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Yet More on the Disappearance of Newspapers; or, Welcome to Spring Training!

I went out this morning to snag The Oregonian from its usual pitch somewhere across the front drive area, but it was nowhere to be found. It was a lovely, solid gold morning. The car windows were a bit frozen still, but the blue and yellow sky was promising the answer e. e. cummings suggested the earth provides to the “how often” questions posed by the “prurient philosophers…,” “science prodded…,” and “religions…squeezing…”: “thou answerest them only with spring,” cummings said.

So I took his answer and coffee cup and sauntered off into the back yard to soak up some morning rays. The grape I had moved yesterday from the back fence to the old patio looks like it likes its new home – more sun!

After a few Thoreauvian moments spent contemplating the grape, the sun, the greens, blues, and yellows of the fine print spring morning, I went back inside to report to Susan the disappearance of the newspaper. She of course, in her offline logic, accused me of cancelling it. I did not cancel it. I like the newspaper.

Susan tried the phone to circulations or delivery or somebody, got busy signals, but then, looking out the nook window, exclaimed, “There’s our newspaper!” “Where?” “On the car window!”

“Wow, what a pitch,” I said, “and Spring Training is underway!”


What we will miss when newspapers disappear

Where Richard Rodgriguez meets Bartleby, the Scrivener

We went down to the Academy last night to see “Moneyball,” staring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the paradigm breaking general manager for the Oakland A’s, from the book by Michael Lewis. I have not read the book, but I liked the movie.

The A’s were a poor, inner-city team, and when good players left them as soon as they could, they couldn’t afford to replace them, but a new approach to fielding a team of inexpensive but utilitarian players worked, and changed the game. The story of the Academy Theatre is a little like the 2002 A’s winning season depicted in the film.

For years the theatre was home to Nickel Ads, a free newspaper flier that was nothing but advertising, mostly from individuals, a precursor to Craigslist, which of course helped put Nickel Ads out of business. Nickel Ads had been housed in the old theatre for years, then the building was empty until Flying Pie Pizza (next door) bought it with the idea to restore it to its original East Side, working class splendor. The lobby was reconditioned, and features a rising, carpeted floor leading past the concession stand (where patrons can buy pizza and beer to take into the show) to three small theaters cut from the original, single hall. The seats are roomy, comfortable, and rock. The arms have drink holders, and side tables are scattered throughout the rows, At first, Academy tickets were $3, but now they cost $4, but Tuesdays are 2 for 1, and locals often find 2 for 1 coupons around, good any night.

The new Academy wasn’t the first theatre of its kind, but it has helped change the game of going to the movies. Now what we need is a Billy Beane of Education.

Related: Baseball and the Parts of Speech

Where the Palace of Wisdom is Loaded with Vice

John Lancaster’s review of The Road of Excess, Marcus Boon’s book on writing under the influence, appeared in the January 6, 2003 New Yorker, and the review provides an effective, short introduction into drug use in writing as well as the journalistic impulse to too easily categorize, stereotype, and generalize. Associating addictions with occupations simply creates a stereotype. It’s probably true to say that alcoholism travels promiscuously in sales, but this doesn’t mean that alcohol is notably absent from other occupations, nor that all who work in sales are alcoholics, so what does the adage gain us in understanding either addiction or sales? Addictions transcend occupations; we find them everywhere. We may be living in the Age of Drugs, since we also live in the Age of Anxiety. Lancaster points out that most of the drugs we associate with addictions are late 19th or 20th century inventions. But while drugs addict, not all addictions are to drugs. Boon’s title comes from William Blake’s “The Proverbs of Hell,” found in Blake’s long poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The complete line is “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” But Blake wasn’t talking about drugs. He was talking about contraries. When Salvador Dali was asked if he painted while on drugs, as if that might explain surrealism, he responded, no; and asked in reply, “Why should I take the drug; I am the drug.”

Lancaster attempts to level the hyperbole, claiming that beyond the classic cases frequently referenced, attempts to associate drugs with writing usually miss the train we’re actually on. Then, he adds a final paragraph, which unfortunately drags jazz and drugs into his discussion, to support his anti-climactic claim that drug use has, after all, influenced the arts, particularly popular music. “The story of dope-fiend writers is interesting, but the history of dope-fiend jazz musicians is the history of jazz,” Lancaster says. Dope is not the history of jazz, any more than alcohol is the history of any occupation. Drugs have seeped into all socio-economic demographics of our society. Should we say that steroid use is the history of baseball? In the end, the average writer is no different from the average carpenter, who rises early and starts pounding nails, not beers, while the writer is pounding keys. Of interest with regard to Lancaster’s review are the letters found in the January 27 New Yorker “Mail,” Sue Mingus emphatically insisting that her husband, the famous jazz bassist Charles Mingus, listed by Lancaster as an addict, “was not a heroin addict,” and she eloquently argues that Lancaster “perpetuates myths and clichés and reveals little of the nature of creativity.” Another reader wrote to deflate Lancaster’s reference that listening to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue approximates the heroin experience. The reader claimed that the Kind of Blue album came after Miles’s addictions, seemingly a question of fact; but, in any case, the year we saw Mark McQuire and Jose Canseco hit back to back homers in the King Dome – did that approximate for the fan what it’s like to be on steroids?

As pervasive then as drug use, are the associations we make about its use, and so we were not surprised to hear JazzWax weighing in on jazz and popular music drug use in yesterday’s Sunday Wax Bits. Keith Richards’s recent memoir, Life, provides a fresh example of the JazzWax point that popular music’s business plan has always promoted the glamorization of drugs. But Lancaster also pointed out that writing that is about drugs is usually best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is wrapped in humor. We’re not sure we can take Richards’s entire memoir seriously, for it’s a memoir meant to sell a life, and if the story of popular music is about something other than popular music, it’s about an addiction not to drugs, but to money, which reveals itself in exploitation and adulteration, a watering down of goods and needs to wants and consumptions.

Spring Reading List: The Double Dream of Baseball

We awoke this morning in Portland to a snow folks looked forward to like opening day. Alas, Portland will have no opening day this year, for Portland baseball was at the end of last season kicked out by soccer.

In the notes to John Ashbery’s “The Double Dream of Spring” (1970), we find he’s taken the title from a painting by Giorgio de Chirico, but neither the painting nor the book appear to have anything directly to do with baseball, though Ashbery does mention a “ball of pine needles” in his poem “Summer.”

This got me thinking of a Spring Training reading list, pastime reading while the players are warming up in spring training and we await opening day. The whiffle ball bats and balls are still in the bucket in the back yard. Never did bring them in for the season. The cold tempers the bats.

Anyway, to the Spring Training reading list:

At first base, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952). “I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing…Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand.”

At second, Ring Lardner: Haircut and Other Stories. My Scribner paperback copy shows a UCLA Student Store date of Feb 1, 1964, ½ price off $1.25. It’s falling apart. I hadn’t opened it in awhile, and this morning found a Mariners ticket stub at page 141: Seattle Mariners vs Cleveland Indians, Thursday, August 1, 2002, 7:05 PM. Aisle 132, Row 26, Seat 10. “If all the baseball writers was where they belonged they’d have to build an annex to Matteawan” (“Horseshoes”).

At third, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990). You can’t wait to get home, but then “The war was over and there was no place in particular to go.”

At shortstop, Bernard Malumud’s The Natural (1952), mainly because of the error of Hollywood’s ending, and we want to get the story right.

We’ll put the poets in the outfield: in center, The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (1967), “Writing is exciting and baseball is like writing”; in left, 100 selected poems by e. e. cummings (1926), “in Just- / spring / when the world is mud- / luscious…”; and in right, The Happy Birthday of Death (1960), by Gregory Corso: “Herald the crack of bats! Hooray the sharp liner to left! Yea the double, the triple! Hosannah the home run!” (“Dream of a Baseball Star”).

Behind the plate, Glory Days with the Dodgers, and Other Days with Others by Johnny Roseboro, with Bill Libby, (1978). Out of print and rare – I read a library copy. This book is a good story of what can happen and often does when winter follows the glory days of summer.

And on the mound, Ball Four: My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Big Leagues (1970), by Jim Bouton. “To a pitcher a base hit is the perfect example of negative feedback” (Steve ‘Orbit’ Hovley to Bouton).

It’s a good game, baseball, and if you can find a ballpark that’s fairly quiet between innings, and it’s a warm evening – and if you can or you cannot, you’ve a book to wile away the time, like some outfielder without much to do, because Koufax is on the mound, well, there’s no better way to spend a few hours when you’ve “no place in particular to go.”

Wall Street Journal Springs Honorifics from Sports – Cut in Pay?

Messres and Mesdames: Fans at Chicago Day at White Sox Park between ca. 1908 and ca. 1925.

Mr. Jason Gay, sportswriter for The Wall Street Journal, has just announced that The Journal this week will begin dropping honorifics in its sports section pages.

This means that instead of “Mr. Piniella, after kicking his hat and dirt in the direction of the first base umpire, then pulled the first base bag from its mooring and tossed it down the right field line,” we’ll get “Piniella,” without the “Mr.,” and then the rest of it.

The timing of the WSJ decision seems right as we enter baseball spring training season, and we wonder if the WSJ editorial style change, yet another concussion to the prestige of sports, will change baseball’s position as the country’s number one sport honorific – its status as the national pastime.

We briefly entertained the idea of honorifics here at the Toads blog (Mr. Dylan; Mr. Shakespeare), to pick up the slack, but Mister isn’t much of an honorific after all if you consider that it originally was used as “A title of courtesy prefixed to the surname or first name of a man without a higher, honorific, or professional title” (OED). In other words, to designate the bleacher bums. “Hey, Mister, mind gettin’ your dog out of my beer?”

The word Mister used to refer to one’s occupation: Shortstop Mister. But that shouldn’t mean that we need to call Derek Mr. Jeter. In any case, only in some special cases is the use of Mr., or Mister, or Sir, an honorific, for Mr. adds distance and denies familiarity. More from the OED:

1722 H. Carey Hanging & Marriage 8 Squeak: Pray ye, Mr. Stubble, let me alone. Richard: Ay its Mister, is it?

1888 J. W. Burgon Lives Twelve Good Men I. 440 ‘Well, Mr. Burgon?’‥‘Mister at the end of 20 years!‥I wish you wouldn’t call me Mister’.

1993 S. McAughtry Touch & Go xxii. 174 Well, Mister Bighead, we’ve both been there, Bucksie and me both, so up yours.

We wondered too if WSJ writers get paid by the word, and, if so, if dropping honorifics means a cut in pay, yet another blow to this country’s number two waning national pastime, newspapers.

Photo “Messres and Mesdames,” at Library of Congress.

Super Bowl Debriefing: the Tribal Culture of Television

McLuhan explains that the printing press created the individual, while television returns us to the tribal. No one’s on the margins watching television. You’re either in or you’re out, and games on television up the ante. “Games are popular art, collective, social reactions to the main drive or action of any culture” (1964, p. 208). Art is magic, transference, transubstantiation of the base metals of our daily lives into something beyond us, beyond the daily bread and the process that brings bread to the table. Literacy, McLuhan argued, created individual point of view, eliminating the tribal view that was all inclusive. Games return individuals to a tribal mode, creating a “situation contrived to permit simultaneous participation of many people in some significant pattern of their own corporate lives” (p. 216). Games on television are a nonliterate art form.

Turn on the TV, put the game on, and join the crowd. The TV screen is a mosaic of dots compelling audience participation: no knitting, no reading – everyone’s paying attention. TV works like a cartoon drawing; the viewer sees only a few of the many dots and must fill in the rest. TV is all at once and ongoing, unlike a book, which is sequential, like a long train ride, each passenger in a private, individual seat. TV performs its violence by capturing the viewer, who can not turn away.

McLuhan explains why baseball is individual and literate and a poor game to watch on TV while football is tribal and all inclusive and trumps baseball as a TV sport: “The characteristic mode of the baseball game is that it features one-thing-at-a-time. It is a lineal, expansive game which, like golf, is perfectly adapted to the outlook of an individualist and inner-directed society. Timing and waiting are of the essence, with the entire field in suspense waiting upon  the performance of a single player. By contrast, football, basketball, and ice hockey are games in which many events occur simultaneously, with the entire team involved at the same time. With the advent of TV, such isolation of the individual performance as occurs in baseball became unacceptable” (p. 284). The players in football are non-specialists (compared to the players in baseball). The team moves at once, together, in the same direction. All the players are viewed on the screen at once – this is almost impossible to do with a TV camera at a baseball game.

Baseball is a snooze on television, while football is an ecstatic TV game. Baseball is slow, the game of languorous summer, like reading a book. The reader can put the book down and pick it up again later; there’s no clock, so there’s no need for an official time out. In baseball offense, the players sit in the darkened dugout like unread pages in a book, while on the TV gridiron the all inclusiveness is all involving as both offense and defense assume their roles simultaneously.

The popularity of baseball is declining, as reading is declining, and for the same reason. Football’s ascendance in popularity parallels and mimics what’s happening in the culture, the increasing need for a game that is all inclusive, tribal in nature, and an all-at-once experience – a game that is nonliterate.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: New American Library.

Baseball Breaks Sound Barrier

Not only is the globe growing warmer – it’s getting noisier, too. Deniers of these facts were not at the Triple-A Portland Beaver baseball game last night. Nicholas Carr, in his influential Atlantic essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” argues persuasively that frequent Internet use, chasing links like shagging balls in an increasingly remote outfield, disallows drinking deeply from the Pierian Spring. As Pope discussed in his “An Essay on Criticism,”

“A little learning is a dang’rous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, And drinking largely sobers us again.”

But Carr’s argument is that we’re losing the ability to drink deep, what he calls “deep reading.” We agree, and not only that, but try concentrating at a baseball game these days. Ballparks have been getting noisier, and the noise louder, and the activity increasingly distracting, for some time. Why?

At the Beaver game last night, a balmy summer evening, the temperature at artificial turf field level a hot 90 degrees at game time, we settled into our seats behind home plate. The onslaught began, and we don’t mean on the field.

If the pitcher is not in his windup, the music, the canned noise, the unintelligible mumble of the ballpark announcer, the electronic sound bite gadgets, all fill the air, the pervasive noise preventing any kind of thought, shallow or deep; and count out the small talk between innings, a running discussion of the game’s progress, or any play by play commentary. There must not be a single moment of relative quite at the modern ballgame.

We recall an old Twilight Zone segment. A mid-nineteenth century cowboy is transported to modern day New York City. Never mind the many inventions that might startle him; it is the noise that proves fatal.

The quietest moment of last night’s ballgame came during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner, a moment of peace as all rose and quiet fell on the field and the first purples tinged with pinks crept up in the sky over the left field seats – the song a lovely, unaccompanied and traditional rendition by a local vocalist. The rest was noise.

Albert Camus on the Economic Collapse

RefugioAn old friend from our South Santa Monica Bay days writes, “Did I hear that right? 5 day forecast for around here is in the upper 80’s.  Visibility for miles.  Air quality is wonderful. But, this is January.”

In the mornings we went surfing, and in the afternoons we played whiffle ball in the yard or in the street. Maybe we walked to the five and dime for a pack of baseball cards, but if there were no good cards in the pack there was still the bubblegum, the smell like a perfume. Summers we camped on the beach at Refugio and for days wore nothing but our swim-trunks. 

Camus Lyrical and Critical EssaysWe are reminded again of Camus’s “The Sea Close By”: “I grew up with the sea and poverty for me was sumptuous; then I lost the sea and found all luxuries gray and poverty unbearable” (p. 172). And this, from “Return to Tipasa”: “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer” (p. 169).

Camus, Albert. (1970). Lyrical and critical essays. Vintage Books: New York.

The weightlessness of existentialism

Early yesterday, reading Nick Paumgarten on “The lives of elevators” (New Yorker, April 21), about a person stuck in one for forty-one hours, we were reminded of the weightlessness of reading and writing. The video, from the Kafkaesque security tape, is a work of art Warhol could have made; or Becket might have written a one-act play, but would have omitted the piano score, though the tempo is perfectly counterpointed to the Chaplinesque speed of the fast forwarded film. Of course, we also thought of John Cage: “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else” (“Lecture on Nothing,” Silence, p. 119).

Later, at the Triple-A baseball game in a cold, near empty ballpark, a woman in the row in front of us turned around and asked if we had a pen. She seemed surprised when we said yes, and pulled the pen out of our jacket pocket, handing it out to her. She was a few seats away, down the row in front of us. There was no one else around. She was bundled up for the cold day of the game, in wool cap, and she had brought a full pack of incidentals to the game, to help pass the time, the way some people do at a ballgame, but no pen. She got up and walked over, smiling, and took the pen.

The person stuck alone in the elevator is essentially weightless, can neither rise nor fall, cannot change seats. There is no exit. He pries open the doors to find a cement wall. He is a character in Sartre’s No Exit, sans the other people.  

Take a piece of blank typing paper. Fold it in half, then in thirds. Place the folded paper in a pocket with a pen. You never know when you might get stuck – in a station at the metro, waiting anywhere – and it will not be nearly so irritating thinking you might like to be somewhere else. Pen and paper provide one with a play against the angst of any existential waiting game.

Baseball and the parts of speech

Opening day of baseball should be declared a national holiday. Today’s the big day. In our area we’ve experienced snow flurries, rhubarbs of hail, and sleet, wind, and everyday rain this past week. But now the sun is supposed to make an appearance. Yet we know everything remains imperfect. We know the sun will not shine on every game. And we’ll let Malcolm Gladwell worry about baseball and drugs. We’re concerned about baseball and the parts of speech.  

E. B. White encourages us to write with nouns and verbs: “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place” (p. 71). William Zinsser agrees, admonishing, “Most adverbs are unnecessary” (p. 69); and “Most adjectives are also unnecessary” (p. 70). But sage advice can mislead. Francis Christensen, in his book “Notes Toward a New Rhetoric,” views the game differently, quoting from John Erskine’s “The Craft of Writing”: “‘When you write, you make a point, not by subtracting as though you sharpened a pencil, but by adding.’ We have all been told that the formula for good writing is the concrete noun and the active verb. Yet Erskine says, ‘What you say is found not in the noun but in what you add to qualify the noun…The noun, the verb, and the main clause serve merely as the base on which meaning will rise…The modifier is the essential part of any sentence’“ (p. 4). 

We may not catch the parts of speech as they fly over our head or roll between our legs, yet they are always visibly in play. From most seats, a fan can’t tell if a pitch, upon delivery, is a fastball, a curve, a slider, a splitter, a cutter, a knuckler, a screwball, or a changeup, not until we see what the batter does with it, and even then we’re often unsure. Yet knowing the pitches and observing how the pitcher-catcher battery mixes them up against the batter is the best way to watch a game. Pitches are like words. There’s hardly time for a sentence from the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand to crossing the plate, but from windup to swing is a complete thought.  

We had the opportunity a couple of years ago to speak with Dave Niehaus, the voice of the Mariners. We wondered how he was able to call each pitch: “Freddy taking his time, now ready, shakes off a sign from Wilson, reads another, gets set, and here’s the pitch – fastball on the outside corner for call strike one.” Or it could have been a slider, or any of the other eight basic pitches of baseball. Niehaus delivered his answer in an anecdote: when he was broadcasting with the Angels, he said, owner Gene Autry came into the box one night after the game. “You called a great game tonight, Dave,” Gene Autry said; “I’m just not sure it was the same game that I saw.” 

Another time we were invited to watch an inning up in the broadcast booth. We sat next to Ron Fairly, LA Dodger first baseman of the 1960’s, who was keeping box score with a pencil, in a thick, oversized scorebook. There was a laptop in the booth, and a stats expert who worked it, feeding Niehaus and his sidekick Rick Rizzs notes and numbers they might fit into their commentary, but Fairly was keeping score the old-fashioned way, one pitch at a time, marking essentially the effects of each pitch. The broadcast booth framed a particular view of the game. The open window framed the field like a camera, directly behind and up from home plate, omitting the fans down the first and third base lines, thus forcing a sharpened focus onto the field of play. The broadcast booth afforded an enhanced view of the field, a very different view from any other seat we’ve occupied in the ballpark. 

We write for an audience, even if imaginary, but if you are going to call a game, you must block out the game the fans are watching, and call your own. Some coaches encourage pitchers to stick to the fastball and curve. Others admonish avoiding screwballs and changeups. Most pitchers specialize in only a few pitches they use repeatedly, mixing the rotation so the ball comes at the batter with surprise, and modifying with location and speed, depending on the age and condition of their arm – fastballs often lose their pizzazz as the arm ages.  

In the 1960s, in Los Angeles, roofed in blue, Dodgers fans often took their transistor radios to games to listen to the play by play by Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett. One learned some of the tricks of the game. A homerun flies quickly out of a ballpark. “Homerun” adequately describes the hit, in the time it takes the ball to clear the fence, yet Vin Scully knew, as Christensen and Erskine did, that writing is “essentially a process of addition” (p. 4). For Vin Scully could be heard on the radio still talking about a long fly ball to deep right center field, Mays going back, way back, to the wall, it’s gone! – the ball having flown over the fence some time ago, the slugging Dodger already rounding second base. So it goes with writing as with baseball. There are tricks built into the skills. But now it’s time to call it quits for the day, quit writing, that is, because there’s a whiffle ball game starting up out on the block, and we don’t want to miss the first cut – it’s opening day!