
and Ted batted over the white cliffs of Dover.
Buster Posey, Buster Posey, our jaw drops
and we all fall down when you hit it on the nosey
and run a ring around the rosy.
Are you Malamud’s, Natural, Roy Hobbs
or are you Mudville’s Casey?

Do you realize, Posey, how you have busted in,
flaunting Euclid’s geometry?
Suddenly, sixty feet, six inches won‘t do.
In your unshaven innocence you have trampled
on the mathematician’s elegant, divine dimensions
but on Phythagorean metaphysics and the Platonic ideal.
The gods are gathering on the mound,
scratching and hitching their belts
reconfiguring what were once sublime proportions.
There could be hell to pay for your hubris
or they might etch your Posey on Olympus.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

I'm Of Two Minds

With one eye I see nefarious plots hatching and hear the whisper of conspiracies. With the other eye I’m looking into a mirror.

One agrees that religion is the opiate of the masses. Just as TV is the myopia of the asses along with other entertainments such as movies, video games pennant races, March madness and Raves. We are being unwittingly manipulated; bombarded to numbness by media moguls; told what to buy, how to vote and what wars are to be fought in our name. This is the voice of the conspirator.

I still can’t let go of the notion that Oswald wasn’t the lone assassin. Nor am I ready to reject the existence of a shadow government which renders the White House a side-show.

However on good days I believe that all these institutions, fashions, artifices and distractions arose organically, consciously or not, from some impulse or need deep in our entrails. Maybe we create our own form of narcosis as a defense against too much noise. Organized sports helps us sublimate our aggression on the couch and computer games develop our sensory apparatus to deal with life from a field approach rather than lineal sequentially.

I suspect that the truth wiggles between these two poles. We do act like sheep but we are also complicit in the political calculus. We live in a historical period without precedent. Politics has become an extension of public relations and mass media advertising. Yet at some point we have to own our folly and acknowledge the nit-wits, racists and corporate apologists, malignant as they are, as part of the American experience, like virulent organisms in our bloodstream.

I don’t think it serves us well to be distanced from what we may perceive as politically pernicious or commercially vacuous. The Pop culture today is probably no more alien to us than our era of swing music and urban life was to our elders. We, of a certain age, do not see through the new forms into the eternal verities. We are irritated by the unfamiliar as if it threatened us or invalidated all that we have lived for. It was ever thus.

Do the manipulators move us, sometimes to false paradise and sometimes off the cliff? Or have they simply tapped into our buried instincts? I have no answer other than I think it’s a bit of both. All the new forms of communication which technology has yielded are an extension of our need to touch one another. Yet few of us ever dreamed it possible and some among us resist it still and cling to the old-fangled.

Resistance to change is also hard-wired. We have a nose for trouble. Who knew what creatures lurked in that next cave?....or worse, the rival tribe might be ready to strike. Here is where the first conspiracy theory was planted.

Let’s not confuse the effect with the cause. If religion grew out of fear and superstition and acts like an opiate for the benefit of popes and ayatollahs it doesn’t necessarily follow that they are the dispensers of the opium. I’m ready to concede that religions have persevered out of a human need for sanctuary and transcendence. Maybe some day we’ll find that edifice and sacred space within ourselves.

In the meantime we might find reverence in the natural world, take responsibility for this dazzling, dystopic, sometimes enlightened, sometimes insipid society and take a deep breath.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

In Memoriam

Paul Sawyer died last month. He was the minister of the Valley Unitarian-Universalist Church for ten years starting in the mid-fifties during which time I was actively involved in their program. After Peggy, I would say that Paul had the greatest influence on the course my life would take. He appears in my dreams and is a frequent voice whispering in my ear. Though we had emailed and spoken on the phone I'd not seen him since he married Peggy and me 24 years ago.

When I joined the church my wife was pregnant with our oldest daughter We were new to the area and eager to find some kindred spirits. I was quite politicized, already in flight from Judaism and possibly the most obnoxious guy in the room if you happened to disagree with me.

Paul had recently graduated from Harvard Divinity School and Starr King, the Unitarian Theological Seminary. I credit him with turning me around.He channeled my political idealism (some might say dogma) from macro to micro. A small group of us started the San Fernando Valley Fair Housing Council. There were many other social action projects, vigils, letters to editors, arranging for speakers and acts bearing witness to our core beliefs.

But the door he opened for me was an introduction to the endlessly wide cultural canvas. Kenneth Rexroth, Wallace Stevens, Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau became household names. Their words were our Sunday morning litany. I was introduced to Martin Buber, Reinhold Neibuhr and Paul Tillich along with Ken Kesey, Alan Watts, Camus and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. We had programs of interpretive dance, chamber music, theatre and art exhibits.

These were the turbulent years of civil disobedience, anti-war demonstrations, Love-ins, drugs and new sounds in music. Paul Sawyer had made the leap into that world and pulled the congregation along with him. He was, as I remember, always a significant distance ahead of the pack and often around the next corner.

One Saturday afternoon I dropped in at his house. His dog was barking, the radio and TV were playing and he had some tapes going. He was writing his Sunday sermon. From out of the cacophony he found a core.

He tapped into something latent in me. At one time he even suggested I consider the ministry as a vocation. The closest I got was leading the youth group. Typically, our curriculum was an investigation of other religions. Of course our kids couldn't articulate what Unitarianism was but that was alright because I couldn't either. In fact I still hold to the idea that it is experiential and just beyond verbalization. It's a way of being, not of saying.

As for Christian theology, the last time God was mentioned in the church was when the janitor fell down the stairs. Paul preached that Jesus was a man, nothing less. This was a church where you didn't have to park your brains outside before entering. If there was a fault it was that we were too intellectual. When a Unitarian died he didn't go to heaven; he went to a discussion of heaven.

Paul was well aware of this inclination towards the cerebral and he did everything possible to lead us into a world of the senses. The religious experience is in the discovery of that transcendent dimension embedded in almost every aspect of life. Nature, certainly. The Arts, to be sure. In relationships, I/Thou, also in socio political issues of the day as well as the seemingly mundane.

Paul Sawyer was my Moses guiding me across my own desert. Ironically, down through the years, as I got more engaged in literature and poetry, he became more radicalized. He lived the counter-culture life. He was arrested over sixty times in acts of conscience in support of or protest against various causes.

Our trajectories had crossed. I didn't disagree with him but couldn't give myself over, as he did, to the barricades. I regret how we grew apart in recent years. Still, I hold his memory close and find myself, at times, speaking with his voice.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Migrant Thoughts On Immigration

I’m taking a few steps back from the fray. Away from Arizona, from racial profiling and constitutionality, from fences and troops and lettuce-picking.

All of us are immigrants or descendents of one. We came here either in flight from tyranny or enticed by the beacon of opportunity. Except for Blacks who made their passage in chains as three fifths of a human, our descendents came as uninvited guests, killed out hosts and never left. Our history is bloodied by forced labor, land grabs and genocide.

When we scream today about legal / illegal it has a hollow ring in my ears. Legal is nothing more than the political calculation of the legislators and/or judiciary of the day. Legal was the Fugitive Slave Law and Dred Scott decision. Legal excluded thousands of Jews in the 1930s and interred Japanese-Americans in 1940s. Legal is the stroke of a pen. It confers no moral authority.

Nativism raises its head in hard times. Xenophobia becomes the cry as folks look for a source of their discontent. As a nation we are easily misled and distracted. If we deported twelve million people I doubt if the unemployment figures would move significantly. There are no takers for stoop labor or menial day jobs.

On a more existential level I wake up every morning, undocumented, arriving on the shore of myself. I’ve crossed an ocean in steerage from another country just like everyone else. I’m learning the ways, the language and how to be in this world. Whether it be from a dream state or from the place my imagination has transported me I live in exile. I must check in at my own Ellis Island to re-enter this agreed-upon world.

In this sense immigration is a form of re-invention from Don Draper in Mad Men to the characters in Ragtime. Since Europe colonized the Americas, people have crossed the ocean to start over, to dis-identify with their past, lose their accents, and assume new names.

With climate change now a fait accompli the next centuries will be marked by massive dislocations and migrations of people, unprecedented in recorded history. The Internet is already erasing borders, relegating the old geography to an artifact of a past age. Globalization, as well, will cause cartographers to re-draw maps.

I’m well aware that few people will share my vision. Too many Americans think this is an issue between us and them. It’s time to close that gap. We are one people sharing this piece of orbiting land and sea.

Monday, July 19, 2010

To Buy Or Not To Buy

Here I am in the Costco lot circling around looking for a place to park. Now I’m waiting in a row of cars for someone to come along with their cart. Here’s he comes. He’s pulling out his purchases. What’s taking so long? Is he arranging them in alphabetical order? Finally, he’s in his car. Is he moving? No. Why are drivers so heedless of others?

I’ll tell you why. Because I’m in a hurry. And besides that, it’s because they are shoppers; those greedy, acquisitive types. Not mindful of others like I am, except when I’m not. We are at our worst when we’re in our consumer mode. We’re grabbing and possessing, feeding some primitive instinct of survival or at least, deprivation.

Now I’m in the store picking up twice as many apples and peaches than I need. The only way to make this work is if I start eating them in line or sell some door to door. But I can’t resist the bargain and for that reason I am doing the patriotic thing. A little red ink is healthy.

After 9/11 our inspirational president instructed us to go to the mall; which is what we do to feel good. It’s the American way of being normal. Our best revenge. We were being told to get back to being distracted and leave all the rest to Bush/Cheney. They’ll think of something and they did.

Once again we are being told by economists that we’ve got to get out there and buy. It keeps the money moving. But wait, I thought we were suppose to save more like they do in Germany or Canada. Evidently that was yesterday’s bulletin. Didn’t we get into this mess from over-spending on houses, taking on too much debt? Now we’re being urged to stimulate the economy by shopping with abandon.

Since we no longer make anything in this country except weaponry (which is the last thing to be out-sourced) all we can do is buy a lot of peaches and while you’re there pick up an HD-TV set or a new sofa. After all, look how much trouble it was to get a parking spot.

If you are not on a spending spree don’t let it get around. Many savers may end up out of work themselves if everyone follows their example. How selfish! How subversive! What’s good for you is bad for the country.

Good Americans are bickering over cars in showrooms and getting fed up with their old microwaves from last year. With a little luck we can spend our way out of these hard times and still make the payments on our plastic. But do you really need those new. low slung running shoes with the iridescent stripes and NBA springs …..particularly since they were made in China by workers paid 23 cents an hour? Go on, buy the damn things and then return them tomorrow.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Hand Of History

To the extent that politics is a fast shuffle and house of cards can anyone deny that Barack Obama has been dealt the worse hand in history? His five cards are:

1- The ugliest, far-reaching man-made environmental disaster ever recorded.
2- The most severe financial crisis and unemployment in eighty years
3- Two un-winnable wars.
4- An opposition party notable only for its recalcitrance, meanness and mendacity
5- Inflamed racism

Yet in eighteen months he has pushed through the most progressive agenda since Lyndon Johnson ….to the satisfaction of few. Not the Left who have been waiting outside in the cold for five decades, nor the so-called Independents whose direction changes like a cork on a wave.

I, myself, waver between writing that check in support of the DNC and withholding my meager contribution until the administration has the courage to admit the futility of our foreign misadventure in Afghanistan . Excuse me now while I convince myself to be not disencouraged.

Considering the glacial movement of social progress I would argue that Obama has moved the progressive agenda remarkably well. However diluted, the Healthcare bill will warrant a significant chapter in the pages of American history. Financial reform, though far from our fervent wish, is also a push-back on the reckless practices of Wall St. The stimulus bill provided desperately needed funding for infrastructure arguably saving up to three million jobs and his intervention rescued General Motors from insolvency. Did he not reverse eight years of a hold on stem-cell research? Let’s not forget a re-direction away from misguided Unilateralism and a reaching out to the Muslim world.. Give him credit, also, for two sound Supreme Court additions.

He has weathered more lies and ad hominem attacks than any president in memory. Imagine dealing with FDR’s banking collapse, LBJ’s Vietnam War and corporate malfeasance as never seen before all on the same plate.

As chief executive he leads the parade but there is no parade unless his supporters have his back and get noisy about it. If he is slow to act or perhaps too conciliatory with the Repugnant Party it may well be because he doesn’t hear his constituency behind him.

It is far too easy to criticize or become cynical. We need to be reminded that this is a time of momentous change which has engendered momentous resistance. People are hanging on to old ways and images that probably never existed in the first place. Conservatives know how to capture the symbols and rhetoric which conjure the safe and familiar and conversely characterize sensible legislation with threatening terms. Taxes on millionaires’ inheritance has become a Death Tax. and a medical review board is a Death Panel while a check on rampant corporate abuse is labeled, Socialism.

Will we ever catch on to the malice of the big lie? The coming election will be a referendum on the intelligence or gullibility of the American people. A Conservative vote would be a gift to defense contractors, bankers, evangelical zealots and despoilers of our planet. It would affirm that indeed our vote can be bought by corporations. I think we may just surprise them. I’m writing my check.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Striking Out In The Information Age

In baseball-dom we have witnessed four no-hitters, two of them, (really three) perfect games in half a season. This is as statistically improbable as Obama getting re-elected unanimously or receiving an invitation to a Bar Mitzvah in the Gaza Strip. What’s going on here?

One quick answer might be the abrupt end of steroidal hitters. Anabolic arms are getting flabby and barrel chests, caving in. But juiced pitchers are also yesterday’s news so the playing field is level. Perhaps the expansion of major league teams almost twenty years ago has brought some truly minor leaguers into the big time.

I propose a more sociological answer. Armed with a plethora of information batters are going up to the plate thinking too much. Call it paralysis from analysis. If they face the pitcher thinking that he usually throws a curve ball when he gets two strikes or a low-outside slider on the first pitch…they are doomed. To be successful the hitter must focus on the nanosecond of the ball’s spin, not try to out-think what the stats say he will be throwing.

Analytical thinking is bread and butter for the announcer up in the booth but for the athlete on the field it’s a curse. It’s also the difference between an artist and a critic. If he is to be successful a writer becomes his own best critic. He may connect or he may fall on his face but he is sure to strike out through self-censure or by listening to self-appointed arbiters of good taste. Imagine relying on a manual on how to tie your shoes. In such cases information is devoutly to be ignored.

Here we are, stuck in the Information Age. There’s a glut of it. Wikipedia has seen to it that we've all been deputized as experts. Facts and stats are coming out of our ears. Both the athlete and the creative individual may be feeling the weight of it. Ballplayers need to rely on their muscle memory and artists on the muscle of their imagination.

I notice a hitter walking up to the batter’s box with a ritual. He circles the plate, fingers his bling, crosses himself, plays with his Velcro and then knocks the dirt from his cleats (that isn’t there) ………all this to quiet his brain and relocate everything he knows into his kinesthesiology.

So, too, a writer needs to quiet those interjected voices of a censorious parent or the teacher who rapped his knuckles for transgressing before he can recover his own voice and take its dictation.

There is a place for analysis……in the laboratory or academia. And of course, there are batting coaches to remedy a hitter’s funk. I only question the art critic who would argue the merit of a particular Pollock drip or the literary maven who delights in tearing apart an author’s sentence, often out of context. This is like boiling a watch to see what makes it tick. The critic does best when he illuminates the creator’s work or articulates it in ways that the artist has chosen not to.

I know we are more likely to be fans than players and art appreciators more than working artists however we need to think like them. Otherwise we become passive consumers with our critical faculty overwhelming our creative one. Analysts assume the role of screeners of public taste. In a sense we are all artists in our being, struggling to express ourselves. We all intrepret the Zeitgeist and feel the press of convention keeping us in line, resisting change. We are more than consumers; we keep art alive.

I've allowed myself to wander in this piece and I'm now far afield from the baseball diamond. I'm not sure how I got here but I suppose my point is that I (we) are makers of our own lives and it wouldn;t hurt to close the distance between us and what we read, hear or witness.

I don’t mean to dismiss the value of learning the craft, be it sports or creativity. In the former case one may recognize his endowments early on and work hard to hone the skills. The same may be true for any artist. Study the material, practice draftsmanship or take in the rules of grammar and such……but at some point get it out the head into the hand and let it fly.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Table Talk

No, not the beef broccoli again. Pass the Tsingtow Did you hear the one about the cow from Minsk? Try this one written in Chinese and hope it isn’t dog, unless… What's with the cow? …Unless you’re dyslexic. The Dow is down again. Forget about the Dow, I'm talking about the cow. Where else would God be except in the undiscovered. Saw it on Netflix but I can’t remember what. ….gives milk like they’ve never seen before.So they bring in a bull. He’s not in the kitchen steaming the hell out of the rice. It was a director’s cut. And He’s not stuffing truths inside the cookies. Too much good news. When the bull approaches the cow moves away. He’s probably commiserating with those oversized fish in the undersized tank. One of the ten best. I think I just found Him on the tip of my tongue between the sweet and sour and the hot and pungent. . …and the Rabbi said, “My wife is from Minsk".

There’s no deli like Brent's and it’s not just the matzo ball soup. The twice- baked, rye bread makes this a destination. Peggy’s salami recalled a passage from the Thomas Mann book we are reading. Our friend was moved to discourse on Derrida as she deconstructed her blintzes. In the next booth two men were in disputation over Neocons. The man across the aisle with Einstein’s hair wrote in his notebook, sauerkraut dripping from his Reuben. On the way out my buddy mused about Orpheus and Eurydice and never looked back. I’d never thought of cold cuts as brain food or how Darwinism trumps Creationism in the way cucumbers evolve to briny dills. 

Religion and politics all over the news but not on our menu. We talk movies and sports and past glories.. We search the salad for something benign on the tongue or an agreed-upon subject to scorn like the monsoonal air, our H.M.O.s or complain that we’ve forgotten how to sleep. At the next table we overhear a remark on the undocumented busboy or the genetically tampered tomato. How a caramelized walnut found a homeland among the over-dressed greens The imperialism of the vinaigrette causing small uprisings among the fundamentalist lettuce. It could be worse. We could be in the wrong city sitting next to wired zealot and we, without a prayer, while the ice cap is melting in our passion fruit tea. 

Deliver me please from this trendy ristorante where the waiter auditions the specials and the pasta tastes like noise; where we must shout for water and lip-read across the table, then tip and run into the relative silence of traffic. Return me to the Automat where I could introvert into my hot water and ketchup and thicken my life with crushed Saltines, where the man in the change booth throws out twenty nickels like an alchemist who just found the key to convert base metals, fingering them through the glass so I could take communion with a Kaiser roll and coffee. Or better yet I might brown-bag it in the park with some pigeon-covered bronzed general among men adrift on their benches, lost in memories of what never quite happened and I could be one of them. 

Thursday, July 1, 2010

When Your Number's Up

You might be at Bay Cities Italian Deli with a ticket in your hand that says eleven but they’re only up to seventy-nine even with eight countermen outnumbered four to one and it feels like you’ve been waiting here since last Thursday getting hungrier and hungrier smelling all that forbidden food like the genoa salami, mortadella, ham, prosciutto, hot pepper, provolone and God knows what else they pile up inside a Godmother sandwich which is an offer I can’t refuse even though it’s going to raise my bad cholesterol, lower my good one to say nothing of tooth decay and blood sugar but I’m too old to die young and there are times when such concerns must be put aside because the bread is so warm and crisp it must have been baked by a poet and I wouldn’t care if they just slobbered mustard and mayo between two halves of the submarine, besides it’s good to be here in the salivating throng where two years ago I met Sydney Pollack and chatted about his latest movie which leads me to think about what happened to him and hope that the Godmother wasn’t an accomplice, forensically speaking, (they just called number 98), even so, what’s it all about if not the smell, texture and taste on the tongue however brief and the lingering vision it conjures of your last trip to Italy at the outdoor cafĂ© facing the piazza in Venice across from the Rialto bridge and you were sipping Cinzano or was it Compari, while a man at the next table rocked a baby in a carriage as he peeled an apple with his knife that could have saved a life or taken one in a back alley while you and your wife talked about the labyrinthine paths that brought you here…and just then the man behind the counter calls out number nine….and you start inching your way to the front of this congregation of the condemned and it's still light outside as the red machine pops out number thirty-seven for the newly arrived and nobody is leaving in this goldmine of an eatery leading you into blessed abundanza, body of Christ, Baruch... and Amen.