Baseball, the Canned Crowd, and the F Word

At first, I couldn’t find the Dodgers on TV last night, the second game in a series with the Giants in Los Angeles beginning the 2020 shortened season; apparently wasn’t available on the MLB channel in Portland. The Mariners were on the local Root Sports channel, and I was glad to hear the same folks doing the play-by-play as if nothing has changed. Then I was surprised to find the Dodger game on some obscure cable channel. I watched an infield grounder, the batter thrown out at first, a routine play, and then I heard it: Canned Cheering, a canned crowd.

To be canned is to be thrown out, maybe deriving from the US English garbage can. The 2020 season, delayed about four months by the pandemic shutdown, is being played in stadiums full of empty seats, no tickets sold, unless you count the selfie cutouts available from the Dodgers. That must be where the noise is coming from.

If you’ve ever played a game of street or backyard whiffle ball, or a game of over-the-line in the local park, you might know you don’t need an audience to enjoy baseball. Rules vary depending on the venue – over the house is a home run, but a foul ball over the fence, falling into the street, is an automatic out.

“I’m the Dodgers. Who are you?”
“I’ll be the Giants, Juan Marichal on the mound.”

The game is on, all a foot, the fantasy as real as real ever gets.

Because Major League Baseball as viewed from the stands or television is not exactly real. The real game is played behind a facade of hero, dream, and cleanliness. Maybe the canned crowd was brought in because of plays like the one in which Dodger Joc Pederson, on his way to being thrown out at first in the fanless season opener, doubles the F Word while running down the line, his voice fairly clearly picked up by the TV mics in the quiet stadium and broadcast into living rooms around the US – where, what, no one ever uses the F Word?

Respect is born out of shame, shame a form of control. Language is contumacious; it swells and breaks and rolls like the restless ocean. Words are turbulent, irrepressible. At the same time, cussing is often the evidence of a lazy tongue. That is why I decided to omit the F Word from “Penina’s Letters,” with the exception of the discussion in the chapter titled “Henry and the Punctuations”:

“The experience of war can not be told in words,” I said, “but when F-words fill the cheeks with froth, a fascist has infiltrated the mind.”
“Who the fuck talks like that?” Bucket scrunched his eyebrows over scowling lips.
“My friend, Henry,” I said. “It’s a game we play.”
“Clever,” Gabbia said. “But getting back to the common soldier, surely words like fuck and shit are as common as cigarettes and coffee. Part of his mess kit, I shouldn’t wonder.”
“That’s right,” I said. “And, like the mess, rationed.”
“But surely the unfixed tongue is one of the few freedoms the foot soldier feels, and in the fire of the fight, is a weapon he can unleash to gratify his fear.”
“To be frank, no,” I said. “But, the foot soldier does make efficient and effective use of his F-word vocabulary.”
“Do tell,” Gabbia said (148-149).

Photo: With my brother John at a Dodger game, September, 1975. Photo by Susan.

Vintage

The only place for this is here,
where vintage plumbums inkling
at a ridiculous price for what
you threw out, paid to have
hauled off, to the ground sea.

Established then when demur
removes memory, and in place
restores smell, sound, touch in
a space without echoes, and no
logos, and especially no pathos.

Argument’s end finally comes.
No parade, no waves, not a lick
of fanfare. No cause to celebrate.
No reason to continue, no
purpose in saving this or these.

Notes on Jessica Sequeira’s “Rhombus and Oval”

Notes on Jessica Sequeira’s “Rhombus and Oval” (117 pages), 2017, What Books Press, The Glass Table Collective, Los Angeles:

Rhombus and oval” is the title of the lead piece in this collection of stories by Jessica Sequeira, a translator of Spanish and French and a writer. The text of twenty-one stories runs 112 pages, each story from 3 to 9 pages long. They are fictional short stories.

What is a fictional short story, and why write or read one? “I used to work at a translation agency,” we learn from the narrator of “A journey that leaves no trace.” We should not confuse the author of a work with the narrator of a work, but toward the end of this second story in the collection, we hear, “I was tired of being a medium, of having words pass through me. Now I wanted to create.”

Fifteen of the twenty-one stories were previously published in small magazines. “In the rose garden” appears in Hawansuyo under the title “In the Rose Garden: A Tale of Researching Ribeyro,” and the story concludes with an interview conducted by Jessica Sequeira with the Peruvian writer Jorge Coaguila, a specialist of Ribeyro. The piece was published in the book Sounds and Colours Peru. The story provides a clear glimpse of Sequeira’s style, where genre expectations might be mixed together to form new perspectives. Other stories in Sequeira’s collection appeared in Berfrois, Glasgow Review of Books, Queen Mobs Teahouse, and Entropy.

For a long time, The New Yorker magazine opened, after “The Talk of the Town” section, with a fictional short story or two. I used to read them. I remember looking forward to seeing a new Donald Barthelme story. The May 24, 1969 issue featured his “At the Tolstoy Museum” (including odd pics, drawings, and diagrams). Barthelme’s story was the lead piece, immediately following “Notes and Comment.” Following the Barthelme story was “The Corner,” a short story by John Updike. But the reader was not told these were fictional short stories. The writer was identified only at the bottom of the piece (and in the table of contents). Today’s New Yorker subscribers can access all its past issues in the magazine’s online archive. Of particular interest in older issues are the ads, which often look today like fiction, though at the time, readers may have considered them real. Today’s New Yorker short fiction piece has been moved farther back into the magazine, usually just ahead of the critics.

I’m not arguing cause and effect here, but now I spend most of my New Yorker time reading the non-fiction. I make exceptions; if I see a Roddy Doyle story I’ll read it right away. We might have learned by definition non-fiction is true and fiction imaginative, or not true, though fiction may contain truths, while non-fiction may, through errors of omission or commission, be mistaken or otherwise fallacious. Neither fiction nor non-fiction should be confused with “the news.” The New Yorker, a weekly, is not a news magazine, though some articles may comment on or analyze what’s been going on lately. A fictional short story is by definition imaginary, and any resemblance to the real disclaimed as purely coincidental, but it’s possible an unsuspecting reader might take a fictional short story as non-fiction, and a non-fiction piece as imaginary. Crossing that threshold back and forth is maybe one characteristic of how fiction works. At the time it was first broadcast, many listeners believed Orson Welles’ radio play “The War of the Worlds,” about a Martian invasion of Earth, was really happening, was real news. That the broadcast was in fact fiction made no difference to those listeners who at the time believed aliens had landed and were on the move. Today’s audiences often seem as easily duped.

Deliberate fake news is a form of fiction. Fiction, like non-fiction, is an attempt to persuade – to persuade, if nothing else, that what you are reading is in some way real and true. The more we read both fiction and non-fiction, the larger and stronger our antennae for discerning the real from the unreal. Actual news (to the degree there is such a thing) is neither fiction nor non-fiction. The news in no way should attempt to persuade. To persuade is to argue. There should be no argument in the news. Statements of fact may be used in persuasive arguments, but standing alone, these statements are not claims of viewpoint. To the degree that the news is factual, there can be no argument, no reason for any kind of persuasive means: pathos, ethos, or logos. Fiction may be considered anti-news. No promises are made, no guarantee, no warranties. Ratings are of no consequence. There are no sponsors, no ads. But why then are some books banned, others censored or abridged? Dust jackets are covered with persuasive means. Read me! Why?

We might consider reading fictional short stories part of our daily experience. We don’t need to ask what anything means. It’s enough to observe, pay attention, and go about our day. What is the experience of reading one of Jessica Sequeira’s short stories? We might find a hint of this experience when the protagonist of “Conversation outside El Pastizal” decides to satisfy an obsession by trying to get a closer view of a building complex: “…I began to make my way down the path. As I continued it seemed to grow increasingly narrow, the air increasingly thin. At some point I even found it difficult to walk. But at last I reached the end.” But instead of satisfying his curiosity, he experiences “Something you can’t fathom…a flickering presence, inexplicable, beyond the known.”

One of the characteristics of Sequeira’s stories includes densely packed paragraphs that both detail and enlarge setting and plot. In a few pages, the story expands like a bubble made of soap blown through the small hole of a wand. The bubble has a short life drifting with the breeze, soon popping into spray. Most of the stories are told in the first person, and characters appear from nowhere, around a corner, as if by random, the narrator working, on break, taking a coffee, walking, thinking, observing. An exception, “The Hypersound,” begins, “Under normal circumstances Leo never would have visited the sauna.” Something is apparently out of place, a character introduced, and a setting suggested, and we’re on our way into the story, just like that. In the story “Bouvier,” on the other hand, we hear, “I was still studying then, and in those years, the great debate carried out in journals of anthropology and at congresses concerned the value of direct experience against secondhand analysis. Bouvier, my supervisor, was firmly in the camp of those defending experience. He considered it important to be out in the field, writing as elegantly and clearly as possible, openly incorporating oneself as a first person in the description.” Sequeira strikes an interesting balance between experiential description and analysis of that experience. Almost always in the background lurks a mystery shrouded in surreal overtones. But as in the best surrealism, the details shine with clarity and control. The writing is concise and not rambling, yet each turn may surprise: “Perceptual experience is what matters, I know; with big data you still only key in searches for things you expect, predetermined coordinates. But what if perceptual experience turns up something really ‘unbelievable’, which doesn’t sync with consensus reality?” Then you might have the occasion of a fictional short story.

In “On the island,” we get another view into Sequeira’s predicament and solution: “I knew he was interested in the interaction between subject and object, the form in which a literary or artistic work can comment on itself or call attention to its conditions of production or industry.” The stories in “Rhombus and Oval” do contain dialog, but not in any sense, for example, like Henry Green’s fiction. The paragraphs are thick blocks, though aligned left and not justified, and the reading is a bit slower than the slim volume might seem to promise. The tone sounds formal, without being academic, polite, creating distance, in spite of the close first person so prevalent. The writing style is consistent throughout: clear and concise, effective and efficient, the vocabulary accessible, the sentence structure mixed, always purposeful. “What convincing words can I use?” the narrator of Bouvier asks. At the end of “Inflamed eye,” we get another glimpse into the world of the fictional short story, why it’s written and read: “Just like the mouth with red lipstick, however, it returned to him from time to time when least expected – a vision that was unsettling, out of place – a reminder that other worlds exist.” And we are reminded of the collection’s epigram: “What would it matter, what would it change if these pages were written in Buenos Aires?” In the story “Limbo,” we get this: “There must be an infinity of older felines in this world as if it were a warehouse, disappearing progressively, one by one. Right now there may also exist a Jessica in the ‘real world’ younger than me. (If not now, someday there will be.) When she reaches my age, I will disappear.”

The stories in “Rhombus and Oval” are about as short as they can be, averaging just under five pages. This might be in deference, in part, to Internet reader habits, where distractions are rife and attention spans short. In fact, these stories are probably all too long to qualify as what’s been called “flash fiction.” The length of the collection’s stories might also be a requisite to a convention, or a habit, of writing that combines notes, reflections, diary entries, conversations, things seen or read or experienced or thought on the go. “Any variation could be folded into a narrative (110).” Having read some of the stories previously online, I’m interested in how different the experience of reading them was for me in hard copy form. The experience is sort of like the difference between watching a movie on TV and seeing it in a big screen theatre. Or watching a baseball game on TV and watching it out at the ballpark. But read either way, the stories are inventive, sophisticated without being pretentious or portentous, entertaining, and interesting examples each of the form of the fictional short story, particularly its continuing popularity and possibilities.

Sidewalk Cafe Table Paper Napkin Poems

img_20161109_144329Afternoon walk close in and find a cafe with sidewalk tables to sit out with an espresso, on watch and wait.

Wait for some light that might soon start to seep through a cracked world.

World War II and the Nazi army advances on Paris. You can hear artillery fluster the banlieues. Do you try for a train or run the roads south with distraught families or take a table on the sidewalk of some tree hidden rue (for you are on the streets where all is rue) and order an espresso and write a poem on a napkin:

And the poem on the paper tablecloth is perhaps as typical of the way Prevert got around in France in the min-Forties as it is of his poetry itself – a poetry (his worst critics will tell you) which is perfectly suited to paper tablecloths, and existing always on as fine a line between sentiment and sentimentality as any that Charlie Chaplin ever teetered on.¹

When I was inducted into my Guard unit, the 140th Engineer Company, in 1969, they were still packing the M1 Garand rifle. Before firing, we learned to disassemble and reassemble the eleven part trigger housing group. The M1 was a fine weapon, as Woody Allen’s Hemingway character in “Midnight in Paris” might have said, but of course didn’t – that was Paris of the 1920s. The M1 was heavier than its successor the M14, which I was introduced to at Fort Bliss, but you fired them both like rifles, sighting in and taking aim, adjusting elevation and windage. The M16 seemed a light, plastic toy in comparison; you pointed it and sprayed. Even as a kid I was attentive and sensitive to words, but it wasn’t until Basic Combat Training that I realized the unique place nomenclature played from certain perspectives – the naming of things, the naming of parts, in particular, and how, in certain circumstances, you couldn’t simply go to a thesaurus for synonyms as variable substitutes. You had to find the real right word.

Henry Reed’s poem “The Naming of Parts,” from “Lessons of the War,” illustrates the uses of proper nomenclature, and of paying attention:

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.²

Whatever you happened to be holding at Fort Bliss in the fall of that year, M1, M14, M16, the proper nomenclature called for but one word: weapon. Call it a gun, and you got down with it for 20 or 30 pushups, kissing its butt and calling out, “One, Drill Sergeant; Two, Drill Sergeant”; etc. If you dropped it, you got down with it again. If you set it aside or missed-placed it, you were accused of having a taste for self-abuse, and got down with it again.

Help Wanted: Poet – Must be good at naming things

img_20161111_121309In his November 14, 2016 Financial Page article for The New Yorker, “What’s in a Brand Name?,” a one-page gem, James Surowiecki anecdotally mentions the time Ford asked the poet Marianne Moore to come up with a name for one of its new cars. She came up with a bunch, all rejected. Sometimes, the key to naming something successfully is found in the action word sublimate. But it is called advertising. Advertisements are arguments in which attempts are made to persuade us to do something that probably won’t be good for us. So we might, for example, get Arthur Godfrey telling us what kind of cigarette is best for us. Borrowing someone’s credibility to pitch your argument is a tricky business. Scholars describe it as a means of persuasion called ethos; others may call it a slang profanity, remain unpersuaded, and know it’s best to choose your own cigarette.

“They are playing a game,” R. D. Laing opens the first knot of his Knots:

They are playing at not
playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.³

img_20161110_145049It’s fall, and soon winter will come in, and most of the cafes locally will move their sidewalk tables and chairs indoors, and it will be harder walking and wandering to find a place to sit out with an espresso in what might remain of the afternoon light (in the Northwest, the world is also cracked, but in winter, that’s how the water gets in). A certain discomfort is a necessary good for some kinds of writing.

Over the past week or so we visited several cafes for an afternoon espresso at a sidewalk table in the waning light of fall, hoping for some inspiration from the general rue for a paper napkin poem. Alas, we got no paper napkin poems. But we got some sidewalk espresso music, and enjoyed a few clean, well-lit places, and took a few pics we offer here in lieu of napkin poems.

¹ From “Translator’s Note” (1964) Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s introduction to City Lights Books The Pocket Poets Series: Number Nine, “Selections from Paroles,” by Jacques Prevert, San Francisco, July 1958, Sixth Printing February 1968.

² Reed, Henry. “Naming of Parts.” New Statesman and Nation 24, no. 598 (8 August 1942): 92 (.pdf).

³ “Knots,” by R. D. Laing, Vintage Books edition, April 1972, page 1. Originally published by Pantheon Books in 1971.