Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"Evanescing green theatres," or what baseball offers

On the cusp of the 20th century, as several new baseball parks were set to open, player salaries continued to skyrocket, and the game was in the throes of the Steroid Era, Roger Angell, age 79, was heard to mutter, "Baseball is changing at warp speed."

In "Are We Having Fun Yet," which appeared in the May 17, 1999 issue of The New Yorker, Angell replaced his usual Spring optimism with melancholy, essaying the state of the sport in unhappy terms, from the exploding but dulling home-run rate and what he saw as over-reliance on statistics. Near the end of the essay, after summarizing the new retro ballparks, he warms a bit, offering a string of graphic and evocative memories of his favorite, long-gone parks (Polo Grounds, Tiger Stadium, County Stadium), and making a characteristic discovery, the kind of Angellic wisdom that provides the common thread through his essays on the game, from his first in the early-1960s to his most recent blog post in April:
Is it youthful memory (but I wasn't all that young) that keeps hold of these inconsequential fragments, or is it the thrilling concentration of mind and appetite that the old, unhyped sport one made easy for us? What baseball offers, what it does best, is to bring about moments that, because of their particularity—bottom  of the eighth, two outs, three-and-one on the batter, and so on—appear to approximate the random and electric surprises of life itself, but perhaps only in these creaky, evanescing green theatres could the two, however glacingly, have seemed like one.
from "Are We Having Fun Yet?" in The New Yorker, May 17, 1999. Illustration by Richard Thompson

I love visiting sites of old baseball parks. See: Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field here; Yankee, Shea, and Tiger Stadiums here. I have fond memories of old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, where I saw many Orioles games as a kid, but I've lately been mourning a park I never visited. My wife and I moved to northern Illinois in 1995, four years after the demolition of Comiskey Park, which had been standing since 1910. The now-no-longer-new park that replaced it across the street has grown on me quite a bit over the years, but I so wish I'd taken in a game at the old place. Several years ago "BrokerToTheStars" uploaded a three-part video he took at the last game at the old Comiskey on September 30, 1990. (The Sox beat the Seattle Mariners, 2-1, behind the pitching of Jack McDowell and Bobby Thigpen.) Check out the sights and sounds and, virtually, the smells. I can pretend, anyway.

Old Comiskey Park, on the way out, in 1991. Image via flickr.

Saturday, July 25, 2015


Before the heat returns in this wet, mild summer, the garden coneflowers as they look up. We're about to bake, I think.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Petries' Fourth Wall

These two photographs from the set of The Dick Van Dyke Show are fascinating, troubling, and, in many senses of the word, revealing:

I coveted reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show when I was a kid—I still do—marveling as so many did at the cool, beatific state of the Petries' marriage and their chill suburban lifestyle, There was something preternaturally calming and dependable about their fictional lives, and to see the "fourth wall" removed momentarily baffles.

Fictional homes and apartments fascinate us. Several years ago a blogger who goes by the name of "Don" interrogated Rob and Laura's home, wondering—as I had—on the rooms and hallways that were never shown. (Read his other terrific posts on "148 Bonnie Meadow Road" and "The Curious Geometry of the Petrie House" here and here.) Famously, Mark Bennett in his book TV Sets: Fantasy Blueprints of Classic TV Homes meticulously drew up blueprints of fictional TV residences. Here, in all of its verisimilitude, is the Petries' house:

Images of the audience, of directors and cameras and thick cables and stage lights: they subvert this kind of loving, if obsessive and borderline fetishistic, imagination. I have homes on the mind these days, and I look at these photos—narrative idealizing scolded by reality—with a certain amount of melancholy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

"One tends to look back and get more personal": William Harrison comes clean

William Harrison
In a fascinating and revealing essay published in Antaeus in 1982, and later collected in the anthology The Autobiographical Eye, fiction writer William Harrison writes about his discomfort with autobiography. In the plainly-titled but expressionistic "Why I Am Not An Autobiographical Writer," Harrison offers a brief, segmented history of his ambivalence with the first-person impulse, describing as especially notable his early love for self-erasing journalistic writing:
At the university there were girls in cashmere sweaters, football, Russian novels and seriousness. But most of all there was journalism; I became a newspaperman in spirit, believing like a fanatic in the devices of a more objective prose. A good reporter, I asserted, looked around for something of consequence: the story on his beat. The reporter was a camera, yet more: his eye should be so sharp, I proclaimed, that it pierced all sentimentalities, postures, clichés, and lies. This ideal writer, I knew, should never talk about himself; for him, the first person pronoun should always be a natural embarrassment.     
     Oddly enough, my view holds. I find that I have little patience with authors who confess, who pose as prophets of the flesh in their insipid fantasies, who sentimentalize their domestic complaints in long novels or who abandon storytelling altogether for an esoteria of games and posturings.
     “Pour out your heart!” cry the authors and critics of recent years.
     Yet one needn’t write just in order to engrave his signature on existence; history both current and past has lots of stories and signatures to record. More is needed of a wordsmith than just his introspective scrawl. 
This seems inarguable, but Harrison lays it on; the next segment begins with the deathly statement: "Fame is a vanity of assassins." He continues:
It is also an American poison.
     The writers I admire have learned to sit quietly in the dark, content and creative in that little movie house inside themselves.
Harrison goes back to his childhood and adolescence to explain his origins as a writer who's more interested in the lives of others than his own. He recalls attending the Astor Theater in Dallas, where he was born and raised:
My life as a writer probably began in the Astor Theater across the street from my father’s barber shop in a seedy neighborhood in Dallas. The telephone poles leaned in odd directions there on Bishop Avenue, slanting this way and that, wires crossing the sky. The Texaco station on the corner wore its mounds of dried grease. The barber shop smelled of bay rum and talcum.
     On Saturday nights my father worked late, then joined my mother and me in the popcorn darkness of the old movie house. She would give him the homemade sandwich wrapped in loud tissue paper. He would eat some of my popcorn and a candy bar, then fall asleep while Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire or Spencer Tracy flickered before our eyes. He would slump beside us, eyes closed, mouth slightly open, with a smear of chocolate on his barber’s smock.
     In the Astor Theater, for me, the world announced itself: the grim war images on Movietone News, the glamour of Carole Lombard, the art of Citizen Kane—which my mother liked and my father didn't, sparking off the first discussion of aesthetics ever held in my presence. Beyond that little movie house our overgrown lawns and frame houses awaited me; my school was a red brick calamity; our lives seemed excruciatingly modest and I felt certain that the world beyond, the one in the movies which was both more real and more perfectly imagined, was somehow more various and more mysteriously important than we were. 
He goes on to describe his mother's scrapbooks, packed with "Aunts, faraway cousins, birthday cards, school notices, newspaper clippings, photos and snippets of inspirational poetry: she pasted everything into those pages. Mixed in with the usual family-album items were pictures and words of Churchill, Bogart, King George, Di Maggio [sic], Garbo, Roosevelt, Barrymore, Dempsey and hundreds of others. I seemed to know these people." He recalls his mother showing him a drawing of the Lindbergh house, describing how the colonel and his wife sat to eat while a kidnapper carried the  baby down a ladder from the bedroom upstairs. Others' stories impressed upon him something of the shared experience of the human condition: "That drawing, accompanied by a note in my mother’s handwriting stating that Bruno Hauptmann was convicted for the crime on circumstantial evidence, became part of the family’s documents."

Of growing up in the theatrical immensity of his home state, he writes: "I assumed that I was on stage, too—not in the spotlight, yet present."

The brief essay features economical, aphoristic touches, such as: "The lover knows he loves, not because he examines himself in the experience, but precisely because he fails to do so." And: "The teachers I admire don’t hide from their students, but have magical ways and rough tricks by which they fold themselves into their subjects and disappear."

Harrison ends his essay with a confession of sorts:
In more than twenty years of writing these are the first boldly personal words—pronouns and all—I’ve written; I find that I can only just barely make my peace with them, as one suffers an old snapshot of himself when he was photographed too skinny, too pensive, too odd. 
But in wonderful essayistic fashion, he can't help but indict himself in a moment of self-interrogation:
But a last observation.
     Mine has always been the greater vanity; I have believed that other people’s stories have been mine to tell. 
What's great about Harrison's essay is the disarming—and, I think, charming—way it subverts itself. The essay is packed with sensuous, evocative details of Harrison's own past—people, events, places, things—that, though they're arranged rhetorically as an argument against autobiography, end up revealing the very stuff of which Harrison is made. Even an essay against autobiography can't escape the pleasures of the self, of looking back and reckoning.


In 2010, Harrison published Mutations of Rollerball, a collection of essays. In the foreword, referencing this essay, he admits, grudgingly, "As time passes one tends to look back and get more personal." Indeed.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Cal Smith, back from the bars to tell about it

Smith, on the back of Travelin' Man (1968)
For probably complicated reasons, I never tire of mid-century honky tonk songs about hard drinking, bars, and lurid consequence. Cal Smith, one of a number of Oklahoma-born country singers who relocated west, in his case Oakland and, later, San Jose, released Travelin' Man on Kapp Records in 1968. Smith had been discovered earlier in the decade by Ernest Tubb and had played in Tubb's band and on his records, eventually embarking on a solo career and charting hits through the 1970s. Travelin' Man is a strong, well-played and -produced honky tonk album. The best songs dramatize the lure and damnation of the bottle, a trio essaying this age-old subject especially poignantly: the well-known "I Threw The Rose Away," written by Merle Haggard (who Smith emulates a bit over-respectfully here), described on the back of the album as "a classic from the past" when it was only a year old, and two deep cuts, "Alone And Broke In Birmingham," written by Jan Crutchfield and Jimmy Rule, and "I'll Just Go On Home," written by the obscure Randall J. Colemus. Each song narrates the unhappy navigation between clarity and blur, and the friends and loved ones who often suffer in between. The cinematic details in "Alone And Broke In Birmingham," while not specifically evoking bars, call to mind the dire results of one who's hit the road with a bottle, while "I'll Just Go On Home" reverses of the sexist drinking stereotype: this time the male singer's hopelessly searching and pining for his wife, who spends her night away from her family drinking with strangers in taverns while wearing her wedding dress. Dark stuff. I love finding album cuts like these last two, songs I'd never heard before but which instantly sounded familiar, and then felt eternal.

"I Threw The Rose Away" (Merle Haggard)

Once I lived a life of wine and roses
And I drank a lot back then for one concern
Success for me lay just around the corner
I thought my social friends could help me make the turn

And now I'm paying for the days of wine and roses
A victim of the drunken life I chose
Now all my social friends look down their noses
'Cause I kept the wine and threw away the rose

I stood by and watched the bottle take control of me
The turn I took was not the one I'd planned
And I watched my social standings slip away from me
As I watched the bottle slowly take command

"Alone And Broke In Birmingham" (Jan Crutchfield/Jimmy Rule)

Nobody knows how blue I am
Alone and broke in Birmingham
Washin' dishes for a bite to eat
Sleepin' nights on a rundown street
My only shoes are paper thin
I’ve hawked my clothes everywhere I've been
I’m down to nothin' and here I am
Alone and broke in Birmingham

Why did I leave a good home town
To ride the freights and bum around
The girl that's waiting is mighty sweet
But I can't wait till I'm on my feet
Down on my luck but I still got my pride
Can't find a job but oh how I've tried
Ain't got the price of a telegram
Alone and broke in Birmingham

I've heard a thousand no's and they all hurt
Who wants a man in a dirty shirt
I can't keep going with this heavy load
Sometimes I think it's the end of the road
A man's got hope though he's not got a dime
He keeps a livin' just a breath at a time
I can't wait till I'm out of this jam
Alone and broke in Birmingham

"I'll Just Go On Home" (Randall J. Colemus)

I know your bar is closing
Your flashing signs are dim
But I'm looking for my darling
Please may I just step in?
 She spends her time in honky tonks
She likes the atmosphere
I've looked in all the others
She's just gotta be in here

She's wearing a dress of silk
It's white with silver thread
In fact she wore that very dress
The day that we were wed
I'm not here checking on her
I just worry when she's gone
So if she's here and she's alright
I'll just go on home

Today's our anniversary
The kids had a party planned
But I know she's happy with her crowd
And I hope they'll understand
I'm not here checking on her
But we worry when she's gone
So if she's here and she's alright
I'll just go on home

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Twitty and Kitty, a Trucker and his Girl: More fun with Country Music

Life on and off the long road, ca the mid-1960s. A truck driver bonds with a truck stop jukebox on his way out the door, while the waitress behind the counter pines for her own truck drivin' man.

"Truck Drivin' Man" (Terry Fell)

Well I stopped at a roadhouse in Texas
Was a little place called Hamburger Dan's
And I heard that old jukebox a playing
a song about a truck drivin' man

Pour me another cup of coffee
for it is the best in the land
I'll put a nickel in the jukebox
and play the "Truck Drivin' Man"

The waitress just poured me some coffee
I thanked her and called her again
I said that old song sure does fit me
'cause I'm a truck drivin' man

I climbed back aboard my old semi
and then like a flash I was gone
I got them old truck wheels a rolling
yeah I'm on my way to San Antone

"My Big Truck Drivin' Man" (Hank Mills)

I'm just a waitress at this truck stop
I keep the jukebox playing and the coffee hot
Temptation's everywhere but I must stand
I'm in love with my big truck drivin' man

I keep lookin' out the window, he's on my mind
He's been gone almost a week this time
I can't wait till he walks through that door again
Oh how I miss my big truck drivin' man

I'll ask him if he feels the way I do
I can almost hear him saying "I love you"
We'll walk through the jukebox hand in hand
and he'll kiss me, my big truck drivin' man

I call him the Truckstop Pinball King
'cause he knows how to beat that old machine
He's savin' money to buy me a wedding band
Oh how I love my big truck drivin' man

Photo via Restaurant-ing through history

Sunday, July 12, 2015

After Many Years Away

Yesterday I attended mass at Mary of the Angels Chapel in LaCrosse‬, Wisconsin‬, my first service in many years, and found myself, as always, responding to the experience aesthetically rather than spiritually. As an agnostic I feel burdened by my essayist's mind, a skeptical ear tuned to the readings, homily, and prayers, wondering if reverence for art isn't a kind of worship, casting a discerning critical eye over the church's columns and arches and windows and paintings and, during the responsorial psalm—Psalm 40—drifting toward contemplation of the pretty melody, the relative talents of the solemn high school choir singers, two girls and two boys, and imagining narrative scenarios among them: the flutist in the second row closeted, the girl crushing on the boy but unable to admit it, ripening bodies betraying the Word all over the place. I elected not to receive communion, as it would've been received as a novelty, not as sacrament, and so sat with the others who declined, because of denominational requirements, fussy children, or perhaps a distance from faith similar to my own. But the beauty of the building and of belief! To my vague disappointment I felt again the rote responses from the congregation as dispiritedly mechanical but this is a childish complaint: what do I expect, speaking in tongues? An outsider, I dwelt in the outsider's occasional mien of lonely self-pity, steeling myself against active belief with secular nonchalance. Stray fragments of adolescent churchgoing drifted in: imagining the women's bodies under their Sunday best; the serene and scalp-tingling pleasures of the sibilant s-sounds in the Lord's Prayer, blocking out all other epiphanies; a mental wandering off from the interior place of worship to the outside world, green and breezy and full of people moving sensually toward desires of the body and mind. Half a century old, I resisted such childish distractions at Mary of the Angels, but they came. I mumbled prayers, crossed myself out of habit, stared at the ceiling, and departed. Look how far I've gone. Maybe one day I'll come back and revise this mini-essay, this half-embarrassed confession, from a more devout place, but that feels unlikely, drawn as far away as I am from one faith to another.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

1986 Topps Baseball: One Card, One City at a Time

Brad Balukjian's on the road. As he's documenting at Wax Pack, Balukjian is driving 10,000 miles over two months to track down and interview the fourteen baseball players commemorated in a random 1986 pack of Topps baseball cards.

I love this project immoderately, especially in its blend of fame and obscurity, journeyman players rubbing elbows with All-Stars all randomly gathered in a pack bought and obsessed over by a kid chewing lousy gum. When I look back and consider my nearly-complete set of 1977 baseball cards—long gone, now—I think not only of the images on the front and the stats on the back, the cardboard and the white dusty gum, but the unglimpsed lives of the men and the supreme difficulty of playing baseball at the elite professional level. Balukjian plans to develop his interviews and cross-country experience into a book that explores not only baseball and baseball cards, but the flux and surprises of life after baseball, the void faced by stars and non-stars alike.

I recently tracked down Balukjian in Naples, Florida, where he's at the mid-point of his journey. I talked with him by phone about his project, his expectations and surprises, and the value and limitation of nostalgia.


How did this project get started?

I grew up loving baseball cards, and 1986 was the first year I remember collecting them. How many of us would go buy tons and tons of those Wax Packs at the store? I always liked the players who were not the superstars, the guys who were utility players or bench warmers or middle relievers. In my life, in general, I gravitate towards underdogs. And as a writer, I've had this hybrid career in journalism and biology; I did my PhD at Berkley in Entomology, and I'd previously worked in journalism, as well. I decided that I didn't want to give either one of those up, so I kind of now have this hybrid career where I teach Biology as an adjunct in Laney College in Oakland, and then I freelance, mostly about science. Obviously this is a total departure!

My interest in journalism is really in long form creative nonfiction, and I've always been thinking about book ideas and different possibilities. Several years ago when I was with my best friend Jesse, talking about baseball cards and growing up, we were getting really excited talking about that era, right around 1986, '87, and both of us, for some reason, remember Sixto Lezcano's 1986 card that we both had lots of copies of. And that got me thinking, What would be a way journalistically, what would be a forum, to research and tell the stories of some of these guys I grew up collecting who were not the superstars but who I really believe are the most interesting for a lot of reasons? They haven't been asked throughout their career as much so they weren't celebrities necessarily, and I think a lot of those guys because they maybe had to work harder or struggle more maybe had a different or a deeper perspective, or a more nuanced perspective, more humble, on the game and their place in the game. And from a more pragmatic perspective, they're more accessible. It's not like you're trying to get Barry Bonds to talk to you.

They're not cocooned by publicists.

Exactly, not having to deal with all that. And never having been stars, their egos aren't blown up, probably. And so this idea sort of popped in my head that the actual pack of cards, the Wax Pack, has fifteen cards, conducive to a book with fifteen chapters, and I really liked the random aspect of it. You know, who are you gonna get?

There have been thousands of major league players since the beginning of the game, but only a few dozen who we talk about all the time. The vast majority of players even at that elite level of the Majors, after the Minors, etc., play for a season or three and then we forget about them. I'm really intrigued with that idea of talking to those players who were up for more than a cup of coffee but who never made a long career out of it.

Yeah, but I knew that no publisher was ever going to bite on a book about Don Carman! But you can get away with telling Don Carman's story if it's packaged with this whole pack. I knew that odds are with a random pack of cards you're gonna mostly get guys who were not superstars.

What is it about underdogs that appeals to you?

[laughs] I guess I'm kind of a bleeding heart in general. In all ways, in politics, in baseball, in life. I'm always very empathetic, and drawn, to the underdogs. And I don't know if it's true, but maybe I've identified with underdogs, growing up and going through some tough things—I mean, not really tough but maybe I felt that kinship. That might have something to do with it. Or maybe I'm just naturally drawn to the less popular crowd.

I'm on the same page with you there.

Yeah, I've been very non-conformist in my thinking abut these things, that what I'm interested to do most of the crowd is not. I'm creatively much more interested in failure than success.

Why is that?

It tells you more about who somebody is and what their character is about when you see how they handle failure. Part of it is the underdog thing, that the team that loses is not as heralded or remembered. It's not as emotionally rich to write about winning. Winning seems much more one-dimensional to me. But losing, how you cope with that. I can get really philosophical or meta about it. I think a lot of our happiness in life is contingent on how we handle failure and how we view the prospect of failure. Because we're all gonna fail, no matter what. And what our expectations are: we put all of our happiness as contingent on success, and when we inevitably fail, we're not gonna do real well. [laughs] So I open my life to the possibility, and even the probability, of failure and not letting fear dictate my actions.

Speaking of expectations, have they changed since you've started the project? What's surprised you so far?

Yeah, it's funny, I signed with an agent and I had a whole proposal written that was ready to shop to publishers. My agent kept saying, "I think you should wait until after the trip to sell it." I was really frustrated with that but now that I'm halfway through the trip.... He actually called me today and I said, "You are completely vindicated! You were right. I was wrong." Because over the course of the trip the whole project is evolving in a way that I never could have anticipated.

In what ways?

Going in, I had these big thematic ideas that I wanted to explore. Some of that is still there. The two main ones were, one, what quality, what trait about these fourteen guys did they have in common that got them to the Major Leagues, because so many guys don't make it. The other one was, I'm really interested in what happens right when you retire. The bigger theme of the book is growing up. I'm now 34, pretty much the same age these guys were when they had to retire and quote-unquote grow up and stop playing a game for a living. As the narrator of the book I think out loud about being 34, still single, nowhere near married, no kids, and all of my friends are doing that right now. Do I need to grow up? Using this as a parallel.

But the thing that's emerged, that was unexpected, is that unwittingly this is turning into what I would call a love story. And I don't mean that in just the traditional romantic love. Because I'm really pushing the ex-players to tell me about their life off the field, beyond baseball, I'm getting a lot of really rich, really touching, sometimes painful but always poignant stories about different types of love, the love between brothers, the love between fathers and sons, the love between players and the game, the love between husband and wife. I'm almost thinking that the first line of the book will be something like, "I didn't set out to write a love story, but that's what happened." And I think that's something that has broad appeal to a general reader, which is my goal, not to write a baseball book but kind of a life book abut baseball. And I think that's a theme that's emerged.

Who were you most excited to meet?

Well, definitely Don Carman. I mean, there's no question! I'll even joke about it in the book, "Take this whole chapter with a grain of salt because I'm one hundred percent biased in writing about him." [laughs] But beyond that it's the least successful guys who were the most interesting, who I was the most excited about. You know, Randy Ready, Rance Mulliniks, Jaime Cocanower.

The other one is Gary Templeton, who was pretty successful, but I read so much about how the press, especially in Saint Louis, portrayed him as thoroughly difficult and all of these negative things, that kind of gave him a bad name. And so I went in expecting that, and I found him to be charming, outgoing, funny, friendly—outspoken, but in a good way. Maybe cocky, but again not in a way that I felt was at the expense of others. I mean, all these guys are supremely confident.

They have to be.

They have to be, it's a survival thing. Templeton told me—and I'll write at length about this—about what it was like to be an outspoken black man in baseball, especially in Saint Louis in the 1970s and how that affected his entire career. Given that context, you start to understand the bigger picture about why he was portrayed the way he was. How he felt singled out.The details of the story with [St. Louis Cardinals manager] Whitey Herzog when [Templeton] got in trouble and was hospitalized for "chemical imbalances" and all this stuff when he was really just angry! You know? He didn't need to be medicated.

Do you have a particular fondness for the year 1986 or was it, as you describe on your blog, the look of the cards?

It's the first baseball season that I remember, but you know the '86 set is based on the '85 season, and 1985 is actually my favorite year, in general. It was a great year in baseball; you had the great playoff series. But in general 1985, pop-culture-wise, was fun: Back To The Future, Wrestlemania, everything that optimized the 80s for kids peaked in 1985. And the economy was turning around, and people were feeling good and mousing their hair and...I mean, you can pick that apart but people were irresponsibly, irrationally exuberant. I'm interested in history and broadly in a lot of things, so for me 1985 was really fun year.

Baseball historian John Thorn said, "To me, the golden era of baseball is whenever you were 12 years old."

[laughs] Got it. I mean, that's exactly right. For me—and I fully admit my bias here, along the lines of that quote—my golden era I call the "26 Team Era," from 1977 to '92, rarely identified as an actual era, but if you look at it it's actually kind of an anomaly in baseball history because it coincides with the beginning of free agency and, basically, the beginning of the steroids era. And in those sixteen seasons you had amazing parity, like twelve different teams won the World Series, a real contrast from the 70s when you had the Reds, you had the A's, you had the Yankees. And the stability: in those sixteen years there was no expansion, and no teams moved locations. And then what came after, the crazy steroid stuff, the strike [of 1994], and more recently you've had the Red Sox and the Cardinals wining multiple times. That era, which is my favorite, is a cool part of baseball history.

What year were you 12?

I would've been 12 in '92, so right at the end of that. So maybe I'd revise that quote and say age 8!

The one word that hasn't come up in our conversation is nostalgia. The appeal of nostalgia is obvious, a part of the human condition, but what do you think are its limits?

Well, I think getting past the first, superficial level. I mean, I can have a conversation with people of my generation about Saved By The Bell or baseball cards or Hulk Hogan and it's gonna bring back a smile. But then do you go beyond that? Are you able to explore nostalgia in a deeper way beyond that fun memory that comes and goes. And that's what I'm trying to tap into. I've got your attention because we all remember Wax Packs baseball cards, but now can I hold it for the length of an entire book to tell you what is interesting about this thing from the past?

Nostalgia can cast the past in a golden light. Have you found your nostalgia interfered with or sullied at all by talking to these ex-players?

Well, there's always that part of me that has to grapple with, you know, the 8-year-old inside that's meeting these guys, right? There's that tendency to want to have the person like you, and not ask hard questions and to be a fan. But I've really worked hard, having the training in journalism, to try and not let that affect me. I'm sure it does, to some extent, but I know that my mission there, my obligation to the reader, is not fall into that trap. And so I try to ask harder questions, make sure that I'm being balanced, try not to be afraid to sometime push in an uncomfortable direction. A lot of these guys have had major tragedies in their lives.... If I was writing about Bill Buckner, I might not even ask him about the ground ball, but if I found out his dad died when he was ten, we'd spend a lot of time on that. And. like, Steve Yeager. He posed in Playgirl in 1982 and there was this huge uproar; I didn't even ask him about it. I'll mention it in the book, but he's been asked about it a million times. I don't even care what his thought is on that anymore. So, at the risk of alienating readers who want to know about those lightning-rod moments, I'm making the decision to avoid that a little bit. People have asked me to ask players about certain things, and I find that the players mostly are not interested in talking about those moments. They were there; they've talked about it a lot before. There's a bit of a disconnect between what the fans get excited about and what the players get excited about. Some fans may be disappointed about that, but that's what I'm realizing.

All images via Wax Pack.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Dueling on the South Side

Baseball rewards in many ways. I caught the White Sox/Blue Jays game at US Cellular Field last night, hopeful to witness history. Sox starter Chris Sale was trying to become the only pitcher in MLB history to throw nine consecutive games with ten or more strikeouts. At game time he shared the record of eight games with the great Pedro Martinez, who managed the feat in 1999; at the end of the game last night, Sale remained tied. He fanned six Blue Jays, a consequence of possessing less-than-stellar stuff against the best hitting team in the majors that swung aggressively at many early pitches in counts. Those fans with Sox-distributed "K" signs couldn't raise their arms in jubilation as often as they wished. The Blue Jays put the ball in play often throughout the evening, and the crowd's audible disappointments—my own included—at sharply-hit grounders and high pop-ups soon diminished in light of the real story: a great pitching duel between Sale and former White Sox and SouthSide-beloved pitcher Mark Buehrle.

I debated driving in from DeKalb for the game because the weather prediction was ghastly. I didn't want to miss the chance, though, and was rewarded with a beautiful cloudy evening with only a couple dozen major raindrops starting in the seventh. We were fortunate that Buehrle was pitching: the game was over in under two hours, the shortest nine-inning game in four years, and as I drove back to DeKalb the rains were Biblically awful. But helping me in the storms were bright memories of the game, a taut, exciting contest of two ace pitchers solving offenses and benefiting from stout defense. The first five Blue Jays outs were handled by Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez, whose defense has been ugly this year but who played sterlingly last night; Buehrle deflected a sharp grounder off of his body which shot toward All-Star third basemen Josh Donaldson who bare-handed the ball and threw out the runner; Blue Jays center fielder Kevin Pillar robbed Tyler Flowers of a homer by going up the wall in deep center and nabbing the ball inches above the top. It was that kind of night: economical, with potential bursts of offense. Something had to give. The White Sox had scored one run off of the efficient Buehrle through seven and two-thirds innings but then, aided by an error by the sure-handed Jose Reyes and sudden confidence at the plate, scored three runs in the eighth with two out, the last two coming on a thrilling just-inside-the-line double by Melky Cabrera past Donaldson that scored Adam Eaton and local hero Jose Abreu. That's baseball! The Cell erupted. One of my favorite things is the walk down the ramp after a victory, the whoops and cheers from the fans sounding all around.

Here's the pitching line:

On Instagram, Carl Skankberg—aka sox_monkey—posted his scorecard of the matchup (via Tom Flynn at his great It's A Long Season tumblr):

I came for history, and settled for a classic game. I'll take that every time.


Sale delivers

Buehrle delivers

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

One Year, Two Essays: Marcia Aldrich and Ann Hood

I recently came across two essays that independently evoke and explore the summers of 1976 and '77, the year David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz terrorized the New York boroughs. One afternoon I read Marcia Aldrich's "The Blue Dress" in Hotel Amerika, and the next day Ann Hood's "Summer" in The Normal School, struck by their intersections and their disparities. (Disclosure: I'm a Contributing Editor at The Normal School.) Hood writes about those summers as she spent them in Rhode Island (and, for brief periods, in Chicago), an innocent far from Berkowitz's spree yet close enough to feel spooked and unsafe. She grew analogously aware of her own proximity to danger as a young woman kissing men in cars and falling in and out of love, the potential for random violence always around her. Aldrich was living in a dilapidated apartment in Greenwich Village during the infamous summer of '77, working at a deadening clerical job and recognizing her anger at the city's violence as well as her own incompleteness, complex family dynamics, and vexed romantic past—much of this made metaphoric in a form-fitting dress she buys and wears for the bracing if finite sense of power and attention it gives her. Berkowitz is a common thread in both "The Blue Dress" and "Summer," his derangement acting as plot, setting, and theme at once, explicitly in Hood's essay, abstractly in Aldrich's. Both writers explore sexuality, the body's promises, and the lurid thrills and disheartening limits found between temptation and danger; both essays are terrific, engrossing and powerful.

Marcia Aldrich is the author of the memoirs Girl Rearing and Companion to an Untold Story, which won the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She teaches creative writing at Michigan State University, and from 2008 to 2011 edited Fourth Genre, one of the premiere literary journals featuring personal essays and memoirs. Ann Hood's many books include the novels An Italian Wife and The Obituary Writer, and the memoirs The Knitting Circle and Comfort. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, O, Bon Appetit, Tin House, and The Atlantic Monthly. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

Recently, I virtually sat down with Aldrich and Hood to discuss their "Son of Sam" essays and those essays' unintended correspondences.


Marcia Aldrich
"The Blue Dress" and "Summer" both touch upon violence against women, fear, and danger. Could you each talk about how your essay originated? Was it in an idea, an image, a recollection?

Marcia Aldrich: Teaching a unit on writing in the second person, we were looking at Dinah Lenney’s “Little Black Dress,” in which she revisits aspects of her past through the specific focus of her dress and my own creative impulses were triggered. Two dresses popped up from my memory bank, one a red dress like a candy striper’s uniform, an outfit I associated with young motherhood, and the blue dress, a dress purchased during a time of feeling unbearably vulnerable. Both dresses hang in my closet in the attic. I was compelled to write about the blue dress and was surprised by the volatile emotional currents unleashed.

Ann Hood: I write a true crime column for The Normal School and when it was time to write my next one, I thought of Son of Sam. I have a list of what crimes I'd like to write about and he has always been on it. I made a list of true crimes that affected me somehow, albeit tangentially. For the reasons I wrote about in the essay, Son of Sam scared the bejesus out of me as a young woman. In many ways, he threatened sexuality and freedom. How many parked cars did I kiss in during that same time? And here was a man who killed people doing just that.

You both use the "Summers of Sam" as a kind of prism through which you explore your own past, which is tangentially related to the murders. Was that an idea from the start of your essay or did the piece evolve to and discover that?

AH: I had that idea from the start. I like to use iconic images or events as gateways into the personal story.

MA: I did not mention the Son of Sam in the first drafts. At first I only included details that pertained to me. But later in the writing process I wanted to create a larger context for my fear and my sense of being preyed upon, to establish that my own personal narrative reflected the larger currents of the time. At first I added too much historical material about the blackout, Son of Sam, garbage strikes and had to scale that material back. It seemed like an information dump and didn’t fit with the lyrical essay I was writing. In the end I hope I’ve given just enough. Finding the right balance was something I had to work on.

In Juliana Gray's essay "My Soldier," about the time an older teen humiliated Gray when she was thirteen and the subsequent revengeful "black magic spell" she cast on him, she writes, "I was angry, and that felt like power." Is anger power? Can you talk about that in relation toy your essay, and/or to female experience in general?

MA: This is a huge subject! Anger in women’s writing is elusive, complex, and defies easy interpretation. I grew up encountering a dismissive response towards any vestige of anger in women’s writing. For example, I heard it said over and over that Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” was written by a woman who hadn’t controlled or transcended her anger and that made the poem flawed. Yet for me the poem performs a mad fury that I love and embrace even as I know it is not always admired or understood. Still the desire to be through with any number of possible figures in that poem—her father, her mother, her husband, even herself—is for me as good as poetry gets. But anger is a two-edged sword as Adrienne Rich’s poem about Marie Curie “Power” suggests in its conclusion: “her wounds came from the same source as her power.” 

AH: Anger can be power, but it can also be the opposite. It can destroy a person, I think, unless she uses it well, not for revenge or destruction but for something that creates change--internally or externally.

Ann Hood
Did anything surprise, challenge, or test you as you wrote? How did you respond to that?

MA: My answer to this is connected to my answer above. Once I tapped into anger, I wasn’t sure I could turn it away from myself. I didn’t want to ride my anger right over the cliff. Performing that mini-rant-litany was exhausting. That’s when I remembered the red-bellied woodpecker and thought she was an objective correlative to the action of my anger, the way my anger turned back on me. That was key to the essay—seeing that anger isn’t just directed outward towards a target and isn’t a simple answer to powerlessness.

AH: I was surprised how I'd remembered so many details wrong about the crimes. And once I had all the facts I had to reconstruct my own experiences at those dates and times, which was challenging.

What do you feel is the current cultural state or value of autobiography?

AH: I think there's a difference between autobiography and memoir, though both forms have a cultural value. Autobiography is more of a complete record of a well known person--Bill Clinton, Keith Richard, the pope. It covers that life from birth. Whereas memoir focuses on one part of a ordinary person's life--the summer of Son of Sam, for example. Both add to our cultural experience, memoir by illuminating the extraordinary or universal in the ordinary.

MA: Clearly it is no longer a small specialization. For me it is the area of the greatest innovation and vitality, though I hasten to add I don’t want to pit the growth of literary nonfiction against fiction or poetry. I have little interest in debates that make claims that the novel is dying. It isn’t. I am perhaps not alone in being compelled by writing that is reckoning with experiences that really happened and aren’t hypothetical or just possible.

Finally, I'd like you each to choose a favorite sentence or passage from the other's essay. 

MA: The passage I particularly admire is the one that closes the gap between the publicly reported threats in New York City and the vulnerability of the girls in Rhode Island. The public events of the Son of Sam do not frame Ann’s essay, they form the texture of its body. I admire how Ann braids the history or the account of his crimes together with her history during that time so seamlessly that you can’t tear one from the other. This interweaving is more than skillful, it’s artful. I also admire how she shifts from an I in this passage to a We. She wasn’t alone in her experience, her feeling unsafe. I wondered whether the braiding was as effortless as the final essay makes it look.

Here’s the passage (I haven’t quoted the whole paragraph): 
Suddenly, New York City didn’t seem so far away. Over dinners and on the way to classes that snowy winter, girls worried out loud. Even if he wasn’t headed for Rhode Island, we realized how vulnerable we all were, sitting in cars, dizzy from kissing, our shirts unbuttoned, our bras unclasped, just a window protecting us from danger.
AH: "The dress is more of a wound than a dress."

That's the first sentence, and it immediately draws you in. The idea of a dress as a wound is so evocative. And somehow also completely understandable.


Volume 13, 2015
Volume Eight, Number One, 2015