Saturday, July 31, 2010

illegitimate child

I put the radio on in the morning for background music while I read the paper. There is a station that plays classical music which I enjoy, not because I am anything of a classical music expert, but because it is soothing background for my contemplations. Periodically on the station an announcer interrupts the music flow to tell us listeners about the history of the piece. My feeling about these interruptions is that the shorter they are the better. Rarely, but sometimes, I am interested in the name of a piece if I had been paying enough attention to it to appreciate it expecially. More often, I would just assume that the music be continuous.

Yesterday morning, I am here as I am each morning on my perch on the deck drinking my morning drug, reading and letting my issues and the world's do their poorly choreographed dance in my head. The music is interrupted by an announcer who tells us who've tuned in about the next piece to be played. It is a lengthy interruption spiced up, he thinks, because he goes into a detailed bio of the early life of the composer. The composer I hear was an illegitimate child. His mother had travelled to south america to avoid the stigma attached to her child's origin.

My cerebral meanderings had been interrupted by the announcer's decision to go into the biographical narrative, but when I heard the composer described as an illegitimate child, I stopped for a longer spell than usual to consider the label.

Do you think there is a statute of limitations that prohibits hanging the arrogant bastards who first considered this notion and then hung a label on it. Illegitimate child. On what pedestal of wisdom sit the omniscient to so describe anyone.

I was born three years into my parents' marriage, but what makes me legitimate has nothing to do with the decree of the state of New York. I either earn or don't earn my legitimacy as I become an adult. Illegitimate child is an oxymoron. And those who attempt to subjugate others on the basis of a capricious grid of right and wrong have lost any claim to legitimacy.

I know the stigma attached to being "illegitimate" is not what it once was. Still, the phrase exists, we know what it means, and it should mean nothing.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

scar tissue

Last summer it did not get hot in Boston until the end of July. This year, it has been hot nearly every day since May. So I sit this Sunday morning on my deck, barefoot in jeans and no shirt, enjoying the few hours of the day before the humidity will drive me into an airconditioned space.

I've got the newspapers stacked up on the table beside me and my feet are propped up on a chair that's facing me. And I see it, and sort of smile.

What I see is the very first scar that I ever got. I probably don't notice it more than once every three years because it has faded some and is in a spot where the bone leading to my toe can obscure it. In 1955 while wading, reluctantly no doubt knowing me, in the kids area of the pool, I scraped the top of my foot on the coarse bottom of the pool. Had I been swimming with the big kids on the other side of the fence instead of forced to stew with the wusses my age, this never would have happened. It's not unlikely, though I'm not sure, that the scraping was the result of my trying to circumvent the authorities and wiggle around the fence.

I can't recall exactly what happened, but I think it started to burn and bleed and some lifeguard or other agent of the pool told me to get out. They applied something on it. Eventually the scrape closed, but I had myself a little scar in the middle of my foot. And it's still t/here.

I've got a bunch of other scars too. On my chin, under my lip, on my wrist, under my arm--a remarkable accomplishment which occurred when the seat in a makeshift wooden phonebooth gave way, and I seared my arm on an exposed nail as I skidded to the ground.

I think it is a good thing to notice scar tissue every once in a while. The question is to what extent do you dwell on it.

Last night Jon Lester was pitching a perfect game for the Red Sox going into the 6th inning. He recorded the first out in the sixth and then got the second batter to fly to center for what should have been an easy second out. The outfielder dropped the ball. My cat Pumpkin could have caught the ball in his mouth, but the outfielder dropped the ball. The next batter hit a homerun for the first hit of the game. The Mariners went on to win the game.

The center fielder probably feels miserable today. Big scar. His error cost a teammate a chance for a perfect game and led to a team loss. The question is, to what extent will he linger on the cost of the error and stare at the scar. Probably be a good thing to be more careful the next time he catches a ball, but will his confidence erode because of the episode, will he think he doesn't have what it takes, and will his game suffer.

Athletes have to have short memories. Otherwise they will always dwell on their scars. But I think the challenge to remember but not linger and brood about our scar tissue is a reality for all who want to enjoy time and life. Some scars are tougher to shed than others, but we all have had accidents and sometimes have been responsible for them. The toughest scars to shed, I believe, are not those that are visible but those that we construct when we dwell on the ones that are.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

the path of least resistance

The problem with taking the path of least resistance is that you're likely to get to a spot where you shouldn't be. And also it can be difficult getting out.

The story of the Miami Heat grabbing three superstars has been on the sports talk shows over the past week. The great (and make no mistake he is great) LeBron became a free agent and signed with the Heat. It comes out that he and two other free agents conspired to become free agents at the same time, and then sign with the same team creating, instantly, a powerhouse. There was nothing illegal about what they did, but there sure were many who spoke negatively about what they'd done.

The ploy does not really bother me, but I'm not sure it enhances my view of the three stars. I used to play pick up basketball at the health club where I am a member. I don't anymore, partly because they removed the courts and replaced them with every machine known to health clubs each with its own personal television. But I wouldnt be able to play anyway. No matter what I do these days I hurt something or the other. Played tennis last night and added, just today, to the treasury of a local chiropractor and my neighborhood Walgreens.

When I did play there was a tall lanky fellow who typically if not always acted a little bit like LeBron. The fellow was tall and could just hang around the hoop and swat the ball away from players 6 inches or so smaller. He was okay otherwise, but not really special. If I played him one on one (when I could walk) I would slaughter the guy as I could still shoot at one point and if he came up to guard me I could go around him like he was a piece of furniture. But in a four on four game he was the MVP. Whoever had him knew they were getting all the rebounds and many garbage baskets. The thing about this guy was that whenever we chose up sides he was not content with the configuration unless he could almost guarantee a victory.He'd look at the sides and then do a trade making sure there was no chance of a loss. I always preferred to play against him even if it meant losing a game and having to sit out the next contest. It was more of a challenge. What does it do for you to win when you've stacked the teams. What is the point of enjoying competition if there isn't any.

Professionals are different of course. they can earn more money if their teams win. However, these guys are loaded, winning a few extra thousand dollars for them is liking picking up pennies on the street for us. So, the reason why LeBron et al did what they did was to ensure they'd win. They created a path of least resistance.

So, if they win, so what. But if they lose, a big what.

Had a friend in college who sadly has passed. We both took Astronomy as did my brother. Astronomy required a lab. My brother says to our friend, "What do you think of this Lab?" She says, "I'm shooting for a D"

My brother and I still get a kick out of this. If you shoot for a D you will likely get it. Then you're stuck with a D when you could have, or at least might have, earned an A.

I think LeBron took the path of least resistance and it probably will be relatively easy to play this year. I am not sure he will enjoy the view when he gets to the end of the season.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

It's f#*king raining out.

On Tuesday night I was driving back to Boston from Stockbridge on the Massachusetts turnpike. I stopped at a rest area and walked toward the indoor food court. It was raining, not drizzling, but not a downpour. I did not feel the need to run.

Out from the food court emerged a young family. A man, probably about 26, and a woman about the same age. The woman was carrying an infant. As he walked away from the protective roof of the rest stop, I heard the following:

"It's f#*king raining out."

He didn't say it as if if he was particularly horrified. It sounded like he didn't really want it to be raining, and so it was not quite like a weather report, but it was not an utterance that you thought would be followed by a mad dash to the car. And in fact there was no mad dash. The threesome continued walking. The only other thing I heard was his wife's sober rejoinder.

"F#*k." she said. And then the couple with the infant continued to move through the parking lot.

Am I a prude? I don't think so. I have banged my thumb with a hammer now and again and spewed some words meant to be expurgated. And, just for example, I can clearly remember the Giant-Patriots Super Bowl game, when my Patriots went into the game with an unblemished record. And I can clearly remember the Giants drive when Eli Manning went back to pass and then, abetted, by at least one egregious hold, and likely three holds, threw a pass up for grabs which was caught by a bench warming receiver who secured the ball against his head. This play preceded the score that ended the Patriots perfect season. I think it is a fair bet that what I spewed at the conclusion of that play will not be in any sermons this weekend, regardless of your denomination.

But still. What's with the omnipresent modifier.

In the Madness of March I describe one fellow I overhear on a betting line. He is describing the meal he has consumed at a hotel's buffet. Chicken ala king, peach pie, salad bar...whatever the item, the fellow modified it consistently with the same adjective. Pick a noun, any noun.

I have just completed President Obama's Audacity of Hope. It's no page turner because the content matter while important is not always engaging--at least not to me--but the author's ability to select the correct word to match his thought is remarkable. Brilliant really. His vocabulary is extensive, but the words he chooses are not so chosen to impress, just to express. I marvelled at how often he seemed to pluck just the right words to describe a nuanced perspective.

Ages ago I was hired to teach a course in vocabulary. I took the job because I needed one. The result of having to learn the words I was to teach was that I was able to think more effectively and express myself more efficiently.

If all you have is one adjective, then you are sort of limited in how you can conceptualize.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


So, I get an e-mail from Eleanor in September that she and Larry will be in Boston for a conference in October and we should get together. We arrange to meet downtown at their hotel. We laugh our way through dinner recalling old stories and fond characters and reminiscences. Their son Greg will be married in December. This will be the last of their three kids to go down the aisle. I'd seen Greg once since he was a tot, but my most vivid image of him is when he was 2 and attempted to push a bowling ball down an alley. Larry had to do the funky chicken dance half way down the alley because the ball otherwise would never have made it down to the pins. I'm not positive, but I think we were tossed out of the establishment after that.

Every once in a while I marvel how an act of kindness, or what seems to be an insignificant gesture can have a dramatic effect on one's life. In 1976 I was living in a duplex that Larry and Eleanor owned. We students lived on one side, and Larry, Eleanor and Christopher--Greg's elder brother, lived on the other side. Greg was not yet born. Larry and E had bought the place while we were living on the one side and let us stay on as their tenants once they moved into the other side. We became good friends. We were contemporaries. Larry was a doc completing his residency. E was not only raising Christopher but getting a nursing degree and MBA, not to mention redecorating the place.

My roommates were law students and they took the bar exam in July 1976. They were ready to leave town and start careers or vacations. I still had about a month more work left to complete my degree and, significantly, had no job on the horizon once that was done.

So in August of 1976 Larry and E suggested I just come on and move in with them, rent free, until I finished up and could find work. They rented our student place out to some other doc, let me haul my belongings including my own phone (in case one of the schools to which I'd applied were to call) and I moved in next door.

I had applied to at least fifty schools by August 1976 and had a varied assortment of rejection letters to show for the effort. By the end of August I was essentially done with the dissertation but still did not have a place to work. I'd lined up some part time teaching, but that was all. Larry and Eleanor told me not to worry about it, and just stay with them until I could find work. They were unusually accommodating. There was no quid pro quo. They just were good people and friends.

In either late August or early September I went for a run around Delaware Park. When I came back perspiring through their house, Eleanor told me I'd had a call from SUNY Fredonia, a small college 50 miles southwest of Buffalo. I'd not applied to Fredonia so I was unsure of why I was being called.

And here is how serendipity works. Someone at Fredonia had quit at the last minute. The dean there was in a frenzy to find a quick replacement. He called the local university center, University of Buffalo, and coincidentally reached my adviser, who mentioned me as an option. My adviser gave the frantic dean my number and Eleanor picked up the phone and told me to call. This was at a time before answering machines.

I got an interview and got the job. I had five happy years there, earned tenure, and then went on to my present work at Northeastern.

We recalled this event over dinner and again they pooh poohed their kindness. Eleanor was a big sports fan and had read my book. She enjoyed it quite a bit--or at least said she did, and had bought a few copies for Greg who is now an unusually successful basketball coach and some other friends interested in sports.

Around March Madness this year I get an e-mail from Eleanor telling me that Greg's high school team won the state championship. Then I get another one telling me that she is at the final four of the NCAA. She sounds unusually happy.

In late April I receive another note from her, but this one is a forwarded note. The kind of letter you get on e-mail with a message that you are supposed to forward to ten friends. This was a terrifically upbeat message about how if you knew you had only a short time to live, what would you do, who would you call. It was the type of seize the day message that you want to pin to your bulletin board to make sure you don't squander time.

I jot a quick note back to her telling her how uplifting that note was and that I am grateful that she sent it out to me. I am in the library doing something I think is important when she posts a response that I retrieve from my laptop.

The response informs me that the seize the day message came to her coincidentally, but is particularly relevant for her. Right after Gregory's wedding she went for a ho hum check up and was told that she has gall bladder cancer.

I am, of course, startled by the news. I write a quick note back wishing her well and then bolt to my car where I keep an address book that I hope has Larry and Eleanor's number. I reach her about a half hour later.

She is upbeat. I ask her what she is doing. She says they are just finishing dinner. "Well, how are you?" I say.

She gives me the lowdown. When I ask, hopefully, about the prognosis she says she will be lucky to be talking with me in two years, and the doctor who diagnosed the problem had said it could be as quick as 6 months. Still E sounds like a trooper. She is taking chemotherapy and she is going to the shore with the whole family in June and then they are having their traditional July 4th celebration. I tell her, genuinely, that if anyone can make it, it is she.

I write to them when they are at the shore and I receive, again, an upbeat response. "Feeling a little beat, but the kids are here and we're having a blast. Weather is great..." etc.

I write on July 4th knowing that it is a big day of celebration for them. I am surprised when I don't receive a note and became concerned that the situation had deteriorated.

Today I am worrying about something relatively inconsequential--will the garbage men pick up this huge bookcase I have put out.

I go to check my voice mail and hear the beeping sound which indicates that I have a message. The message is from a stranger who says that she is a friend of Eleanor's and would I give this caller a return call.

I do.

And she tells me that on July 9th, yesterday, my friend Eleanor succumbed, six months after she was diagnosed.

I'm unlikely to have a better friend. This is the third contemporary of mine who has passed in the last several months.

Seize the day.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

steady gaze

In President Obama's book, The Audacity of Hope he writes, "I find comfort in the fact that the longer I am in politics the less nourishing popularity becomes...and that I am answerable mainly to the steady gaze of my own conscience."

I like the book. Sometimes it's work and often I wonder if I like it primarily because I tend to agree with him on what he is writing about. I am not finished with the book yet, but the line I refer to in the first paragraph is, to me, especially meaningful.

We are all answerable "mainly to the steady gaze of our own consciences." And the extent to which we can maintain that gaze and respond to our conscience, is a measure of our character. I think that I do this relatively well, but I have my moments when it is work, and heavy lifting at that. Yet it is a good guideline for me to employ.

Of course one's conscience has to be well calibrated and this, itself, requires a tune up now and again. Pretty easy for the settings to be conveniently altered so that a gaze at one's conscience could justify all sorts of careless and inconsiderate behavior. I can actually feel myself flinch when I recall an episode when either the calibration was off and I was under the illusion that my behavior was consistent with appropriate behavior OR, more irregularly I am happy to say, I did something that was inconsistent with what I knew to be wrong when I did it.

No medals for me or anyone else for acting within the confines of one's conscience. Being conscious of one's conscience and acting accordingly is what one should do, like saying thank you when appreciation is called for, or taking courageous action when it is unpopular. Still it is tough work and I am aware of my transgressions. Judy Collins entitled a book, Trust Your Heart. When asked why she so entitled the book that way she said simply, "When I didn't trust mine I found myself in trouble." The heart and the conscience are attached meaningfully. Trusting the heart is a good method for keeping one's conscience tuned.

I hope our president keeps his gaze as steady as he suggests he should and trusts his heart to ensure that his gaze stays steady.

World Cup

I've been watching the World Cup this past month. Like many american sports fans, soccer--or football to the rest of the world--had not captured my attention or satisfied my enthusiasm the way other sports have. Yet this world cup, and to some extent the last two cup competitions, have made me understand some more about the game.

Americans talk about soccer being low scoring and slow. Yet I wonder how many of these same fans would understand baseball had they not been reared in this country. Like soccer, baseball can be seen as slow and some leads in baseball, like leads in soccer can appear to be insurmountable. It's not quite the same because even a 5-0 lead in the fifth inning can be overcome, whereas a two goal lead in the first half in soccer can seem to make watching the rest of the game a waste of time. (Yet the American soccer team overcame just such a deficit in one of their matches. And yesterday in the semifinals, Uruguay nearly overcame a two goal deficit in the last two minutes of their game with the Netherlands).

Often I read books while I am watching sporting events. Between pitches in baseball, plays in football, and timeouts in basketball I read whatever book I am in at the time. I find it pretty easy and a good time to do the reading if I am otherwise occupied doing other things. I tried to do this yesterday while watching the Holland/Uruguay match. Could not do it.

And this I think is the appeal of soccer. The more you watch, the more you realize that every play is significant and could lead to a scoring opportunity. If you just watch it now and again it seems like many times the ball is just being booted around. But try taking your eye away from the screen during any time except for injury time outs and you could miss a scoring chance. Also, since the games are so low scoring, any scoring chance is a big deal. Unlike basketball when a final score will reflect many made shots, in soccer all play is like sudden death because any one goal can force the opponent to play catch-up even in the first minutes of a contest.

Still the game does not do for me what it does to the zealots in other countries who fanatically watch the games. But I can see the appeal. A buddy of mine has a son who is home for the summer looking for work. He couldn't get a job but finally managed to get the low man on the totem pole morning and early afternoon hours at a bar in Cambridge. Well, the kid is raking it in as the multi-cultural denizens of Cambridge are packing the place.

So, for American sports fans who tend to dismiss soccer as an unfathomable allure, imagine a south american asking you what you see in baseball. Imagine that fan shaking her or his head after your explanation and saying, almost condescendingly, "I just don't get it." Then try to watch the world cup game this afternoon or the championship contest this Sunday from the point of view of someone who wants to get it. I think you will.

P.S. I wrote the above this morning. It is now 430 pm and at 330 I was to meet a colleague at the Starbucks on campus. The Starbucks here is a large facility as Starbucks go. It doubles as part of the student union. It is separated from the food court section and rectangular in shape about the size of a NBA basketball court. Usually, even during the school year there are many vacant tables and chairs for students or whomever to sip their coffee and check their laptops. In the summer, the Starbucks is often close to empty. However, today when I arrived to meet my colleague, I could not get into the joint. It was jammed with students all facing a giant screen that was showing the world cup game. In the adjacent huge food court it was also packed with students and faculty rooting for the combatants. When Spain scored there was a roar akin to the roar that one hears in Sports Books in Las Vegas. I was once in the same space when a Red Sox pitcher, Derek Lowe, was about to, and indeed did, pitch a no hitter. It was a Saturday so maybe the comparison is not apt, but the place was nearly empty then.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

independence and anomie

On what must have been a Wednesday during my December 1973 holiday break I went into Manhattan to see some Broadway shows. We didn't have any tickets but figured we'd wait on the lines for half priced shows that met our student budgets. We really scored that day seeing That Championship Season in the matinee and then Pippin in the evening. We splurged nearly breaking our bank accounts even with the discounts paying something like 15 bucks a seat, but were in the orchestra down low for both shows.

I liked That Championship Season, but Pippin--which I'd known nothing about previously, touched and left a mark on my heart.

Usually it takes me a while to get the lyrics to a musical and one performance won't do it. An example is Evita. I saw that with my brother and minutes afterwords he was laughing recalling lines that I'd never heard or understood until I bought a recording and listened to it many times. But with Pippin, I got it right away. Maybe it was because I was 23 at the time and identified with a character who in his first appearance sang a song with a refrain that I thought was right on target.

"Rivers belong where they can ramble.
Eagles belong where they can fly.
I want to be where my spirit can run free.
Want to find my corner of the sky."

Several lyrics from the show surface now and again, but the one that has seeped into my consciousness regularly this weekend is the line not from the beginning of the show, but from the end when Pippin realizes:

"I'm not a river or a giant bird
that soars to the sea
and if I'm not tied to anything
I'll never be free."

I have often thought of myself as very independent. According to my folks I was that way even as a toddler. But the gap between independence and anomie is, at once, not large AND cavernous.

Anomie--that sense of being disconnected and isolated and, "not tied to anything" may seem desirable, but if I have learned five things in my 60 plus revolutions around the track, one of these five is that independence without genuine connectivity is an illusion. Being genuinely connected, heart to heart, is emancipating. Of course artificial connectivity can create an illusion of being emancipated--and then subsequently you find yourself tied up in knots. But truly being connected, I think, that is what makes one independent.

Firecrackers are likely to start bursting any minute now in downtown Boston. A lot of noise and a lot of revelry as the Boston Pops cranks out Stars and Stripes forever.

Those truly celebrating independence are holding on and allowing themselves to be held.