Saturday, July 13, 2019

Then and now

In a 1937 letter, the Italian poet Antonia Pozzi wrote to her writer friend,"Quanto più impersonale sarai, tanto più universale," or, "The more impersonal you'll be, the more universal." I'm a sucker for paradox. I'm also a sucker for passages in autobiography where the writer, famous or unknown, rock star or daughter of a farmer, transcends specific autobiographical details and reaches a kind of eternal plane, where the words might've been considered and written at any time in human history. I love these two graphs from Roxane Gay's Hunger in which she's recalling poring over albums of family photographs dating to her childhood and adolescence, that eternal act. Though Gay's looking for something specific, if intangible—the dividing line between herself before and after trauma—her longing for her origins and for whatever it is that might fill in the memory blanks is universal.
As an adult, I have gone through these albums many times. I have been trying to remember. At first, I looked for pictures to show a child of my own, "This is where you come from," so when I have that child, she might know her family knows how to love, however imperfectly, so she knows her mother has always been loved and so she may know that she, in turn, will always be loved. It is important to show a child love in many forms, and this is the one good thing I have to offer, no matter how this child comes into my life. I also study the pictures, the people in them; I recall the names and places, the moments that matter, so many of which elude me. I try to piece together the memories I have so carefully erased. I try to make sense of how I went from the child in these perfect photographed moments to who I am today. 
I know, precisely, and yet I do not know. I know, but I think what I really want is to understand the why of the distance between then and now. The why is complicated and slippery. I want to be able to hold the why in my hands, to dissect it or tear it apart or burn it and read the ashes even though I am afraid of what I will do with what I see there. I don’t know if such understanding is possible, but when I am alone, I sit and slowly page through these albums obsessively. I want to see what is there and what is missing and what happened even if the why still eludes me.
The presence of the photographs dates this passage, obviously. Gay is situated in a specific time in human history where the reckoning of images, both of others and of oneself, has really complicated memory and the stories we tell ourselves of our pasts. But unyielding to a time- or date-stamp is Gay's admission that she knows and yet doesn't know, a knotty epiphany that anyone who's glanced back at the complex of family history understands all too well.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

"What's a clubhouse?"

Here's a sample of what made Jim Bouton (1939-2019) great, two paragraphs from I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally, his 1971 follow-up to Ball Four, in which he takes on the so-called "sanctity of the clubhouse.” What’s a clubhouse? he asks.
It’s a place for men to change their pants. In this place baseball strategy (which may be as mythical as sanctity) is sometimes discussed. In this place a manager may give a pep talk to his players, or perhaps berate one for poor performance. (If he does, he will lose points, for berating is supposed to be done in the “privacy of the manager's office." This is almost as sanctified as the clubhouse.)
In the next graph Bouton, allergic to sanctimony, hones in: "So what I want to know is what’s so damn important or secret about what goes on in a clubhouse? The only reason to keep any of it secret is, of course, that most of it is silly. Nothing happens in clubhouse meetings. Nothing happens in clubhouses." He goes on to say that if he "really wanted to violate the 'sanctity of the clubhouse'" he'd out "all the bastards" who use the n-word on "supposedly integrated teams" and the "stupid anti-Semitic remark," adding that he could have revealed in greater detail "the mindlessness of it all." It's worth reminding ourselves again of how shocking many of Bouton's claims were to certain privileged quarters in the early 1970s. In one amusing section Bouton lists all of the self-righteously negative responses Ball Four elicited among players, managers, and ad executives, all of whom knew that what Bouton exposed was the truth, yet a truth they didn't want to acknowledge publicly for mostly petty, pious, and self-serving reasons.

After I heard the news that Bouton had died, I pulled Take It Personally off the shelf and opened randomly to the page where the passages I've quoted above appear. Bouton's batting average was terrific: his truth-to-power bravery and humor ring out on nearly every page. Baseball is very buttoned-up and tidy now; with talk radio and Twitter, every "blue" or otherwise indecorous comment that a player might utter or post on social media post-game, however innocently or humorously intended, can in seconds be magnified beyond proportion. Man, I'd likely be quiet, too, if I were a player. Thank God we had Bouton a half century ago to peer stubbornly through the decorum and report the "real" reality.
Bouton, center. "What's a clubhouse?"

Bottom photo by Gene Herrick/Associated Press via The New York Times.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Minor griefs

For decades my dad worked at IBM. The company, renowned for its generosity to its employees, would annually rent out the modest amusement park at Marshall Hall, Maryland, across the Potomac River. There the families of Big Blue would have free run of the joint. It was exciting: we took a loud ferry—"excursion boat" in the romantic parlance—from the Virginia side of the the river to get there. The park and its rickety wooden roller coaster and lo-fi fairway closed in 1980. Yet I believe I'm conflating those days with a similar day at Wheaton Regional Park near my childhood home; for reasons that are obscure to me now, that park was closed for a special occasion during which my friends and I ran around. Anyway, location doesn't matter—leave that stuff to historians and map makers. What maters is a small gesture I made that day. I'd invited my friend Paul B. to come with me and my family, and at one point I impulsively ran up behind him and threw a full cup of icy Pepsi against the back of his neck, drenching him. It was a hot day; the soda got sticky, a big mess. Why did I do it? Paul was a great friend, my only friend, really, after Karl R. moved to far away Illinois, and he was my guest that day. I'd been possessed by one of those strange destructive moments that you know is wrong to indulge in but feel powerless not to, an awful, queasy feeling I associate with childhood. Why can't I shake this trivial memory? Far worse things have been meted out among kids; I've done mean-spirited, indulgent stuff to friends and lovers that I deeply regret. Yet this one lingers, I think, because of the look on Paul's face. His shoulders shot up in surprise, he wheeled around, and his face said, I wanna think this was a fun prank but that was a terrible thing to do. He looked straight into my eyes—an intimacy that ten-year old boys aren't at all comfortable with—and his look seemed to register both shock and a kind of adult disappointment. I carry the moment with me to this day, decades after anyone who might have witnessed this minor transgression, Paul included, have long forgotten it. A lesson? A kid glimpsing a future of consequences? Or is my weepy recollection and embarrassment just more precious self-indulgence, mattering to no one but myself? My answer shifts with the days, but the memory and its shame are constant. The things that linger.

Photo (with b&w filter applied) by Kelvin Murray/Getty Images via NPR
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