Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

I Miss Ike, or, This Summer of Baseball (Part I)

June 30, 2011

Sports fans are by nature a superstitious and circumspect lot, but the Met fan has a cultivated cynicism that at this point is hard to match. The play that took out two of the Mets best and most popular players – Ike Davis and David Wright – pretty much sums up the season – a little league moment when an infield pop-up caused Wright and Davis to collide. They have now both been out for almost two months. Many head-shaking and major-league-rare moments like this have followed,  including what should have been a double-play to end an inning a few nights ago against the Tigers, if Tejada and Turner hadn’t been confused about whose job it was to cover 2nd  — they both  ended up awkwardly standing on the same bag at the same time looking a bit lost. And their ragtag troupe of young players, like the improved but still somewhat shaky catcher Josh Thole (recently a friend asked a bunch of us what new record we might see broken. I mused that Thole might set one for most passed balls at home plate; but that was a while ago, he’s been ok lately); and the up and comers Justin Turner and Daniel Murphy have been adding to this minor league atmosphere but  also showing flashes of brilliance. Flashes. You never forget what is going on between the watchable exciting moments. What the real storyline is. The second Jason Bay comes up to bat, reality hits back hard.

As any baseball fan, and now any New Yorker reader now also knows from Jeffrey Toobin’s exceptionally informative and painful article, financial difficulty and Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme also define this season. Fred Wilpon, the Mets’ rather annoyingly candid owner, is in the cross-hairs of Irving Picard, the bankruptcy trustee appointed to handle the Madoff fallout. This has already led to the sale of part of the team and will undoubtedly affect whether or not the most valuable players will remain in Mets uniform – Reyes, Beltran and K-Rod might be worth too much to keep on a team that is not in contention (but what if the Mets find themselves in the wild card race?  A lot for Sandy Alderson et al to think about.  A lot of bad decisions to look forward to).

So ultimately, this Mets season, at the moment hovering just above .500, is about enjoying the pleasant surprises of individual talents – especially those of Jose Reyes. And the Mets’ recent 52 run/4 game spree just baffles a fan even more – definitely the most manic depressive team in baseball; it’s hard to live with that kind of volatility.

All this leaves a real baseball fan craving & needing more. Some play fantasy baseball. Others fill the void by complaining, whining, hating on the Yankees and Phillies, and obsessing over the flawed stewardship of the Wilpons. My wandering eye almost invariably leads me to the fullness of baseball that really only books can provide.

A few weeks ago at the Greenlight Bookstore on Fulton Street in Fort Greene, Leonard Cassuto, editor of the new Cambridge Companion to Baseball, and Caryn Rose, of Metsgrrl.com, chatted about this tension between the game as observed by the curious and detached and the game as lived daily by the individual, the more often than not frustrated fan. The two embodied their two worlds perfectly – Cassuto, an English professor at Fordham, speaking in calm measured tones about the more “interesting” aspects of the game and how it figures in the larger fabric of American culture; Rose with a fan’s embittered tone, cursing the Wilpons under her breath and speaking with her inherited bile of being spurned by Walter O’Malley (her father was a Dodgers fan).

For Rose it is all very visceral, for Cassuto it is not. Which is just as well since Cassuto has provided a valuable service with the Cambridge Companion, which starts with a detailed timeline of baseball and follows with various essays that range from baseball in film, baseball and the color line, how one compares the measure of greatness in baseball vs. other things like literature and a great chapter about baseball and the American city. All this is done in a very manageable 200 pages, no small feat for what may become one of the most useful & handy guides to the game. It is hard to imagine there is much to add to the immense canon of baseball literature but what separates this collection of essays from almost everything else before is that it is a purely observational and sociological account. Almost all else out there is written for fans and aficianados by journalists and other insiders. The Cambridge Companion is geared towards those generally interested in American culture and how baseball both defines it and is defined through it. For a fan it takes some getting used to and reads as if it were written for someone who is BSL (Baseball as a Second Language). Most other baseball books, even the most cynical ones, take you along for the ride and add to the mythic grandeur of the game, they speak your language. But to the baseball fan there is never enough new information and Cassuto makes sure to also keep some of the magic intact with inter-chapters, like the ones about Babe Ruth and Roberto Clemente, both of whom generated the real kind of super-star tales that defy any fiction-writer’s imagination.

Both Cassuto and Rose are serious music fans and when Rose is not writing about baseball, she is most likely writing about rock. She wrote a recent post about the passing of Clarence Clemons and turns out both she and Cassuto are devoted Springsteen fans. The two tried to compare and define the happiness of being a music fan and the happiness of being a baseball fan. This left me a little confused. Music can bring one such unadulterated joy. There may be some disappointments, as in bad albums or bad shows. But rarely does it drag you through a half year of personal drama and break your heart, year after year. To use the word “happiness” to describe following sports at all does not seem appropriate (except the day you win the World Series).  But it is something more, it is fuller, a bit more like life, but because it is ultimately not real life, it can serve as a unique cathartic release from it.

Advertisements

Montreal, Part II (The French, The Jews)

September 3, 2010

While at McGill, my editor at the McGill Daily, Jason Chow, a first-generation Chinese-Canadian from Medicine Hat, Alberta, had a favorite go-to phrase to sum up Canadians and Americans – “Canadians will never get the race issue in the States and Americans will never get the French issue here.” Very possibly true. Though I suspect that most Americans haven’t given nearly the same amount of thought to the “Canadian problem,” as Canadians (and you know, the whole world) have given to America’s legacy of slavery and racism. Most Americans today probably just have a vague notion that somewhere in Canada people speak French and that it’s been an issue, maybe a serious one. (Americans in the 1960’s and 1970’s almost definitely had a clear idea of the issue, especially after the kidnapping and murder of Quebec Labor Minister, Pierre Laporte in 1970, by the FLQ, the Front de Liberation du Quebec, and several other bombings by them, including of the Montreal Stock Exchange).

Those “issues” led to the steep decline of one of the greatest, wealthiest cities in North America. It is hard to think of another city that faded and changed so dramatically because of cultural tensions, rather than say, an industry collapsing or the ravages of war. But it also gave birth to a newer, Frencher,  Montreal, that has more or less risen from the ashes of the worst of it and has recreated itself as the young, creative, and charming town that it is today. Let Toronto and New York carry the self-important burden of being too expensive and overworked.  Montreal sort of has it figured out.

But it has only figured it out pretty recently. In 1996, just after the province of Quebec voted not quite overwhelmingly to stay part of Canada, Montreal was not doing so well; it felt empty and each new A Louer  (For Rent) sign in a newly-vacant storefront relentlessly reminded you of that.  The mass exodus of Anglos – Jewish and Protestant – and their money, left a very palpable absence in the city.  But  the ultimate victory of Francophone Quebec  was not a totally pyrrhic one – Quebec eventually, after a couple of centuries of wishful resistance,  reclaimed its main city — poorer and smaller, but French and seemingly finally comfortable and less anxious as a French island in an English sea.

 

Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes 

Two Solitudes, a main contender for The Great Canadian Novel, was Hugh MacLennan’s beautiful and poignant parable from 1945, about French and English Canada. It begins with  the First World War, which  to many in the Commonwealth was the British Empire’s Original Sin –Canada, Australia and New Zealand will never forget all the young boys they sacrificed for England in that war. For obvious reasons the war also sowed even deeper resentment towards English Canada among the Quebecois – why should they fight England’s war at all? In this epic story, Athanase Tallard, the scion of a wealthy landed family from St. Marc, a small town a few hours from Montreal, struggles with this and ends up alienating himself from both communities by trying to embrace the modern, practical English way of doing business while also advocating on behalf of the French. He battles with the most powerful force in St. Marc, the Catholic Church, which encouraged its parishioners to hold on to their bitter memories and use them to fuel hatred and resistance towards the English. His own son, a draft dodger opposed to Quebecois conscription, cultivates his personal resentment towards his father into a rabid blind nationalism and preaches his vitriol at whatever pulpit is given him.  The other Solitude in the meanwhile, described as comparatively staid and bloodless, busy counting its money on St. James Street, exploiting French Canadians and hosting debutante balls, also contends with its own less than settled identity in the Canadian colony.

The characters are very much archetypes but are also subtley and beautifully infused with real life, especially the main heroes of the book – an Anglophone girl, raised properly in the Golden Square Mile, but dissatisfied with the older generation’s expectations of her to become a complacent over-educated house wife; and a boy half Irish half French, Athanase Tallard’s other son, similarly uncomfortable in a world that neither accepts him as French or English. Together they forge a path toward the new Canada with its New World  identity, fresh resourcefulness and final, painful uprooting from its European past.

“Two Solitudes,” although not coined by MacLennan, was the byword in Canada for the English/French problem and Canadian Society and his book helped define it. Cultural progress often seems to be measured in relation to it. In her investiture speech as the new Governor General of Canada, in 2005, Michaelle Jean, a Haitian refugee who moved to Quebec in 1968 and who made her mark as an  accomplished journalist and statewoman, stated that, “the time of the Two Solitudes that for too long described the character of this country is past.”

Mordecai Richler & The Jews

Quebec’s irascible prodigal son – Mordecai Richler – may have been a very annoying Jewish thorn in the side of the Quebecois during his lifetime, often accused of Anglo 5th Column sensibilities. But Richler loved Quebec, his birthplace and chosen home after many years of the expat British experience that so many Canadian writers ran to before returning to embrace their (finally) first-rate, world-class, home. Richler’s novels help chronicle the rich Jewish life in Montreal. When Montreal wasn’t busy being rich and WASPy, it spent its time being poor and Catholic or Jewish (and not just French Catholic, Montreal was significantly Irish as well), or at least the stereotype goes.**

In the tradition of Philip Roth (early Philip Roth), Richler is a master at portraying the messy, yiddisher Jewish world of his post-WWII Montreal. His was a sooty, crowded, smelly, working class Jewish shtetl in and around The Main (St. Laurent Boulevard), of which some remnants remain, such as Schwartz’s and Berson & Sons’ 4th generation tombstone business across the street. After New York, Montreal very possibly boasted the most culturally rich Jewish community in North America. One outpost has even made it to Brooklyn, at Mile End on Hoyt St. (though Mile End seems to be a Quebec catchall, as they proudly advertise their poutine).

It’s a bit puzzling why Richler is not more popular here, he is hilarious and so politically and culturally astute and deals with his Jewish identity issues in a non-cynical way (it is superficially cynical but scratch the surface just a bit and there is a lot of love, much like Richler himself)  that I, at least, prefer to so many other Jewish writers of his generation (Or any Jewish writers of any generation that address Jewish identity in their work for that matter).  Others seem to try and “get over” their Jewishness, have some resentment towards it, and so end up becoming utterly obsessed with it. (Richler’s view of his Jewishness seems to be– “It is what it is.”). He has no problem airing some Jewish dirty laundry, and picking apart Montreal’s Jewish middle class, who often looked down on his kind, and he certainly broke free of his elders’ religious superstitious shtetl mentality. But he writes with affection for both, even when in Son of a Smaller Hero, his mother keeps feigning a heart condition to keep him from marrying a shiksa (Actually in Two Solitudes, the main matriarchal character also feigns a heart condition to oppose a marriage – good to see the commonalities between the two cultures, really heartwarming).

Son of a Smaller Hero, since it was only Richler’s second novel, also serves as a great primer to Montreal of that time. Richler did not take for granted that his audience knew him or Montreal as thoroughly as he, and his descriptions of that city and that time are priceless:

“Every night, St. Lawrence Boulevard is lit up like neon cake and used-up men stumble out of hundred different flophouses to mix with rabbinical students and pimps and Trotskyites and poolroom sharks. Hair tonic and water is consumed in back alleys. Swank whores sally at you out of the promised jubilee of all the penny arcades. Crap games flourish under lampposts.”

In another chapter, Richler charts how the various groups mixed in cottage country:

“About fourty-five miles north of Montreal a side-road turns off into Ste. Adele en-haut. It’s about three miles to the lake. Ste. Adele is the retreat of Montreal’s aspiring middle-class, and, as a resort town, is prone to all the faults and virtues of that group. The cottages are clean but prosaic: no Jews are wanted, but, on the other hand, they are dealt with diplomatically. The French Canadians tolerate the Presbyterians from the city because they have brought prosperity to their village, and the Presbyterians find that the French Canadians add spice to their holiday: they accept their haughtiness as philosophically as rain on Sundays. Few on either side are bilingual.”

In Joshua, Then and Now, maybe his best novel, and most autobiographical, he explores all of these different types of Jews, and the non-Jews in their lives. Joshua, raised by a vain, neglectful mother who married down, and a professional boxer father whom he saw between bouts and some other vague work for a Mr. Collucci (and the resulting run from the law) Joshua schemes, outwits and writes his way to a successful career as a TV Sports Journalist. On his way there, he travels to Spain to indulge his obsession with the Civil War, mixes with the crowd in literary London and eventually marries the daughter of a dignified Ottawa Senator, with a cottage in the Laurentions where the evening cocktail hour brings out all the fancy Anglos in their boats and seaplanes.  

If you are feeling too lazy to read through one of his books, you can check out the movies based on them (though I promise you will enjoy the books, he is so much fun, and you will probably learn a lot – I do at least). You can watch The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz with Richard Dreyfuss and there is also an adaption of Joshua Then and Now with James Woods. Apparently there is a movie coming out soon based on Barney’s Version, his last novel, also pretty great and very very funny. I hear Paul Giamatti is playing the lead. Look out for it.

**To Richler, this was the myth French Canadians lived with:
(The)  conviction that, even today, the quintessential Westmount man – a banker – is chauffeured each morning to his office on St. James Street, where, in need of a daily hee-haw, he will foreclose on an impecunious habitant and then hurry home to mount the ravishing but innocent Francophone maid, throwing her off the roof if she gets preggers. The women shop at Holt Renfrew and then repair to the neighboring Ritz-Carlton Hotel for drinks and, providing they are not hopelessly frigid, assignations as well. And once a year the Westmount men and women convene at the Ritz in their tribal finery for St. Andrew’s Ball, their champagne-laden tables attended by the white niggers of North America, Quebecois pure laine, whose parents live in an unheated East End flat, owned by a short fat Jewish slumlord, the mother suffering from consumption and the father bound to die without ever once wintering in Hollywood, Florida, a lifelong dream.

(This, from his book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, from the early 90’s, obviously did not endear him to many French Canadians, but he was always very democratic and generous with his insights and insults, no one was safe and everyone was at least mildly annoyed, except for the ones who thought it was really really funny).

Montreal, Part I

August 24, 2010

 “If Canada were not a country…but instead a house, Vancouver would be the solarium-cum-playroom… Toronto, the counting room, where money makes for the most glee; Montreal, the salon…”                                             —  Mordecai Richler

And who wouldn’t want to live in the salon? It’s hard not to romanticize Montreal.  Its more recently risen musical and culinary stars, like Arcade Fire and Au Pied de Cochon, have placed it on several important world maps and more and more New Yorkers are discovering that actually, Montreal is rather close (New England has been on to this for a while now).  Just this past week the New York Times ran a 36 Hours In Montreal special, a good friend took his bachelor party up there from Brooklyn, and another friend decided last minute to take the $62/each way Amtrak Adirondack up the Hudson to spend the week there for that much needed summer respite from NYC.

Some Americans and Europeans, mostly to illustrate their own sophistication, and distance themselves from America, describe Montreal as very “European.” While that sounds almost as silly as saying Montreal has a certain je ne sais quoi, it is also grossly inapt. Montreal is so much more than merely being like any other place.  It is a quintessential New World and Old Empire experiment that just happened to land on the French side of things.  It didn’t start out that way. The US is always seen as the adolescent nation evolving with growing pains that reverberate around the world.  But Quebec’s own not-so-quiet resolution of its identity begins with the whole of the British Empire and ends with a charming mid-sized Francophone city that might compete only with Berlin for the kind of genuinely creative, DIY sensual revelry that so much of Williamsburg aspires to (In Montreal, “vagrants” and misfits are actually tolerated and welcomed, and there is no shame in having a Phd and working as a bartender, or generally not being “on the make”.  Some see it as stiflingly complacent, and  some as liberating, and it is, of course, both).

Old, Waspy, Montreal

It’s hard to imagine, but Montreal was once highly class-conscious and its upper classes highly Anglo, the Scots-Presbyterian elite deemed to control the whole of Canada from St. James Street. But St. James Street became Rue St. Jacques, and for decades the street has not functioned as a major financial engine in Canada. Most of the major money, and English protestant types, decamped after the Parti Quebecois and separatist politics took root in the 1970’s. But in 1928, when the Bank of Canada built its headquarters on St. James Street, it was the tallest building in the British Empire.  

You can see this lost Waspy Montreal world in the pages of the now defunct magazine The Montrealer. (This world has been more or less reconstituted in Toronto, but the flavor is a lot less British, less colonial – in Montreal they lived their lives a spiritual stone’s throw from Whitehall and London. Toronto, as any Torontonian will proudly point out, is technically the world’s most multicultural city, the restrained British sensibility has faded and London is now much farther away than Ottawa).  Modeled after The New Yorker, The Montrealer, a Hugh MacLennan-edited monthly that ran in the 1950’2 and early 60’s*, is a testimonial to Montreal of the early and mid-20th century.

Along with original poetry, fiction, and clever cartoons, The Montrealer also served as a society page, including complete coverage of the annual St. Andrew’s Ball, with black and white photos of the gents in their tartans and military medals, and their ladies with matching tartan sashes, the captions beneath announcing names such as Capt. Earl Spafford, Mr. Watson Ogilvie, Lord and Lady Lovatt and “Miss Isabel Pearce (of the Stuart Clan)”. If you blink while reading through the 1953 January issue, you might miss the only evidence that there actually might be French Canadians in Montreal – on page 35, after the St. Andrew’s Ball and Gunner’s Ball coverage, is a page reserved for La Ligue de la Jeunesse Feminine Bal de la Melodie with equally charming and well-groomed couples and debutantes. 

Another mainstay of the magazine’s society coverage was the “Bermuda Holiday,” a favorite Commonwealth  Carribean spot for well-heeled English Canadians, and includes cheeky reminders how to enjoy one’s holiday while there. In one essay by Ben Cossman, titled “How NOT to Enjoy Yourself in Bermuda,” the author muses that all the brochures and magazines about Bermuda are pointless and should instead concentrate on those out there who are intent on not enjoying their holidays – one picture of an evening beach party has a caption that reads: “If you’re on your honeymoon, don’t attend the night barbecues on the beach. There is too much danger of having fun. Besides, there’s no charge and this alone might please the grouchiest of us.”

Each issue, as might be expected of any important, well-informed and well-informing, Canadian magazine, especially in the 1950’s, spends much time on the neighbor to the South. In the section titled “Unpopular Editorials,” in this first issue of 1953, Hugh MacLennan writes about President Eisenhower and the Red Scare. He observes, “In sober moments, no thinking American can seriously believe that their danger comes from communism within their government. Nor, if they think hard enough, can they believe that the complex of fear which grips the nation is caused solely by the Soviet Union…What, after all, does a man dread most? Seldom his open and manifest enemy; almost invariably some weakness he suspects to exist within himself…If Dwight Eisenhower is to succeed as president, his main task is plain. He must exorcise the irrational terror which bedevils the 1950’s as Roosevelt exorcised the equally irrational fear that haunted the 1930’s.”

Of course, like the New Yorker, the Montrealer sought to strike the right balance between the fun and frivolous and the “very serious.” After reading about the Red Scare and behemoth America, one can turn to page 16 and take the month’s quiz: How Would You Mix These Cocktails: Angel’s Kiss, Gimlet, Clover Club, Merry Widow, Gin Fizz, Sloe Gin Rickey, Pousse Café, Sidecar, Tom and Jerry, Maiden’s Prayer, White Cargo, Old-Fashioned. Answers on page 69.

(Part II will be about the other 2/3 of Montreal — the French and the Jews, and Hugh MacLennan’s and Mordecai Richler’s books about them).

This Summer of Sports

July 25, 2010

This Summer of Sports (& Some Sports Reading Recs)

In one single day at the end of June, Nicolas Mahut and John Isner played day 2 of their record-busting, 8-hour 5th set at Wimbledon, team USA just barely climbed out of the group stage by beating Algeria in extra time, and Jerry Seinfeld joined Keith Hernandez and Gary Cohen in the Mets broadcast booth for 5 innings to help call the game and reminisce (the Seinfeld episode with Keith was, of course, retold in detail) . If you had to make a case for sports (as the sports editor Dave Zirin recently did, as recounted here), June 23rd provided some amazing material, though for some it was merely another day in  a summer that gave us sports moments in spades.

And it continued well beyond Spain’s victory against Holland.  The Baseball All-Star Game soon arrived and the passing of George Steinbrenner inspired even more nostalgia than should be allowed the average baseball fan (no one does nostalgia better than a baseball fan; of course Steinbrenner’s death elicited a whole range of emotions, many of which cannot be characterized as “nostalgic”).  And now Thierry Henry is playing for the Red Bulls? And took the Path train to get to the stadium?

Maybe not everyone is experiencing their own Summer of Sports, but every notable event these past couple of months seems bookended or made more vivid because of a game or match that accompanied it, that played in the background and provided at least a bit of a distraction (and when things like the Flotilla “Incident” off the coast of Israel occur, or Andrew Breitbart helps propel one of the most disturbing 21st century, new media/fake journalism fiascos, distractions are saviors – of course, many surely wish they could have their 10 minutes-1 hour back that they spent watching Lebron making his very important announcement).  

And since there is still lots of summer left, and some choice reading to get to do, here are a few favorites if you’re looking for something sporty to pick up:

  • Lapham’s Quarterly, Summer 2010 – Sports & Games. You should buy this immediately. In this Summer’s issue, Lapham’s amassed an amazing array of sports writing – mostly excerpts from various books, and the range can only be aptly described by noting some of the authors: George Plimpton, Chuck Palahniuk, Ovid (yes, Ovid), Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, Andre Agassi.  Along with the few dozen pieces, there are also wonderful timelines detailing the seminal events in the evolution of sports & games, including 1525, England:  “Darts is believed to have begun as archery practice for soldiers under Henry VIII,” and 1280, Mongolia: “Princess Khutulun decides to marry the first man who can beat her in wrestling; she defeats all of her suitors.”  Among the many memorable exerpts,  is the one about Stephon Marbury, pre-Georgia Tech, pre-volatile NBA career, when he was still a preening high school player for Lincoln High School in Coney Island. And it is not just about Marbury – Darcy Frey, the author, spent a lot of time with several of the Lincoln hopefuls,  and his book –The Last Shot — spans all the big subjects  of such a potentially combustible situation.  It is hard to write about this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly without wanting to retell every memorable moment of it, and basically transcribing it, so please just make sure to buy it, you will want to keep it forever, both as a reference for sports moments and as a guide for a good book to read, since this issue is like the best listing of sports writing  you haven’t considered reading.  And it has lots of pretty pictures.

 

  • Summer of ’49, by David Halberstam. It should be enough that a Mets fan is recommending a book about the Yankees.  But if you need more – even if that era in baseball, on its own, is not compelling enough to pick this up — it is full of post-war New York and American history, including the advent of television (which saloons quickly embraced to show sports – mostly because they feared that with the changing workforce from blue collar to white, workers would no longer stop off for a drink or two on the way home from work), agents (Yogi Berra was the first to hire one), and some jaw-dropping revelations (at least for this reader) like the fact that the Red Sox passed on Willie Mays because he was black (or as they said, “not the Red Sox type”). Can you imagine a decade of Willie Mays and Ted Williams on the same team? David Halberstam gives you everything you ever wanted to know about Joe Dimaggio and everyone else, including the sports writers and broadcasters, the owners, the players, the fans. 

 

  • Pafko At The Wall, by Don Delillo. Halberstam’s book captured an era, and this one captures one of the most memorable moments in baseball history, the famous “Shot Heard Round The World.” And everyone is in this one too – Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra, Toots Shor and even J. Edgar Hoover, who were all on hand at the Polo Grounds to watch Bobby Thompson’s famous homerun for the Giants to beat the Dodgers and win the pennant. Pafko At The Wall, which now serves as the prologue for Delillo’s Underworld (though originally published as a folio in the October 1992 edition of Harper’s), also just happens to be unbelievably good and well-written, easily one of the best things I’ve ever read. Trust me you don’t have to care an ounce about baseball to love it.

 

  • The Bad Guys Won, by Jeff Pearlman. The writing isn’t stellar, but it doesn’t need to be. Any book about the 1986 Mets pretty much writes itself. The full title of the book sums it up: The Bad Guys Won! A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo-chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, The Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform–and Maybe the Best. And it’s short – good beach read.

 

  • My Favorite Year, edited by Nick Hornby (A collection of soccer/football writing).  Recently The Guardian ran an article asking whether, or why, American sports writing is better than the English kind. Well, there is one area in which the English excel – writing about losing. Except for the first essay in this collection, in which famous British writers were asked to write about their favorite soccer/football year, almost all  of the essays are about learning to live with losing teams (And the first one  is actually by an Irishman anyway – Roddy’s Doyle’s piece about Ireland’s 1990 World Cup experience).  One essay that will resonate with a Mets fan, or that of another team that perennially disappoints, discusses the phenomenon of expectations — it’s ok to be the supporter of a terrible team, but that moment when they actually provide you a glimmer of hope, when you allow yourself the slightest bit of expectation, that’s when they can break your heart.

Are Sports Boring? And an Old Lefty Stronghold in the West Village.

June 14, 2010

Buried among the tree-lined streets of the disarmingly quaint but often cloyingly conventional 21st Century West Village, are remnants of the old, rough round the edges, lefty activist, Jane Jacobs West Village.  

Keeping the pulse of the old guard is The Brecht Forum, on West Street, in Westbeth (if the Brecht Forum keeps the pulse, then Westbeth, the massive artist housing complex, very possibly provides it), founded in 1975 as part of the New York Marxist School. Today, it keeps the old activist streak alive with lectures, debates, and festively anti-establishment events such as the upcoming 913 Theater Festival (inspired by Glen Beck’s 912 Project; Beck is no stranger to this dangerous threat from the radical left as evidenced in this particularly lively tirade). Other upcoming Beck-baiting type programs include: “McCarthyism Then and Now,” and a monthly appraisal of Global Capitalism.

Last week, as a prelude to the world’s largest global sports extravaganza and in the midst of the NBA and NHL finals (well, perhaps not too many people had hockey on the mind, though more should!), the Brecht Forum hosted a debate asking whether or not sports are boring. Standing in the “Boring” corner was Arun Gupta, a founding editor of the Indypendent.  Across, at the “Seriously?” end of the debate was Dave Zirin, the ubiquitous radio sports commentator with lefty activist credentials as polished as Gupta’s (Zirin is sports editor of The Nation, currently has a book out titled A People’s History of Sports in The United States and has another book coming out called Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining The Games We Love).

Zirin and Gupta had 15 minutes apiece to state their case while cute Indy volunteers outfitted in their favorite teams’ shirts and hats walked through the aisles selling beer and peanuts (the crowd was overwhelmingly pro-sports, illustrating one of the most wonderful trademark qualities of New York – a city where high culture, serious politics and sports love each other; as I learned after living in Montreal for a few years, and then in New Zealand, this is not always the case; actually it is rarely the case. I moved back to New York).

As many, including Zirin, suspected, the real argument is not whether sports are “boring” but whether they are worthwhile and deserve our attention or whether they are actually a pernicious force that dulls the senses to more important issues.  Is it an opiate of the masses that manipulates the unthinking hordes into submission and sometimes violence? Or does it reflect the world around it and provide a forum for discussing almost every relevant issue confronting us today, from rogue finance, to sexism to violent nationalism and sectarianism?  (Old Firm matches still draw quite a rambunctious crowd after all). And what role does the left have in this discussion? Should it enter the fray or turn its attention toward more pressing issues?

Zirin, on the attack wearing a Los Suns jersey, began with some historical references: Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, Ali and 1980’s, racially charged, New York of Yusef Hawkins and New Park Pizza where any real integration happened almost only through sports.  And to dismiss any notions that sports might not be as relevant today, Zirin pointed out “the stubborn fact that next week half the world will be watching the World Cup.” Indeed, as shown in a press conference yesterday, where else can we witness someone from North Korea close up, discussing Dear Leader before taking the field against Brazil (and hoping they figure out this would be an opportune moment to defect).

Zirin reminded the audience that apart from the obvious fact that sports are as human and natural an act as clothing and feeding ourselves, they are also an ideal way of engaging in all of the grand arguments that matter.  And he rightfully recoils from the elitism that discounts sports as a language for serious conversation. Dismissing sports gives credence to the charge that the left can be elitist and tone deaf  to the people it purports to care about.

Nevertheless, Arun Gupta believes we would be better off without sports. He concedes that sports were once socially and politically relevant but points out that the sports heroes Zirin idolizes made their mark nearly half a century ago. As regarding the recent Suns franchise stance against Arizona SB170, he remarked that it was an action taken by a large corporation for undeniable financial benefits. 
More interestingly, Gupta reminded the audience of the various ways in which pro-sports have  tried to manipulate their fans to counter waning interest and profits, including implementing new rules to make games more “exciting,” such as the OT shoot-out in hockey to keep games from being tied (Americans seem not to enjoy games that can end in a draw, as evidenced by many who did not appreciate what an amazing feat the result of the England-USA match was this past Saturday).

Gupta also attacked pro sports for being grossly apolitical, noting that unlike other celebrities whom the Dems and the GOP woo each election cycle, with lavish fundraiser galas in Hollywood and NYC, sports stars don’t get too much attention from the pols. And examples of recent pro athletes taking stands can actually be somewhat discouraging, as in the case of Carlos Delgado, who maintained an informed anti-war stance while playing with the Jays in Toronto by not standing up for the national anthem but then quietly abandoning this as a condition of playing with the Mets.

There is no question that corporate interests have helped dilute so much of the essence of pro sports, but this is not a problem specific to sports. Which gets to the heart of the matter – it is not sports that are becoming more “boring,” or that present these problems, but they do provide insight into the larger picture.

And, as a reminder to those who love to misquote or half-quote the Karl Marx line about religion, Zirin  reminded us of the original, as applicable to sports as it ever was to religion: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

The heartless, soulless world came first, not sports. Sports make it so much more bearable.

Art: What Is It Good For? Why Do We Like It?

April 26, 2010

(And Why One Bookstore Makes NYC A Better Place)

In a city that has not been known for its bookstores in quite some time, one bookstore seems to almost single-handedly defy a more recent law of physics – the downward spiral of the publishing industry. At McNally Jackson, on Prince Street, the staff recommendations remind you of forgotten literary treasures and introduce you to new ones, and the weekly roster of readings and events provide the type of public space New Yorkers crave and need like the denizens of few other cities (there is a reason the Highline has struck exactly the right chord in this city; apart from the nearly magical reclamation of an old rusty track and unexpectedly nuanced new design, it gives New Yorkers room to breathe and be near each other by choice).  Spending time in McNally Jackson almost makes Anatole Broyard’s memoir, Kafka Was The Rage – about the literary, book and smoke-filled salon world of post-WWII Greenwich Village, where he, among many others, opened bookshops for a pittance — not quite as mythic and wistful. For a few moments the reader can close her eyes and pretend that Broyard’s New York still exists.

One of the many events and activities McNally Jackson offers, both to enrich the community and compete with Amazon, is the monthly meeting of its art book club. The last two books the group read and discussed – The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich and The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton – help guide both expert and amateur through the role and evolution of art in this world, in two very different ways. Not unlike printed books today, art has often had to fight to prove its place as more than just a cultural flourish, and these books are good ammo.

Though it is most often contemporary art that comes under a scornful gaze, the question of “Why is it art?” and the fearful sense that one “doesn’t get it,” has always kept many away. Few people have answered these questions more elegantly and invitingly than E.H. Gombrich in his classic, The Story of Art.  Like his A Little History of the World, the prose in this mini-history is intended for a young adult reader, but in a way that is so gentle, clear and unpatronizing that you would have to fight hard not to find yourself totally charmed at any age. The Story of Art is a primer on how to look at art and its history, but one can keep returning to it, either as a reminder on how to fall in love with art again, or merely to look at the book’s gorgeous color plates.

While Gombrich makes the case for art by appearing to let it speak for itself, Denis Dutton places art on the evolutionary map to show just how intrinsic it is to the state of being human. Dutton seems intent on showing how universal so many aspects of art are, and that they do not develop because of socialization alone (or even mostly), but rather are a natural product of evolutionary adaptations. Most major evolutionary biologists and psychologists, such as Stephen Jay Gould and Steven Pinker, have more or less concluded that art is a tangential byproduct of evolutionary adaptations, but Dutton, a philosopher of art, makes a compelling, if not completely convincing, argument that art is more central. He makes his best argument for the role of fiction and the “brute fact of the pleasure and universality of storytelling… why the mind is designed to find stories interesting.”  He quotes Joseph Carroll, a “literary Darwinist” who says “But like dreams, and unlike other forms of conscious conceptual order – science, philosophy, scholarship – literature taps directly into the elemental response systems activated by emotion. Works of literature thus form a point of intersection between the most emotional, subjective parts of the mind and the most abstract and cerebral.”

Gombrich and Dutton help describe and explain why art exists, what role it has played through the centuries, and how it has arrived at this point in our and its evolution. Whether or not art has any further “’practical” use seems moot and yet there are some good answers to even this question. In her essay, On Style, Susan Sontag writes about art and morality: “For it is sensibility that nourishes our capacity for moral choice, and prompts our readiness to act, assuming that we do choose, which is a prerequisite  for calling an act moral, and are not just blindly and unreflectively obeying. Art performs this “moral” task because the qualities which are intrinsic to the aesthetic experience (disinterestedness, contemplativeness, attentiveness, the awakening of the feelings) and to the aesthetic object (grace, intelligence, expressiveness, energy, sensuousness) are also fundamental constituents of a moral response to life.”

Boxing, Race & Obama (And David Remnick’s New Book)

April 10, 2010

In a recent conversation at the New York Public Library about David Remnick’s new book about Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates asked Remnick whether there was an analogy to be made between Remnick’s experience as an American Jew and Obama’s experience as an African American. On the contrary, Remnick insisted, pointing out that he acquired his cultural identity at the kitchen table, his family and community’s idiosyncrasies seeping in almost unnoticed. Obama, on the other hand, had to actively seek out his identity as a black man in America since he was raised by a white family in a state with a negligible black population.   Remnick’s book revisits the conversation about Obama’s racial identity – both self-imposed and perceived – and the role his racial identity plays in shaping the discussion about race in America.

Remnick has had some experience writing about iconic black American men and their redefinitions of “blackness” on their own terms.  In his seminal book on Ali, King of the World, Remnick deftly explores Ali’s transformation from Cassius Clay – the middle class young boxer from Louisville, with grand aspirations – into Muhammad Ali, the larger than life boxer on the world stage with even grander ideas about boxing, race and a keen understanding of his role in both, arguably as keen as Obama’s.  In King of the World, Remnick writes about Cassius Clay after his entry into the Nation of Islam: “…whether the press understood it or not, (Ali/Clay) had quietly forsaken the image of the unthreatening black fighter established by Joe Louis and then imitated by Jersey Joe Walcott and Floyd Patterson and dozens of others. Clay was declaring that he would not fit any stereotypes, he would not follow any set standard of behavior.  And while Liston had also declared his independence from convention (through sheer don’t –give-a-shit truculence), Clay’s message was political. He, and not Jimmy Cannon or the NAACP, would define his blackness, his religion, his history.”

There are few better prisms through which to observe race in America than boxing. Several books have grasped this notion especially well :   Unforgivable Blackness by Geoffrey C. Ward, about the first black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, and more recently, Sweet Thunder about Sugar Ray Robinson, by Wil Haygood.  And Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, perhaps most poignantly and famously, wrote about Sonny Liston as the kind of black man white America was only too willing, for too long, to ignore. Jones wrote this homage to Liston in reaction to other writers’ praise of Patterson, and their contrasting abhorrence of Liston. Norman Mailer and James Baldwin lauded Patterson’s gentle strength and fortitude and rejected Liston’s brutish, unrefined persona.  Jones, on the other hand, had a rather different appraisal of Sonny Liston and rejected what he saw as the passivity and preciousness of Patterson.  In an essay, originally published in 1964 and now part of a Jones collection titled Home, he writes of Liston:

(He was) “the big black Negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under for all the hurts white men, through their arbitrary order, have been able to inflict on the world…He is the underdeveloped, have-not (politically naïve), backward country, the subject people, finally here to collect his pound of flesh.”

While Jones eventually gravitated towards Ali, his riff on Liston tore open the positive perception and acceptance of the more mild-mannered Patterson and the attendant dialogue about race, which seemed due for reappraisal in an era where established identities and myths were exploded on a daily basis.

Both that defining era and today were strikingly present during Remnick’s and Coates’ conversation last week, as they similarly were during the last presidential race. Coates himself embodies the several tones present in every discussion of race, since his father was a Black Panther and came of age in that era, after serving in Vietnam.  Apparently Coates’ father even chided his son for drinking from the Obama Kool-aid (though Coates senior did eventually vote for him as well).   And the best example of the old guard’s relationship with Obama was summed up perfectly in Remnick’s anecdote about Bobby Rush’s imitation of Obama’s acquired “black” strut, openly mocking what Rush sees as the President’s inauthentic way of coming by being black.

Obama is, very much, the consummate politician, and has succeeded in remaining just opaque and vague enough to withstand scrutiny visited on less canny pols. Especially as compared with American history’s great black boxers, this makes it much more difficult to assess his racial identity, since it is hard to tell where the true man begins and the politician ends. Yet Remnick, who acknowledges Obama’s keen machinations in many other parts of his life, does not attribute any calculating tendency as part of Obama’s self-constructed racial identity, which is a bit surprising.  Everyone’s identity is a construction to varying degrees, so it seemed odd  that Remnick would go to great lengths to stress Obama’s authenticity as a black man, and also seems besides the point. Remnick should perhaps instead emphasize what he did so beautifully in his Ali book, and invoke Obama as a reflection of American perception of race today and what is possible racially and what is still not.

WWED (What Would Einstein Do)

February 27, 2010

So what does Einstein have to add to the God debate? Or rather how one should approach the God debate?

This Wednesday evening, March 3, Paul Holdengraber, Director of Public Programs at the  New York Public Library, will moderate a conversation on the subject as part of his consistently satisfying series of talks.  Joining him will be Krista Tippett, host of  the radio program Speaking of Faith , and Andrew Solomon, who speaks and writes about biological psychiatry and whose most well-known book is The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. Tippett just published the book that prompted this conversation — Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit, for which she spoke with both religious and non-religious scientists, including Mr. Solomon. Both seem interested in exploring the ideas of religion, ethics and and science through a “cross-cultural” prism — the different cultures of the faith and non-faith spectrum — essentially those who seek to understand the universe through a belief in an underlying set of “rules”, be they God’s or Physics’ or other humanistic strains. 

Einstein, like Orwell, has been posthumously appropriated by all sides of a contemporary debate, mostly because of his famous quip, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” However, it seems he mostly rejected faith (and he certainly totally dismissed organized religion, but that’s less interesting).  He definitely rejected the idea of a personal god and as a recently publicized letter of his illustrates, he considered it mostly a silly superstition.

However, a Guardian article that appeared on the occasion of the sale of this letter helps us better understand him on the specific question of the current debate between Hitchens, Dawkins et al.  According to a leading Einstein authority, John Brooke of Oxford,  “Despite his categorical rejection of conventional religion…Einstein became angry when his views were appropriated by evangelists for atheism. He was offended by their lack of humility and once wrote: “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.”

The God Backlash

February 24, 2010

Christopher Hitchens likes nothing better than rolling up his sleeves for a good fight. Apart from the Iraq war business he tends to champion worthwhile causes and plant his feet in the right corners (yes, “How was the show Mrs. Lincoln?” is certainly apt here). You certainly want him writing about your cause – there are few rhetoricians and writers like him out there – if you want an essay to forward to your friend to show why you are right, you want Hitchens to have written it.

For this reason, when he chose to expend his enviable energy on fighting for the virtues of atheism, I was personally delighted. I respect those who have faith, and only wish for atheism to receive the sort of status religion is accorded in American society in return (which  I accept will likely never happen).  However, Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007), and the rest of the long-winded sermons against faith and religion published around the same time, quickly left a bitter taste in my mouth .  There’s just something about fighting dogma with dogma (especially patronizing and belittling dogma).

Not surprisingly, a backlash to the Atheism Crusade ensued. Several books arrived, written by sophisticated, bona fide intellectuals who are both deeply immersed in the modern world and believe in God. However, a new book presents a completely new and welcome approach to the debate – a novel in fact – 36 Arguments For the Existence of God, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Goldstein is a MacArthur fellow, novelist and philosopher and became a sort of spokesperson for atheism after the publication of her wonderful biography of Spinoza – Judaism’s most famous heretic.  However, as she explained on the Leonard Lopate show, although she is an avowed atheist, she soon became uncomfortable with her new role and this ultimately led her to writing this novel.  Rather than write a book “for” or “against” Goldstein reminds us of the importance of fiction in providing answers to the big questions. In fiction there is the kind of nuance and empathy and creation of experience that can genuinely address things like faith, which is something that is felt, not reasoned. I will never completely understand how one arrives at a belief in a non-material “higher” being but I love trying to, and think it is worthwhile in figuring out how to go about fixing the many messes that are out there because of it.