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?