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10.29.2016

what i'm reading: the underground railroad by colson whitehead

Colson Whitehead is a literary genius. In The Underground Railroad, he has found a way to tell the story of 400-plus years of African-American oppression without delivering an awkward march through history, and without using characters as billboards for ideas.

Instead of linear time, Whitehead employs a geography of time: different eras, different historical moments, occur simultaneously but in different places, all the locations connected by an underground railroad.

At one stop is something very like the Tuskegee Experiment and the "Mississippi appendectomy". At another stop, minstrel shows, the mania of genocidal lynching, and the realities of Fugitive Slave Act. At another, the vision of Greenwood, Oklahoma and other all-black triumphs like it, and the spectre of its demise.

These simultaneous realities are linked, not by the Underground Railroad of myth and metaphor, but an underground railroad. As every reviewer of this book has pointed out, Whitehead imagines an actual railroad, at once a clandestine mode of transport, and a symbol of the subterranean struggle for freedom and justice.

Through his invented geography, Whitehead comes as close to the heart of the horror of slavery and its many legacies as anything I've ever read. The physical truth, the emotional truth, the psychological truth -- all are laid bare, revealing the United States' foundation of stolen land, human chattel, and brutal subjugation, and how that has played out over decades and centuries.

Whitehead doesn't sanitize slavery, but neither is this book a catalogue of grotesque violence. There's violence enough -- Whitehead doesn't flinch from it -- but he doesn't force the reader into torture porn, as graphically violent books often do.

To call The Underground Railroad historical fiction would be to diminish it. Whitehead is the consummate genre-shifter, never writing the same type of book twice; actually never writing a "type" at all. The Underground Railroad comprises elements of historical fiction, slave narratives, immigration stories, westerns, alternative histories, and magical realism. There's bits of Gulliver's Travels, of The Odyssey, of The Inferno. This review in The New York Times references one I hadn't thought of.
Throughout my reading, I was repeatedly reminded of a particular chapter from García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” to whose handling of time Whitehead seems to owe quite a bit. In that chapter, the infamous massacre of the banana plantation workers is denied by the official versions of history and soon forgotten. But one character knows what he saw — thousands of dead traveling toward the sea on a train — and goes around trying to find someone who will remember the story. He doesn’t: People always get things wrong. In a sense, “The Underground Railroad” is Whitehead’s own attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world. In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book.
In reviews and interviews, much has been made of Whitehead's imaginative invention of an actual underground railroad, but what sets this book apart is not fantasy. Whitehead uses this magical element to confront the reality of American slavery, inviting us to consider it anew. In The Globe and Mail, Andray Domise writes:
But other misunderstandings, stubborn and pernicious, have managed to warp much of white America’s perception of slavery – that it was a matter of wage theft, that slaves were mostly treated and fed well by benevolent masters, that the Irish were treated in a similar fashion to black people. Whitehead’s novel is both speculative fiction and an inversion of these comforting fables. One in which the United States’ crimes against the Black body are revealed and compressed into the narrative of a young woman’s escape from bondage.
The Underground Railroad is a powerful and beautifully written book. Of course it's deeply disturbing, but I hope that doesn't dissuade readers from picking it up. In this age when blatantly false histories spread virally, this is a book that needs to be read.

Also, it's Colson Whitehead. Here I am again, raving about another book by Colson Whitehead. Here are my posts on: Sag Harbor, Zone One, Apex Hides the Hurt, and John Henry Days. Turns out I didn't review Colossus of New York, I only quoted from it: here and here (this blog was two days old at the time). And I read his first novel, The Intuitionist before this blog existed.

10.24.2016

i look forward to the day when no one wears a fitbit anymore

What did people do before Fitbit? Without their adorable little bracelets, how did they get enough exercise? Never mind that, how did they manage to live?? All those lonely, barren years, decade upon decade, people running, swimming, cycling, lifting, walking -- without a Fitbit. Can you imagine? It breaks my heart just thinking about it.

Pre-Fitbit, I often didn't know if people were exercising at all! Imagine! I might be speaking to someone who was getting enough exercise, and I wouldn't even know it! Unless the subject came up, I wouldn't know how many steps they had walked that day! What a scary thought.

10.23.2016

what i'm reading: born to run by bruce springsteen

This is a run-don't-walk review. Fans of Bruce Springsteen: run to find a copy of The Boss' memoirs, Born to Run. This book was seven years in the making, and (like Chrissie Hynde's and Patti Smith's memoirs) written by the artist himself. It is by turns hilarious and heart-wrenching, poignant and gripping, and always profoundly insightful and a joy to read.

Springsteen is an intellectual -- a man of great intelligence who, for better and worse, lives in his own head, analyzing and at times over-analyzing the world around him and his own reactions to it. Because of this, he brings a powerful self-awareness to his life story -- an ability to articulate where his art comes from, and how his personal pitfalls have affected the most important relationships in his life.

Born to Run is also noteworthy for what it is not. It's not a tell-all or an exposé; readers looking for dirt will be disappointed. Springsteen protects his closest friends from exposure, and when it comes to blame, usually points the finger only at the man in the mirror. If there are personal disagreements, they remain personal: Steve and I had some issues to work out, so we sat down and had an honest talk, and moved past them is a typical approach. Even about his first manager Mike Appel, whose one-sided contracts hobbled Springsteen for years, and whose idol was the infamous "Colonel" Tom Parker, controller of Elvis Presley, Springsteen is measured, compassionate, and forgiving, professing a deep affection for him. The story is honest and revealing -- what was in those contracts, why Springsteen signed them -- but there is no anger or blame.

Born to Run is also not a memoir of a fast life through the great trinity of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Springsteen was 22 years old when he had his first drink of alcohol, and has never used recreational drugs. He mentions the rocker's on-the-road sex life, but only obliquely, to let the reader know it existed, and was then outgrown. That leaves rock and roll, and plenty of it.

In the musicians' memoirs that I've read, the most exciting writing has been their recollection of their moment of discovery. Keith Richards, Patti Smith, and Chrissie Hynde were all able to articulate how music -- literally -- changed their lives, how the discovery of a certain music at a certain time altered their chosen path forever. Springsteen can also pinpoint those moments, and his great self-insight and writing talents make it fairly leap from the page into the reader's heart.

Springsteen's writing style itself is deeply evocative. Sometimes his writing takes off on a flight of fancy.
Conditions were generally horrific, but compared to what?! The dumpiest motel on the road was a step up from my home digs. I was twenty-three and I was making a living playing music! Friends, there's a reason they don't call it "working," it's called PLAYING! I've left enough sweat on stages around the world to fill at least one of the seven seas; I've driven myself and my band to the limit and over the edge for more than forty years. We continue to do so, but it's still "playing". It's a life-giving, joyful, sweat-drenched, muscle-aching, voice-blowing, mind-clearing, exhausting, soul-invigorating, cathartic pleasure and privilege every night. You can sing about your misery, the world's misery, your most devastating experiences, but there is something in the gathering of souls that blows the blues away.
Other times, there's a sparkling turn of phrase: "He had the shortest highway between his fingers and his heart I'd ever heard". Or a metaphor that brings the truth home.
We'd navigated the treacherous part of the river, the part Mike and I couldn't make, where the current changes and the landscape will never be the same. So, breaking into the open I looked behind me in our boat and I still had my Clark. Up front, he still had Lewis. We still had our own musical country to chart, many miles of frontier to travel, and music to make.
I have been a diehard Bruce Springsteen fan since my teenage years, one of the millions who grew up in the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia area who feel a special kinship with Springsteen and a special ownership of his music. I've been amazed and thrilled that his music has matured along with his fans. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I wondered if the latter half of Born to Run might be a let-down. The story of how a working-class New Jersey boy discovered his talents and navigated the treacherous waters to rise to fame -- that's a gripping tale. But how that now-famous musician lives the rest of his life -- is that going to be interesting, too?

Yes. Emphatically yes. In the second half of Born to Run, Springsteen explores his ongoing relationship with his parents, his struggles to free himself from the patterns of his father, and the struggles, challenges, and joys of learning how to parent. The E Street Band broke up, then reformed, and two of the original members died. There's a long, restorative motorcycle journey through the American desert, and a cross-country road trip of self-discovery. There are fascinating details about Springsteen's writing process. There is poetry in all of it.

Throughout, Springsteen is honest about his struggles with anxiety and depression. He relates the roots of his own issues to those of his father's, whose mental illness, like so many from his generation, was undiagnosed and untreated. Interestingly, Springsteen never says "mental health" or "mental illness" -- simply illness. I thought that was a very interesting and positive choice -- making no distinction between mind and body. Springsteen writes about how he found relief, from both talk therapy and medication, pulling no punches: these drugs saved his life.

Fans may also be interested in the companion CD, Chapter and Verse, which chronicles the music written about in the book, and includes five previously unreleased songs.

I'll close this already-long review with a telling passage that speaks to the style and depth of Born to Run.
I learned many a rough lesson from my father. The rigidity and blue-collar narcissism of "manhood" 1950’s style. An inner yearning for isolation, for the world on your terms or not at all. A deep attraction to silence, secrets and secretiveness. The distorted idea that the beautiful things in your life, the love you struggled so hard to win, will turn and possess you, robbing you of your imagined hard-fought-for freedoms. The hard blues of constant disaffection. The rituals of the barroom. A misogyny grown from the fear of all the dangerous, beautiful, strong women in our lives, crossed with the carrying of an underlying physical threat, a psychological bullying that is meant to frighten and communicate that the dark thing inside you is barely contained. You use it to intimidate those you love. And of course . . . the disappearing act; you’re there but not there, not really present; inaccessibility, its pleasures and its discontents. All leading ultimately to the black seductive fantasy of a wreck of a life, the maddening boil lanced, the masks dropped and the long endless free fall into the chasm that at certain moments can smell so sweet from a distance. Of course, once you stop romanticizing it, more likely you're just another chaos-sowing schmuck on the block, sacrificing your treasured family's trust to your "issues." You're a dime a dozen in every burb across America. I can't lay it all at my pop's feet; plenty of it is my own weakness and inability at this late date to put it all away, my favorite harpies, the ones I count on to return to flit and nibble around the edges of my beautiful reward. Through hard work and Patti's great love I have overcome much of this, though not all of it. I have days when my boundaries wobble, my darkness and the blues seem to beckon and I seek to medicate myself in whatever way I can. But on my best days, I can freely enjoy the slow passing of time, the tenderness that is my life; I can feel the love I'm a part of surrounding me and flowing through me; I am near home and I am standing hand in hand with those I love, past and present, in the sun, on the outskirts of something that feels, almost . . . like being free.

10.15.2016

it is designed to break your heart

In between my infrequent posts, the Red Sox's postseason came and went. As Basil Fawlty says, blink and you missed it.

It was a strange baseball season for Sox fans. In late June, it looked like another lost cause, and I drifted away, preferring binge-watching on Netflix to sitting through loss after loss. Then suddenly it all looked so possible. Boston got hot, Baltimore faded away. Forget about the wild card, we wrapped up the division with a tidy four-game margin.

Then October comes, and the September Red Sox are nowhere to be found, the team back to its anemic June version. sigh

The Sox's oh-for-three showing in the American League Division Series had me thinking a lot about the particular joys and heartbreaks of the game itself.

Game 2 was a blow-out. Boston didn't show up, and there wasn't much suspense.

But Games 1 and 3 were both close, and in baseball close games mean suspense, frustration, and missed opportunities. Game 3 was especially suspenseful, since it was an elimination game, win or go home. The suspense, the missed opportunities -- every runner left on base, every scorched line-drive into a Cleveland glove -- got me thinking.

Baseball is full of quiet space. The reason some people find it slow and boring is the same reason fans find it exciting. (Also the reason many serious fans despise the constant noise and fake entertainment at the ballpark.) Those built-in quiet spaces frame the game into a series of distinct moments. Action-pause, action-pause, action-pause. And each of those moments holds the potential for joy -- and its opposite.

Depending on the situation, that potential could be perfectly ordinary, or unbearably suspenseful. Will the pitcher preserve the no-hitter? Will that soaring ball clear the fence? Will the runner make it to the plate before the tag? Each time the pitcher goes into his wind-up, each time the batter takes his stance -- we wait -- we wait -- in our mind's eye, we see what we want to happen, imagining it as if we could will it to happen -- comeon-comeon-comeon -- knowing we have been in this position countless times before, the memories of every crazy, impossible, joyous comeback gathering in our minds -- until we feel ready to explode with joy, and then -- celebration or frustration. We cheer. Or more likely, We sigh. We curse. We groan. The whole ballpark lets loose a collective groan, and the millions of fans watching at home groan with them.

And then the whole thing begins again.

No other sport that I know of contains this kind of constant tension and suspense. The sports with more action -- soccer, basketball, hockey -- don't allow for it. The ball or the puck is moving too quickly. The moments of tension and suspense may be numerous, but they are fleeting. In baseball, where the action appears to stop, is the peak of tension, where we hold our collective breath.

And of course the action only appears to stop, to the untrained eye. That's another thing about baseball: the individual contests being fought nearly constantly within the team sport.

Other sports have defense guarding offense, and there's the lone hockey goalie versus everyone. These are in some sense individual-within-team. But pitcher versus batter is a game onto itself. The pitcher's arsenal, the count, the number of outs, the number of runners on base and which bases, the batter's strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies, the lineup, the defensive shifts -- all this and more is happening with every pitch. Not nothing is happening -- everything is happening.

So there we are, ALDS Game 3. Bottom of the sixth, Red Sox down 4-1. Runners on second and third, and only one out! Tying run at the plate! David Ortiz! Storybook ending? Comeon-comeon-comeon... No.

Bottom eight. Runners on first and second, two out, Xander Bogaerts smacks a bullet... right into a glove.

We're still breathing, not dead yet, but first our pitchers have to hold the score, each pitch an agony of suspense as we collectively will the Cleveland batters to do nothing. Finally three outs, we breathe, allow ourselves a millisecond to relax, then here we go again, our season in the balance, David Ortiz's final season in the balance.

Bottom nine, two on, two outs, here comes our storybook ending, we just know it, another chapter in the book called David Ortiz Greatest Clutch Hitter Ever -- comeon-comeon-comeon -- and our season ends.

Every at-bat, the potential for celebration or disappointment, for joy or heartbreak.

A much better writer said it best.
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone.

war resister ryan johnson needs our help

Our friend Ryan Johnson, a war resister, is now in military prison.

Ryan and his partner Jenna Johnson lived in Canada for more than 11 years. After running out of court challenges, and exhausted from living in limbo for more than a decade, the Johnsons returned to California, and Ryan turned himself in.

Ryan was court martialed, sentenced to 10 months in military prison, and given a bad-conduct discharge. His "crime": refusing to deploy to Iraq, refusing to participate in an illegal invasion of a country that had done no wrong to the United States. His crime: choosing peace.

Ryan and Jenna are some of the best people I know: strong, brave, principled, kind, funny, sweet, caring. They sometimes dog-sat for us, and I never felt safer than when my pups were in their care. They both come from modest, working-class backgrounds. They have loving family, but very few material resources. They need our help.

Donations made through Courage to Resist are tax-deductible for US citizens. The money raised will mean Jenna can visit Ryan in prison, Ryan can buy phone cards to speak to Jen and his other family, and Jennifer can get needed medical care.

You can donate here.

You can read more about the Johnsons' situation here.

thank you, david ortiz!



















Thank you and goodbye.

10.02.2016

thank you, vin scully!

The Red Sox are cruising into the postseason, something I didn't think I'd see during the dog days of summer. Our beloved Big Papi is saying goodbye with a chart-topping season, fans all over the country enjoying a glut of Ortizmania.

But truly, the most momentous baseball story this season is the farewell of Dodgers announcer Vin Scully. The man has been calling Dodgers' games -- solo -- for 67 seasons. And throughout, he's been setting a standard for excellence that no one else approaches.

The Dodgers are my nominal "other team," but my love and appreciation of Scully has little to do with the Dodgers. I love baseball on the radio. As far as I'm concerned, it's the only thing radio is good for, but it's a perfect match.

When I watch baseball on TV, I like to get the audio from the radio broadcast, and I've done that for as long as I can remember. My truly favourite radio baseball scenario is driving with Allan, preferably on a baseball road trip, but any road trip will do, turning the radio dial until I find a baseball game, and listening to the game as the scenery rolls by. That's a little slice of heaven.

Baseball is made for radio, and baseball radio was made for Scully. Or maybe Scully made baseball radio. Maybe his relaxed, conversational style, the depth and breadth of his knowledge, and his respectful attitude -- never mean-spirited, never fawning, made the perfect marriage of sport and medium endure for all these years.

Today, the final day of the 2016 season, all games start at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time. I'm going to watch the Dodgers-Giants live, then watch David Ortiz's final regular season game on delay. Two men who have helped make the game great.

The LA Times with some thoughts on today's game.
It will be a very pleasant good afternoon, and a wonderfully fitting one too: Vin Scully, calling his final game, with the playoffs on the line for his boyhood team.

After Scully delighted us with a career for the ages, the baseball gods have rewarded him with a finale for the ages. Some voices go hoarse without ever calling a clincher. In the final four games of his career, Scully could call two.

In his farewell game at Dodger Stadium, Scully called the game in which the Dodgers, his employers of 67 years, clinched the National League West.

On Sunday, his last day behind the microphone, Scully will call the game in which the San Francisco Giants could clinch a wild-card spot — 80 years to the day after he says he walked past a laundry, saw the score of a World Series game in which the New York Giants had gotten pummeled, and declared his allegiance for the Giants.
Here's an excerpt from "A guide to appreciating Vin Scully if you weren’t there to appreciate him the whole time," by Grant Brisbee.
Baseball on the radio sticks around as a kind of anachronism as the rest of the world shifts to television for its news and entertainment, and it sticks around long after the quality of televised baseball improves. Not only is it the format that you can sneak up to your room, follow at work, and bring to the beach with you, but the pace of the game fits it perfectly.

Baseball is action and inaction, with the gaps giving us time to breathe, time to contemplate the next move. It’s sort of a cliché to compare baseball to chess, but ... c’mon, the fastball’s the rook, the curveball’s the bishop, the slider’s the knight ... here, let me draw you a diagram. As the catcher and pitcher are figuring this all out, the hitter is going through the permutations in his head, too. Runners are leading. The crowd is roaring. Everyone crouches down and waits for the next active moment. There’s tension. Oh, how there’s tension.

And there’s a voice describing it all. When you’re following the radio, you get one sense to work with, and then you have to fill the rest in on your own. That means your imagination has to do at least a quarter of the work, and sometimes it sighs and complains, but it’s OK because you’re your imagination’s biggest fan. It was designed just for you, you know.

Scully was that voice for everyone, echoing through the garage while you were under a car, in the car as you were going for a drive, at the mechanic’s because you had no business being under the car in the first place. When you’re young, old, in-between, with an old friend, remembering an old friend, everywhere.

When television took over, Scully spent more and more time on the medium, for different sports and different audiences. But the foundation of the affection felt for him, the necessity of him, was built on the stream of consciousness coming over the radio. It was perfect for him. Baseball was perfect for the radio. He was perfect for baseball. The feedback loop got stronger with each decade.

* * *

It helps that Scully is the best, of course, a master storyteller with a photographic memory and appreciation for tangents. It helps that his voice is unquestionably the archetype of what a sports broadcaster’s voice should be — calm, sonorous, with enough range to let you know when the really important stuff is happening. It helps that he knows he’s there in service of the game, not the other way around, which means there are times when it’s better to shut up and let the crowd call the game for a little bit.

It’s possible that Scully holds the highest possible approval rating for anyone who’s done any job in the history of the world. ...

Everyone else loves him. Probably because he’s the best.
Plus: Love letters to Vin Scully from some of his legion of fans.