Thursday, December 31, 2009

Smoking 2.0

I spent a lot of my holiday break watching old movies ("The Thin Man," "Philadelphia Story," "The Big Sleep") which means I also spent a lot of time watching people smoke cigarettes. Let me say right from the beginning that I’m no fan of cigarettes. They helped kill my father. I remember finding, not long after his death, a filter from one of his Kents lying in the grass of my parents’ back yard, where he must have discarded it some time before, and where I was now doing some weeding for my mother. It was a hell of a thing to be reminded that the butts of his cigarettes were still around even after he’d gone.

And yet, is it possible to watch one of those old movies and not admire the way William Powell or Humphrey Bogart handled a cigarette? Smoking, as they did it, seemed less an activity than a gesture. There was a time when I aspired to smoke with that much style. Is there a better moment in movies than the first time we see Bogie in “Casablanca,” in his dinner jacket, dragging on a cigarette? Did these people have a talent for smoking, in the way they had a talent for acting? (Or was their smoking part of the act?) Now I sometimes see people standing in the cold outside the revolving door of downtown office buildings, dragging on cigarettes. There is nothing Bogart-cool about them. They look dreary and sad. Do they just lack the talent for smoking? Maybe the surgeon general’s warning on cigarette packs should advise people against smoking unless they are film stars of the black-and-white era.

Of course, today’s smokers are standing out in the cold because we’re in a period of antismoking repression. Now, instead of smoking at the roulette table in Rick’s Café, you do it, furtively, in the alley. Is it my imagination or did public opinion swing against smoking at around the same time we all started migrating to the Internet? I ask the question because if anything has replaced smoking in bars and clubs and parties (just once I’d like to throw a classic Christmas blowout like the one in “The Thin Man”) it is playing with information technology. Instead of smoking in social situations, we text and tweet and take pictures of each other with our phones. It’s no longer enough to throw a party or attend a party or enjoy a party. The party must be commented upon, documented as it happens. Even more remarkable, the traditional responsibilities of the partygoer—talking, laughing, trying to say something smart or funny—have been outsourced to the Web. Not long ago, I was at a party where one of the guests pulled out his smart phone and began reading aloud, at no one’s urging, the latest Southeast Conference football scores. Ask yourself: What would William Powell have done?

In his book, “Cigarettes are Sublime,” Richard Klein writes that the history of “antitabagism” goes back centuries, but that the historical cycle always swings back from repression to the return of the smoker. But is it more likely that smoking will one day make a comeback, or that one day we will come to ostracize social networkers and tweeters and people who can’t put away their Blackberries even at the dinner table? Will they have to do their thing as smokers do now, furtively, in alleys?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

It's the Most Fault-Finding Time of the Year

“In the spirit of Christmas grumpiness,” The Times Online asked a bunch of arts-and-letters types to complain about the putative classics that they secretly despise. There were some outstanding nominations: Romeo and Juliet, Charles Dickens, Monty Python. On the whole, though, the contributors set their sights too low, I think. Tom Waits? Oasis? I’d argue that since neither of these acts qualify as classics, they don’t even deserve our secret disdain. I think most of us have been happy to scoff openly at Oasis for some time now.

I would save my spite for Moby Dick. Or the faux-populist preener Bruce Springsteen. Or the insistently hardboiled David Mamet. Or soccer. Lumps of coal all around, if you ask me.

But to friends of Catapult, and especially to everyone who talked back this year: Have yourselves some merry little Christmases.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Downhill Fast

Spent part of yesterday sliding down a hill on my ass. This is one of the blessings of fatherhood: the license to act like an eight-year old. My boy and his friends were sledding on the hill down the street, and I walked up there under the pretext of calling them home for dinner. While I was there, I took the chance to make a few runs down the hill myself.

I once believed that fatherhood would transform me in some profound way, make me wiser, more mature, more of a man. What it has really done is give me an excuse to play with sleds.

The boys had built a little packed-snow ramp at the bottom of the hill that sends you—if you hit it just right—airborne and over a little stream that winds around the bottom of the hill. So it was me and a bunch of third-graders in the fading light, taking turns sliding and flying. It was so much fun that I’m afraid I might have hogged the best sled.

Tomorrow: Nerf basketball in the family room?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

John Adams vs. 1776

One of the joys of having any kind of specialized knowledge is using that knowledge to nitpick and correct other people’s errors. Grammar snobs and sports fans have known this for a long time. So have the sort of history buffs who like to complain about anachronisms and inaccuracies in historical films.

So it was interesting to see historian Mark Peterson, writing in Common-Place, take on the much-praised HBO John Adams miniseries for “trying too hard to insert the work of professional historians into the script” and “trying to create the illusion that you were watching something that looked pretty much like the way it actually happened.” Peterson argues that the series’ scrupulous attention to period details only makes it “sneakily inauthentic” because it doesn’t recognize “the limits of our knowledge about the past.” John Adams gets the wigs and knickers just right, Peterson suggests, but it still trades in the predictable conventions and motivations of the costume drama. Better that movies “call attention to . . . the fact that they are inventing and dramatizing . . . rather than pretending, as John Adams does, that they are not.”

So what American Revolution movie does Peterson recommend? The musical 1776, starring Ken “The White Shadow” Howard as Thomas Jefferson, because it “calls attention to its own stylized qualities” and “does a better, more compelling and more economical job of teaching audiences some of the fundamental aspects of the American Revolution.” For example, Peterson writes, the tune “Molasses to Rum to Slaves,” from 1776 “tells [audiences] that slavery was a major issue in the Continental Congress’ deliberations on independence . . . without leaving them thinking that they know, that they have seen, just what happened.”

As long as we’re recognizing the limits of our knowledge about the past: Does this mean that Jefferson, Adams and Rutledge didn’t really jump up on their desks and break into song during that summer in Philadelphia?

I like musicals about the Founding Fathers as much as the next guy, but if I had to choose, I’d still take John Adams. And it’s not because of any verisimilitude or because wardrobe got the tricorner hats just right. It’s because of Laura Linney.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Buddha Does a Driveway

Over at the excellent Necromancy Never Pays, Friend of Catapult Jeanne sees my recent post about (not) meditating while shoveling and raises it with a Billy Collins poem, "Shoveling Snow With Buddha." Check it out. Clearly, my mistake was not getting Buddha to come help me shovel. He's relentless.

Friday, December 4, 2009


Let me confess from the very beginning that I can get a little obsessive about shoveling snow. I like to keep the driveway clear, is the thing. It has nothing to do with getting the cars in and out. I just don’t like having old snow sitting in the driveway. It seems like a kind of moral failure. Also, we’ve got a couple basketball hoops set up out there and I like to keep the court clear, just in case the 1985 Loyola University Sweet Sixteen team comes by for a pickup game.

So this morning I got the shovel out and went to work on the season’s first snow, which dropped overnight. It was a light snow, the kind of snow that most normal people would leave alone, knowing that in a day or two, with some sun and rising temps, it would be gone. But I shoveled. It was easy shoveling, and as I walked back and forth, pushing the snow around, I started thinking about the walking meditation techniques my wife has been trying to teach me. I’ve read about and seen gardens and labyrinths designed for this kind of meditation, but it seemed to me that there was something about the pace and rhythm of shoveling my driveway that would also encourage something like a meditative state. I thought I might try it. Except that when I tried to do a little meditating as I shoveled, I found myself instead thinking back to the pretending that I used to do when I was a kid and it was my job to shovel the sidewalk in front of my parents’ house. Like I’d pretend that it’s December 1944 and I’m the renegade captain of a special Army unit of expert shovelers whose mission it is to keep the roads of Belgium clear for the advancing Allied infantry. When you’re ten, you need some kind of fantasy life to get you through your chores. I suppose it helps for a long time after that, too.

The point is, I never did really get around to any actual meditation during my shoveling. But the driveway is clear now and the basketball can begin. And any Allied units that happen to come through this area will find easy marching in front of our house.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Gladwell, Pinker and Pissing in Alleys

I’ve had football on the brain lately, and thanks to The New York Times Book Review I know I’m not the only one. Steven Pinker and Malcolm Gladwell duke it out on the letters page this week, over—of all topics—evaluating NFL quarterbacks.

What next? Bernard-Henri Levy reporting live from the pre-draft scouting combine?

I’m still rebounding from last week’s trip to the Bears-Eagles game with my son A.J., a night that featured my favorite pre-game tailgate to date, in the lower level of a parking garage about a half-mile from the stadium. My pal K., who had invited us, had told me that he usually tailgated in this garage, but I guess I hadn’t really considered what such a scene might look like. Maybe because it was a night game, it looked a little like a location shoot for “The Road.” A real post-apocalyptic vibe. Men in circles around fires, drinking and cursing, etc. Shadows and chain-link fence. Smoke hanging thick beneath concrete ceilings. And every so often, the riverine sound of someone pissing down into the alley from the garage roof.

My boy, who has been raised not to relieve himself in the dark corners of public parking facilities, looked a little scared, but mostly thrilled. He seemed to figure out quickly that the normal rules weren’t going to apply. He liked getting home after midnight, too. All of this probably makes me a lousy parent, at least for one night. Which, I guess, was the whole point. I wonder what Gladwell would say about all of it.

Monday, November 16, 2009


It’s the Season of the Lists. Every year around this time, some middle-class survival instinct kicks in (or is it just a siege mentality?) and I go around making lists of the things that have to be done before the long winter comes: Gutters to be cleaned, leaves to be burned, trees to be cut back. This goes back to my childhood, I suppose, when I used to help my dad change out the screens for storms on lead-sky autumn Sundays with the Bears on the radio. To this day, I associate most domestic chores with the image of Bobby Douglass running for his life.

At the top of my list this weekend was installing a new chimney cap, a job that involves me climbing up on the roof. I hate climbing up on the roof. I’ll do it when I have to, but first I have to psych myself up a little, talk myself into it, a little like a parachutist getting ready to jump out of a plane. The payoff, though, is the view. You can see a stream cutting through some woods behind our house and a chain of ponds off in the distance and an old barn and, on days like yesterday, smoke rising from a few burning leaf piles around the neighborhood. I was checking all this out, when I started to hear a strange racket coming from the woods, just 30 yards or so from the house. It sounded like grunting pigs. A few seconds later, a doe came tearing out from behind a tangle of honeysuckle, full speed. She was sprinting like a thoroughbred, ears back and eyes wide. Charging after her were two grunting bucks. They looked—-well, let’s just say they looked determined. It’s mating season. The doe led them in a loop around our yard, jumped over the stream, and doubled back into the woods. Then I lost sight of the chase, though every once in a while I could hear some thrashing in the woods and more grunting. I guess that doe was on the bucks’ to-do list.

I’m a little compulsive about making my lists, but not always so successful at actually completing them. I find my lists all over the house. Lists of calls to return, lists of books to look for at the library, lists of things to buy at the grocery store. The really old lists that turn up inevitably seem a little pathetic, with their outdated priorities. They’re like a record of the futility of my days. But I suppose lists are hopeful things, too. As long as you’re making lists, you can’t be totally sunk in despair. (Umberto Eco in a recent interview: “We like lists because we don’t want to die.”)

I knocked a few things off my list yesterday (Watch horny wild animals get busy? Check.) and let a few more slip. I’ll make a few more lists today. It’s on my list of things to do.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Gales of November

When I was a kid, I thought Gordon Lightfoot’s "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" was the most epic and heartbreaking piece of music I would ever hear. I suppose this is what happens when you grow up listening to your big brothers’ Fairport Convention records.

Today is the anniversary of the Fitz going down off Whitefish Bay in 1975 with 29 men on board. WDCB marked the occasion by playing about a half-dozen cover versions of "The Wreck," nearly back-to-back. That's an awful lot of mournful maritime folk, even for me. I still think it’s a really good song, but I'm not sure I really need to hear it again until next November.

Friday, November 6, 2009

On Not Sleeping with Audrey Hepburn

Stuck in another episode of middle-of-the-night sleeplessness last night, I turned to TCM to find that “Roman Holiday” was on. Forget space travel and wireless communications; I say the greatest achievement of our age is the availability, at 3 a.m., of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn to keep even the most miserable insomniac company.

Even better, I happened to turn the movie on right at the point where Peck, finding himself unable to sleep, leaves his apartment and goes out for a walk. I felt strangely reassured. That’s an example of what my hero Walker Percy would call a certification--the process whereby a movie confers a kind of psychic legitimacy on your otherwise ordinary existence. Granted, Peck couldn’t sleep because he had a heavily sedated Hepburn in his room, whereas my case was more your standard-issue middle-class-anxiety insomnia. Still, I felt Peck and I understood each other.

Today, though, I’m fighting an inexplicable urge to run out and buy a Vespa scooter.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Goalie Mask: Fifty Years of Pucks to the Face

Turns out I missed an important anniversary yesterday. The goalie mask made its debut in the National Hockey League fifty years ago, when Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens wore one in a game on November 1, 1959.

Hockey fans--and slasher film devotees--rejoice.

This story from the Chicago Sun-Times has all the details, including a quote from current Blackhawks goaltender Cristobal Huet on what would happen if he tried to face down a slapshot without his mask (“I’d be dead right now") and a mention of the wonderfully named anti-mask Montreal coach, Toe Blake.

But how does one celebrate an anniversary like this?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Essayists in the Outfield

Now that it’s World Series time—finally—I have a pretext for linking to this essay—finally--by Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Fernando Perez, from the September issue of Poetry magazine, about the alienation that poets and ballplayers share. Perez may have had a lousy year at the plate (.206 in 18 games) but his essay gave him the major-league-lead in appearances in prestigious literary journals. It also got him a lot of attention. A story on NPR called him, not quite correctly, “baseball’s poet.”

Most professional athletes don’t keep well-thumbed volumes of John Ashbery poems in their lockers. So it’s not such a surprise that Perez's essay and his reading habits made news. What’s remarkable is that his literacy hasn’t made him a clubhouse pariah. Perez’s writing places him in the long and troubled tradition of the Literate Jock--athletes whose literary inclinations won them public notice, but also alienated them from their less-literate peers.

The tradition dates back at least to boxer Gene Tunney, who in the 1920s famously corresponded with George Bernard Shaw and lectured on his favorite play, “Troilus and Cressida,” at Yale while he was heavyweight champ. (He compared the dimwitted Ajax to challenger Jack Sharkey.) His literary interests—or pretensions, as many said—were sensationalized in the press as something of a carnival sideshow, and the New York Times, put a report of his Yale lecture on its front page. But Tunney’s reputation as the brainy boxer only distanced him from boxing fans and writers, and he ended up ridiculed as a “phony intellectual.” “His aloofness from the sport…coupled with his literacy, scholarly bent and wealth, damn near made him a pariah,” wrote biographer Jack Cavanaugh.

The perils of jock literacy are even more evident in team sports, where one guy reading a book in a locker room tends to be seen as the sort of stunt that will upset team chemistry. In his seminal 1960 book, The Long Season, Jim Brosnan, who pitched for the Cubs, Cardinals and Reds in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, writes about confounding his teammates by reading a book on a team flight. They took to calling him “Professor.” When Brosnan’s own book appeared, it was seen as an outright provocation, a violation of the sanctity of the clubhouse. In the preface to a 1975 new edition, Brosnan explained the problem: "As an active player on a big-league team I had seemingly taken undue advantage by recording an insider's viewpoint on what some professional baseball players were really like. I had, moreover, violated the idolatrous image of big leaguers who had been previously portrayed as models of modesty, loyalty and sobriety -- i.e., what they were really not like. Finally, I had actually written the book by myself, thus trampling upon the tradition that a player should hire a sportswriter to do the work. I was, on these accounts, a sneak and a snob and a scab."

By then at least one other pitcher-author could commiserate. After former New York Yankee and Seattle Pilot Jim Bouton published his tell-all Ball Four in 1970—curse words included--the first stop he had to make was at baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s office. He was asked to repudiate his own book. Ball Four became a number-one bestseller, but that only seemed to aggravate Bouton’s offenses in the eyes of other ballplayers. He'd told clubhouse secrets and, maybe even worse, he'd engaged in the intellectual pretense of writing a book - and he wasn't even a star. When batters knocked his pitches all over the park, as they increasingly did, the catcalls came from the opposing dugout: ''Put that in your book, Shakespeare.” (My old essay on Bouton from the New York Times Book Review is here.)

Even before the book came out, Bouton’s interest in reading and writing separated him from his teammates. He wrote of his teammates trying to sneak a look at the notebook he kept with him, and of a teammate asking him if reading makes him smarter. Nothing in Ball Four is more touching than Bouton's take on the lot of the outsider on a baseball team, traveling for six months with two dozen men who have little use for him: ''I know about lonely summers. In my last years with the Yankees I had a few of them. You stand in a hotel lobby talking with guys at dinnertime and they drift away, and some other guys come along and pretty soon they're gone and you're all alone and no one has asked you what you're doing about dinner. So you eat alone.''

Given the history of literate jocks, you might expect Perez to be in for a similarly cold shoulder. It’s not so much that Perez published (after all, sports memoirs are now legion, of course, and so are jock-blogs) but that he’s so unapologetically bookish. He writes in “Para Rumbiar”: I’m not especially touched when a poet deals with a ball game; I’m not especially interested in having one world endear itself to the other. Right now I need them apart, right now I’m after displacement, contrast. The thick wilderness of, say, late Ashbery, can wrangle with the narrowness of competition.”

That doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of clubhouse banter, but Perez’s erudition—like Brosnan, he has been known to keep books in his locker-- hasn’t seemed to alienate him from his teammates. A scout quoted in a New York Times profile called him a “clique-breaker,” the kind of player who gets along with all the factions that tend to form in a big-league clubhouse. Nor has he run afoul of the authorities, like Bouton. Perez was the subject of an admiring story on Major League Baseball’s website, the kind of attention that doesn’t usually come to weak-hitting outfielders who spend much of the season recovering from wrist surgery.

Not that I mean to suggest that Perez is wiping out anti-intellectualism in sports. Locker rooms are not turning into libraries. And the next time you hear an ex-jock broadcaster use a multi-syllabic word on the air, you will also more than likely hear his partner bust his chops for it. What’s different about Perez’s essay is that, even though it’s written by a baseball player, it’s not really about baseball at all. “Para Rumbiar” mentions three poets—Ashbery, Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg—but not a single major leaguer. That may be one reason Perez has avoided the trouble other Literate Jocks have found. His essay didn’t bother the baseball world because it didn’t hit close to home.

But then, that’s what makes it worth reading. Perez in “Para Rumbiar” tells us less about playing baseball than about some of the psychic states—exhaustion, isolation, idleness—that go along with the job. It took a Literate Jock to notice that these are the places poetry often comes from, too.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Gone Mad

I know I might have my Cultural Literacy card revoked for admitting this, but I’ve never succumbed to Mad Men mania. I’ve seen bits of the show, but after a few minutes I start to catch an offputting whiff of easy cliché. (Ah, postwar suburban ennui, how many souls must you kill?) Still, it’s not the show itself that turns me off as much as it is the relentless evangelization on its behalf. (Slate, New York Times Arts section, I’m looking at you.) I went through the same experience with The Sopranos and The Wire, other hour-long TV dramas that once dominated discourse among the kinds of people who pride themselves on their good taste. I can’t help thinking of these kinds of shows as something like highbrow versions of “Dancing with the Stars:” You have to watch them if you want to participate in your clique’s water-cooler conversation. There gets to be something cultish and compulsory about the whole thing. Sorry, but I’d rather just watch the Blackhawks—or as I’ve been doing the last few nights, reading Eric Sanderson’s Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City. (I’ve checked the index, and Don Draper doesn’t seem to make an appearance.)

MM gets another thumbs up from Benjamin Schwarz in the current Atlantic, but he also faults the show for getting some period details wrong. What made me sit up and take notice of Schwarz’s take on the show, though, was his invocation of one of my lifelong TV loves: The Dick Van Dyke Show. He speculates that many Mad Men maniacs are viewers “whose notions of the glamour of adult life, of Manhattan, and of 'creative careers' were shaped by endless reruns of three sitcoms with concrete ties to Mad Men’s particular milieu: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewtiched and That Girl.” Schwarz writes that Mad Men is “those shows grown up, grown hard and, in ways that flatter its writers’ and viewers’ images of themselves, grown wise.”

It’s a provocative, slightly counterintuitive point, but I haven’t seen enough of MM to know if it’s on target. (Any thoughts, lovers of Mad Men?) Still, I have to like any essay that argues, in effect, for the timeless relevance of Mel Cooley.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

(Locked In) A Room of One's Own

Around our house, we don’t talk as much about writing as we do about not writing. My wife and I like to take turns complaining about how little we’re getting done. We also take turns offering each other advice on ways to be more productive. I don’t think I need to tell you how that usually goes over.

It’s never uncomplicated when writers try to help other writers write. When the writers are married to one another, it gets really interesting. Christopher Benfey gets at this in a review of Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers in the New York Review of Books. Showalter’s book, a history of American women writers, mentions that Mary McCarthy was urged into fiction writing by her second husband, critic Edmund Wilson, who “shut her up in a room for three hours and ordered her to write a story.” For Showalter, it’s a paradox that “during the time when she was most dominated by a man, McCarthy began to create a new image for American women.”

But Benfey writes: “Where is the paradox? Wilson’s insistence that McCarthy allow time for her writing was overbearing, perhaps. . .But wasn’t it better to shut her up in a room with a typewriter than to hand her a broom and dustpan?”

For the record, neither my wife nor I have ever ordered the other into a room to write. Nor do we do much handing out of brooms and dustpans. But I’m not sure Benfey’s distinction matters much. Whether you’re handing someone a typewriter or a broom, you’re still taking upon yourself a position of authority--the assigner of tasks.

I’m also unconvinced about magic happening whenever you lock a writer in a room. A while back I mentioned the story of Hitchhikcr’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams being locked in a hotel room by his impatient editor. “I sat at the desk and typed and he sat in the armchair and glowered,” Adams is supposed to have reported. Maybe if my wife and I tried something like this, we’d be more productive. But I’m not sure we’d survive all the glowering.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Playing Ohio Like a Piano

Ohio has 88 counties. Maybe this little bit of information leaves you underwhelmed, but it occurred to Andy Woodruff, the proprietor of the Cartogrammar blog, that those 88 counties corresponded to the 88 keys on a piano. So he made a map of the state that you can play like a piano.

Each county on his musical map is assigned a note based on demographic data, like population, median age, and housing prices. If you select population, for example, the most sparsely populated county is assigned the lowest note and the most populous gets the highest. Then the music starts. You can have the map play a route like, say, Akron to Cincinnati. Or you can play a metropolitan area, which produces a chord based on its demographic data. The map will also play you a slightly off-sounding version of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, with counties lighting up as each note is played.

I especially like the way the map lets you play a route, which comes awfully close to translating travel into music. Granted, some routes don’t make the most beautiful music. But maybe if you selected just the right data set and just the right route, you would have a masterwork on your hands. Who knew Ohio could sound so good?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Not Keeping Score

My baseball-crazy eight-year-old boy is playing Fall Ball—a pared-down, more instructional, less competitive supplement to the summer leagues that tend to be all about championships and all-star nominations and too-intense parents. In Fall Ball, there are no playoffs and most of the teams don’t bother keeping score. My son’s enjoying it, and so am I. He likes it because he’s getting to pitch and steal bases for the first time. I like it because, as one of the assistant coaches, I don’t come home from games twitching with anxiety from dealing with screaming parents and crying children. I appreciate the laidback vibe.

At my son’s first Fall Ball practice, his coach gave the kids a little speech. He told them to let him know if they wanted to try playing a new position, and not to worry if they messed up. We’re here to learn, he said. Now’s the time to try things because there’s no pressure. And I was wondering: Why don’t we tell kids that in the summer, too? If instructional and pressure-free and noncompetitive is the right philosophy for Fall Ball, why not for summer leagues, too?

Maybe the answer is that kids—even more than pain-in-the-ass parents and crazy coaches—are competitive. Even though we don’t keeps score in our Fall Ball games, just about any kid on our team could tell you the score at any given moment of a game. For that matter, they know the score, and trash-talk freely about it, even when we’re playing a little intrasquad game in practice. I understand the impulse. When I play a game—pickup basketball with the old men, Scrabble with my wife—I want to win. A bad round of Wii golf can depress me for hours. And it's not that I think a little competition is going to kill anyone. So why is there still a part of me that wants to knock down all the scoreboards at the peewee baseball fields?

Monday, September 28, 2009


One of Chicago’s c-list historical sites is the McDonald’s s #1 Store Museum in Des Plaines, a recreation of the first McDonald’s opened by founder Ray Kroc, in 1955. When I was a Shamrock-shake-besotted kid living not far from Store #1, I thought this place was one of the sacred shrines of the national spirit--on par with, I don’t know, Gettysburg or Independence Hall.

I'm not the McDonald's maniac I used to be, but I still had to take note when the Boston Globe’s wonderful Brainiac blog linked to this map, from Weather Sealed, of every McDonald’s location in the Lower 48. It’s a stunning visual. The East Coast is pretty much one big mass of McDonald’s franchises, each the spawn of Store #1. The only gaps in the national coverage seem to be in Nevada and the Dakotas. And maybe this is just me, but if you tilt the map so the Pacific Coast is on top, does anyone else make out a scary Halloween mask of a face out west? Or do I just need a McCafe this morning?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Other People's Music

I admit to a low tolerance for other people’s music, which is why I bring an iPod and earbuds with me to the local coffeehouse. Shutting myself off in my own aural world probably violates the social contract of the coffeehouse, but it beats listening to their soundtrack, which leans too heavily on breathy girl neo-folk singers for my tastes.

But every once in a while you can find a gem among the music that’s forced on you in public places. One of the local supermarkets, for example, plays a not-awful ‘70s AOR mix; hearing something like Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” makes even comparison-pricing wheat bread fun. The song is good, but what I really appreciate is coming upon it in a supermarket, one of the least soulful environments known to man.

Another case: Not long ago, shopping for gym shoes for my 8-year-old boy in one of a series of depressing big-box stores, I heard a song that sounded familiar. It took me a minute to figure out what it was, because it had been transformed into a bit of syrupy instrumental elevator music, but then it came to me. It was the Replacement’s “Skyway,” a wonderful little song that I hadn’t heard or thought of in a long time. I don’t know if I’m entirely happy to have my college-rock heroes reduced to grist for the background music mill at Kohl’s, but hearing even a corrupted “Skyway” made that afternoon for me. For once, I was glad I had left the iPod at home. I suppose there are assertive technologies and protective technologies. And one of the functions of a protective technology (an iPod?) is to screen out all the noise made by everyone else's assertive technology. But maybe that function isn't without costs.

Any other stories of musical surprises in unlikely places?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Heavy Books

Over beer and burgers the other night, my friend T. was talking up Kindle. T’s a smart guy and a savvy writer on things techy, and since I don’t fully get the Kindle phenomenon, I’d asked him what he liked about it. And T., in the course of his typically coherent response, mentioned something that I’d heard from other Kindle-loving friends. With Kindle, he said, you don’t have to carry around big piles of books. They’re all in one little device!

What’s odd about this (and I want to articulate this without veering off into the territory of the Luddite rant, because for all I know I will have my own Kindle someday soon and will be declaring my own love for the device for making my life so much better) is that in all my years of reading, I’ve never felt oppressed by the onerous task of carrying around books. I brought a half-dozen or so along on a recent weeklong trip to New Mexico and they caused me no trouble. If I’d had their electronic versions all loaded up in a Kindle it would have saved me a little space and a little weight in my bag, which I would have taken up with—what, more socks? But I like the physical, pulpy presence of books. I like even the weight of them. (We have some real behemoths laying around the house. One of them, the 1634-page Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, is currently holding open the door to our back porch. Try that with a Kindle on a breezy day.) I like carrying them around in a bag over my shoulder. They feel like Christmas presents waiting to be opened.

Books—physical books—sometimes even feel like a physical comfort. Here’s Nicholson Baker in his novel The Anthologist: “What I do is I sleep with my books. And I know that’s kind of weird and solitary and pathetic. But if you think about it, it’s very cozy. Over a period of four, five, six, seven, nine twenty nights of sleeping, you’ve taken all these books to bed with you, and you fall asleep, and the books are there.”

I ran across the books-are-too-heavy argument again in this story about a prep-school library that is dispensing with its books and replacing them with flat-screen TVs, laptop-friendly work stations and electronic readers loaded with digital material. (They’re also building a new coffee shop with a “$12,000 cappuccino machine.”) The piece quotes a junior who likes the idea because “the more we use e-books, the fewer books we have to carry around.”

For the pro-paper perspective, the story offers this from media critic William Powers:“There is a kind of deep-dive, meditative reading that’s almost impossible to do on a screen. Without books, students are more likely to do the grazing or quick reading that screens enable, rather than be by themselves with the author’s ideas.’’

That’s probably even more persuasive than Baker’s books-are-fun-to-sleep-with argument. But then I’m already sold on paper. I wonder what any Kindle-ites out there make of Powers’ point about grazing versus deep-diving. Would anyone miss the serendipity of coming upon a book while browsing the stacks? And, while we’re at it, do you ever sleep with your Kindle?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Positively Left on 4th Street

In what can only be someone’s idea of a joke, the BBC reports that Bob Dylan “is speaking to a number of car companies about becoming the voice of their satellite navigation systems.” (A nod to the brilliant Henry Alford for this bit of news.) Dylan’s legendary status as a musician notwithstanding, I’m not sure I would find it reassuring to take direction from him while driving. (Would his directions have us continually revisiting Highway 61?) For that matter, I remain agnostic on Dylan as a musical artist, too. This attitude seems to run in my family. My mother once semi-famously said of Dylan, “He’s no singer. He doesn’t know how to make a woman feel beautiful.”

So I’d paraphrase: “He’s no sat-nav voiceover artist. He doesn’t know how to make some stressed-out lost person feel secure…”

Friday, August 28, 2009

Norwegian Good

Like most of you, I suspect, I have my favorite—usually slightly dopey--summer songs (“Heavy Metal Drummer”) and summer novels (Mysteries of Pittsburgh), but I've never really thought in terms of summer paintings. If I had to, I’d probably look around for work that is somehow lightweight and pop, to go along with my fizzy choices for music and prose. The visual art equivalent of a beach read. But Jason Wilson, wrirting in The Smart Set, makes an unlikely nomination: the melancholic Norwegian Edvard Munch, most famous for “The Scream.” Wilson is a fan of Munch’s “The Voice (Summer Night),” which you can check out in the slideshow that accompanies his essay. Wilson says the painting “depicts a woman, with her hair let down, standing in a secret lover’s spot near the shoreline on one of those endless Scandinavian midsummer nights.” He writes:

The thing about Munch is that, no matter how dream-like or metaphorical or obvious or depressing he becomes, the landscapes he paints are somehow always right. He catches the seductive-yet-ominous mood of those midsummer nights. He knew better than anyone that the flip side of the glorious midnight sun is the long, dark, melancholy winter to come. That even within the moment of great happiness, it’s already swiftly moving into the past tense.

That’s a little heavy for summer, and maybe a little too good, like a really fine Bordeaux on a 90-degree day. But then, Wilson makes a good case for Munch, and I wouldn’t say no to the Bordeaux, either.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

License to Ill

Having spent the last five days kicked around by a particularly nasty flu bug, I’m ready to see some redeeming value in being ill. (This is how you know I really am sick: when I start seeing the good in bad situations. Someone call a doctor!)

If nothing else, my condition has arrested some of my tendencies toward overparenting. My eight-year-old son started third grade this week and I was unable to join him and his mother, and the rest of the neighborhood, for the traditional walk to school for the big day, nor was I able to be with him the night before at Meet Your Teacher Night. Also, he competed in a Punt, Pass and Kick Competition run by his flag football league, while I was home in bed watching Andy Griffith reruns and trying to get down yet another piece of dry toast. And here’s the utterly amazing thing: Everything seems to have gone just fine without me. He and his teacher hit it off; school is off to a good start; he won the PP&K contest.

These are probably useful lessons to relearn every now and then. That my kid, whether I’m there worrying over him or not, will probably do okay, and that his mom, in any case, seems to have things covered.

Now that I’ve duly noted my blessings, it’s back to the dry toast.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Summer Reading #7

From Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon:
Some mornings they awake and can believe that they traverse an Eden, unbearably fair in the Dawn, squandering all its Beauty, day after day unseen, bearing them fruits, presenting them Game, bringing them a fugitive moment of Peace,--how, for days at a time, can they not, dizzy with it, believe themselves pass'd permanently into Dream...?

Summer takes hold, manifold sweet odors of the Field, and presently the Forest, become routine, and one night the Surveyors sit in their Tent, in the Dark, and watch Fire-flies, millions of them blinking ev'rywhere,--Dixon engineering plans for lighting the Camp-site with them, recalling how his brother George back home, ran Coal-Gas through reed piping along the Orchard wall. Jeremiah will lead the Fire-flies to stream continuously through the Tent in a narrow band, here and there to gather in glass Globes, concentrating on their light to the Yellow of a new-risen Moon.

"And when we move to where there are none of these tiny Linkmen?"

"We take 'em with huz...? Lifetime Employment!"

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Problem with Mountains

Living as I have in Illinois all my life, I can’t claim a lot of experience with mountains. So I was bowled over by the ones we visited in northern New Mexico on our just-completed family vacation. We were visiting (or should I just come right out and say discommoding?) my in-laws, who live on the flank of a peak in the Sangre de Cristo range on the edge of Santa Fe. I spent most of my week there gaping at the kinds of vistas you just don’t get in the flatlands. I did a little running on the gorgeous trails that wind around the mountains there, and every once in a while I would round some bend on a twisty path and have to stop to gawk at some spectacular view. There were a few times when I was sure I could see half of New Mexico.

The problem with mountains, though, is that they make baseball a very complicated sport. My boy AJ and I make it a habit to bring our gloves and a ball on every vacation. On our driving trips, we make sure we have a catch when we stop for a rest along the Interstate—so that we can now claim to have played catch in most of the states east of the Mississippi. Matters were a little trickier in the mountain west, though. When we tried to have a catch on the steeply pitched street leading to my in-laws’ place, we learned that wild throws could roll downhill for a long, long way. We had to stop after one throw got past my son and he couldn’t stop the ball—our only ball—before it rolled off into the brush. It probably came to a final rest somewhere near Albuquerque.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Summer Reading #6

From "A & P" by John Updike:
In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. I'm in the third check-out slot, with my back to the door, so I don't see them until they're over by the bread. The one that caught my eye first was the one in the plaid green two-piece. She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs. I stood there with my hand on a box of HiHo crackers trying to remember if I rang it up or not. I ring it up again and the customer starts giving me hell. She's one of these cash-register-watchers, a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows, and I know it made her day to trip me up. She'd been watching cash registers forty years and probably never seen a mistake before.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Party Animals

One of our neighbors threw a luau last weekend. I’m not sure what the occasion was, except that it just seemed like the right time to roast a few pigs and make tiki drinks. According to this piece by Michael Gazzaniga, from the summer issue of Daedalus, it’s exactly this kind of impulse that makes us most fully human. Dinner parties, barbecues, baby showers, and, yes, luaus are unheard of in other species, he writes:

What other animal would plan an event, provide food to unrelated others, and sit together and share it without a food fight, all while laughing about stories of the past and hopes and dreams of the future ? There is none. No matter how smart your family dog may be, he would not divvy up a prime rib roast and pass it out to the other dogs of the neighborhood with a happy little bark; neither would our closest relatives, the chimps. Humans are social beings, and although there are other animal and insect species that are social, our species takes sociability to a previously unknown level. We are party animals, and on our way to becoming such we have evolved a whole host of unique features - features so unique that we humans are playing in another ballpark.

I’m not sure how convincing an argument Gazzaniga makes (I bailed out during his discussion of primate brain biology, including “the intriguing Brodmann Area 10”), but I do find his premise comforting. Next time I find myself overindulging at a wedding reception, I will feel less like a lush and more like a philosopher-king.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Summer Reading #5

From Jim the Boy by Tony Earley:
"Okay, Doc," Uncle Zeno says. "Keep your eye on the ball. Here it comes."

The baseball in Uncle Zeno's hand is almost invisible, a piece of smoke, a shadow. The woods on the far side of the pasture are already dark as sleep; the river twists through them by memory. Uncle Zeno tosses the ball gently toward the boy, who does not see it until its arc carries it above the black line of trees, where it hangs for a moment like an eclipse in the faintly glowing sky. The boy is arm-weary; he swings as hard as he is able. The bat and ball collide weakly. The ball drops to the ground at the boy's feet. It lies there stunned, quivering, containing flight beneath its smooth skin. The boy switches the bat into his left hand, picks up the ball with his right, and throws it back to Uncle Zeno.

"I hit it just about every time," the boy says.

"Batter, batter, batter, batter," Uncle Al chirps in the field.

"Say, whatta-say, whatta-say, whatta-say," chants Uncle Coran in the ancient singsong of ballplayers. The uncles are singing to the boy. He has never heard anything so beautiful. He does not want it to stop.

"Okay, Doc," says Uncle Zeno. "One more. Now watch."

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sleep History

Those of you who participated in our roundtable on middle-of-the-night reading know that I’ve learned to rationalize my occasional bouts of insomnia as opportunities to get through my bedside stack of books. But, even better, this NPR story says that those hours of wakefulness place me in a great historical tradition. It features this bit of sleep history from psychiatrist Thomas Wehr: Those of us who wake up in the middle of the night are really sleeping—or is that not sleeping?—just the way our ancestors did.

"There are historical records of people sleeping in two bouts at night," Wehr explains. "They called the first bout dead sleep, and the second bout was called morning sleep. The wakeful period in between was referred to as watch or watching.”

In one study that simulated the long winter nights that people would have experienced in the days before artificial lighting, Wehr points out, subjects ended up sleeping in two stints separated by a two-hour period of wakefulness, a “quiescent, meditative state” that some called “midnight comfort.”

I’ll try to keep this bit of soothing news in mind next time I'm up in the middle of the night. Because if anxiety contributes to insomnia, one of the things I end worrying about most at 2 a.m. is that I’m not getting enough sleep.

The piece goes on to say that such wakefulness is not uncommon. especially as we age and our sleep becomes more fragile. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with me--I’m just getting old.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Summer Reading #4

From The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Real Cruelest Month

The other day in the drug store I saw a woman and her school-age son pushing around a shopping cart filled with school supplies: Notebooks, folders, pencil cases, erasers, loose-leaf paper. I felt like crying. It was August.

It’s been decades since I’ve had to shop for school supplies, but to this day an advertisement for a back-to-school sale will cast a pall over me. And August is the month of the back-to-school sale, the month when summer’s end comes into view.

I feel about August exactly as I do about late afternoons. It is the drowsy, listless, humid time when you realize that the clock is running out on your big plans. August has always been, for me, a 31-day period of reconciling myself to the fact that this will not be the transcendent summer that I had imagined back around Memorial Day. The classic text for August-haters is Slate editor David Plotz’s “August: Let’s Get Rid of It,” which first ran in 2001, but which has become a summer tradition at Slate—sort of a crabby, online version of the old “Injun Summer” cartoon by John T. McCutcheon that used to run annually in the Chicago Tribune Magazine—and is now back again. Plotz has his own socio-historical reasons for loathing August. Perhaps the most damning point in Plotz’s anti-August argument? “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour debuted in August," he writes. "(No August, no Sonny and Cher!)"

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Summer Reading #3

From "Sauerkraut Soup" in Childhood and Other Neighborhoods by Stuart Dybek:

A month ago it had been summer. I'd worked production, overtime till six p.m., saving money for school. At night I'd played softball--shortstop for a team called the Jokers. I hadn't played softball since early in high school. This was different, the city softball league. Most of the guys were older, playing after work. The park was crowded with girlfriends, wives, and kids. They spread beach blankets behind the backstop, grilled hotdogs, set out potato salad, jugs of lemonade. Sometimes, in a tight game with runners on, digging in at short, ready to break with the ball, a peace I'd never felt before would paralyze the diamond. For a moment of eternal stillness I felt as if I were cocked at the very heart of the Midwest.

We played for keggers and after the game, chaperoned by the black guys on the team, we made the rounds of the blues bars on the South Side, still wearing our black-and-gold-satin Joker jerseys. We ate slabs of barbecued ribs with slaw from smoky little storefront rib houses or stopped at takeout places along the river for shrimp. Life at its most ordinary seemed rich with possibility.

In September we played for the division championship and lost 10-9. Afterward there was a party that went on all night. We hugged and laughed and replayed the season. Two of the wives stripped off their blouses and danced in bras. The first baseman got into a fist fight with the left fielder.

When I woke hung over it was Monday. I knew I'd never see any Jokers again. . .

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Drinks with the Neocons

In the spirit of bipartisanship, I reach far to my right to link for the first time ever to the The Weekly Standard, which offers a cover story on “The Cocktail Renaissance.” Writer Robert Messenger celebrates antique blends like the Gin Rickey and the Aviation, cuffs around such ‘90s innovations as the Smore’tini, and calls the Cosmopolitan “a gateway drug” for young women. He also nods in the direction of Chicago’s debonair cocktail house Violet Hour, which I wrote about last year for a GQ package on the nation’s best cocktails. Who would have thought I would have found so little to argue with? There is, come to think of it, something fundamentally conservative about the whole cocktail culture. But I’m not going to let that keep me from enjoying a summery Southside tonight.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Summer Reading #2

From Underworld by Don DeLillo:

It was so humid some nights you could not close your door. You had to shoulder your door closed. Bridges expanded and sidewalks cracked and there was garbage in the streets and you had to sort of talk to your door before it would close for you.

She loved the nights that were electrical, a static in the air and lightning in soft pulses, in great shapeless beats, you can almost read the rhythmic pattern, slow and protoplasmal, and maybe a Cinzano awning fixed to a table on a higher terrace--you can't identify that gunshot sound until you spot the striped awning, edges snapping in the breeze.

Friday, July 24, 2009


It’s never a bad thing when you take your kid to a White Sox game, expecting nothing more than a little father-son summer fun and overpriced beer, and you come home feeling like the world’s best and luckiest parent because the two of you got to share some baseball history.

My son AJ and I were at the White Sox-Rays game yesterday and got to see Mark Buehrle’s perfect game and the catch Dewayne Wise made in the ninth inning to preserve it. AJ still hasn’t stopped talking about any of it, which is fine with me. I know the whole fathers/sons/baseball thing can be a big yawning chasm of mawkish sentimentality, but I’m not yet ready to stop raving on about the game, the catch, or how cool it was to be standing next to my boy (in his Mark Buehrle #56 Sox jersey) while it all happened. I won’t forget it, and I hope he doesn’t, either. It was a perfect game, in every sense.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Get a Room

Anyone who has ever struggled to complete a writing assignment on deadline probably knows the Rule of Environmental Contingency, which states that you certainly would have finished your damned assignment by now if only you’d had the right workspace. The rule came into play last week, when my eight-year-old son and his friends invaded the house while I was inching my way through what should have been a straightforward profile. My problems with the piece started long before the kids showed up, but that didn’t stop me from blaming them and the noise they made. I felt like I was trying to work in the middle of a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. My immediate impulse was to run away to the local coffeehouse or the public library, but in the current Prospect Monica Ali makes another suggestion. I should have checked into a hotel.

“What you really need is to leave your life and responsibilities and just get down to it. You need a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign hanging on your door, someone else to clean up, change the sheets and provide food and drink at any time you happen to take a break,” she writes. “Then there is only you and the blank page, which may or may not be a good thing.”

Sounds nice. I’m willing to give it a try. But I think Ali really gets to the heart of things when she mentions that an impatient editor once locked Hitchhiker’s’ Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams in a hotel room and ordered him to write. She quotes Adams: “I sat at the desk and typed and he sat in the armchair and glowered.”

Next time I'm just going to ask all of the kids to sit down and glower at me.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Summer Reading #1

From The Moviegoer by Walker Percy:

I tried research one summer. I got interested in the role of the acid-base balance in the formation of renal calculi; really, it's quite an interesting problem. I had a hunch you might get pigs to form oxalate stones by manipulating the pH of the blood, and maybe even to dissolve them. A friend of mine, a boy from Pittsburg named Harry Stern, and I read up the literature and presented the problem to Minor. He was enthusiastic, gave us everything we wanted and turned us loose for the summer. But then a peculiar thing happened. I became extraordinarily affected by the summer afternoons in the laboratory. The August sunlight came streaming in the great dusty fanlights and lay in yellow bars across the room. The old building ticked and creaked in the heat. Outside we could hear the cries of summer students playing touch football. In the course of an afternoon the yellow sunlight moved across old group pictures of the biology faculty. I became bewitched by the presence of the building; for minutes at a stretch I sat on the floor and watched the motes rise and fall in the sunlight. . . By the middle of August I could not see what difference it made whether the pigs got kidney stones or not (they didn't incidentally), compared to the mystery of those summer afternoons. I asked Harry if he would excuse me. He was glad enough to, since I was not much use to him sitting on the floor. I moved down to the quarter where I spent the rest of the vacation in quest of the spirit of summer and in the company of an attractive and confused girl from Bennington who fancied herself a poet.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Baseball on the Moon

The anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, it’s becoming clear, will not slip by unnoticed. The New York Times'
weekly science section
weighs in with its coverage today, including recollections from people (Gloria Steinem, Freeman Dyson, Tracy Kidder) who watched the landing from here on Earth. My
favorite contribution
comes from New York Mets pitcher Tom Seaver, who remembers watching the landing in a bar in Montreal with his teammates after a doubleheader there. He writes that seeing Neil Armstrong on the moon made the Mets believe that “something magical could happen,” even the Mets winning the World Series.

Seaver’s story evoked old memories. I’m a little fuzzy on the dates, but I seem to remember spending much of July 1969 driving cross country with my parents, brothers and sister. I was just a little kid at the time, but what I remember is that two big events shared airtime on the car radio during the long drive: Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game and the Apollo 11 moon landing. I recall my dad trying to explain to me that we’d sent men in rocket ships to walk on the moon, and I remember also trying to figure out what this had to do with the baseball game that everyone was trying to tune in on the radio. The two events have ever since been linked in my mind. To this day, I cannot read a word about the space program without thinking of St. Louis Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst.

This year’s All-Star Game is tonight and I’ve promised my son that we will watch it together. Red Schoendienst won’t be there, but I’ll probably think of that family car trip forty years ago when I spent so much time looking up at the sky.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Outlining with Gay Talese

Thanks to Catapult New York Bureau Chief MH for passing along this Paris Review interview with Gay Talese. It includes the following exchange:

Interviewer: When did you realize that you had talent?

Talese: Never.

Better yet, as a special bonus for New Journalism junkies, there’s this outline, written on a piece of shirt cardboard from a laundry, for Talese’s hugely influential Esquire piece “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”

You knew he was a masterful stylist, but it turns out he takes more interesting notes than everyone else, too. And maybe the two facts are not unconnected.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Insomnia Books

For most of my life, I was a literary monogamist, which is to say that I liked to read just one book at a time. But things have gotten, well, more complicated lately. There was a time when, if you’d asked me what I was reading, I could have replied with the name of a single book and that would have been the end of it. But now I’ve become a slightly more promiscuous reader, carrying on with three, four, five books at a time. I’ve had to develop a whole taxonomy of bedtime books. There’s the book I read with my son at night (right now, Bertrand Brinley’s Mad Scientists’ Club). There’s the book I read in bed just before the lights go out (Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor). And there’s my insomnia book.

The insomnia book might be the most difficult niche of all to fill. It’s the book I open in the middle of the night after I’ve given up on counting sheep or naming state capitals or reciting the starting lineup (with uniform number) of the 1977 Chicago White Sox. The insomnia book has to be turgid and sedative enough to put me to sleep, but not so awful that it will make me feel worse than I already do about being up in the middle of the night trying to remember what number Jack Brohamer wore. (10.) Nineteenth-century nonfiction, with its stiffly formal presentations, does nicely. Francis Parkman’s Montcalm and Wolfe is a wonderful insomnia book. The antique prose ends up making me grin even as it puts me to sleep. Even at the height of insomniac irritability I have to appreciate a sentence like: “In the tomb-like silence of the winter forest, with breath frozen on his beard, the ranger strode on snow-shoes over the spotless drifts; and, like Durer’s knight, a a ghastly death stalked ever at his side.” He may be a masterful prose stylist, but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten through more than two pages of Parkman without nodding off.

My current insomnia book is almost too much fun to be an insomnia book. I keep wanting to pick it up in the middle of the day, which defeats the whole purpose. It’s George R. Stewart’s Names on the Land, an idiosyncratically ambitious account of how American places got their names. It was published in 1945 (and reissued last year by New York Review Books) so it’s not as old as some insomnia books, but its patient deployment of anecdote and folk history enhance its vintage authority and charm. An insomnia book really shouldn’t be this engaging. I’ve had to fight the urge to wake up my wife and tell her that New Jersey was very nearly called Albania or why Applebachsville in Pennsylvania combines English, German and French in one word.

So far, I haven’t bothered her. But Stewart really hasn’t been doing his job of getting me back to sleep. I may have to reassign Names on the Land to lights-out reading--which means I’ll have an opening for a new insomnia book. Any nominations?

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Height Tax

The economics and public policy site Vox, noting that "a person's height is strongly correlated with his or her income," asks: "Should the income tax system include a credit for short taxpayers and a tax surcharge for tall ones?"

The authors, N. Gregory Mankiw and Matthew Weinzierl, do not disclose their heights.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Words I Learned Coaching Pee-Wee Baseball

Verse (vurs) verb: to compete against in an athletic contest. [var. of versus]

Coach, who are we versing tomorrow?
We verse the Pirates at 12:30 at Maplewood.
Didn't we already verse them?

Friday, June 19, 2009

The War on Bores

In his American Scholar essay on dealing with bores who don’t know when to put a sock in it, Mark Edmundson cites Plutarch, William James, the Dalai Lama, Jacques Lacan and, best of all, Groucho. (To Margaret Dumont, in Duck Soup: “You know, you haven’t stopped talking since I came here. You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.”) Read the essay, watch the clip.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Life After Email

Back in the mid‘90s, when email was sweeping the land, my friend M. and I made a resolution—a ridiculously solemn and hopeless one, in retrospect—that we would not use it to communicate with each other. We had been carrying on a correspondence by regular mail for more than a decade and we figured that if we let ourselves drop each other emails 20 times a day, the impulse to write long letters would pretty quickly dry up.

Of course, our email abstinence never stood a chance. Before long we were killing entire afternoons emailing back and forth. A rule established itself: The more frivolous the topic, the longer our email exchanges would last.

Thing is, our letters have continued, too. Even though we know we can reach other by email just about whenever we need to, each of us will still sit down every few weeks or months and send a letter off to the other. We’ve learned to make distinctions between email material and letter fodder. The ephemera and one-liners and “did-you-see-this” stuff gets translated into a quick email. The long stories and serious navel-gazing gets saved for letters.

I thought about emailing M. when I read Benjamin Kunkel’s essay in n+1 about coming to terms with life online. What I like about Kunkel’s essay is that, like any really interesting essayist, he’s of two minds about his topic. He recognizes what he calls “the vulgarity of online life.” He writes of “diving helplessly into an all-you-can-eat buffet” of blogs, email, texting, message boards, and the rest. He says a little ruefully that he no longer sends or receives letters.

But he also gives email its due, writing that its brevity “makes a special prize of wit” and favors “repartee as nothing else,” with the potential of turning us all into banterers of the Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell ilk. I think he’s onto something about email and wit, but I’m also glad that M. and I are still writing each other letters. Even if letters are just another entrée on the all-you-can-eat buffet, I see no need to pass them up.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Search for the Life-Changing Sentence

My last experience with the teaching of creative writing came at a class run by Gordon Lish in Bloomington, Indiana, almost 20 years ago. Lish once occupied an exalted position in the literary world. He was an editor at Esquire and at Knopf, where he edited Raymond Carver and Barry Hannah. He styled himself “Captain Fiction.” His classes lasted about six hours and he spent most of that time talking, in a style that combined elements of performance art, academic lecture and the unhinged rant of a subway derelict. He didn’t encourage interruption. When one student asked about the possibility of leaving the class to use a bathroom, Lish answered, “Observe Gordon: Does he?” Every once in a while he would allow his students to read aloud work that they had brought to class with them. When he lost interest in what they were reading, he would stop them and move on to the next student. Often, this happened after the first sentence.

Lish preached that stories had to have an organic integrity, with the music of one sentence leading the writer to the next, which in turn led him to the next. The novelist David Bowman once wrote that Lish engaged in “a cult of the sentence,” which sounds right to me. His insistence on settling for nothing less than shining, life-changing sentences changed the way I thought about fiction. It also pretty well paralyzed me. It was not long after I came home from the Lish class that I stopped writing stories.

Louis Menand mentions Lish in his piece in the current New Yorker about the history and impact of creative writing programs. What I like about Menand’s piece is that it considers not just the way writing programs have shaped the kinds of stories and poems graduates are producing (a topic that has already generated a lot of debate) but also what ordinary, less-than-masterful writers take away from workshops. Menand, who describes himself as “a pretty untalented poet” when he went through workshops as a young man, writes, “I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. . . I stopped writing poetry after I graduated, and I never published a poem-—which places me with the majority of people who have taken a creative-writing class. But I’m sure that the experience of being caught up in this small and fragile enterprise, contemporary poetry, among other people who were caught up in it, too, affected choices I made in life long after I left college. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

I mostly agree, but I’d add that writing classes can also leave you with an appreciation for the comedy of misplaced ambition. Take a look at “Comments Written by Actual Students Extracted from Workshopped Manuscripts at a Major University” from the McSweeney’s site. My favorite: “Maybe a little less time should be spent describing the Cheetos in this scene.”

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Day at the Museum

Got my first look at the Art Institute’s new Modern Wing last week. I wanted to see the building itself as much as I wanted to see the collection inside--which was a good thing, because the place was so crowded (admission was free for the big opening) that I didn’t get very close to much of the art. I think I may have caught a brief glimpse of a few Picassos and a big, yellow Cy Twombly before the tide of humanity swept me off in the direction of the gift shop and café. Mostly I’d describe the experience as one long jostling. I’m all for making art accessible to everyone, but can’t we do it just on days when I’m not at the museum?

(The day before my trip to the museum, I had to run to the local Target to pick up some baseball cards for my son’s pee-wee baseball team. It was around 8:30 or 9 in the morning, the store had just opened, and it was still mostly deserted. It was just me and a few yoga moms pushing their kids around in strollers. The wide aisles were empty and clean. The long day stretched out ahead of me and out ahead of the kids in their strollers. We had our phone calls to make, our naps to take, our food to spit up, but all that would come later. For now, it was pretty cool to wander the aisles of Target and consider all the possibilities, check out the packaging and the brand names, all relentlessly optimistic. The store seemed like one big warehouse of potential. Is something wrong when a trip to a big-box store produces a more intense aesthetic experience than a morning at one of the world’s great art museums?)

But back to the museum. The highlight of the day might have been the view from the pedestrian bridge that spans Madison Street and connects the museum to Millennium Park. You can see Lake Michigan and Monroe Harbor, you can see Frank Gehry’s band shell and the serpentine BP bridge, and best of all, you can look out over the Lurie Garden, which on this day was a very painterly and textured field of grasses and massed purple, a canvas in itself. It was gorgeous and, unlike the museum itself, it’s there for free every day.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Vodka Chronic

For all of you who participated in the Great Martini Debate here a while back, The Wall Street Journal offers this review of Linda Himelstein’s “The King of Vodka,” a biography of 19th century spirits magnate and pioneer of marketing Pyotor Smirnov. It includes a not-so-helpful serving suggestion from Czar Nicholas II, who bypassed all the nonsense about mixing and “guzzled two wineglasses of vodka during lunch” each day. Cheers!

Sunday, May 24, 2009


I’ve never been all that much of a risk-taker, unless you count the nearly daily visits I made to a certain taqueria back in the mid-‘90s. Now that we’re in the middle of an economic mess that has been blamed on so much individual and institutional recklessness, you might think that some of us cautious types would feel a little vindication. But I’m not ready to start celebrating the virtues of uptight prudence. The problem with caution is that it’s not very much fun. No one one knows this better than a cautious person. When my second-grader started riding his bike to school solo a few weeks ago, I had to fight the urge to ride along at a distance behind him, shouting not-so-helpful reminders like, “Stay to the right!”

Lane Wallace, writing on The Atlantic’s site, under the headline “A Risk-Averse Nation?” quotes The New York Times’ David Sanger: “The entire mood of the country has swung from taking wild risks to taking no risk.” He worries that this “could be bad for the country.” Wallace picks up on the notion and points out that NASA, the Wright Brothers, and Google, to name a few, would never have gotten off the ground without some tolerance for risk. Wallace’s bio says she’s an adventure writer, pilot and “honorary member of the United States Air Force Wild Weasels.” I’m pretty sure that means that she’s a little more comfortable with risk that I am. But, no problem, I’m willing to do my part. So I hereby resolve not to trail my kid on his way to school, not to hover, not to overprotect. Consider it my small, patriotic part in helping to restore the American spirit of bold, adventuresome risk-taking.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Attention, Please

Good news for all of you who have spent too much of your day tweeting, texting and otherwise flitting between media. Sam Anderson reports in New York magazine on the “benefits of distraction and overstimulation,” including “better peripheral vision and the ability to sift information rapidly.” I take a back seat to no one in my appreciation for information-sifting, but Anderson’s piece is at least as compelling when it comes to the value of simply paying attention, which he calls the “Holy Grail of self-help.”

And if you’re neither a mentally acrobatic information-sifter nor an emotionally present attention-payer? Come on over and we’ll watch the Stanley Cup playoffs together.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Flu Fighters

Working as I do on the front lines of the endless war to get my kid to wash his hands before dinner, I had to take notice of The Scrub Club, a group of superhero-ish cartoon kids who work to “fight off harmful germs and bacteria” in webisodes presented by NSF International. (Thanks to the Boston Globe’s indespensible Brainiac blog.) The only problem is that the villains are, as usual, more interesting than the superheroes. One of the good guys is Hot Shot, whose trick is to “make the warm water needed to start the handwashing process.” He’s up against Influenza Enzo: ‘the godfather of all viruses, he’ll make you a fever you can’t refuse.” Sounds like a mismatch to me. I wash my hands of this business.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Making exceptions for the Ministry of Silly Walks, there are two basic modes of walking: Taking a walk and walking to get somewhere. Writers seem to specialize in taking a walk. Geoff Nicholson’s newish book “The Lost Art of Walking” has him taking long walks in the desert and makng one martini-glass-shaped circuit around Greenwich Village, with stops along the way for, yes, martinis. Will Self, in his Psychogeography series from the Independent, tries to give his walks a sense of purpose—he walks nine miles from his hotel near Chicago’s Michigan Avenue to a Wal-Mart on the West Side, ostensibly to buy a pair of socks—but the whole endeavor still registers as a conceit, a stunt. (He could have gone to a Walgreen’s a block from the hotel, but that wouldn’t have allowed him the room to ruminate on landscapes, economics and class.)

Out our way, there are some beautiful places to walk, but not a whole lot to walk to. You can go for miles doing a loop around ponds and through woods and past meadows, but if, like Will Self, you want to buy a pair of socks or a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk, you have to cross a U.S. highway or two and make due without sidewalks. As Ben Adler argues in this essay in The American Prospect, that’s a function of planning and zoning decisions that segregate residential and commercial space. “The way streets and neighborhoods are designed can make walking even short distances impossible,” he writes. I don’t have a lot of use for greener-than-thou New Urbanist arguments, but Adler is mostly right. It’s not so much that you can’t walk in the low-density hinterlands, but that walking ends up becoming a destination of its own. Sometimes you even hop in the car to drive somewhere where you can take a walk.

Somebody had the good sense to build some very nice bike trails and nature paths out here. But I wish they’d thought to connect them to more neighborhoods and downtowns and mini-malls. I wish all these swell walking places were attached to something worth walking to.

So, inspired by Nicholson, let me make a modest proposal: A martini-glass-shaped walking trail through the woods, with a few martini stations along the way. I’m picturing a few café tables set up alongside some pond or overlooking a bend in the river, people sipping a cocktail, admiring the plum trees in bloom. That would be somewhere worth walking to. Though you might have to stagger home.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Cult of the Coach

What is it about basketball coaches that makes us want to turn so many of them into gurus, seers and heroes? Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker about how underdogs defeat stronger opponents by “refusing to play by Goliath’s rules,” confers the full genius treatment on the coach of a team of 12-year-old girls. Gladwell tells how the coach taught his undersized and underskilled team to employ full-court defensive pressure and ended up leading them to the third round of a national tournament. I think we’re supposed to understand that the piece isn’t so much about basketball itself as it is an analysis of innovation and unconventional tactics, using a pee-wee basketball team as a case study. (Lawrence of Arabia’s campaign against the Turks is also considered, making this one of those rare works of journalism that manages to link pre-teen girls from suburban California and Bedouin warriors as kindred spirits.) As masterful as Gladwell can be at this sort of thing, I’m not convinced that there is all that much life wisdom to be gleaned from dissecting pee-wee basketball strategies. I suppose we’d all like our own calmly perceptive authority figure, a version of Gene Hackman in “Hoosiers” maybe, to guide us. Maybe that’s what the cult of the coach is about. Maybe that’s why you can’t watch a basketball game on TV without hearing some announcer say something like, “That’s a great timeout the coach just called.” But, really, the coach’s first job is to unlock the gym and let the players play. Which is enough of a life lesson for me.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Annals of Cheese-Licking

In all my years of renting—this was back in the late ‘80s, when the first President Bush and the Cosby Show ruled the land—I had just one really nice apartment. It was a duplex, with a spiffy metal spiral staircase and big windows that looked over a leafy yard. The catch was that the only way I could afford it was to share it with a series of roommates. My roommates and I mostly got along, though we did have the occasional blowup over such issues as the proper disposal of toenail clippings. But I suppose if you throw two or more post-collegians together out of sheer economic necessity, hijinks will ensue. Sure enough, there’s now a book for everyone who has ever had to deal with roommate conflict: “I Lick My Cheese and Other Real Notes From the Roommate Frontlines.” It’s a collection of the kinds of pissy missives roommates leave for roommates out of frustration, anger and sheer passive-aggression. A short item about the book in The New York Times quotes my favorite: “Why is my bed damp?” On the book’s companion site, I found a photo of a note left atop a plate of desiccated beans idling on a kitchen counter. “Three days!!!” it read. “It’s the principle of the matter.”

In retrospect I have to consider myself lucky for never having to leave or receive such a note. And if any cheese-licking went on, I don't want to know about it now.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Take It To the Fridge

The Fridge is in the hospital. According to news reports, William “the Refrigerator” Perry, former Chicago Bear and famed Super Bowl Shuffler, is being treated for the effects of Guillain-Barre Syndrome. He’s expected to recover and I wish him the best. I’m especially fond of Fridge because he gave me one of my most memorable interviews. It was memorable not so much because of anything he said, but because it required me calling him on the phone at his home in the middle of the night.

I was working on a story for GQ about the 1985 Chicago Bears, and Fridge was one of the Bears I had to get. After a couple tries, I was able to reach him by phone at his house in South Carolina, but he told me he couldn’t talk right then and suggested I call him back at 5 the next morning. I didn’t ask him why he wanted me to call at 5 in the morning, I just agreed to make the call. Only later did I realize that 5 o’clock Fridge time was 4 a.m. my time. So I set my alarm for 3:30 a.m., to give myself enough time to wake up and muster the courage to call this very large professional athlete’s home phone number before the sun had risen.

The call went fine. His wife answered. It was obvious that I’d woken her. She put the Fridge on. It was obvious that I’d woken him. But he said he was ready to do the interview. So we did. We talked for about a half-hour, he gave me some good stuff for the story, and when we finished I thanked him for talking with me. But I never did ask him why he'd wanted to talk at 5 in the morning.

Not that I’m complaining. I’m not here to start no trouble. I’m just here to do the Super Bowl Shuffle.

Get well, Fridge.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Joy of Vacuuming

I wouldn’t necessarily want this to get around—and I certainly don’t need my wife to find out—but I kinda like vacuuming the house. It’s not that I run and get the Hoover out every time I have the place to myself. But as putatively odious indoor domestic tasks go, I’ll take vacuuming over just about any other. I’d much rather vacuum the family room, for example, than get stuck doing the dinner dishes.

So I had to sit up and take notice when I read this from Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Times Magazine: “I go into a very happy state of mind when I’m vacuuming. I think some of my male colleagues, like Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, are completely denied this pleasure.”

I know what she means about the “happy state of mind.” What’s not to like? Vacuuming is a mindless job and it asks so little of us in the way of motor skills or hand-eye coordination. And the payoff is immediate and obvious. Those goldfish cracker crumbs the kid left in his wake, those bits of dried mud from the garden, those little curlicues of paper that fall loose when you tear a sheet from a spiral notebook: all of it vanishes and the carpet is left looking as pristine as a putting green. And when you really get in a vacuuming groove, you start to move with the machine like it’s a dance partner. Sort of.

But is Oates right to assume that male writers are “denied this pleasure?” Granted, maybe it’s hard to imagine Roth or DeLillo getting too domestic. But why bring gender into it? I don’t really see Joan Didion making a quick pass over the rec room before company drops by, either. Are there any major American writers—besides Oates, of course—who really know their way around a Hoover? Jonathan Franzen? T.C. Boyle? Cynthia Ozick? Or are the domestic arts and the literary arts mutually exclusive?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

School Plane

I went to the kind of big suburban Chicago-area public high school that John Hughes couldn’t seem to stop making movies about. Ours was a sprawling campus and, oh, the tax dollars that were lavished on our learning environment. We had, I think, five gyms and a field house. Radio and TV studios. An auto repair shop. No library, but a “Learning Resource Center” that featured a sunken “conversation pit” where we could sit down and "level with each other.”

It was an impressive facility. Too bad it was mostly wasted on me and my Def Leppard-concert-tshirt-wearing classmates.

No less impressive is this airplane-turned-classroom in a school in (I love this name) Stoke-on-Trent. The 30-seat commuter plane is to be converted into a geography classroom with desks, laptops and video screen. The cockpit will become a recording studio, because, after all, what classroom is complete without audio recording facilities?
The school’s headmaster gives his students credit for the idea. Whaddya suppose Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson would think of this?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Growing tired of your geographical reality? Change it without moving an inch by checking out this NewGeography essay about alternative maps. It worked for me. All these years, I thought I’ve been living in Illinois. But it turns out that, according to at least one of the maps discussed, I’ve been living in Foundry, one of the “nine nations of North America.”

Or better yet, refer to the Surrealist Map of the World, which does away with most of us altogether.

Monday, April 6, 2009

I Confess

Time to come clean: My piece on the impulse to confess is online at Notre Dame Magazine.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The (Occasionally Bratty) Boys of Summer

We're just one practice into the season for the Cardinals, my son's pee-wee baseball team of highly distractable first- and second-graders, and already I've encountered my first youth-coaching dilemma. We're doing some base-running, mostly to work off some of the kids' manic energy, and it falls to me to demonstrate the proper way to round first base and make the turn toward second. I'm trotting through my demonstration when I hear from the team assembled behind me one of the kids say, "Faster, grandpa!"

Do I:

a) Take the occasion to remind the team about the importance of supporting and respecting each other?

b) Challenge the kid to a foot race?

c) Have him drop and do 20 pushups?

d) Reassign him to our team's minor-league affiliate in Rockford?

Or are there other options I haven't considered? All who respond win free admission to the Cardinals' season opener on April 19.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Reports of Their Demise

Let me recommend a visit to Obit magazine, where you’ll find a very nice essay by David Wallis on premature obituaries. I especially liked the accompanying photos of Mark Twain, Alfred Nobel and Abe Vigoda, all of whom were once declared to have ceased existing before they were, in fact, dead. It’s an impressive trio, but Vigoda might be most impressive of all, because—as Wallis reports and the ever-vigilant site confirms—he is still with us, some 27 years after being prematurely dispatched by People magazine. Viva Vigoda.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Brief History of Living Room Furniture in Naval Warfare

From a piece by Colin Thubron on the 16th century Battle of Lepanto in the New York Review of Books: “Yet the Ottomans were uneasy on the sea.”

And the daybeds refused to leave the shore at all.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

March Gladness

So earlier this week my son, who’s in second grade, filled out his first NCAA tournament bracket. As rites of passage go, this might not seem all that profound, but I have to admit that it made me a little proud when he asked me which of the 12 seeds I liked. Not eight years old yet, and already he knows to watch out for that 5-12 matchup.

He’s in school today, missing some of the first round, but according to this story, some men will go to great lengths to stay home and watch the tournament. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that guys are timing their vasectomies so they’ll be home for March Madness during their recoveries. The story says that one clinic offered a “Vas Madness” special: “Lower your seed for the tournament.” Men who signed up got free pizza and frozen peas.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Every once in a while, in a fit of self-improvement, I’ll set some personal goals for myself. Sometimes I’ll even write them down. Months later, I’ll find these long-forgotten and still-unrealized goals, and I’ll have to wonder what I was thinking. Learn to play guitar? Renovate home office? Shave time off my running pace? Why would I want to do any of these things? When I think about how unworthy some of these goals are, it makes me glad that I lacked the fortitude to follow through on them.

So of course I liked this piece by Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe that asks if setting goals can sometimes be a bad idea. He writes that “management scholars are looking deeper into the effects of goals and finding that goals have a dangerous side.” He cites as his prime example GM’s goal to capture 29 percent of the American auto market, which he says distracted the company from the more important long-term job of designing better cars. But he also looks at psychological research that points to the importance of goal-setting for personal motivation: "we concentrate better, work longer and do more if we set specific, measurable goals for ourselves."

So should I make it a goal to set more goals? I’d argue that most of us could learn a lot from Mike, a grade-school kid in Padgett Powell’s novel Edisto, who has written on a small banner in his bedroom: “MY GOAL IN LIFE: NOT TO BE AN IGNORAMUS.” That's a goal worth shooting for, even if it’s a stretch for some of us.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Recession Drinking

We all have our own ways of coping with the economic mess. My wife has pretty much stopped reading the front page and business section of the paper. I have abandoned mindfulness training in favor of a new approach that focuses on the therapeutic power of constant hand-wringing. And just in time for all this weekend’s shindigs, the New Yorker and Dave Hanson offer a menu of cocktails for the recession. Can I get you a Nasdaiquiri? Or maybe you’d prefer a Princeton Bitters: “Pour two ounces of vodka into a cocktail shaker. Lament fact that you moved into a smaller house to pay for your son’s college education, and, since he couldn’t get a job and he’s now twenty-six, he’s living on your couch. Eying your son as he works his Wii, pour two more ounces of vodka into shaker. Serve with a grimace.”

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lecture Hall

Let me just admit that even in college I had a geek’s fondness for the old-style, stodgy lecture class—you know, a professor at the front of the room droning on for fifty minutes about something like the Federalist Papers. It’s not that I was the kid sitting in the front row paying scrupulous attention and taking notes. What I liked about the lecture format was that it provided a kind of soothing background noise, the ideal accompaniment for staring out the window, zoning out and filling my notebook with drawings of my favorite NBA team logos.

The Boston Globe’s Brainiac blog comments on a story from the Chronicle of Higher Education about a community college in New Mexico that has introduced microlectures—prerecorded one-minute bursts of insight for use in online courses. Brainiac is interested in the pedagogical issues. But my problem with the idea is that a one-minute lecture isn’t nearly long enough to achieve the kind of transcendental boredom that I used to get from some of my most monotonous profs.

I still spend a lot of time in college classrooms, and I’d still rather sit through a lecture than a seminar-style discussion. I don’t mean to disrespect the whole Socratic give-and-take, but mostly it makes me uncomfortable. Too often the professor seems desperate to draw any kind of response out of his students, and too often the students seem to be trying too hard to tell the professor what he wants to hear. It’s as if they’ll say anything to get him off their backs and onto the next student. It’s like being in the middle of a really awkward dinner-party conversation.

Lectures spare you that kind of cringe-worthy academic interaction. This is what I miss about lectures: the Zen-like calm of a single, stupefyingly boring, professorial voice droning on.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Barthelme and Baseball

Just finished Tracy Daugherty’s new biography of Donald Barthelme, Hiding Man, and it’s got me thinking about baseball.

The book is a good one, unapologetically affectionate, but spoiled a little by an epilogue that strains too hard to fight lit-crit battles over postmodernism. The best thing about reading it, though, was that it kept reminding me of DB stories that I hadn’t looked at in too long--like “Chablis” or “Jaws,” probably the best story ever written about marriage counseling at the A&P. (I always get the feeling, when I read reviews or criticism of Barthelme, that I like the wrong stories. A lot of my favorites come from his late period, when he was supposed to be in decline and his stories growing sentimental. But I love the world-weary humor in some of these stories.)

And then there’s “The Art of Baseball,” from the anthology, The Teachings of Don B. I don't know how to explain it or label it, except to say that the premise is that “a number of this century’s most famous artists were also, at odd moments in their careers, baseball players.”

Example one is T.S. Eliot, whose The Waste Land “is without doubt the most thoroughly studied, carefully annotated, and nitpickingedly commented-upon poem in the language. What has been missed. . .is that the poem is essentially about the St. Louis Browns of 1922, a team for which Eliot, back from Britain in that year, briefly starred at short.” The line “April is the cruelest month,” apparently was originally “August is the cruelest month,” referring to a “dreadful set of games the Browns dropped to the Yanks. . .a setback that removed them from serious league competition.”

But as a lifelong White Sox fan, I especially like the story of Susan Sontag, who is said to have played for the University of Chicago in 1959, even though the school didn’t have a baseball team. A White Sox scout discovered Sontag “and a group of similarly baseball-mad graduate students” playing “in the vast heating tunnels under the university’s South Side campus. . .Transfixed by the dark-haired beauty’s luminous activities at first, he inked her to a Sox pact immediately” and she went on to play as S. Sunday for the ’59 Sox team that lost to the Dodgers in the World Series.

Since this season will be the 50th anniversary of that team, I'd look for the White Sox to hold some sort of special Sontag Day at the ballpark. Maybe anyone who comes to the park with a copy of Regarding the Pain of Others gets in half-price.