Sunday, December 21, 2014

Lit

I read Mary Karr's memoir, The Liar's Club, about a month after 9/11.  I remember this because I bought it in an airport to keep me occupied on my first flight after the horror.

It did keep me occupied.  Very good book.  I keep a list of books that I think are worth recommending and The Liar's Club is on it.    I can't remember much of the content other than her childhood was difficult; her parents more than just a little quirky and her parents' relationship more than just a little atypical.  When I found out that the author was a poet I was not surprised. More than the content I remember that she could create an image the way I think a poet does.

Karr wrote a second memoir called Cherry which I did not read, but when I was at a library book sale a few weeks back I spotted, Lit, the third memoir--about Karr's post high school years--and picked it up.

This one was not so extra.  Karr still writes well and sometimes you just shake your head at how she can make a scene so clear with language and metaphor.  But Lit did not seem to me to be consistently well written.  However, more than the style or writing, I found the content off-putting.

Lit begins with her journey to college; stops and starts there, goes onto her marriage, motherhood, bouts with alcoholism, and throughout, her journey toward God. The journey toward God part was foreshadowed nearly from the beginning.

Initially Karr depicts herself as more than just an atheist; but someone who considers the idea of a God absolutely ridiculous.  When attempting to recover from alcoholism she is told to believe in a higher power. She reacts then as if the counselors are suggesting that she believe in pelicans or cheese cake.  Yet the reader can sense that where we are heading is a realization that God is a superpower and it was praying that "saved a wretch like her."

I was not convinced she had been saved after finishing the book. I think the scars from having a wild mother and witnessing a crazy--if loving--parenthood are still in evidence.

Besides I am not taken by those who explain their irresponsible behavior--however self deprecatingly--as a function of some victimization.  Mary Karr's childhood was tougher than mine, but she has some real gifts.  One is that she writes well. I understand that this skill is something you need to hone and the industry involved is considerable. But she had the tools to start with. Second, she is a looker and that is a break she got that could not have hurt her along the way. Some of her college mentors and Cambridge friends were wonderfully supportive and loyal.  Perhaps she earned that, but not everybody has a Walt in their lives. Her first husband, while described as a bit of a cold fish, put up with some outrageous alcoholic behaviors and sort of seemed to me to be in love with Karr withal.  So, I found the book a bit too kvetchy.  She still can string together words --she can use slang and the king's English seamlessly in the same sentence.  Her ability to use yiddish expressions, for someone who I have to think did not hear a whole lot of yiddish growing up, is a reflection of something--my guess is that she both reads everything and can absorb all.  Another asset that gave her a leg up.

I could not sympathize with Mary Karr in Lit.  We have all had some bad breaks. Every single one of us can point to a deep bruise from parenting that we wish were different even if we were blessed with good souls as parents.  However deep the bruise, it does not justify irresponsibility.  And the just-you wait-you-will-see-that-praying-to-a-higher-being-will-be-your-salvation I could do without.  I pray in my own way and believe in my own way.  It won't, in and of itself, result in publishers/benefactors sending me money (as she intimates occurred when she was nearing rock bottom).

 I wouldn't be surprised if her next memoir is about how she realized that God was NOT the answer, but that romantic love is.

In sum, if you have not read The Liar's Club I suggest you go out and get it. Really excellent. But I cannot recommend this sequel with enthusiasm.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Illuminating

For those in my tribe, tonight is the fourth night of Hanukkah.

I read a note today from a friend who sent me a card about her recently passed dad, and how he had orchestrated several beautiful hanukkahs.  Knowing her father even to a limited extent, I am sure he did and did so with love for his family.

My parents would also gather my brother and me around a menorah and sing the prayers each night.  I am far less likely to so conform. This year I am two for three, having lit the candles on the first and second night, but forgot last night. I think my box of hanukkah candles filled with one year's worth of wax has lasted three years now.

Last year Hanukkah, coincidentally, fell out on Thanksgiving weekend.  And I had travelled to Florida to be with my dad for Thanksgiving. So we got to light a candle or two together.  He was at that point not really able to enjoy my presence because of the absence of his lifelong companion, my mother.  Very little he had shared with her, when he had to do it without her, seemed to illuminate the darkness.

My friend wrote today that her dad was an amazing guy--and I had only met him a couple of times but from my perspective he was.  Like my father, he was a guy who tried as hard as he could to illuminate the darkness for his family--at hanukkah and at other times. In my dad's case, it was ironic and sad that Dad could not find a way to illuminate his own darkness and I was unable to help out.

All our days are illuminated, but sometimes we are too busy to see the light, or are consumed with sadnesses and healing bruises to see anything but darkness.  What we can do during hanukkah is think of it metaphorically.  It is a time to try to illuminate the darkness for our families and extended families and sweethearts and friends, and just about everyone.  The story of Hanukkah is about a rebellion against a ruling group that attempted to impose its mores on the Jews and extinguish what Jews considered to be their essence, their emmess/their truth. The holiday celebrates the emancipation from the suppression of light.  In that way, it is illuminating and should encourage us to attempt to brighten the days for everyone.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sweet Home Alabama

I am in Auburn Alabama on this football Sunday.  I have some business tomorrow at Auburn University.  It is my first time here.

I've been in town for only half a day but thus far the town is very impressive.  I am staying on a street called, appropriately, College Street.  Across the way from my hotel is a beautiful looking library.  Down a little bit beyond that is what I imagine was the very first building on campus. It is majestic and it is in front of this building where the sign for the university is displayed.  I took a stroll to a CVS and saw in the distance the football stadium which looks as professional as NFL facilities.

What readers of this blog might be most interested in is my experience in an establishment called Halftime.  It may seem like frivolous to some, but as anyone who read the Madness of March knows, I have written about sports fans and am one myself.  I arrived early enough today to watch the games and scouted out a place that had "the ticket" before I left Boston.  The ticket is the NFL television package that allows establishments to broadcast all the NFL games on football Sundays.  Halftime has the ticket. So there I went.  Above the bar, five televisions were broadcasting five different contests.

What was interesting to me was that here in Auburn Alabama I sat next to a man wearing a Tom Brady jersey who knew more about the Patriots than I do.  To his left were a couple swearing their allegiance to the Green Bay Packers. To my right was a man whose knowledge about all teams seemed encyclopedic and he was parked at noon central awaiting the 3 pm Detroit Lions game. And to his right was a fellow bursting alternatively joyously and with frustration as the fortunes of the Carolina Panthers ebbed and flowed.  Behind me was a very sad fellow who was from Erie Pennsylvania and watched unhappily as so called Johnny Football (aka Johnny Manziel) played like a pop warner substitute in the Browns-Bengals game.

Within twenty feet there were reps from many places east of the Mississippi.  What's more the conversation throughout the game could have taken place in hundreds of taverns that had the Ticket across America.  There was no difference about anything in Halftime than there is in places I have been to in Boston or Chicago or Buffalo or New York or New Jersey or Maine or anywhere.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tiers

I had, at one point, become a decent competitive tennis player.  At my level I had won a number of consecutive tournaments, and had a string of victories against strong USTA players rated at my level.

I saw an advertisement for a tournament for those 45 years and older.  I was 48 or 49, in good shape, and had had the successes referred to above. So, I signed up and figured this would be a whole lot easier than beating the 20 somethings and 30 somethings who typically played in my league.

Very wrong. These tournaments were populated by former high school and college players.  Very strong players who, as time went on, kept their competitive energies active by traveling to these age-level tournaments.  I did not know this when I signed up.

As I warmed up with my first round opponent I saw that I was in for trouble. This guy looked good. My tennis game was about getting the ball back. I was a retriever who could find a way to stay in points and then when the opponent was tired from a long rally see him deposit the ball in the net, or get out of position so I could hit a winner. I figured that I would have to be at my retrieving best to have a chance against this guy.  And I was.  The first point itself took twenty or so shots.  And for each point I chased down the balls and retrieved as many as I could.  It was as good as I can play.

And he killed me. Destroyed. 6-0, 6-1.  He must have fallen asleep in the game I won.  The guy was just in another league.

In these tournaments, you have only an hour between matches if you are victorious. As the loser I had all weekend. So I went into the locker room and took a long shower.   Sat in the steam room. Dawdled. I came back outside to the courts to see how the guy who had pummeled me was doing in his second match. I figured this guy would win the tournament.  He just was great.

When I got to the courts, I saw his match was over.  He had been shellacked 6-0, 6-0. So the guy who destroyed me 6-0, 6-1, had been clobbered by someone else.  And I had had a winning streak going against very competitive players for quite a stretch.

So, the point is that in sports there are levels. And the amateur folks like me, have no real sense of how good the really good players are. When we yell at our tv screen at someone who we think is underperforming, the likelihood is that this underperforming object of our wrath--is great.  He or she is just playing against someone who is a level up.

Annually, I find myself following the Division 3 football championship tournament. Division 3 does it right. They have a tournament at the end of the year which involves the top 32 teams in the country.  And then each weekend beginning around Thanksgiving they play a one and done tournament.

This year I had an added interest because the Massachusetts Institute of Technology--the school that makes Harvard look like a third tier community college--had had an undefeated season.   There is a quip that it doesn't take a rocket scientist to play football. Well, (and this is not original, I read it in Sports Illustrated a while back) the MIT guys ARE rocket scientists--or at least rocket scientists in training.  Yet they were undefeated and were invited to participate in the Division 3 tournament.

The Engineers won their first game of the tournament with a thrilling overtime victory.  Then they went to play Wesley College in their second round.  Wesley won by over 50 points.

Fifty points!  The MIT Engineers had had an undefeated season and won a playoff game and in the second round lost by fifty points to Wesley.

Today Wesley is playing in the semi finals.  The last time I looked they were losing 42-0 in the first half.

This phenomenon of significantly different levels of skill is likely a reality in all fields: Teaching, Medicine, Lawyering.  You think you are a great lawyer.  Well, you may be. But someone else makes your ability to make sense of the law seem primitive.

Yet in sports it has seemed to me to be more glaring.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

eppur si muove

Eppur si muove

Sixty five laps around the track, a memory that is better than decent, and a tendency to read more than the average bear.  How is it that I had never come across eppur si muove.

I figure I have seen it, I must have--in one class or book or another--but it never stuck before.  And that is remarkable only because it stuck to my consciousness like the mother of all glue when I saw it, in all places, on an espn blog a few days ago.

Didn't know what it meant of course, so I looked it up.

It seems as if Galileo was forced by those open minded folks who brought us the Inquisition (descendants of those who brought us the Crusades), to take back his claim that the earth revolved around the sun.  They insisted that the opposite was true.

Eppur si muove.  And yet it moves, Galileo, allegedly said.

There are truths.  Whether we can explain them or not.  There are truths and when we try and suppress these truths the long term, if not the short term, damage is inevitable.

Go ahead and claim that the sun revolves around the earth.  Tell yourself that 2 and 2 is 5.  Try and suppress the truth.

Eppur si muove.





Monday, December 8, 2014

What About Never

What About Never, Is Never Good for You? My Life in Cartoons is, as one might expect, a funny book.  It is authored by Bob Mankoff who is a cartoonist for, and cartoon editor of, the New Yorker magazine.

The book is about half memoir and half examples of cartoons.  The cartoons are the better part, but the writing is witty as well.  He talks about his parents, start as a cartoonist, creation of the Cartoon Bank, and how to compete for the New Yorker cartoon contest.

I have a New Yorker cartoon-a day-calendar and every one in ten makes (or could make if there was enough room) the refrigerator.  One of my favorites is a picture of the grim reaper at a cocktail party speaking to an attractive woman.  The woman says to the reaper, "I must introduce you to my husband."  Another favorite is the cartoon from which the book derives its title.  A man is on the phone looking at his calendar and speaks into the receiver.  "Thursday is out." he says, "How about Never. does never work for you."  Apparently, the quip has been appropriated by various vendors.  The author illustrates this by including a reprint of an advertisement for a thong, with the "how about never, is never good for you" part written on it.

The author is appropriately self-effacing and I like that. And he really is funny as he describes the various stages of his professional, and sometimes, personal, life.   I recommend the book, but not if what you want is a conventional memoir. This is as much a collection of cartoons as anything else. The book will probably be fun even if all you do is read through the cartoons.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Who's In.

It will be


  • Florida State:  Despite just eking out victories all year long, they showed something tonight beating Georgia Tech.  It was only a two point win, but they had an ability to answer almost everything.  And they are the only team in the FBS that is undefeated.
  • Oregon:  They had a second opportunity last night to beat the one team that beat them this year, Arizona. And they did. They did not play as well as the forty point spread would indicate--and often looked sloppy.  But you can't leave out the champion of the PAC 12 when they beat the only team that defeated them this year.  I do think they are the weakest of the four.
  • Alabama.  I am not an Alabama fan. But they win. Their one loss was to Mississippi at Oxford where they lost by only 6. True, their game against LSU was not impressive and it required overtime, but I don't see how you can leave out Alabama--though I sure would like to.
  • Ohio State.  I wrote earlier on Saturday that Ohio State would find a way to beat Wisconsin today.   I did not think they would beat them by over 50 points.  Urban Meyer is probably the best coach in college football.   Ohio State should leap frog over TCU and Baylor and get into the playoffs.  OSU obliterated a good Wisconsin team tonight using a third string quarterback.  Don't be surprised if Ohio State wins the tournament.
TCU and Baylor will not be happy this afternoon, but FSU, Oregon, Alabama, and Ohio State are the best four.  I would be surprised if the committee announces any variation on Sunday at 1230 eastern.

Howard Schnellenberger coached the Miami Hurricanes to the most exciting victory in college football history--a 31-30 upset of the University of Nebraska on New Year's Day 1984.  The Hurricanes, ranked fourth going into the game, were declared the national champion afterwards.  At a college all star game a few weeks later, Schnellenberger was asked if he thought a playoff system would be a more fair way to determine a champion.  He said, it would, but it would not happen in our lifetimes.  I, and all college football fans--even those from TCU and Baylor--are happy that Coach Schnellenberger, now 80, was wrong.