Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Strangers In A Strange Land

Southern California

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Since coming back from visiting kids and grandkids I have begun to settle in a bit for fall. It's hot as hell here, so fall is only a vague designation, not even on the calendar but in people's minds. End of summer vacation and all that.

Went back to the gym for the first time in several weeks. I have to tell you about this health club I belong to. Perhaps it's not much different from where you go, but it has some distinct differences from the one I went to in Rockford, Michigan. The equipment is pretty much the same, to be sure. Weights and resistance machines and aerobic machines and big TV screens for people to watch while they're endeavoring to shed the pounds. You can see sports shows, talk shows, and also watch people cooking and eating ridiculously rich and complicated dishes. What's wrong with that last picture? I ask myself, when it hits me that many of the women who are laboring on the treadmills--the modern-day middle class equivalent of the sweatshops and shirtwaist factories of yore--will have to go home and cook meals for their families. So while they're striving to become more svelte, the cooking channel gives them yet another something to strive for (and probably fall short of)--the perfectly rendered nouvelle cuisine offerings of Bobby Flay and other noted competitive chefs. Those huge plates with the drizzled layers of glistening sauce and the little something piled up high in the middle and garnished with, well, something. "For dessert I've made a reduction of the juices from the squid tentacles and added some honey and creme fraiche and finely chopped scallions with just a bit of the bacon fat, then frozen it into a gelato." To which the querulous judge says, shaking his head, "Squid ice cream again? I was looking for something more original."

I did prefer the option I had at the place in Rockford to watch, on the little screens they had on the elliptical trainers in addition to the big ones out on the floor, old episodes of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, shows that never even pretended to operate within the realm of reality. But that's not available here.

The principal difference between the Michigan gym and here, however, is not what's on television during the workout. It's the ethnic mix in the populace. I mind my own business for the most part when I'm working up a sweat and grunting at the weight devices, but I have more leisure to look around when I go into the watery realms of the club, on the other side of the locker rooms, where there's a lap pool, a whirlpool, a steam room, and a sauna. The Rockford crowd was pretty much white and native-born. Here, at least in Arcadia where this club is located, I'd estimate the overall ethnic breakdown to be about 50% Asian, 25% Hispanic, and the rest a mix of Anglos, European immigrants, and African Americans. Out here it's not so much a matter of what color you are as what language you speak when you're with your family. Of course by the second or third generation in this country every kid--Latin, Asian, European--despite his or her parents, has become just a plain American young person, wearing the same styles of clothing advertising brand names as everyone else and speaking the same slangy parody of English kids speak everywhere. But the elders are a different story.

Most of the Asians are Japanese, and they seem to take their leisure quite seriously. Their faces betray no sense of the relaxation that soaking in steam and hot water are intended to bring. Between themselves they occasionally talk and even laugh, but for the most part they look as if they're on a mission of some sort. In the steam room in Rockford (which, unlike here, was for men only--I assume there was one for the women, too) the guys would sit hunched forward, grunting and exhaling loudly with a combination of relief and acknowledgment of the heat, and grumbling to one another about sports, the weather, or current events. There was a sense that everyone was on the same page, as it were, even though I sometimes felt that assumption to be unfounded, especially in the realms of politics and religion. Here, in part because of language barriers and profound cultural differences and in part I think out of politeness, people tend to speak little and observe a kind of informal segregation based on ethnicity. The Japanese often stand and wave their arms and exercise their major joints in absolute silence, gazing stoically straight ahead as they gesticulate, as if responding to instructions delivered out of ether in the middle distance. The Spanish-speaking people are a bit more loquatious and jocular in general, seeming to enjoy themselves in a way that is more familiar to me. Some people are lost in the inner worlds of their iPods, allowing only vague tinny whisps of rhythm to escape from their ear buds. All of us, confined a dozen at a time within a ten foot square room full of hot vapor, know that our main job is to sweat, and we stay focused on that, but some do it with less intensity than others.

Most of this I find both amusing and relaxing in and of itself, food for thought, though as I sit and observe I often hope and yet hesitate to strike up casual conversations. But I give practically everyone the benefit of the doubt, imagining they are perhaps uncomfortable with us Anglos in this vast new country we rule. It is only certain European immigrants whose silence I take for general scorn and unfriendliness. They seem to be from the eastern end of that continent. Their faces, and on some of the men their torsos, elaborately tattooed with cryptic jailhouse runes and symbols, seem to say "Don't fuck with me, I've been fucked with enough already."

One particularly dour old couple, probably Armenian, and bearing no tattoos, are there most days I go. The man is wasted, the hair standing up several inches all over his hunched and narrow back and shoulders as he sits on the edge of the water, letting his feet get wet. His pinched features suggest a life of pain and disgruntlement. America is perhaps his last stop on a long and disappointing journey. This country is going to the dogs, he might be thinking. The old country is going to the dogs. Kids today are going to the dogs. He is dying. Who knows? A woman I assume is his wife sits in the whirlpool or wades, squatting duck-style, up and down the lap pool, eyeing each new arrival to the aquatic area with knowing suspicion and disdain. She wears a quirky combination of clothing, including a pinkish t-shirt and blue shorts under a full-skirted bathing suit and a clear plastic bathing cap over her gray hair. Once when I came out of the locker room she admonished me to take a shower before entering the whirlpool. There's a rinsing shower right next to it. It turns out I had showered already in the locker room, but I felt somehow that my explanation didn't satisfy her. She left soon after I waded in. It made me wonder how much chlorine it would take to kill the particular demons that possess her.

Since they're always present when I am, I assume these two go there every day, to while away the afternoon and perhaps soak away some of their pain. I wonder if their misery reflects a lifetime of sorrow or simply their contempt for one another. I doubt if either of them has smiled since some time during the first half of the 20th century, and I find myself, devoid of knowledge other than my observation of their mute demeanors, feeling sorry for any children or grandchildren they may have. Their faces say to all comers, "Who in the hell do you think you are, coming here, being here, looking at me?" And yet I've taken this couple on, as a project. My quest is to figure them out. My handicap in this is the same as everyone else's, though, in that I will ask no questions and say nothing unless spoken to. My own face probably betrays no more of me than do those of my fellow travelers on this weird voyage back in the hydrotherapy section of the club. I wonder if they think they know me the way I think I know them. We're probably all wrong.

What the hell, maybe I'll smile next time, just to confuse them.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Letters, We Get Letters

Burnsville, Minnesota

Sunday, August 21, 2011

I admit I know little, even after two years, about running a blog. It wasn't until a few weeks ago that I was noodling around on the Blogger site I use to create and manage the thing and hit a tab that allowed me to read all the comments that have ever been made to the blog in the chronological order in which the comments were posted, starting from the most recent one. Generally I just look at the number of comments that have been made to the most immediate one or two entries, and if I see that the number has increased, I check them out. They are most often from the usual suspects. You know who you are--the Few, the Proud, the Regulars.

What I discovered under this "Comments" tab was that occasionally someone will comment on a very old blog entry, written perhaps a year or more ago. I guess people must find them, through a key word or phrase, on Google. I can't figure out how, otherwise, someone would happen to be perusing an old posting on my blog. I have received messages from at least half a dozen people whose ancestors' graves I have seen, or perhaps rested on. Those are great, because they remind me of why I love to wander through cemeteries, and that it does other people some good, too. Someone recently wrote to lament the fact that I didn't seem to like the food at a New Mexico diner her sister had recently taken over. Things like that. If I'm not looking for the comments under the Comments tab, I won't see them at all, since it's too complicated and time-consuming to go back and look for them under the individual entries.

One such comment I recently discovered had been made on March 5 of this year, at the end of a post I put up on April 10, 2010, when I was walking from Merkel to Sweetwater, in West Texas. The post was about nothing in particular--shoes wearing out, listening to "Key to the Highway" on the iPod, smelling the bluebonnets in the ditches, watching the wind turbines up on the hills and mesas. So the comment, placed where it was and containing the information it did, struck me as a bit off-the-wall. As a manifesto of sorts, it bears reprinting in full, especially since most of you probably wouldn't see it otherwise:

Anonymous said...
I am not the Fourth Reich.

Pitch Jesus to Jew elders as revenge for Temple? They didn't know about the god's intent for xtianity to spread to Europe, ruining cultures throughout the continent, enabling revenge known as the Holocaust.

Abortion is part of the decay inflicted by the gods in the latter half of the 20th century as we approach the Apocalypse::::
- Free sex
- Explosion in gay sex
- Abortion
- Legalized greed/immorality
- The internet. Whereas TV was a phenominally destructive new temptation on the landscape it doesn't hold a candle to the internet. Some people will waste their whole lives. And its timing was deliberate.

"It's too late to pray." Sign of Woodbridge Church Kansas. And it may be true. Examine pimps who prostitute 10 year old girls in the ghetto.
Of course, if you want even a shred of a chance to save yourself, on that rare occassion the Buffalo Bills did experience the Fourth Reich and realized a comeback.
I am failing. But it is because of the god's defense tactics. Fuck absolute power. I hate losing.

Budget problems. Cut the military. Bring them home and end the wars. Let these countries experience self-determination and decide their own future. Didn't we learn this lesson in Vietnam???
Unfortunnately, the gods use the United States as one of their tools, and using the spread of capitalism under the guide of democracy to level the playing field and prepare the planet for a global event.

So many people don't care about global warming. They don't care about the Federal deficit/debt (outside of partisanship) and they don't care earning $400k for an $80,000/year job will eventually bankrupt the country. They have awarded themselves $400k pay and retirement packages, loading up their friends on the payroll during the boom 90s through the real estate bust while all services which the program were intended to fund now get cut to pay for it.
These people are often common public university labor. Not Ivy League, not private university.
This labor isn't good enough to command the salaries they are earning. And they understood this when they applied to the public university they settled on.
You can't expect a top-tier salary with a second-rate education.
They think they are going sometime during/at the end of this life, and disregard the poor souls who are left behind.
These are the people who will be here in the United States when bankruptcy is declared and society deteriorates into chaos. And they will deserve the anarchy which ensues.

Continuing the push for privatization, reinforced and supported recently with enormous public sector salaries and retirement packages.
Once achieved the gods will utilize the corruptive predisposition of the private sector economy, as seen with the sub-prime/bailout fiasco, to initiate economic catastrophy and initiate the bankruptcy proceedings of the United States.
Whether the cure for cancer/diseases or the permanant resolution of economic misery, before the gods remove these motivations to pray we will experience an inordinate deluge of each element, with economic misery being perhaps the dissallusion of the united States with bankruptcy.

The gods used the Italians to ruin life in the 20th century.
The gods used the Italians to ruin life in A.D. with The Church.
The Church controlled Western Civilization. As the largest land owner in Europe they controlled the monarchies. They were responsbile for slavery, revenge for African invasion and rape of Italy. They created religious discontent, ultimately leading to the disfavored dumping ground known as the United States.

ONE THING. Deliver ONE THING you promised.
All these people did everything you told them for DECADES. You have strung them all along.
The gods are liars, and you're all going to be CHEATED.

It is as if I am little more than an indentured servant.

Well, ahem.... What to make of this? There are parts of it with which I disagree, but even more with which I agree. The whole thing has that intelligent but disorganized flavor you get with mild paranoid schizophrenia, like the fine tang of faintly scented urine on Leopold Bloom's palate from his grilled mutton kidneys. The Fourth Reich reference, I've found, has some currency in modern global conspiracy chatter, but this writer is quick to disavow that. It also has wisps of the heavy duty Christian fundamentalist stuff, like that of the Westboro Baptist Church, except that the writer seems to place himself deliberately apart from that bunch, too. Besides it refers to "the gods" rather than to God, a sure tell. The somewhat cryptic reference to the Buffalo Bills and harping about Italians suggests a New York state of mind. The conservative stuff--about abortion and gays and the bitching about public sector salaries (you won't catch me ever doing that)--almost undercuts the more progressive sentiments elsewhere. I certainly can't argue with the idea that the gods used the Italians to ruin life in A.D. with the Church. An interesting mind is at work here. I'm almost afraid to know anything else but that. Dated March 5, 2011, it did come pretty soon after my encounter with the End of the World dude on Oscar Night, but it's not quite his style, unless of course he regrouped and drastically revamped his theological outlook in anticipation of all his missed deadlines.

On the off chance this comment was posted by someone I know, or who I've mentioned in the blog, maybe you'd care to identify yourself, along with the illegal substances you habitually use and the other medications you're supposed to be taking.

Homage to DJ

Northern Michigan

Friday, August 12, 2011

A week ago I was holed up in a motel in Kalamazoo, the hometown of Derek Jeter, the best shortstop in the game of baseball today, with very few rivals in history. I'm not forgetting Ozzie Smith for defense, Honus Wagner for offense, and some may have had better range, some better power. But for all around play, including batting average (.312 lifetime), hits (over 3,000 so far), and fielding percentage (.976 lifetime), he is the most strongly balanced, statistically. And he doesn't take a lot of time off. In the fifteen full seasons he has played prior to this year he has been in an average of 152 games per season out of 162 total, not quite Cal Ripken/Lou Gehrig iron man status, but pretty damned good. As of this evening he has 3032 hits, making him 23rd on the all-time list. By the end of the season he should be 20th, with a bullet. At 37, Derek is showing his age just a bit now, his average dipping below .300, but if he has just three more average years he should finish among the top five or ten hitters of all time.

But that's not what I really like about Derek Jeter. For me, it's the less statistically tangible things that make the man. His commitment to the game isn't necessarily anything unique. You've got to want to play baseball to play it well. The fact that he's been a one-team guy, while that's less common today than in days of yore, isn't the thing either. And, truth to tell, he might dance his last waltz with someone other than the one he arrived with. When the Yankees can't use him any more, he's out of there, and he's not DH material. (Even the Tiger great Ty Cobb, with a list of records as long as your arm, some of which still stand, had to spend his last two ignominious seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics.) It's not the fact that Jeter's number will be promptly retired the moment he does or that he's a lock for the Hall of Fame. Or that he plays over 95% of the time and wants to play the rest. Or that he makes fewer errors in two seasons than most shortstops make in one. The technonerds of baseball, the Bill Jameses, might tell you that his proven defensive range, somewhat limited and getting more so, means that he makes fewer errors than others might, the theory being that if you don't reach, you can't miss. But no fielder has more error opportunities than a shortstop, and when you've played all season and have a single-digit error number by the middle of August, that's better than good.

It's not even the fact that he's good-looking and unassuming and keeps his temper
in check and keeps his personal life absolutely out of the press. No. It's a thing called humility. How a guy as talented and as wealthy as he is can remain so damned humble, in the best way possible, is nearly unfathomable. No rants and rages, no showboating, very little behavior that would embarrass his mother or father or the team.

One wonders just what kind of human this guy is, and yet he is human. And humane and philanthropic, as well he should be considering that his salary equals the GDP of the average third world country. And speaking of salaries, there are some fans who decry the ridiculous amounts of money baseball players make, but never stop to wonder into whose pockets that very money would be going (and used to go) if the players were not getting it. Does anyone really think the owners would be giving away beer and selling bleacher seats for $3.50 if they were still paying players the kind of chump change they got before free agency?

But back to Derek Jeter, the man. I recently watched a documentary they did on him to commemorate his having reached the 3,000 hit mark, called "Derek Jeter 3K" or something like that. I found myself marveling not at his greatness but at his almost boring sense of discomfort at being the subject of a show about him. For him it's about the game, not the fame. If he hits well but the team doesn't win his own accomplishments mean little to him. Off the field he lives well, for sure, and like any other jock is most interested in the jostling physicality and camaraderie that accompanies his profession. He's not particularly deep, nor is he shallow. He is, instead, just what he should be. A pure baseball player, as pure as they come, a knight of the round table of the game, a leader among equals, tending more toward Sir Galahad than toward Sir Lancelot, and always dedicated to the quest. The occasional few who snipe at him or spread unseemly rumors reveal biases of their own rather than anything really negative about him.

It's impossible to say for sure, but I can't see him becoming a color commentator, mostly because he isn't really that colorful. Never one of those opinionated veterans of the game like Al Kaline, who let their conservative personal politics infect the play-by-play. Not sure how good a manager he'd be, either. The best players do not make the best managers, probably because they can't relate well enough to those who aren't as good as they are and never will be. Ted Williams comes to mind in that context. At any rate, few Hall of Famers have been managers, unless they were player-managers, which is a kind of specialized uber-management.

Overarching everything else about Derek Jeter is a sort of gentleness and unflappability and generosity of spirit. Far more than Brutus, about whom Shakespeare had Marc Antony say it originally in an epitaph, one could justly say about the living Jeter, that "his life is gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world, This is a man."