Friday, September 30, 2011

God and Baseball

Monrovia, California

Friday, September 30, 2011

First, a housekeeping matter. I’ve been informed by one of my loyal readers that there’s been some trouble posting comments lately. Even I have been having difficulty replying to comments, so the existence of some kind of glitch didn’t take me by surprise. I should say here that I haven’t necessarily been expecting comments on the rather thin content of the blog over the past two weeks, but the absence of even one was a little surprising. So thanks, Billie Bob, for letting me know.

I’ve just ventured into the bowels of the blog-creation site and have attempted to make a couple of changes, so I think commenting might be possible now. If it still isn’t, please let me know at my email address, Also, please know that I appreciate everyone’s presence out there in the ether. Some (in fact most) of you are close friends and relatives, and it’s as good a way to stay in touch as any, even if it’s mostly one-way communication from this direction. I understood very early on in the walk that the thing keeping me going wasn’t really the project; it was the fact that I was sharing it with others. Thanks for reading. And thanks also to the random commenters, the ones who maybe pick up on the fact that I’ve sat on the tombstone of one of their relatives or visited their home town, or maybe just pissed them off with my opinions. I’m happy to have perhaps made your day, either because you like what you’ve read or have disliked it and had a chance to tell me so.

Tonight the baseball playoffs begin. As almost everyone knows I’m a fan of the New York Yankees, the greatest and most successful franchise in the history of Major League Baseball, by far, if statistics mean anything. Baseball is a game of statistics, but for many statistics do not mean all that much. Some people identify strongly and emotionally with their local team, and don’t care about success, except on the rare occasions when it does visit their teams. Boston Red Sox fans come to mind, and indeed who can ignore them in that regard? What an amazing collapse they had this month, confirming once again the basic Boston attitude, which extends well beyond baseball or even sports, that the city is simultaneously blessed and hated by God above all other cities. They inveterately commit the sin of pride coupled with the sin of pride in reverse--both sides of the same coin. I believe the attitude of Boston partisans is informed most strongly by its historical domination by the Irish, a group who can’t help feeling that their perpetual disfavor in the eyes of the Almighty makes them special, when in truth they just might not be as wonderfully unique as they think they are.

I grew up rooting for the Detroit Tigers, to whom God was largely indifferent, and we were taught that hating the Yankees was a badge of pride, too. I remember rooting for the Pittsburgh Pirates against the Yanks in the 1960 World Series, the first one where I was fully aware of what was going on. The thing that makes someone side with the other league against a team from their own is a special kind of prejudice, a variation on the familiar maxim that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Nothing new, certainly, in either sports or international diplomacy. But why do people hate the Yankees so much? Or do they? I’ve been to two games this season in Anaheim where the Yankees have played the Angels, and in truth there were many New York partisans in the stands. But there’s that root-for-the-underdog thing at work, too, and compared to the New York Yankees all other teams are indeed underdogs, going all the way only once every generation or so, or, in the case of the hapless Red Sox, once every century. The Red Sox take it as a personal comment from their merciless God; the Yankees, on the other hand, don't need to either invoke or involve the Deity in what they do.

While living in Connecticut I had occasion to see both the Yankees and Red Sox in action quite often—in fact, every game of both teams was carried on the local cable franchise. As the great success of the Tigers in 1984 and again in 1985 began to fade from memory, my love of baseball inevitably drove me toward one of the local teams. (The Mets were never an option, both because they were a National League team and also because their fans are mostly from Queens and eastern Long Island. You have to have lived out there to completely understand what I’m getting at, but think Joey Buttafuco and Billy Joel and you’ll begin to get the picture.) I gravitated toward the Yankees because the Red Sox just never seemed like a viable option. I figured, why set yourself up for heartbreak year after year?

The Yankees have been in existence, depending on how you figure it, either since 1903 or since 1913 (when they changed their name from the Highlanders to the Yankees). They played in Manhattan, at Hilltop Park and the Polo Grounds, until moving to the Bronx in 1923. Their playing hasn’t been too shabby. It took them until 1921 to win a pennant and get into the World Series, and since then they’ve won an additional 39 pennants and 27 World Series. No other team has half that many titles, including National League teams that have been around since the 1880s. To put it into perspective, think of it this way: since they began as a New York team, on average they’ve finished the season at the top of the American League more often than once every three years, and have won the series once every four years. And that includes their first 20 years, in which they did neither.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see anything wrong with a sports team winning year in and year out. As a Tigers fan I would have been delighted to be backing a team with such a high rate of success. It had been a mere accident of birth and my dad's occupation that brought me to the Detroit area in the first place. No one in my family was from that part of Michigan. The closest anyone came to that was my paternal grandfather, who emigrated from the Netherlands to Grand Rapids, on the other side of the state, and soon moved to Chicago, and my grandmother, who hailed from Reed City. Neither of those Michigan locales considers Detroit to be much more than a remote den of iniquity. Still, the need to match up one’s fandom to one’s heritage is strong, so I focused instead on my mother’s side of the family. It turns out that in the first half of the 1600s some of them came from Holland and France and England to Manhattan, and others settled in what is now Brooklyn, after being forced out of Boston for nonconformity with the Puritan religion. They were among the original Yankees. So there you have it. The New York Yankees were, for me, the logical choice.

In a few hours the Yankees will go up against the Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series, the first round of the playoffs. Based on the way the Yankees have been playing so far this week, the outcome of the series is very far from a given for the Bronx Bombers. Some of that I attribute to the clumsy and questionable managing style of Joe Girardi, who’s been resting Derek Jeter and others far too much in my opinion, and using players from the expanded roster a bit too often—probably a throwback to Girardi's days as a catcher, where it was a given that someone at his position needed all the rest he could get starting around the middle of August. Take Jeter out of the lineup and you are doing more than resting your shortstop—you’re making your captain sit out a game--not a good strategy in my opinion. And I guarantee that Jeter doesn’t like it, though he’s too much of a team guy to bitch about it.

As for the way they played Tampa Bay earlier this week, if I were a Red Sox fan (unthinkable, except in the most abstract of ways), I’d swear the Yankees threw that series just to keep Boston out of the wild card. Or maybe it was just God, telling the Beantowners once again, “I hate you guys.”

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Purple Better Ones

Monrovia, California

Friday, September 23, 2011

I was just rereading something I remembered from William Burroughs, a piece set at the time of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, called “The Coming of the Purple Better One.” What put me in mind of that was a photo I saw of one of the many recent Republican candidate debates. These GOPers have hit on the best publicity possible—debating each other seemingly every other day, bringing their lapdogs from CNN and Fox along and forcing the other networks and the print media to trail after. Here’s where the Democrats are at a real disadvantage. There’s only one of them running for president in 2012, at least so far. The Republicans, on the other hand, have cloned themselves into a half dozen or more ever weirder versions of one another, and are now engaging in an elaborate series of sophistic exercises whereby they get to trot out their most outrageous ideas, see if they fly, and eliminate or refine them one at a time. I imagine the thinking goes that eventually they’ll hit on a few ideas that “resonate” with the American public, and whichever candidate proves to be the least embarrassing in the long run will take those ideas on the hustings. In the meantime, they get lots and lots of air and print time, gratis.

With the Democrats, on the other hand, even though the presidency is sometimes referred to as the Bully Pulpit, there’s only that one pulpit, and one sorry little preacher to do all the evangelizing, all the heavy lifting for his party. He can’t be the whacked-out born-again shoot-to-kill give-everybody-the-needle Texan Obama debating the serious grey-at-the-temples faux-moderate Mormon Obama, looking across the podium at the certifiably insane and geographically challenged female Obama, while the chubby professorial Obama chimes in once in a while.

It reminds me of that movie “Multiplicity,” where Michael Keaton has himself cloned so he can get more work done and have more free time. The first clone is an aggressive workaholic, just the ticket. Then he goes for a second one, who embodies his gentler, more nurturing side. Between the two of them they make up a complete person. Then the two clones for reasons of their own decide to make yet another, who, as they explain, being a “copy of a copy, isn’t as sharp as the original.” The Republicans have all that going on and more (minus the sharp writing of Harold Ramis). There’s the tough take no prisoners candidate, the reasonable candidate, the other Mormon candidate, the avuncular intellectual candidate, the Dr. Strangelove pure libertarian candidate, the mentally challenged candidate. Actually there are several of those last ones at this point, but I’m confident they’ll whittle it down to just one or two.

They are, collectively and individually, the distinguished senator and former Justice of the Supreme Court, Homer Mandrill, known to his friends as the Purple Better One. Homer was, you may recall, a purple-assed mandrill baboon, running for president. Back in ’68 when it appeared in Esquire that was cutting-edge hallucinatory satire from old Burroughs, although he always knew that his version of reality was, well, more real than what most people thought was the real thing. Today, when it comes to the Republicans, we should all be so lucky as to have a choice between the people currently running for president and an artificially animated mandrill baboon. I know which one I’d vote for, without hesitation, if I were ever to venture into a Republican primary. What a difference a generation or two makes. Yesterday’s drug-fueled crazy metaphor becomes today’s Great Simian Hope for America.

I think we all know pretty much how this is going to play out. We’re in the middle of another bad television drama, where we know that by the end of the hour something definitive has to happen that will let people get to sleep. I’ll go out on a limb here, and you can check me as time goes on, but here’s my fearless prediction. Rick Perry will fall away. His brown makeup will accidentally chip off on TV and people will see that underneath he’s a putrid green scaly alien. Adios, amigo. Michele Bachmann will find the intellectual weight of sharing the stage with all the rest of those brilliant bastards too much to bear, and will shrivel up, leaving only her pointy shoes like one of the bad witches from the Land of Oz. Ron Paul? Forget about it. He’s a placeholder. The guy has fifteen supporters nationwide and they all look like Charlton Heston as Moses in “The Ten Commandments” and live in compounds up in the mountains. They have more bullets than votes. He’s the far right’s answer to Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich. Newt Gingrich? Excuse me, but that toad is more last century than disco. Then there’s the other Mormon governor dude, Huntsman (which you must admit is a great name for a Republican, right?). He might just hang in there for a while, but eventually people will have to choose which of the two secret underwear-wearing guys they’re going to fall in with, and my guess is it will be the one who’s already done his missionary work out in Massachusetts.

I know I’m skipping a few, but it’s like talking about the NFL—you can only devote so much air time to Kansas City and Seattle. As with football, it’s early in the season, but not too early to make predictions.

Here's one more: maybe the insect masters who hold the strings will pull all of these bozos out at the last minute and stick Dick Cheney in there, which I think is what they really would like to do anyway.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Final Destination

Southern California

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

In traveling 3,339.6 miles, I have walked, literally and figuratively, in the footsteps of many thousands of people, and I have walked millions of steps. Since coming back to California I’ve tried to make observations about the state of things out here as much in the vein of the original blog as I could. In most respects Californians look at life exactly the way people elsewhere around the country do. But there are subtle differences.

Perhaps one of the characteristics of Californians that sets them apart is that they tend to accept whatever comes their way with something like equanimity. People who visit call this a “laid back” attitude, but I think there’s more to it than that. The key, in my opinion, is that people who are out here (or up from south of the border) are determined to make this as much of a paradise as they can because, really, there’s nowhere else to go. Maybe they could go to Hawaii, but that’s an expensive and rather unrealistic proposition for most people. California is pretty much it, within the United States. If you arrived in heaven and found that the streets were dirty, what would you do—move to hell, or look around for a broom? Okay, sure, some celebrities go off to ranches in Montana and Wyoming and Utah as a way of getting clear of the congestion of the southern part of the state, which, let’s face it, is packed. But most Californians can’t afford that; they’re where they’re going to be for the duration. When they plan for retirement, it’s not to some far-off place. It’s maybe out to Sun City or down to Palm Springs, where they can shake and bake and prep for the only slightly higher temperatures of hell.

One way to think about California is that almost everyone considers it a final destination. In the east, folks have always talked about going somewhere else to live, usually somewhere warmer like Florida or Arizona, which is understandable, or somewhere perceived to be filled with opportunities, like southern California. “Hell with all this snow and ice, this dusty rocky soil, these filthy factories, I’m going to …. (fill in the blank).” Hope springs eternal, and all that. So when you’ve actually arrived at the far edge of the continent you’d damned well better learn to make the best of it, even though it’s seldom what you imagined it would be. Either that or start swimming.

My favorite cheap horror movie series is the “Final Destination” films. There have been five, though I haven’t yet seen the most recent one, which just came out this summer. In all of them, dating back to the first in 2000, one of the young core of main characters (high school kids or twenty-somethings) has a premonition of a horrible accident in which many people are killed, including him and all his friends. In the first movie it was a senior trip plane that crashed on takeoff, in the second there was a massive auto wreck on the freeway, in the third a major malfunction at an amusement park, then a crash at a stock car race, and the latest one features, I believe, the collapse of a bridge. In each case the person with the premonition acts on it and saves himself and his friends. But of course they have only delayed the inevitable, and Death stalks them throughout the movie, taking them one by one in ever more gruesome and imaginative ways—beheadings, falling objects, flying lawnmower blades, weird impalements, etc. The fun of watching the movies is anticipating when and how each person’s death will occur, and whether Death will perhaps spare one of them until the next movie. Sometimes characters will have the false hope or hubris to imagine they have escaped—that Death has decided to skip them. Wrong, of course.

Though Death is not personified in the movies, there’s usually a character who functions as a sort of seer or commentator, like a one-man chorus in a Greek tragedy. This person is always black, which is Hollywood’s way of killing two birds with one stone—first by creating a part for an African American actor in an otherwise pretty much all-white movie, and second by reconfirming in us our stereotypical supposition that nonwhites are more in touch with the supernatural because they are, let’s face it, closer to death on a regular basis, and also more in touch with their primitive pre-modern roots than are the well-off and well-meaning coeds and slackers who make up the rest of the cast of characters.

I freely admit this is all cheesy B-movie fare, but even a gourmet (which I’m not, in any case) has his secret junk food cravings. It's unlikely that you'll catch David Denby or Anthony Lane reviewing a Final Destination film in The New Yorker. Nevertheless these movies carry the crucial and unavoidable message that death, in whatever form, comes to all of us (sparing us the stentorian cornball voice-over of “Citizen Kane”), that it’s our Final Destination. But if that were the only point to be made the series wouldn’t have become a minor franchise. It’s the gruesomeness of the deaths that compels and repels its viewers. And as terrible as the original deaths might have been in the premonitory opening scenes, the actual ones that follow are even more so. The lesson isn’t simply that death is inevitable. Hell, a child could tell you that. It is that narrowly escaping one fate launches a person into uncharted territory fraught with even more uncertainty and perhaps more dire consequences than having incurred the original one. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.

So many people have come here to southern California to escape things—the harsh weather of the east, the violent criminal and political turmoil of other countries, the maddening sameness of life in a small town in the middle of nowhere--in fact, the whole painful litany of which Hamlet complained:

…the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes…

All the bad stuff, in other words. I wonder sometimes, with the arrival at the end of this rainbow, in many ways so full of energy and sunshine, if there isn’t a sort of perpetual forgetting of the crucial thing Hamlet lost sight of, namely, that the choice of whether “to be or not to be” was never his to make in the first place. In any case, among California’s many sterling statistical superlatives is the fact that Rose Hill Cemetery in Whittier is the largest graveyard in the whole damned country.

Well, this is verging on serious, and I don’t want to do that. Leave such things to the philosophers and poets. I'm not trying to make a big deal out of the basic facts of life and death. But there is something out here that seems to invite people to try to turn back the hands of time, or at least arrest them, sometimes with ugly Dorian Gray-like consequences. Plastic surgery comes immediately to mind, but there are so many other forms of self-delusion. California is a place, after all, where dreams of all kinds have been for sale for the better part of two centuries, from the promise of land and gold and silver to the promises displayed on the silver screen. And here, indeed, if you stick around, the ultimate promise is always fulfilled.

Friday, September 2, 2011


Southern California

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Random and not necessarily coherent thoughts:

I dwell on history. Someone famous once said something like, "I don't read history any more because I pretty much know what happened." But that isn't what it's all about. It's about why it happened and what people were thinking when it did and how they processed it afterwards. The changes in the things they emphasize in the study of U.S. history just during my lifetime tell me that history isn't a collection of facts, any more than philosophy is a collection of ideas about existence. It's facts laid over a system of thinking. Or maybe it's a system of thinking formed to fit a set of facts. Sometimes, as with religions and political ideals, the system overshadows the facts so much that the basic occurrences are either ignored, denied, or entirely misshapen, all to fit the religion or politics. Once something has happened it's no longer the event that matters much, but the way people think about it. There is no way to predict what people will think even about a purely objective natural fact, such as a hurricane. They might see it as a manifestation of the wrath of God or a failure of the government to be there to fix it--the same God they praise for his loving kindness and the same government they resent for its intrusion into their lives. Apart from being the study of "what happened," in any absolute sense, history is the study of what people decide those happenings mean. Usually historians are the scriveners of the dominant elements of a society but sometimes, when those dominant elements are feeling guilty about being dominant, the scriveners put on hair shirts and take the side of those they dominated. So it is, for example, that the story of the "taming of the West" can become, inside of a generation, the story of the shameful displacement and extermination of the noble original occupants of the West.

My understanding of the present tells me that people rarely think about history as it is being made, and only in hindsight are they able to put together a coherent narrative of history. And the very act of making a coherent historical narrative goes contrary to the inherent chaos and randomness of things. Historians understand this, no doubt, while the rest of us tend to want to make sense of things in a broader context. The most reliable history might seem at first blush to be the basic fact of what happened, but that isn't what anyone cares about to any great extent. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. Except to the most freaked-out conspiracy theorist, that is an indisputable fact. But of course that's not what people spend most of their time talking about. They want to know who killed him, with how many bullets, from which direction or directions, at whose behest, and all that. Books are written, movies made, and an entire industry rises up around these peripheral questions. Indeed all murder stories focus on these elements: the death itself is rarely worth spending much time on, even though it is the one event of the drama without which nothing else can happen. Despite our urge to turn all of history into a series of mysteries, ultimately solvable, and despite the best efforts of conspiracy theorists to put the event into a more compelling narrative, the facts of the JFK assassination have ultimately proven to be pretty pedestrian and straightforward: a guy got a rifle, sat at an open window, and fired several shots. Actually, the more our technology in reconstructing the events improves, the more likely it becomes that that is exactly what happened. But even if all the many ideas of all the conspiracy theorists are correct, virtually none of them have had any effect on the event itself or on its predictable and ordinary aftermath. A family lost a husband and father. The vice president was sworn in as president, just as had happened on the seven previous occasions when a president died in office. The nation mourned and there was a big funeral. The U.S. government, to whose ongoing existence John Kennedy had dedicated and subordinated himself, went on without him.

Now let's look at a more recent major event, the bombings of the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, which happened by means of individuals crashing jet airplanes loaded with fuel and people into those buildings. This took place on September 11, 2001. Four planes were hijacked by a total of nineteen men. Three of them hit targets, and the fourth crashed in a field. All the passengers, crew, hijackers, and many people in the buildings were killed. The World Trade Towers were completely destroyed. The Pentagon was repaired and restored. Can anyone seriously dispute these facts as I have just related them?

In this case, as with the Kennedy assassination, conspiracy theories swirl around the quite well-known facts. The attacks on September 11, 2001 were the result of a conspiracy, and a well-executed one at that. But that still doesn't satisfy anyone. In the JFK assassination people looked for a conspiracy, thinking that would lead somewhere, and after several decades they began to give up the search. The event became emblematic, correctly or not, of the deeply sinister and unknown and unknowable power of people to do things we can't control until it's too late. People want to make sense, in some larger context, of an event such as an assassination, but in the end it often just means that obscure people can kill famous people if they wish to, at pretty much any time. Famous people continue to be assassinated regularly. We're comfortable with the idea that individuals or small groups of individuals can make a difference in the world, except when it comes to bad things like assassinations and suicide bombings. And what makes us most uncomfortable is that we have no way of knowing when something bad will happen again.

Except to the families of the dead, the aftermath of 9/11 turned out to be far more important than the event itself, just the same as with the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. The victory has been entirely on the side of the original perpetrators of the events and their fellow conspirators. In one efficient, well-coordinated morning's work a small group brought an entire country to its knees and plunged it into a multi-billion dollar decade-long punitive war against Arabs everywhere in which several times as many U.S. citizens have died as died on the day of the original attacks, and the country has been reduced to bragging about its use of torture and the suspension of habeas corpus, not to mention its slaughter of nearly a million Iraqis and Afghanis. What cadre wouldn't gladly sacrifice nineteen soldiers to create such havoc?

I have a fearless prediction, one that you may have already thought of yourself. Given the fact that organized labor counts for practically nothing in this country any more, and also given the fact that we're approaching the 10th anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001, Labor Day will soon morph into a 9/11 Memorial or Remembrance Day, dedicated not to working men and women but rather to OURSELVES generally as a country. In that way we can feel solemnly sorry for ourselves and victimized all over again each year, most likely forgetting or ignoring several key things:
(1) the western economic imperialism that fostered the hatred that led to the event;
(2) the religious fundamentalism that fueled it and which we have answered in kind with the growth of our own religious fundamentalism; and
(3) the incredible strategic economy with which a self-deluded few can bring down the self-deluded many.
Fiscal economy at the national and state levels will preclude an extra holiday in September, so we'll continue to use the first Monday in September for this purpose. Could it be that congressmen from NY or the hinterlands have already suggested this holiday shift?

Someone else famous said something like, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." By this measure we are all perpetually condemned, in large part because we rarely remember the past the same way from day to day, let alone from year to year or generation to generation. Perhaps a more useful if less aphoristic way to think about it is that we should be careful which version of the past we choose, because that is probably the one we are condemned to repeat.