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?