Sunday, March 31, 2013

Angell, Thunder, Opening Day

The 2013 baseball season opens tonight when the Texas Rangers visit the Houston Astros. Optimism, pessimism, long afternoons, box scores, failures, beer, pleasures: it's all here again. Here's a Play Ball! thought from Roger Angell, from his Preface to his 1991 collection Once More Around The Park:
This is a linear sport. Something happens and then something else happens, and then the next man comes up and digs in at the plate. Here’s the pitch, and here, after a pause, is the next. There’s time to write it down in your scorecard or notebook, and then perhaps to look about and reflect on what s starting to happen out there now. It’s not much like the swirl and blur of hockey and basketball, or the highway car crashes of the NFL. Baseball is the writer’s game (there were three hundred and fifty baseball books published in the past year), and its train of thought, we come to sense, is a shuttle, carrying us constantly forward to the next pitch or inning, or to the sudden double into the left-field corner, but we keep hold of the other half of our ticket, for the return trip on the same line. We anticipate happily, and, coming home, reenter an old landscape brightened with fresh colors. Baseball games and plays and mannerisms (even the angle of a cap) fade stubbornly and come to mind unbidden, putting us back in some particular park on that special October afternoon or June evening. The players are as young as ever, and we, perhaps, not yet entirely old.
~~

And here's a great tune from Johnny Thunder, in the spirit of things. Released in 1969, the year of the Amazin' Mets. So long, Winter!


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Illusions

I've been thinking a lot about "Baader-Meinhof," the phenomenon that occurs "when a person, after having learned some (usually obscure) fact, word, phrase, or other item for the first time, encounters that item again, perhaps several times, shortly after having learned it." According to Wikibin, the process
was coined by a reader of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Terry Mullen. The Minnesota newspaper runs a daily column called "Bulletin Board," for which readers, using pseudonyms (in this case it was "Gigetto on Lincoln"), submit humorous or interesting anecdotes. The term was coined when Mullen submitted a story around 1986, about how he first heard about the terrorist group known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang and then heard about it again a short while later from a different source.
Readers suddenly piled on with their own versions of the phenomenon, which quickly came to be known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.
This happens with gestures we make, as well. If I grow a beard, I'm struck by the (seemingly) increased number of people I now see wearing beards. There are many theories accounting for this tendency, "including a popular one that cites its primary cause as being the recency effect, in which the human brain has a bias that lends increased prominence to new or recently acquired information."
The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is a form of synchronicity. A Jungian explanation is that the person learns the new phrase as part of a collective consciousness, which is also active in others. The concepts which float to the surface of the collective consciousness manifest themselves in different people at about the same time, leading to this effect. However, this is not considered in the mainstream scientific community.
According to social scientist Brian Townsend, this "phenomenon" is a result of our limited perception of our surroundings. Take the concept of Schadenfreude, which is a German word for "taking joy in the misfortune of others." This concept is discussed periodically in mainstream media and other sources. If one does not know what it is, and has no intention of learning what it is, one may hear the term and easily forget about it, as it does not "fit" into the person's conceptions of reality. They may even rationalize that they heard a different word. However, once the person understands what the concept means, they will then notice it when the concept comes up in day-to-day life, whereas before, the person made few or no memories concerning the concept, as it was outside the realm of their understanding. 
I'm interested in how we employ a variation on Baader-Meinhof in the ways we recollect the past. How often do we populate our narrative memories with versions of what we hoped happened, or wanted to have happened, or convinced ourselves did happen. I don't suggest that this is conscious. If my myth of the past, my myth of myself, requires that event, or sequence of events, "A" occurred, than I might recollect many versions of "A" in different tellings: event "B" now becomes "A," as does "C" and "D" and the first part of "E." In "A" I'm the hero—or the iconoclast, rebel, or weakling—and if those are qualities in myself that I prize, cultivate, or grimly accept, then I might see them dramatized in many ways in the far-off past, charged as I am with assembling my present. Do we tend to see a frequency of events in the past that may not have actually happened but "need to" have happened if we are to make sense of our present? Unlike Baader-Meinhof, this has less to do with our limited perception of our surroundings than with a kind of imagined or fictionalized perception of the past. No less limiting.

If our lives are as much stories about the past as the actual events of the past themselves, I wonder how often we re-purpose that past, shaping it into a series of similar events to create a story that coheres, that narrates with emotional logic and "believability" the life we live now, however happily, however unhappily. Shuffling the slide show, creating some new slides in the process.


“50 Vintage Slides in Cardboard Frames with Family Vacations, Parties Pictures, etc., 1960s to 1970s” via LoveTspVintage at Etsy.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Fortuity, plus or minus: Roger Angell on the breaks

In the late summer of 1986, while happily watching his beloved Boston Red Sox cruise into the baseball postseason, Roger Angell mused on the nature of luck, both of the good and bad variety. In "Fortuity," an essay that appeared in the September 1, 1986 issue of The New Yorker (it was reprinted two years later in Season Ticket), Angell explores the place of fortuity in the game of baseball, of the vagaries of hot streaks and cold streaks that plague players and teams alike in indiscriminate, seemingly mean-spirited fashion. He concentrates on two improving teams, the San Fransisco Giants and the Oakland A's, the latter a team that had suffered plenty in the decade but that seemed to be righting the ship as they'd recently hired Tony La Russa, who brought a new level of acumen and confidence into the clubhouse. (La Russa, of course, would guide the A's to three World Series, in 1988, 1989, and 1990, winning in '89.) In 1986 the A's enjoyed streaks where they won games in "clusters" (a favorite word of Angell's), and endured streaks of the opposite value. From his privileged perch in the press box and via visits to clubhouses, Angell observed the A's closely (with one eye on the Red Sox' ascension) and wondered, as he has his whole career, on the degree to which luck guides the sport. Near the end of the piece, he describes waking up in Maine on vacation late in the season and turning to the sports pages to discover that the A's had lost yet again, this time to the Twins: "and as I studied the box score in the paper and tried to squeeze more news out of it than it could convey, I murmured to myself. 'Oh, if the A's would only—'."

Here, the essay opens outward in the generous, reflective manner of Angell's best pieces on the game:
Then I stopped. Would only what? I thought about it for a moment or two, and then it came to me that what I badly seemed to want for a team I cared about was an end to bad luck, an end to bad news—no more more fortuity, to use Sandy Alderson’s word. I wanted the exact opposite of what my friend had seen as established: I wanted good news forever. Then—within an instant, I think—I perceived something I hadn’t quite understood about baseball before. Alderson had said that thirty or forty percent of the game was beyond his control or the manager’s or the players’ control. But I am a fan, and my lot is far worse, for everything in baseball is beyond my control; for me every part of the game is just fortuity. Because I am a fan, all I can do is care, and what I wish for, almost every day of the summer, is for things to go well—to go perfectly—for the teams and the players I most care about: for the Red Sox, for the A’s now, for the Mets, for the Giants, for Tom Seaver and Keith Hernandez and Roy Eisenhardt and Don Baylor and Wade Boggs and Carney Lansford and Tim Shanahan and Darryl Strawberry and Roger Craig and many, many others. I think every true fan wants no less. We wish for this seriously, every day of the season, but at the same time I think we don’t want it at all. We want our teams to be losers as well as winners; we must have bad luck as well as good, terrible defeats and disappointments as well as victories and thrilling surprises. We must have them, for if it were otherwise, if we could control more of the game or all of the game and make it do our bidding, we would have been granted a wish—no more losing!—that we would badly want to give back within a week. We would have lost baseball, in fact, and then we would have to look around, without much hope, for something else to care about in such a particular and arduous fashion.
Affectionate and wise observations from a man who'd been enjoying baseball since the 1930s and who'd been writing about it thoughtfully since the early 1960s. Love it, curse it, roll your eyes at it: baseball is his game, with all of its profound disappointments and trivial joys. No other sport requires the kind of duality that Angell describes here, our wish to control destiny and our love of the game's capriciousness. Angell has made a career out of exploring baseball as a narrow subject; the point of view of his fan-persona, his love and knowledge of the game, and his deliberate and searching writing about it, leads him to larger subjects that the game, and his impulse to write, contain. His best essays are both detailed observations and wide-screen rumination: the precise, evocative details cohere, as in a pointillism painting, to a vaster story.

~~

What's especially poignant about "Fortuity" is what it innocently portends. Seven weeks after this issue hit the stands, the Red Sox lost the World Series to the New York Mets in an excruciating manner: "It Got By Buckner!" being only the most infamous of the gaffes and bad breaks suffered by Red Sox Nation that fall. No more losing! the fans cried. Heartbreak, indeed. Yet Angell—a Red Sox fan in his blood, who got to cheer on and write about the team's eventual 2004 World Series Championship; he was 84 that autumn—would have it no other way, as melancholy as that is to admit.
"We must have bad luck as well as good, terrible defeats and disappointments...."

Monday, March 18, 2013

Origin Stories...

Batches of "Origin Stories," work from my current project, appear recently in Hotel Amerika (here) and Creative Nonfiction (here).

Here's an "Origin Story" from a sequence that appeared last year in Sweet A Literary Confection:
In spring, the crab apple tree in the front yard grew heavy with bitter, marble-like fruits and Gothic with awful caterpillar nests, silk clouds of milky white suspended in the trees, loathsome tents bursting with a thousand caterpillars; we’d light them on fire every year. Before the nests would arrive, before my mom would sigh, I’d climb the tree, loving the time alone and the argument with gravity that kept me tethered to the house and the family that I wanted distance from, even as I was building imaginative houses in the tree, knowing and naming the crooked hallways, slim desks and windows in twists of limbs and thatches of crowded leaves, here a cramped staircase of winding limbs, there a bay window, a clearing of branches onto the lawn and the maple tree on the other side of the yard where I built another house in my head, propped against a dresser of thick, brown limbs, sitting, trying to doze—guarded against the fear of falling—in a rocking chair made of sympathetic branches, a kind of L bent enough to say chair, and hold me. This was my home’s doppelganger, my tree’s parallel house, a blueprint of floor and wall and roof that I drew in my head, every day up there in the trees against the fading sunlight, a dream as substantial as the structure I dreamt in. 

~~
 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Baseball is not life itself, although..."

Season Ticket, 1988
Anyone who's deeply affectionate for the game of baseball—Roger Angell included—risks falling into maudlin weepiness at the sport's beauty. This is my least-favorite characteristic of baseball writing, the sentimentality that burnishes a game into gauzy, gold-flecked perfection, a metaphor for life and all things innocent. Such mawkishness should be resisted at all costs, lest it encourage the mawker to ignore the painful and quite ordinary realities of the game (a game played by flawed men, not seraphs). Metaphor, the beautiful, generous magic trick of art, should be used sparingly; too often, baseball writers and fans alike succumb to purple language when describing the game, to choose sentimentality over sentiment. This is one of the reasons why I've always admired Angell: he betrays himself as a enormous fan of baseball, but stops short at mythologizing the game, letting his vivid and precise descriptions of baseball's simple (and complex) pleasures do the work for him, as it should be. He's a master of the simile—as I've written before, no one describes a plate appearance as memorably as Angell does—but, perhaps influenced by his step-dad E.B. White, he employs figurative language economically. Rarely does he sentimentalize without soon catching himself wryly, easing up with his language in an it's-only-a-game shake of his head. Yet any lover finds it difficult to resist the language of love. And that language is florid.

Angell comes close to preciousness in a paragraph in "La Vida," an essay he wrote throughout the summer of 1987 that appeared in his fourth baseball book, Season Ticket, in 1988. (I can't find this in the New Yorker archives, so I presume it was written for the collection.) He writes:
Baseball is not life itself, although the resemblance keeps coming up. It’s probably a good idea to keep the two sorted out, but old fans, if they’re anything like me, can’t help noticing how cunningly our game replicates the larger schedule, with its beguiling April optimism; the cheerful roughhouse of June; the grinding, serious, unending (surely) business of midsummer; the September settling of accounts, when hopes must be traded in for philosophies or brave smiles; and then the abrupt running-down of autumn, when we wish for—almost demand—a prolonged and glittering final adventure just before the curtain. But nowhere is this metaphor more insistent than in baseball’s sense of slippage; our rueful, fleeting awareness that we tend to pay attention to the wrong things—to last night’s rally and tomorrow’s pitching match-up—while lesser and sweeter moments slide by unperceived. 
This leads to a few memorable pages on manager Earl Weaver, but not without mild worrying with its purple shading. What saves the paragraph from Ken Burns Over Metaphor is the mature wit of Angell's writing and the smartness of the seasonal metaphors, but especially the wisdom of the last sentence. He writes, "But"—my favorite word in the English language, and the coveted tool of all personal essayists—we're paying attention to the wrong stuff. This introduction of dissent, of our own silly and misguided wrongdoing, rubs up uneasily against the grand seasonal metaphors. Angell suggests that the real malfeasance is not in ignoring the game's "lesser and sweeter moments" but in ignoring life's. He was 66 years old when he wrote this, and for years in his baseball essays had been gently chiding himself an old, foolish man wasting time on a kids game. But with age (and the gift of language) comes well-earned incisiveness: Angell skirts sentimentality while implicating us all in the dangers of swooning to the Big Ideas when the smaller, unnoticed events are happening right behind us. And without us.

As Angell himself would say: "And so on."

Sunday, March 10, 2013

200 feet (approx.)

The city from nineteen floors above the street resembles nothing less than screen onto which I can project anything I want. And this far removed from noise and textures and rhythms, I have about as much relation to reality as I do while watching a film: all plotted, all imagined, all orchestrated, idealized, that one shoveling snow burdened with this problem, that one standing in the alley burdened with that problem, the dramas in cabs, on corners. Up here, in between, quiet, humming in story. All terribly adolescent of me.  The tiny dark sliver I can't rub off the window turned out to be a jet. I get the facts, I study them patiently, I apply imagination. (Bernard Baruch)

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Overheard at AWP 2013, "What We Write About When We Write About Music"

"I used to listen to loud music when I wrote so I wouldn't become too infatuated with my sentences." Rick Moody

"How do you write about a groove? It's hard to hear it with your ears." Jacob Slichter

Monday, March 4, 2013

Get Yer Infinity Here

This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began is out now from Orphan Press Books.

About the book, Dinty Moore, author of Between Panic & Desire, says: "Joe Bonomo’s This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began is an arrestingly beautiful collection of brief meditations on family, faith, and the intricate splendor of everyday life. Bonomo is a natural storyteller with a poet’s ear for language, and his fresh, quirky, and exhilarating view of our communal experiences is pure pleasure."
    
And David Lazar, author of The Body of Brooklyn and Truth in Nonfiction, writes: "Imagine reading the story of a magician with a box, except the box is a body, and what is conjured, differently each time, is the nocturnal magic of memory, strange escapable birds flying past our eyes. Joe Bonomo seems to have a Cornell box for each difficult, lyrical moment he remembers. He is a theorist of the self’s construction out of the past, full of resistance and the heartbreaking urge to yield. You’ll want to lose yourself in his utterly necessary 'Margins of the Body'."

Order here! Like on facebook here.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

As It Had Always Been: Roger Angell and Clichés

Writing about Spring Training in The New Yorker on April 23, 1979, classicist Roger Angell goes a little meta while observing a journeyman pitcher (the San Francisco Giants' Gary Lavelle) warming up under the eyes of his pitching and catching coaches, Larry Shepard and Tom Haller, respectively. Angell observes:
All this seemed to be happening with unusual clarity—Shepard’s stance and Haller’s crouch, and the sound of the ball hitting the glove, and the low slant of the afternoon sun, and the odd look of batted balls and infield throws when they are seen almost from ground level about three hundred feet away-and for a brief moment I had the feeling that I could also see myself within this scene, with my feet up on the row just below me and my elbows on my knees: I was watching myself watching baseball. This was peculiar, to say the least. I knew that I had observed almost exactly this same scene dozens of times, or perhaps hundreds of times: some young pitcher warming up on the sidelines with a coach beside him, and then the pitcher walking into the game with his large strides and with his warmup jacket over his arm, and then (usually, not always) the kid getting his ears knocked off in there. This time, it had seemed to be waiting for me, so to speak, and all I had to do was to walk into the picture and sit down in order to make it fresh again, and also to make it old—to bring it back just as it had always been. 
A paragraph later, Angell admits to being embarrassed by old-school baseball clichés (in this case, a manager wanting to climb back down the ladder and become a low instructor, "to work with the kids"). But in a moment, Angell's implicating himself, acknowledging that he's continually fallen for the game's clichés, that it's the transcendence of those hackneyed phrases and gestures that renews the game for him:
I’m still not entirely sure why the sight of some young pitcher warming up in spring training means so much to me, but I would almost rather watch and write about that than see Reggie Jackson or Pete Rose come up with men on base in some jam-packed, roaring stadium in October. The old coach with his hands in his pockets watching the young man pitching is the same sports cliché—it’s almost a recruiting poster for baseball—but I’m not sure that it should be resisted for that reason. Its suggestions are classical. A mystery is being elucidated before our eyes; something is being handed on. The young man may fail (probably he will), but in time he may do better. One day, he may surprise his tutors, and they will turn and begin to take note of him when he is in the game. He will become better known, possibly famous, he might even become one of the best pitchers ever. It could happen; probably it won’t. Either way, it touches something in us. Because baseball changes so little, it renews itself each year without effort, but always with feeling.
He seems to be talking about a bit more than a routine event beside a meaningless game. At his best, Angell maintains that delicate balance between sentiment and sentimentality; he's a master acrobat. The reasons that drew him to Florida each year to write up the Spring Training reports, the duties of his job notwithstanding, involve the hoary stereotypes of the sad, pale winter baseball fan, the lure of eternal springs, the possibility that "wait 'till next year!" (that old cliché) might mean this year; what delights him is how the ordinary and routine keeps surprising him, how the picture he keep walking into develops subtly each time. That's reason enough for him, and for us, to go back every year.
Late Innings (1982), detail
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