Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Wonderboy, An Elegy

There’s something marvelous and sad about Roy Hobbs’ bat. Made from a tree felled by lightning, it is the symbol of the slugger’s youth, his promise, and his fragility. He carries it around in a bassoon case, which is Malamud’s playful touch. People who run into Hobbs find it funny to see a strapping man, such as he is, schlepping such a poindexterish item.

He is so fixed on the bat’s talismanic powers he refuses to hit with anything else. When Pop Fischer forbids Roy to bat with it, Roy is miffed. He’d rather sit on the bench than part with his hand-carved love.

During that long slump “Wonderboy resembled a sagging baloney”. Roy is trying to hit a home run for Mike Barney’s son, the poor chump whose little boy is dying in the hospital. “How could he explain to Barney that he had traded his kid’s life away out of loyalty to a hunk of wood?” Loyalty is not the slugger’s Achilles’ heel, but rather his foolish pride and his desperate need to impress those who matter least. He is so blindly devoted to impressing others he never saw Harriet Byrd’s silver bullet firing his way. Hobbs is a tragic, Grecian figure. His lot seems to be irrevocably chosen. You’d almost wish he had a touch of Machiavellian wit to dodge both these silver and metaphorical bullets.

“The Natural” does not end happily as in the Robert Redford Tri-Star version. The fallen hero Hobbs waits until the angry crowd has left the stadium before he ventures into the outfield to bury the two remaining halves of his faithful bat. He is so grief-stricken, cannot bear to see his Wonderboy split asunder, he removes his shoelaces and ties the wooden shards together. He “wishes it would take root and become a tree.”

A great whim, and Malamud lets Hobbs consider cupping his hands with water as a last solemn gesture when Hobbs realizes the water would merely spill through his fingers. And yes, his youth, his chance at greatness, it all has slipped through his fingers.

Monday, September 28, 2009

O Captain! My Captain! Special Dedication to William Safire

I need to credit William Safire for reintroducing me to the essay style and giving me a deeper love for words.

When I was nineteen or so, and not the least bit interested in academics but in acting, I developed a penchant for William Safire’s “On Language” column. He had a pedantic yet charming way of delivering his weekly etymology, but I quickly fell, platonically in love with it. I had a so-so vocabulary because I didn’t take my SAT prep all that seriously and was still bearing the brunt of it, two years after I had dropped out of St. John’s University. I wasn’t perceptive to the word maven’s political slant, although I was catching onto his colleague Anthony Lewis— I had a literary rebirth in the nineties.

When enrolled in the City University system, I remember taking an English class with my first Ph. D professor. We had to keep a daily journal and write on random musings in a similar vein to the loggings I pen in this blog. I tried my hand at topical discussions, but seemed to return to the historical pedigree of words. When I arrived at Hunter College, in the Summer of ’95 and took a course on the Greek and Latin Roots of English I was hooked— lock, stock, and barrel. I relished the backstories, the meandering traces of words: Oedipus means false and that dungarees comes from Sanskrit. P.O.S.H, for example, is an acronym that means port side out starboard home. I grew, perhaps, unhealthily smitten with footnotes and wanted to sneak words from five continents into 300-word essays. My grammar was never my strongpoint, but unbridled creativity ensued.

One professor I had wrote on my paper, “You have one heck of a nimble mind, but you spend way too much time going off into tangents— stick to the meat my friend.” He also thought I tried too earnestly to outdo Chekhov. My paper was on “The Lady With the Dog”. Sorry to say my paper came up a wee bit short.

Back then, I was merely developing a taste for prose, but was really digging essays. I didn’t have all the key building blocks in place to osmotically appreciate stellar fiction simply by flipping pages. After I’d been reading for many years, and after I’d realized how truly difficult it was to craft great sentences did my preference for fiction flourish.

To this day, I am still motivated to write fiction based on real-world happenings: current events, obits, natural disasters, genocide, the absurdities of office life, all of these things drive my prose. Today, I’d like to bury a ballpoint pen for Mr. William Safire, the talented speechwriter, columnist, instigator of the famous 1959 “Kitchen Debate” between Nikita Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Richard Nixon.

Here’s to you Word Wonk.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Banned Book Week

Don't know how you are celebrating Banned Book Week, which technically kicked off yesterday, but it might be a good idea to explore your subversive side. I am going to pick up a copy of "As I Lay Dying" and "Fahrenheit 451". The former is a Faulkner classic and the latter is Ray Bradbury's tour-de-force that tackles censorship and book-burning.

My interest is of course aesthetic, but I do admit to getting fired up by the notion of reading books that are supposedly inappropriate. I will savor these two literary morsels, but I am not speed-reading to have them completed by week's end. In fact, I just might be adding Ginsburg's "Howl" to the list.

Buena suerte!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Curious Bathroom Incident

(This piece first appeared in ken*again back in the Fall of 2006)

“But that still doesn’t explain why you treat your dad that way,” Laurie says tome.

“Well, it’s hard to explain,” I say, snapping the spaghetti into the pot.

We have one of those tiny pots that long spaghetti won’t fit into unless you snap it in half. Usually I cook the bottom part first then whip the top over so that we have long strands, but she had me flustered with all the questions.

“There’s only one way I know how to explain it,” I say, “But you have to
promise to let me tell you the whole way through.”

“Here we go again,” she says, “Just make sure you don’t skimp on the

Laurie thinks I’m a monk the way I prepare things with such shameless
simplicity. She even bought me one of those brown robes, with the hood, it
hangs in the bathroom, but I won’t wear the darn thing; instead I use it as a bathmat.

“You see, my mom stopped seeing her best friend after she accidentally walked in on her in the bathroom.”

“I thought you were going to tell me why you’re so mean to your dad.”

“I’ll get to that part, but I can only tell it this way. Can you hang in there?”

“What do you think?”

Laurie had a legitimate gripe. If she was going to become an official part of the family she needed to know the peculiarities that made us the Newtons. She already knew some of the things that made us tick, which is why she still wore dresses when visiting my folks for Sunday brunch and made the effort to talk about quilts and evening bags with my mom and listened to my dad’s war stories with a straight face, even while I tickled her thigh under the table.

We’d been living together for three months before we got engaged. We really hadn’t a clue what the other was like because we had diametrically opposed work schedules. She worked the graveyard shift for a string of law firms because she made more money that way than doing her proofreading nine to five. I was still subsidized by my folks as I was finishing up my Master’s in philosophy,something that had taken three years longer than it should have. Laurie took the late shift hoping that she’d never have to see my mom dig out a handful of bills from the cookie jar when we visited them.

“It all started when my mom and her friend Molly, you know her, she’s the one who keeps thinking you’re Audrey Hepburn’s kindred spirit.”

“The one who has the beach bungalow in Ocean City, but never goes” Laurie says, “so why can’t we crash there?”

It’s true Laurie bares an uncanny likeness to Audrey Hepburn, specifically from Roman Holiday, only Laurie’s skin is bronzed, but like the star her hair is pinched back to the top of her head and it doesn’t muss as she dices the vegetables without making a peep.

“They were exchanging Christmas presents, in the middle of August, because they hadn’t seen each other in a while. It was their birthday week too. You could say they were killing a few birds with one stone. They always told each other exactly what they wanted, clipped out pictures from catalogues in fact so that nobody was disappointed.”

“Sort of takes the meaning out of Christmas, don’t you think?” Laurie

“It’s not as if she gave me my presents in August.”


Molly grew up in the very same tenement as my mother on the Lower East Side
of Manhattan. Long before it was trendy. Their building was full of Slavs.You could smell stuffed cabbage and polish sausage from blocks away. The Italians lived mainly below Third Street where mom preferred to do her dining and she received several invitations to Molly Cabella’s whenever her lanky brothers had early evening baseball games. When the Cabella boys were home, food was rationed for everybody else.

Back then kids lived for the summers cracking open the fire hydrants. My mom was a tomboy, who in her day, could rip a Spaldeen two and half sometimes threes sewers long, armed with a stickball bat. I found that hard to believe since she’s only five foot two in pumps. Molly corroborated all the stories, but then again they’d told them together, God knows how many times, so how could you be certain what was fact from fiction. They also loved to go to the local dances.It’s hard to believe they went to Webster Hall, but back then there weren’t any fire-eaters, stilt-walkers or cage-dancers and there certainly wasn’t any Techno or Tribal music, they played Polkas. The crowd was Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and all those other former Soviet sausage-eaters.

If you saw Mom and Molly together you’d think they were sisters. They hated their own so much they pretended to be real ones. One day they even pretended to cut their wrists to become bona fide blood sisters, spreading ketchup allover their wrists. My grandmother freaked out. No wonder I have such a warped sense of humor.

Now, my mom had what she happily referred to as staying power when it came to holding a grudge. When her sister Tanya didn’t intervene when Laurie, who was just my girlfriend at the time, was stripped of her bouquet at my cousin’s wedding, mom didn’t talk to her sister for three years. Mom didn’t know Laurie for more than two hours and already she was fending for her honor. This impressed Laurie, but it was the principle that mom was after.


The fact that Molly happened to be naked from the bottom down when my mom walked in wasn’t any big deal. Although, if it had been the other way around I’m sure that mom would have had a conniption. The great horror for my mom was seeing the strips of tissue festooning the toilet, acting as a makeshift seat cushion. The implication was deplorable. This was what you did in a public restroom, but in my mom’s house this was unfathomable, though I’m quite sure she did this wherever she visited, including relative’s homes, especially her sister Tanya’s.

Six months after the incident, mom saw Molly haggling with a fruit vendor. Molly was known to pull a scam on fruit vendors that involved a thumb-thrust till she punctured the melon or whatever she wanted for half price. She had about a ninety percent success rate. For that reason mom wouldn’t go food shopping with the woman, but she didn’t drop her as a friend because of it.

Window shopping was their big thing. They could waste whole days loafing outside windows admiring the displays, imagining the glistening jewelry on their fingers, fancy outfits hanging in their closets. The only thing mom preferred more than window shopping was going into those fancy shops and buying a thing or two. Molly wouldn’t set foot in Bergdorf’s or Bendel’s; it was too intimidating for her. So she waited outside with her mustard-drenched pretzel. She was always surprised when my mom came out with new toys, when she herself couldn’t even make it past the sales assistants.

Mom was in her shining glory whenever she led the sales people into believing she was a wealthy customer. She had it down pat. I know firsthand how she rejected certain items, not her style, wrong for her skin color, fragrances that were too cloying or simply outmoded.

This time however, Molly wasn’t smushing any fruit, she was instead eating a Golden Delicious right from the cart. The whole situation was flummoxing. How could she chew away at an apple, straight off the cart, from a sniffling vendor with cruddy fingernails? She chomped away without a care in the world, without even wiping it down with a Wash and Dry.

Yet this very same woman, best friends with my mom over decades couldn’t sit on her toilet seat without covering it with tissues. There had to be a good explanation for it, but mom didn’t care to know. The same way she didn’t want to know why my Aunt didn’t intervene when my Laurie got stripped of her bridal bouquet.

Instead of asking her friend or even chastising her in front of the fruit vendor she just passed on by and I nodded my head to Molly who had that kind of expression as if her feet were being trampled by an elephant but didn’t want to make a fuss.

When we got home she blamed my dad for not fixing the lock on the bathroom door, which was always coming off anyway because it was one of those cheap screw-on jobs the ones you might see lurking out in the woods attached to a wooden slab of an outhouse.

“I can hammer it in but it’s just going to pop back out,” dad said, with anail pursed between his teeth.

“You can’t do anything right,” mom said.

“Here, then take a crack for yourself.”

Dad pretended to lob the hammer in mom’s direction, but she made a fist.

There wasn’t anything for me to do but laugh. To tell you the truth I got a terrible charge from watching them bicker over stupid things like that. It was funnier than any of the comic books I read and if I played my cards right sometimes I was able to shake both of them down and get some new toys or stay up later than I was typically allowed to.

In the middle of dinner I noticed something peculiar. It really never dawned on me before, but as dad unsuccessfully jabbed at the string beans on mom’s plate because she kept pulling it away I got to thinking that my mom had her own kind of cootie consciousness. Dad stopped trying after a while then I pushed the soda bottle in front of my plate so that he wouldn’t breathe on my food.

When he was done and it was only my mom and myself I couldn’t keep from asking her.

“Why is it that you won’t let dad eat off your plate?”

Mom made that craggy face of hers the one she usually reserved for garbage detail whenever my dad and I fled the scene. She held the salt shaker mid air and I could almost hear the pistons turning in her head.

“It’s, I don’t know, just one of those things.”

“But you kiss him don’t you, it just doesn’t make any sense to me. I mean, I know I joke around with him, not to breathe on my food, but it’s all just a game.”


Two days later Molly was back over the house for tea with my mom. The two of them were carrying on as though they were still both a couple of schoolgirls.It was nice that she accepted her friend again, it was less of a burden on me so I didn’t have to feel guilty whenever I said hello to her on the streets.

Mom still wouldn’t let dad eat off her plate so I guess I overcompensated by leaving the soda bottles and milk cartons off the dinner table so that dad could have an uncluttered view.


“I hate your mom,” Laurie tells me, “that’s it, no more brunches!”

“Be reasonable,” I say.

“I am she’s not. To think with what your dad has to put up with.”

“Believe me she puts up with plenty too, it’s just, people are weird.”

“Ugh, you’re so like your mother.”

“Take for instance the way you always stick your tuna fish in my face when you know I hate it.”

“But that’s silly because it’s delicious.”

“To you, but to me it’s yuck. You never use my toothbrush, even that time yours fell into the toilet bowl.”

“Sharing somebody’s toothbrush is disgusting.”

“We all know how far our slippery slope slides. It doesn’t make us bad people, just people.”

I do the dishes with a bit of a smirk, because I hate to do them. Laurie winces noticing the rubber gloves draped over our diplodocus-necked faucet. No cold water again just molten hot.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Gorilla Marketing

If you know me on a personal level you know my passion for primates, and especially for gorillas. Though they are not as closely related to us as the chimpanzee, I have always had a special affinity for them. As a child, I had the delightful pleasure of being welcomed into my room with a smile from the great brain of the jungle. My mom had painted an image of a lowland gorilla on the door to my room and when I had the lights turned off and my eyes adjusted to the dim glow I felt as if I too was hidden in a canopy of rain forest. That image has never been painted over and is on permanent view as you enter what is now my dad's den.

I think I've always been drawn to the gorilla's eyes. They are so human, and filled with great longing. A gateway to our past.

Today, I've decided to use the bully pulpit of my blog to offer a suggestion. If you haven't done so already please make sure to vote on magazine cover of the year. This seems like silly whim, but really it says a lot about our society. There are a few interesting choices amongst the myriad of feckless images that seem forever recycled through our unfortunately low-brow culture. I don't say this as a blight on the readership because I believe there are a great many splendid minds craving quality. My potshot is directed to the media who ceaselessly tries to hammer their insipid celebrity-gaga agenda onto us.

I'm merely sharing my choice with you gentle reader. Go to Amazon and make your choice. One lucky soul will win a Ten-thousand-dollar certificate-- that's a world of great literary possibility. Make it your own.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Doctorow in the House

During a radio interview the other day, Leonard Lopate described the Collyer brothers as “upper crust packrats” and E.L Doctorow quickly interjected, as he did not like this description. His whole purpose for writing “Homer and Langley” was to breathe new life into the Collyer’s story. Whereas so many of their past accounts have gone into excruciating detail over their death, Doctorow celebrates their life, has elevated their status into the mythic realm. What struck him as horrific were the police reports from the 40s, how they hacked their way into the townhouse. Such vilification needed a human touch. Doctorow has always taken his well-earned poetic license along with him into his historical fiction forays and many critics are calling this one of his masterpieces.

I had the good fortune of watching him read the other night at Book Court, in Brooklyn Heights. Doctorow stood at the podium like a poet from a bygone era, delivering a lodestar of a eulogy. He bore a certain resemblance to Craig Lesley as he read. He started by saying that Brooklyn was a great place to give a reading with its rich tradition of scribes. “The Bronx,” Doctorow said, “Only has three of us writers that I know of: Dom Delillo, Richard Price, and me.”

He has a pleasant cantankerous quality about him like the know-it-all uncle waiting to share his treasure trove of knowledge if you are patient enough to bear with his circumspect delivery. He admitted that the end of the book crept up on him one day. He looked it over, hmmed to himself, and declared the story wouldn’t run any further. He got up from his desk, went over to the bar, poured himself a stiff drink, and celebrated.

When asked if he had done any research on the Collyer brothers he admitted to checking out a few pictures, but he didn’t want to pollute his head with facts and so opted for the mythic route. The opening line came to him, seemingly from out of nowhere, “I’m Homer the blind brother.” In the Lopate interview, the radio wonk was quick to point out to Doctorow how Homeric the sentence is and yet Doctorow didn’t even realize until he was halfway into the book. Great writers tend to bring the enterprise of literature into their own writerly junkets. The trick is to artistically pilfer so that your style shines through it.

In the past, he has also been chastised for stretching the boundaries of history to suit the needs of his narrative. But, let me just make this point clear, he is a fiction writer.

Hollywood has no problem demolishing the foundation of his stories to suit their needs. Ah, but that’s not the same as delving into history fiction. There needs to be some degree of verisimilitude. Sure but, what Doctorow is doing is taking an almost fabulist strand and running with it. Once upon a time, Dickens’ novels told a greater truth of the old England than the history books of its time and what about “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”. Am I creating a fallacy of slippery slope? Maybe. I just get tired of hearing idiotic gripes when the total effect of the work— its literary gestalt— should be the chief nugget of artistic evaluation. The words my friend, look to the words.

I am going to trust the scribe who depicts his reclusive anti-hero with “Lisztian hair” and can come up with a novel way for driving a Ford Model T into the living room. Leave the biographical notes for the academic journal.

The Brown Chair

I credit Mrs. Klerkin, my kindergarten schoolmarm, with my love of people-watching— and I guess indirectly with my wanting to become an anthropologist. But, I’ll get to that later. Maybe.

Even in kindergarten, I was garrulous. I barbed with kids about anything. Lincoln Logs rocked building blocks. Matchbox cars smoked Hot Wheels. Han Solo for president. I had opinions on medicine and that the Shah of Iran was being a meanie to his people. Okay, so maybe I was parroting my parents, but a lot of the stuff I blabbered about was highly unusual for the sub three-foot echelon.

Mrs. Klerkin sent me to the Brown Chair by the corner. She wasn’t cruel enough to make me face the wall. The edict was more of a timeout than a punishment. I think Mrs. Klerkin thought I had a great smile so she wanted to keep a gentle eye on me. And I watched fingerpainting, nosepicking, checker-hopping, Crayola-snapping, and the mulligrubs of playing house, I must say, with greater zeal than when I was actively engaged in the activities. Don’t get me wrong I was nuts for playing and pontificating, but occasionally I needed that timeout, to rewire.

I remember spotting Andrew Pichinini trying to stuff a plastic triangle through a circle and thinking boy, this kid hasn’t got a clue.

The thing that strikes me most profoundly now is that when I was evicted from my chair I settled back into the thick of things, recharged, as if nothing had happened, whereas other kids returned from the Brown Chair sullen, blighted by their temporary removal from fingerpainting society. Maybe I was the exception to the rule, the Tephlon John of kindergarten. Then again, I didn’t have to sit in the Brown Chair every day. Sometimes I was so immersed in my farm scene collages and high on Elmer’s glue I couldn’t be bothered with being deported to the other side of the room.

What else can I say, kindergarten was a glorious bi-polar experience.

No Autographs Please

As a kid, I was really into autographs. I loved the chance of stumbling upon a famous person and stopping them, dead in their tracks, to sign away their given name. I loved smelling the fresh-scrawled ink.

I got both John McEnroe and Jack Kramer’s autographs the same day while they were hitting some tennis balls at the National Tennis Center, in Flushing. Dad clued me in who Kramer was— the great champ. McEnroe, I obviously knew, but wasn’t a big fan. I was more or a Lendl and Wilander disciple, but I took both scribbled papers just the same. For anybody who knows anything about collecting, a paper signature is about the least valuable autograph you can find, unless you nab something really unusual like a personal check, an old contract, a stock certificate or the Declaration of Independence.

I have Andre Agassi’s John Hancock on an index card, Steve Garvey’s on a scorecard, Lenny Dykstra on a bat, Tommy Agee and George Foster on the same first baseman’s mitt, Pete Rose, Brett Saberhagen, Don Mattingly on 8 x 10 glossies, Ricky Henderson, Stan Musial, and Phil Rizzuto on separate balls, Craig Lesley’s book “Sky Fisherman”, Smoking Joe Fraiser on a ticket stub, Charles Schultz on an Illustration, and Lou Ferrigno— the original Incredible Hulk— on a promotional black and white photograph, before the show first aired.

I have many more autographs, but I could go on ad nauseam. I don’t really keep up with it, and yet I am not willing to part with them. Maybe I’m too lazy. Maybe I just don’t want to let go.

It’s a bit moribund appraising these items. Think about it, whatever price they fetch is kind of like saying what a share of their lives are worth. That’s not why I’m not into them now. I’m just not into material possessions as I used to be. And I haven’t gone Buddhist or Trappist Monk. I’m hooked on ideas and possibilities. And so far I haven’t found the material thingamabob that can hold them.

Oops there goes another one.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Seven Minutes in Heaven with Jonathan Ames

This is as a good a time as any to mention my run in with Jonathan Ames back when “I Love You More Than You Know” came out. Groupies lined up to stake their claim in an autographed copy. I’ll be honest, I’d never read any of his stuff so there was no way I was going to impress him with quotes from his favorite author.

Sometimes I’m really sweaty-palmed and cottonmouthed when I am in the presence of royalty. Other times I can be a bit of a jackass. I’m not sure how we got on the topic of candy bars, but I filibustererd on lamenting the fact that Whatchamacallit was a dying breed. Find me a corner bodega that’s got a box of them and I’ll trade you my lucky rabbit’s foot. The point was I had unusual candy taste. I think Ames appreciated that. When he looked at the book in my hand “Motherless Brooklyn” he got a little stinkeyed. Wrong Jonathan! Yeah, I know, but Lethem’s my homeslice.

I had the itch to have him sign it, but didn’t. Then I went on about publishing in indies. I said it was fine for him to work with the Big Houses. He’s a household name for crying out loud. I wasn’t asking him to do an air violin for my schmaltzy spiel, but I wanted him to see where I was coming from. He tucked his arms to his chest and let his pumpkin orange brows scrimp.

“Go with your gut kid,” he told me, emphasis on the go.

That’s what he wanted me to do all right, but I didn’t take the hint. I mentioned Uncle Walt self-published “Leaves of Grass” and that Joyce got bounced around trying to place “Ulysses”. I’d be in fine company if I had their stick-to-itiveness and bald-faced determination or I’d be like a gazillion other schmoes with his book collecting dust.

I came to my own merry conclusion and when I stepped off the line I could see he was relieved. But, it was better to be bugged by my mellow yellow consciousness than to shove a manuscript in his face. There’s always those humps who try to push their crappy book on a famous author. Not me.

Before I left, I freshened up in the john. American Standard urinals lined the neutral gray wall. I have a short story in Nexus, Wright State University’s journal, by the same name. It’s about a janitor who wants to make the most magnificent toilet in the universe, a flush to be heard throughout the ages.

Who do you thinks putzes in when I’m taking care of business? The author kept his distance, three pisspots away. And then I breached restroom etiquette, sidling up to the Amesmeister.

“I’m going with your advice,” I said. “I’m sticking with my gut.”


“Yeah, I think so. I’ll keep you posted.”

I could tell he wanted me to get the hell out of there, but he went over to wash his hands. He wasn’t even rushing and took his time lathering the soap onto his unique lifelines. Before I knew it, we were in a handwashing showdown, Spaghetti Western style. I washed between the crevices of each finger, cracking a knuckle every so often to the mellifluous swish of water in the marble basin. He patted his hair with water on the sides until the wings slipped behind his ears. I bopped the soap dispenser for another splotch and rub-a-dubbed. I soaked my hands until my finegrs were good and prunish. He shook his hairy wet fingers and I dried my hands along the back of arms and elbows.

I made a false start like I was going for the door and instead grabbed a roll of paper that made my hands stink like butcher paper. Ames, clearly miffed, but relieved, shuffled off and I trailed, a few paces behind him.

We didn’t say goodbye, shake hands or anything, but I have to say if I never met him in person I’m not sure I’d ever pick up one of his books.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Barbaresco VS Stout

[Hands by Martha, Photos by John]

I’ve been out of vino practice for a while now. I tend to go through cycles. I’ll admit that I enjoy a nice Hefeweizen for summertime, Sam’s Summer, Hoegaarden, and the plethora of Brooklyn Brews. Craft Beer Week just ended and I celebrated with a coffee-hopped stout from Tröegs, the toast of Harrisburg, PA.

Fall is a great time to get back into red wines, especially ones with bigger bodies. I don’t mean Napa obnoxious, I lean toward south western France. Today however, I had a Barbaresco from a producer I’d never had before. I’ve had luck in the past picking out pleasant surprises from this usually cost-heavy northern Italian commune. Now, it’s true that I nabbed one for under twenty dollars so what should I expect, and on top of that it’s from 2005 which wasn’t a bad year (stellar for Bordeaux) but one year past Piemonte's phenomenal six-year streak. I noticed somebody from CORK’d offered 95 points for the 2001 Morando. It would be hard to find anything truculent on the palate for that vintage.

I’m not big on numerical ratings and more on talking points. For me, this wine was a bit warm in the mouth— frankly, it tasted of alcohol. I purchased it from a reputable shop so I don’t think it was the provenance of the bottle in question. And it wasn’t because of lack of food. Martha prepared a gorgeous meal, pasta with fresh tomatoes and herbs, chicken cutlets with melted mozzarella di bufala. The tannins seemed very tame almost non-existent and the sour cherry flavor dissipated even as I held it on my tongue. The texture was thin, watery.

I’ll admit, I’m spoiled, but I wasn’t expecting Angelo Gaja or even De Forville. I just wanted a trace of smoky bacon, a spoonful of viscosity. Even the nose was glib, short, nondescript. I returned to my Java Head to refresh my mouth. There will be plenty of bold reds on the horizon, maybe a Bruno Giacosa or better yet a Leoville Barton winding down the road.

And The Cold Mug Goes To

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Brother Ron

“If you have one friend in life you are lucky,” Brother Ron told us, cutting the volume to Meatloaf.

Class was held in the middle basement below the gym and above the furnace. We sat on threadbare sofas, springs a-popping and we chatted about the Sturm and Drang of adolescence. We had the quintessential Petri dish of personalities represented in my class. There was the Roy Hobbs wannabe, the Burnout with Santa Monica skater locks, the fresh-pressed, Windsor-knotted Statesman, the gifted Scientist or Unibomber (hadn’t figured him out), the Pianopuss, the Dweeb, and then there was me— the cleancut lollygagger. I hadn’t fully hardened into myself. That is, there were lots of things I wanted to be. I didn’t say much the first few sessions. I was still a transplant who started in Xavier before switching over into Molloy. Still, had doubts, but I couldn’t give up yet, not with the way my elementary school principal lobbied to get me in. Molloy had this kind of irritation about letting in those who rejected them as freshmen.

Brother Ron was an amazing soul. I never thought of him as a man of the cloak, but as a human being. I’d have to say he single-handedly transformed my sophomore year. Funny word sophomore. It means wise idiot. I don’t think I had the same stuffing as the fellows in my class. They’d already spent a year in Molloy. I was merely learning the ropes. And I wasn’t ready to admit I’d made a mistake dropping out of Xavier. Later on, I’d drop a lot of things way too soon. Looking at it now through my battle-worn eyes I can make these grand assessments, but then again I still hadn’t reconciled leaving elementary school.

I attended a small Catholic school in my neighborhood. I had the same kids in my class for eight years, with a few transplants and a few émigrés along the way. When you have that kind of continuity, a big change rocks your world.

Here I was listening to this man, Brother Ron, who to me, looked suspiciously like Barney Rubble and here he was saying that in all his life he only had one true friend. Any of us would be lucky to have the same.

The Burnout was quick to interject. He had six or seven Bones Brigade brothers who would ho-ho, halfpipe, grind innumerable stairs, and wallride the Holland Tunnel if given their druthers. He knew loyalty. Brother Ron nodded his head. He had a hint of that your full of shit look, but wouldn’t belt it out. The Statesman admitted he only had three solid friends. And the jock, the Roy Hobbs wannabe, said he had three good buddies and he and his cuz were so tight that he’d have to stick him into his batch.

When it came down to me, I kept quiet. I fussed with a string of lint on the sofa. I stared at the beautiful, circumference of rust within the popped spring. If I could sneak through it I was sure to find eternal salvation. But, I didn’t morph into a Lilliputian, I remained in my mawkish frame. The Burnout let me slide, so did the Jock, the Statesmen, the Pianopuss, and even the Dweeb. But, not Brother Ron, he pushed my button to the point where I had to say something.

“I don’t know if I’ve found my one true friend.”

There I said it. It felt like I gave birth to a geeky Godzilla. The fellows spared me any further pain. And Brother Ron flipped “Paradise by a Dashboard Light” back on the stereo. I had no idea what the connection with friends was to that song, but I felt like an open wound with lots of Hydrogen Peroxide. The puss finally dribbling out of me and I was blowing on it, hoping for it to scab.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Ode to the Beautiful, Wandering Mind

I’ve always considered myself a lazy person, prone to daydream. If I’m pushed to do too many things I’m likely to do nothing, but if I’m given a little space to breath I go at my pace. One of my greatest worries is that whatever talent I have will wither and fall to ashes. But, after I read a recent study in the Journal of Cognitive Studies that actually purported the critical need for insight to have its breathing space— this excited me. It explains a lot. It gave me an aha moment.

I’m not a musician, but I love music. One of my teachers once said that I am more of a jazz improviser than a play by the sheet kind of cat. I have a natural disdain for linearity. I’ve always colored out of the lines. Partly out of sloppiness, but also because I have an alternate view of the universe cached in my brain.

I’m making a roundabout point, but that’s consistent with my improv kind of mind. You see, I sometimes need to let my head roam about aimlessly. My neurons seem to fire better when I’m playing a sport or doing something mechanical. I’ve always found great fun wiping down windows, rubbing Brasso into buttons, polishing silverware. Yes, I have my mom to thank for the polishing. As a kid, I saw her wiping down knives and forks. She didn’t freak out, thinking I’d spork out my eye, when I sidled over to join. No. She let me help her. Smart cookie my mom, using reverse psychology delegation. Okay, maybe that’s a stretch. She did see the benefit though because I built coordination and critical sensory motor skills.

More than that, I fostered a penchant for beauty. I wanted to make things shine. Joyce Carol Oates says there's nothing better, nothing more therapeutic than cleaning the apartment, a dazzling revelation from one of the most prolific writers of our time. I couldn't agree more. Believe it or not I've found an epiphany or two sniffing the lemony zest of dish soap when washing the pots and pans. I'm also drawn to writers and their characters that relish these seemingly mundane chores. Murakami's protagonist in "A Wild Sheep Chase" derives great pleasure from ironing shirts. This kind of plebeian delight rings true for me.

Ode to the beautiful, wandering mind.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Brooklyn Book Festival

The Fourth Annual Brooklyn Book Festival was kind of a madhouse, but I mean that in the best way possible. I've been going since '06 and this year lines snaked around corners. No joke. Whether you wanted to check out readings or panel discussions in St. Francis College auditorium, the Courthouse, even the Community Room was jam packed. Okay I'll admit it, I didn't stick around long enough to hear Jonathan Lethem. He went on at 5 o'clock and I'd already skedaddled. I had to catch Del Potro and Nadal.

The big highlights for me were snagging free copies of Poets and Writers back issues (don't worry I'm waiting for my new subscription) and watching a fierce contest of name that author hosted by the National Book Critic Circle. Martha Southgate blew away the comp with 30 points. She took home a cool medallion.

I did have the chance to attend a panel discussion covering Literature in a Digital Age held in the Community Room. John Freeman editor-in-chief at Granta was one of the panelists and Maud Newton moderated. Basically, the Web 2.0 has fractured and yet at the same time connected us in a more profound way. Yup. During the Q and A an audience member asked how long it will take for the U.S to have Cellphone text novels like in Japan. Nobody wanted to touch the question with an Analog nor a Digital signal, but my feeling is this, even if it does get to that point, which it will- seeing as many people totally gaga over printed books and the writers and editors who love them too made me breath with a sigh of relief.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Wedgewood Made of Cotton

My grandma won a set of Wedgewood plates at the movies back in the mid ‘40s. She went with Great Aunt Jen and two other friends to a double feature matinee. It’s not altogether clear what picture they saw. None of them are alive now to corroborate so I have to fill in the blanks. What I do know is that they saw a Joseph Cotton picture, but not one of his standouts. Something more of a B picture so obviously it couldn’t have been “Citizen Kane”, although Electra Theater showed that film every year from its inception in ’41 till the day it closed its doors in 1950. So the story goes Grandma, Aunt Jen, and the girls had been wearing out their welcome at the RKO Dyker on 86th Street. To put it mildly, they wanted a change of venue. Also, Electra sometimes played foreign stuff, Shakespeare, and artsy things. Plus, it was a few blocks closer to their homes. Except Aunt Jen of course, who trekked it in all the way from Jackson Heights.

Aunt Jen, the boss of the bunch, bought the tickets and doled them out. Grandma let her two friends take their stubs first. She took the last one and brought up the rear till the usher let them pass. After the first picture ended, some hokey Western, there was a brief intermission. A gentleman from the theater gathered the audience’s attention. He asked everybody to look over their stubs because there was a special giveaway. This was more or less par for the course, and how the houses packed them in. An old lady in a mint green sweater took home a train set. A middle-aged man in a scruffy corduroy blazer won two sets of shower curtains and a brass rod. There was one last giveaway, a set of eight Wedgewood plates.

Grandma’s eyes lit up when she saw the man holding the pink and white plate, a majestic scene of a castle perched beneath a brooding sky and tall fir trees, a lone moose in the foreground. She had eagle eyes and they were sitting up close. When she tuned into the winning number she cursed her losing stub. Her friend Lilia tossed hers on the floor. Nobody had claimed the plates and the blustery buzz of voices seemed to make the theater grow. When the man read off another number and it didn’t match Grandma’s she slapped the armrest, let out a sigh. Then she dipped down to retrieve her friend’s stub and to her amazement she had the winning number. Grandma leapt out of her seat. Lilia was stunned and Grandma held hands with her friend. But, Lilia didn’t budge. She scrunched to the back of the seat and the man on the stage repeated the number. Some people in front turned to see the commotion Grandma and Lilia were making. Aunt Jen glared at her cousin. “Get a move on,” she said.

Grandma insisted her friend take the prize, but Lilia insisted my Grandma go. Finally, they got up together and each took half. When Grandma stepped up on stage to accept the plates she said she felt like Carole Lombard. She’d never held anything so precious before a crowd of strangers. And for the whole rest of the movie her palms sweat. She worried she’d dump the plates off her lap and break them into a thousand shards.

She stayed though because Aunt Jen was in love with Joseph Cotton and if she had ever seen him walking down the street she would have stopped him right in his tracks and kissed him square on the mouth. When the credits rolled up Aunt Jen touched her finger to her lips, shushing her seatmates and Grandma’s thoughts took a leisurely drift onto an English countryside.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Noble Ground Before it Shifts

I didn’t make it into the city on 9/11. I was trapped in Queens. I’d had an unfortunate injury and was recovering— I also had very bad sunburn. I made it in the next day to see a dear friend. Ribbons of smoke were still visible from her apartment on West 10th Street. I gimped along with my cane, my left leg fastened in its protective boot. N couldn’t do anything, but laugh in her beautiful way when she saw me. She used to call me quasimoto, a little bit of everything, but I felt like that more infamous Quasimoto, the hunchback.

We strolled the old neighborhood: Tea & Sympathy where we relived London, Cowgirl on Hudson where washed down monster-thick steak sandwiches with Texas-sized Cokes, Bleecker Street Books, Magnolia Bakery, the brownstones on Jane and Charles Streets. We didn’t hold hands, but mulled over each other’s comments. If there was anybody in the world I could be perfectly still with and not have to say a word it was her, but I’m not sure how she felt nor did I want to ask.

People kept staring at me, at my beet red face peeling into something worse than a Halloween mask. I loped on cane-able, but was still woozy from seeing N.

“Why are they staring at us?” she asked.

“I don’t know.” And I didn’t. A guy passed by in a Kill Osama t-shirt. N and I both shook our heads. How the hell did somebody whip up a shirt like that— presto — in less than a day? It took 3 weeks to open up most of my mail.

When we stopped for a bite, I was helped to the table by the waiter. The manager came over, put his hand on my shoulder and asked if I wanted a pillow to prop my leg.

“Don’t go to the trouble,” I said.

“No trouble,” he said and snapped his finger. The waiter came back with a pillow and a bowl of M&Ms. N and I scooped a handful each and gobbled up before perusing the menus.

“Okay, what the hell,” N said, leaning forward. “This is so weird.”


She pinched her nose without her hands and breathed. She put her paper napkin on her lap as if it were fine linen then gingerly pulled a strand of hair behind her ear. And I munched on my M&Ms with my leg propped, feeling like an astronaut in basic training, my heart light as a balloon.

She raised her brows, giving me a clear view of her dark brown, polished eyes. I rustled in my seat. My knees locking at the joints and I had a terrible itch inside all that sweaty plastic covering my ankle. I wanted to leap up and shout it’s a miracle for no good reason. N saw my anxiousness uncoiling and tapped the table top with her lithe finger.

“Ohmygosh it’s you.”

“What about me?”

“They think you were there.”


“Yes, there.”

“They think you slinked away.”

With that I crawled back in my seat. I would’ve ducked under the table, but the circumstances, the comportment of my body, and café’s roving curious eyes kept me in check. But, what I dreaded most I couldn’t avoid, what was on her mind. Even if we got up and left I’d know she would be thinking of it and sooner or later I’d have to come clean. She sipped her glass of water and put it down with a twist. She pressed her cherubic lips together and waited.

I didn’t have the answer why we’d split apart and wasn’t ready to go into it. I was barely able to share with her how I’d ended up fracturing my fibula, but I started mulling it over. She sat in delicate, unpretentious repose.

I flashed back a few weeks earlier to the day of pathetic accident. The circumstances surrounding it were terribly embarrassing. For years I’d been teaching tennis on and off, mainly on. I gave many private lessons, but I preferred group lessons. It gave me a small crowd with which to play for. I was still somewhat active in tournaments, but had pretty much resided myself to the fact that I’d never make it onto the tour. N was going to watch me play in Luxembourg the previous summer. I had to pull out, last minute, because of a stomach virus. We ended up going to Paris. Maybe it was a sign then. Who knows for sure? In any event, tennis clubs and the occasional member/guest round robin seemed the great stretch of my career. Still, I managed to be a popular pro with a big serve and a lively lesson plan. I raced my students around the court as if they were being groomed for Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Juniors respected my game, but I think I made a bigger connection with the adults. Although I was one of them, twenty-something at the time, I was at that nebulous crossroad where I looked both younger or older and spoke as a sage or a sophomore. I had that kind of split personality. I called it being limber. I played doubles games with my students. Rushed the net and dropped back together with them for lobs. Move your feet fix your eyes I’d tell them.

Balls were strewn all over my court. They sat by the net and trailed out to the sidelines and lay scattered inside and outside the service box. Each time I bumped one I gave it a good soccer kick out of play.

On this particular Sunday, during an MTL (Metropolitan Tennis League) Clinic we had a larger than expected following. Usually 5 or 6 enthusiasts were assigned to a court which wasn’t such a bad ratio of students to pros, but with 8 on a court things had to move swiftly. A lesson had to have verve, blood, sweet, tears. That was the bare minimum. I threw in charm, chutzpah, a pretty smile, and maybe too many wisecracks. I also couldn’t help blasting a few shots for demonstration. The curse of showmanship courses through my veins. Sometimes I had the screwy feeling that it was more important for me to dazzle than coach.

I made my suicide dashes to tap back drop shots, my knuckles scraping the dirt. I parked myself dead in my tracks then let a ball glide over my head and raced it down. This was the cat and mouse game I played with my students, letting them believe they’d win, but when I needed to I revved up, charged forward, and eventually eked out the point.

My overheads rocked. Quick racquet drop behind the ear, a few backpeddle steps them wham— winner. Okay, I didn’t smoke it past them. Not all the time. But, I took bigger swings or made scurrilous grunts. The ball’s pace seemed faster than it was, a whirr of fuzz.

The eight ladies on my court copied my mechanics. Liz got it. She’d been coming to classes on a regularly basis and had her pivot and weight-shift down pat. Her knee-bend was so-so, but her timing was impeccable. Truth be told, I think she was taking privates on the side. We locked into a mini rally. Some of the new women were getting the hang of my workout. I was jumping higher, exaggerating my arm extension. One lob drifted over my left shoulder before I could get in position for it. My partner, who had the better angle, should have made the return. Not to mention it was her lesson. Nonetheless I called her off, made a leap and connected with the ball. Then I took a spill. An errant ball caused my flub and I sat on the clay for a few seconds. When I tried to get up I couldn’t. The court spun before me and a sharp bolt of pain knifed through my leg. I smelled sawdust and cheap glue. I almost, but didn’t quite hurl.

One of my fellow pros came to my rescue, crutched me over to the bench and I slapped back paper cones of water. My head felt flushed, my leg cold, and a swarm of players gathered by me. It was humiliating. Mehdi, one of the newest pros, said he’d heard the snap from over on his court. A blown ligament, he assured. A lot of rehab went with it. Somebody else told me it was a fracture. Who the hell cared for the semantics? At the moment, I was done. I’d never broken a bone in my life. I’d never had the measles. I had this odd, unsettling feeling that my luck was changing.

N and I walked off our meal. We didn’t care if we caught the traffic lights. We let almost everybody drive on by. We let couples pass us too. We watched people skeet by to the concrete island, as the taxis and SUVs blazed by, our grins widening as their shoes caught onto the curb.

“Just you wait,” I told her. “The witching moment will come.”

She knew I wasn’t fomenting ill will, mine is more of a cautionary message, a foreboding.

We never got to the breakup that day. There was so much other turf we needed to catch up on. We shared a Mr. Goodbar. She handed me the smaller crack. We didn’t mention the drinks we had at Windows on World, six months earlier. I made soft deliberate steps missing the cracks in the pavement. Until we said goodbye. Then my heart skipped as if it were about to race through traffic.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sign On

Premonitions are not my bag. But, today after a meeting with some fellow writers I’m having second thoughts. We meet every so often in a public atrium to give constructive feedback, talk books and that sort of thing. The acoustics range from lousy to nil. And it’s hard for us to bunch closely together since there are usually ten or so of us. We take turns giving a little spiel, trying earnestly to perfect the art of voice projection. It seems futile, but we are game.

As a passing remark to my fellow scribe Janet I said, “We ought to learn sign language?” She nodded her head probably to be nice. I’m often filled with random musings. Today’s session was a bit more challenging because we were forced out of our usual haunt to the madhouse, Sony Atrium which is like being trapped in an Olympic swimming pool sans water.

We took our turns, parroted dittos of things we liked or disliked, shared insights, and sometimes blanked out. Twenty minutes into the thick of things, Janet nudged me. I figured it was my turn to go, but she shook her head and pointed out a group cattycorner to us— they were signing. I’ve heard about orgs that are sign language fluent and gather amongst themselves and finger-gab till their hearts content. I’d never seen it. It was amazing. I watched and saw an exchange between two women. They flashed what I perceived to be the same sequence for about a minute. Were they having a communication gap? The sucky acoustics didn’t matter to them. Maybe it was just a hard night to focus.

Things couldn’t get worse until they did. A flood of red shirts poured in. They shouted and ran about. They tossed a football. It was like summer camp. Bedlam. By 8:30 it was damn near impossible to pay attention and I really felt like a cup of joe. The signers still eagerly flashed their signs. They sat even closer to the shenanigans than us. I wouldn’t swear by it, but I think they drifted from whatever their original conversation had been and blabbed about the disorderlies.

We’re not meeting for another two weeks and I’m already hoping we’ll get back the better, less nutso place. Here’s a thought. We’re writers. If we can’t hear so well next time— it’s inevitable— we don’t have to feel compelled to have signing down pat. There’s time. But, in the meantime we could jot our thoughts. Sit in silence, write out our thoughts and impressions and pass them around.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Summer Ends

The end of the summer makes me a bit melancholy. Listless, balmy days gone by and tucked into the crook of fall. When I was a kid, I went with my folks to the beach a lot. Sometimes just for a dip and other times we’d barge in on friends who had a spot on the bay, out past the Rockaways. There were always kids my age for me to toss a ball with, fish off the pier, or ride the boogie boards Oceanside.

The thing I remember most about our visits to the Smiths was that we’d stay with them till dusk. Eggplant waves of sky shaded above the wispy trees. Crickets chirping a mile past the walkway and the air redolent with creosote. I kept picking at the charred burger on my paper plate and nursing sips of Yoo-hoo. I could have easily slipped off to whizz firecrackers through Coke bottles over by the dugout, where all the other pre-teens dwelled, but I liked it better with the adults. I felt like I was budding into a grownup.

Mainly, we talked about old times I’d never lived through, but was eager to hear more about. Hot dogs for a nickel, pony rides, parachuting in Coney Island, it all sounded like a brave new world to me. To them, it was a touch of nostalgia. Another topic near and dear to our hearts was “The Honeymooners”, a show I’d grown addicted too. The reruns ran past midnight, but they were all new to me and wanted to catch as many as I could. Channel 11 referred to some as the Lost Episodes. Whenever we visited I played the ham— belted out both Ralph’s and Norton’s parts. “Official space helmet on Captain Video.” “Can it core a apple, oh, it can core a apple.”

If my dad tried to get a word in edgewise I’d push my eleven-year-old weight as far as it budged. Kenny, my dad’s buddy, let me play Ralph to his Norton or vice versa, whatever I wanted. And Lonnie, Mrs. Smith, would bring me another Yoo-hoo, as if I needed another sugar rush. My folks would say it’s time to go (Chop, chop) but I’d hang on for dear life. My back pressed into the stretchy fabric of my director’s chair, refusing to slip into my topsiders.

The Smiths were fun, but I had this odd feeling, even as a snot-nosed kid, that they didn’t have much company. When it was time for the final goodbye they wouldn’t let us go. One more laugh, brownie square, there was always a long lost picture to share. Lonnie would pack a goodie bag for me, complete with Crackerjacks, saltwater taffy, Pringles, Swedish fish, and baseball cards. My mother would reprimand her for being too generous, but Lonnie quipped she didn’t have anybody else to spoil.

I never thought much of this until I got to about fourteen, awkward of awkward ages. I guess I was spoiled, but I was even more spooked by Lonnie’s need to treat me in her auntie way. We really didn’t get to see the Smiths that much, only once in a while. I know they wanted to make the most of it. But, in my mind it was getting to be too much.

Nothing tragic happened to keep us from getting together. Things change. I was glad to get my break from them. It wasn’t till I was college age that I’d missed seeing them. I even mentioned it in passing what the Smiths were doing for Labor Day. Since I was home for the holiday, I figured it would be nice if we crashed in on them. That’s how we usually did it. Sometimes we brought over cold cuts, coleslaw, and potato salad, sometimes just a pie or two. And so we did, one last time drove to the Rockaways. The place looked exactly the same weeping willow greeted us by the porch and I pulled open the rusty hinged wooden front gate. The smell of beach, burnt corn on the cob, and the last embers of summer filled the air. I scratched the few prickly hairs growing on my chin. For a moment, it looked like nobody was home. Then we walked to the back deck and there, in the back, tending to a barbecue pit was a tall middle-aged man, one eye on his basting fork the other eye on his scampering kid.

“Pardon the intrusion,” my dad said.

And my mom and I followed cue. We didn’t really need to know anything else. My dad would’ve said something if he wanted to, but he didn’t. I had my first craving for Yoo-hoo, I hadn’t had in years and I licked my lips. I tasted seawater.

We spent that Labor Day at the public beach. Sand in my sandwich and a warm can of soda in my hand. I watched a skywriter streak a dusty white message across the cloudless blue. I looked for traces of the past with my bright blue future pushing forever into the sun-flecked sea.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Men in Black

Somebody did a study of all competitive sports and found that the red jersey was the most menacing. Teams that wore red had better records too. That’s all well and good, but it means zilch for tennis pros. Have you noticed the trend toward black garb? Living Legend Roger Federer has made it his signature outfit and has socked away quite a few commercials in his tennis tux attire. The ATP tour plays the “Imperial Attack” from Star Wars when Roger enters the stadium. It pumps up the fans.

Now, it seems like his comp is dressing in his style. More macho head games? Maybe. I’ve noticed that this US Open, more than any before, has more black-jerseyed baseliners. Jo-Wilfred Tsonga and Fernando Gonzalez both wore it for their fourth-round match today. Gonzalez edged the Frenchman, but is moving toward the Brobdingnagian black-shirted Argentine, Juan Martin Del Potro. Rising in their respective quadrants they might get a chance to put their punishing forehands to the test in a semifinal shootout. Gonzalez will first have to dump Nadal.

Roger still rides high in the top spot, naturally, he’s the originator. He needs to dispel the French Open Finalist Soderling. After that he’d dispose of Djokovic or Verdasco before tangling with any proshop copycatters. Not that Roger is worrying much. He’s already got his coveted 15 Slams. But, now he’s ignited a fashion fury. The workhorse has gone clotheshorse. He has to settle this last score as a matter of pride.

I’m feeling like that classic ACDC tune, which will remain nameless, would set the right mood booming throughout the Arthur Ashe sound system. Or if the match is more of a slugfest then maybe Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” would add better pomp.

Prediction: black-shirt in four sets.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Monkey See Monkey Do

Does it bother you if somebody refers to a chimpanzee as a monkey? It irks me. And it’s done all the time. I’m not always sure if it’s intentionally, but I take it personally. Primatologically speaking, they are close relatives. The Old World monkeys are closer related to chimps. Baboons and the Barbary ape, for example which are both monkeys, do not have tails and neither does the chimp. They are from different families, genus, species, and so on. It gets a bit confusing, but what is simple? New World monkeys have prehensile tails that are used for hanging and swinging around.

One reason I suspect people call chimps monkeys is because the word monkey is apparently funny. This might ring a bell from the television programs, movies, and even magazines. I once wrote a letter to the editor at Details magazine to make a stink about their referring to a baboon as an ape which they are not, but they didn’t bother to print my quibble.

When we poke our heads in at the zoo I’d like to think our hairier cousins are having a bit of a laugh at us, especially at parents who tell their kids “Look, there’s a monkey” – when in fact its Pan troglodytes, the common chimp they are looking at. Maybe this is what prompts a chimp to spit out at the gawkers or let out lengthy, but syncopated pant hoot.

They know sign language, at least have the ability to learn the skill, they are very emotional, and if you looked up documented studies on them you would see they have had incidents of kidnapping, warfare, and rape. Bonobo chimps, Pan paniscus, the more gracile, more evolved version of the common chimp tends to walk around bipedally for shorts stretches. They are experts in foreplay and have quite a sexual repertoire. With all these distinguishing characteristics you’d think these dumbbells who gape at them all the time would want to pay their respects by calling them what they are— remarkable.

I’m not saying I want to be a chimp in the afterlife. I think maybe a rock star. I haven’t given it too much thought lately, but I have taken it upon myself to stand in as the good-natured informer.

Termite-eater doesn’t roll off your tongue, but it does underscore a favorite snack choice of the African ape. In fact, they make a tool to acquire their tasty treats removing all the leaves from a branch and dig their awl into the rotted bark of the tree and pull out the goodies. Yum. They suck’m down like Gummy Bears.
I propose Primate Awareness Day. This way all the apes, monkeys, prosimians, and so-called educated apes (Homo sapiens), can have a meeting of the minds. Long drawn-out conversations on world peace, global poverty, poaching, and primate trafficking would be optional. Mainly, everybody’s voice should be heard to prevent future misunderstanding.

Order in the court I say— that category sandwiched between class and family. Who knows how long we are going to be on this planet? Forever how long that might be we owe it to ourselves to get along. We wouldn’t want things to digress to the point of a Planet of the Apes situation, no matter how much we may have enjoyed seeing Charlton Heston tortured by the gorillas.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Multi-tasking at the Open

My buddy Tomas had a special request. He asked me to do another tennis blog. So here it is.

I don’t know what your method for watching matches at the US Open is or if you’ve ever been to the event, but I have a particular modus operandi. It varies based on first week or second week matches. I take in consideration all the players I’d like to see, but also the ones I haven’t seen before. I’m also a big fan of unsung hero matches, the ones that don’t get top billing and are usually spurned to a distant court— far away from the concession stands and the restrooms.

In the first week, I tend to look out for newcomers— the fresh crop who might soon become household names. I prefer not to commit myself to a court. Court 11, for example, has a neat set of bleachers right behind the service line. There’s always crowd lined up to get their view from that vantage point. If you sit there you won’t have to twist your head from left to right to follow the path of the ball because you’ll have both players in focus, right in front of you. There’s also that slight problem of haven’t acquired the plum seat you won’t want to get rid of. Not on a single changeover.

I wouldn’t say what I have is ADD, but when I first at the matches I sometimes wander, get a feel for the tennis I want to see. I might stay for a changeover then check out another court. I might return. I caught a bit of a young American, Jesse Levine, playing Marin Cilic. Most of the crowd was behind Levine, the local. He had raw energy and raced down balls. His shots weren’t as pretty as Cilic and his serve wasn’t as solid, but I enjoyed watching him for a bit. I wasn’t ready to commit to the match just yet.

I trailed off past 13. I knew Juan Carlos Ferrero was there, and both bleacher sides were packed. I’ve never been a fan of his, but appreciate his spirited game. I’d get to him when I was ready. First, I trailed off to Julien Benneteau and Victor Troicki. I’d never seen either of them play, but knew of both. Benneteau had plowed through the first set and Troicki was throwing a tantrum when I got there. He smashed two racquets and got a warning from the chair umpire. I’d stayed for a bit and Troicki picked up his game for the 2nd set, but was still testy.

When I made it to Ferrero’s match he was already down two sets to love. I’m always impressed at the resourcefulness of fans who want to be where the action is. Some folks stand on the bleachers of the adjacent court. No shame turning their backs on the lesser match. Somebody had procured line’s judges chair, it sat unattended between the space of the next door court’s bleachers, it was practically whispering to me. I couldn’t disappoint. I got up on the seat and watched from a vertically-enhanced POV. Petzchner, the German, was giving the Spaniard a run for his money. Ferrero, from what I could see, was playing well, pounding his shots. Petzchner was cranking them with more authority and nabbing the lines. Ferrero managed to change the momentum and took the third set. Indeed, it was a good match, but I had other fish to fry.

I was in a bit of a pickle because I wanted to catch both Juan Martin Del Potro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga which were going on simultaneously. Now the grandstand and the Louie Armstrong stadium are right next to each other, but the event’s organizers have made it more of a challenge to get from one to the other. Also, there are more fans to contend with, some who have a similar strategy as mine of catching many matches— that’s why so many of those grounds passes get gobbled up.

You can a little from both matches if you sit all the way at the top of Louie Armstrong and look over the top rail down onto the grandstand court, but then you see neither match too well. My solution was simple. I really wanted to see Del Potro and I was content to catch a glimpse of Tsonga’s play. Is this necessarily a good use of my time waiting on line to catch two seconds of a match? Well, I saw more than two seconds— only a few games, but Tsonga has electricity. He blasted a few forehands so I think that was worth it. Plus, I was already technically in the stadium.

The problem was all the reserve gates in Louie Armstrong were full. The ushers weren’t letting anybody else through without tickets. Oh, yeah, tickets. I’d forgotten that Armstrong had its own tickets. So an Arthur Ashe holder like myself couldn’t get a reserved seat there, but I supposedly had the coveted— more expensive ticket. I wasn’t even using it. Hantuchova had already blown through her opponent in Ashe Stadium. In the early rounds many of the seeded women had lopsided matches.

I opted to take the back stairs up to the nosebleeds. Del Potro’s match was underway. He and Meltzer were evenly matched. For the first set anyway which went to a tiebreaker. The first chance I had I snuck down as far as I could go. Then when I spotted another, better seat, I moved down farther. I was close enough to the grip changes between strokes. A bunch of Argentines chanted “Ole, ole, ole, ole— River” which is the cheer for the red-jerseyed soccer team from Buenos Aires. The Americanos abbreviated the baseline-slugger’s name to “Del Po”. Wasn’t crazy about it, but I was more focused on the lightning fast rallies. I also noticed that Del Potro had a little difficulty with a jerky ball boy. I think the kid was flustered too and kicked the player’s towel to the back fence instead of placing it on the platform that was reserved for it.

These are some of the silly things I pay attention to. When I caught Fernando Gonzalez’s match later in the day the chair umpire reprimanded Gonzalez’s opponent for taking too much time to retie his shoelaces. It actually was ridiculous. It lasted seven minutes. Gonzo twirled his racquet between his thumb and forefinger. He was about to do some juggling before Ouanna got up to play. There were a lot of stragglers who kept pushing their way to see the match on court lucky number 13.

Before the day was marked in the books I’d also seen Lapentti, Gilles Simon, Gael Monfils, two seconds of Tomas Berdych, and that other guy, the number two seed, Andy Murray. My first visit to Arthur Ashe so far this year. Like I said I tend to prefer the outside courts, but I never turn down a good ticket.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

My Chess Grand Poobah

As a kid, I wanted to play chess like Garry Kasparov. His mastery of pins, forks, and skewers excited the nascent pawn-pusher in me. I studied his annotated games, printed in the newspaper and stayed abreast of his doings in my Chess Life subscription. What impressed me most about Kasparov was that he treated chess as a sport— he cross-trained for it. I latched onto him before he was champ.

In 1984, Kasparov was a top contender vying for the crown. Anatoly Karpov was then the Champ. The rules of title matches were much different than they are now. Some head-to-heads turned into marathons and could last a month. The Karpov/Kasparov matchup of ’84 seemed like it was going to be a washout. Karpov was already up 4 – 0. The combination of 2 draws equals a win didn’t count for their title defenses so the wins had to be outright. Karpov only needed 2 more wins, but Kasparov hung in there and kept drawing. Seventeen in a row. The Champ could taste victory but it eluded him. Finally, in the 27th game Karpov won his 5th point. He only needed one more; the contender stuck to his guns. Five more draws followed and then Kasparov took a game. The dynamics had shifted. Frustration ensued. It was like Jake Lamada taunting Sugar Ray Robinson. “You can’t knock me down Ray.” Lamada was losing, but wouldn’t kiss the mat.

Kasparov hung on, the federation called the contest a draw, and the next year Garry would rise to the top of the chess world.

He paid homage to the Ancient Greek maxim, “Keep a healthy mind and body. In addition to sparring with fellow players and his computer-based program, he put together an intensive workout regimen that included running miles and weightlifting. He wasn’t planning to run the Boston Marathon or bulk up into Nikolai Volkov, but he was steadfast in his belief in keeping fit.

Kasparov was innovative. Whereas other players stuck to book openings that accepted classical chess wisdom, Kasparov shattered tradition. He was notorious for what is called theoretical novelties— strong moves that run against the grain of established chess theory.

I’d copy some of his lines up to a point then made my own variations. Sometimes to test the waters on moves I found intriguing, but other times, frankly, because I’d forgotten what to do in certain positions. Before I moved my own piece, I loved to snatch my opponent’s knight off the board and watch his look of incredulity. I’d make a slight pause to mess with his head then slide my bishop to the captured square. Was this a Kasparovian thing to do? Not really. His captures were handled with kid’s gloves, but the way he launched his attacks was genius.

When my chess club skittled we’d each play the part of a different Grand Master kind of the way jocks pretended they were different ball players. But, instead of choosing to see who would be Don Mattingly, Pedro Guerrero, Cal Ripkin Jr., Kirby Puckett, or Mike Schmidt we’d take turns being Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Nigel Short, Lev Alburt, Mikhail Tal.

Hak-bin, a third-grade wunderkind, would pick Bobby Fischer. He carried a paperback that had pictures of the great American Phantom King of castling. Hak-bin was good enough to be on the varsity team. He suckered many kids in my class with scholar’s mate— kind of a thumb-wrestler’s sneak attack, but for chess. He’d bag his opponent’s king in four moves. No remorse. His crushing tactics elicited a myriad of curses from glass-jaw opponents.

Mr. Kushing, our coach, collected quarters for bastard and shits and fifty cents for fuck and one dollar for the uncensored motherflower. The proceeds went for equipment: new vinyl boards, felt-bottomed pieces, game clocks, and sometimes for soda and chips.

Hak-bin and I had many draws like Karpov and Kasparov. This would’ve been fine if I was eight like he was, but I was thirteen, a foot taller and I had matured into a young man who carried a plain green Trapper Keeper instead of a bunch of Thundercats and Voltron folders. I had also moved onto paper bag lunches instead of the lunchbox and thermos combo.

Hak-bin’s mom picked him up after practice. I could see her pressed up to the classroom window, peeking in to see her four-foot-tall pride and joy. I could almost feel her boundless glee fogging the glass pane. Sometimes I was a coward and hoped she’d snag her boy when I was wallowing over a losing scenario. There I’d sit slumped forward, hands folded in prayer to nobody and jiggering thoughts whirring in my mind. Sweat dotted my forehead and I had this nervous bounce in my right leg. I crossed them, but that never seemed to do the trick. Hak-bin would wipe his palms on his trousers then bring his hands to his nose and smell them.

We’d sit like that for hours. The good thing about our practices was that we didn’t have clocks so we could take our time. The bad thing about it was that we could take our time. Without clocks we really didn’t prep ourselves for the true time-fleeting conditions.

During my college years, I phased out of chess. I played a few games here and there with friends or I logged onto a Yahoo Game Room. I allotted myself thirty minutes max. And I preferred two-minute blitzes.

Coincidentally, Garry Kasparov stopped playing. A bit later then I did, but still— he decided to tackle politics. Vladimir Kramnik, Viswanathan Anand, and Veselin Topalov would go on to rise to the top of the chess world.

Two years ago I had the chance to see Garry Kasparov give a lecture on Russian politics. He gave a decent canned spiel, but was underwhelming with his glib responses during the Q & A. I had a few questions about Russian politics and International Relations in general that I wanted to share with the audience. There were maybe two hundred people tops in the auditorium.

I wondered if it was better tossing out a question about the anarchical structure of global societies. I’d reading up on Hedley Bull. The other thing I wanted to bring up was the mysterious disappearances of journalists and elected officials in Russia. Three people revisited that very question. Each time I cringed because I knew I needed to come up with something good and time was running out. I imagined my red chess flag popping up which I hadn’t seen in forever.

A short man in a crumpled olive suit asked Kasparov what was his fondest memory when he competed in the Chess Federation. Kasparov pinched his left brow and said, “Let’s stay on topic.” Then he pointed to a young Asian woman in the front row. I forgot what her question was because the MC briefly interrupted her to say there would only be one more question, but that the lively banter would continue in the private room reserved for hors d'oeuvres and drinks.

For a moment, I went blank. One point 21 Gigawatts. I had this stupid notion that by the end of the night, I’d be able to call the Grand Master by his first name, Garry. I wanted him to think that even though he could wipe the board with me in chess in matter of politics I could hold my own.

Well, I never got called on during the open forum, but Garry was kind enough to wait a while on stage. A few dorks-on-the-pond lined up to bend his ear. Some people straggled onto line with canapé, crackers, a few slabs of gouda, and a glass or two, God help us, of Pinot Grigio. At least I had the willpower to take care of the business I had come for. Personal satisfaction. Ten minutes later I shook hands with Kasparov. It wasn’t a firm shake as I’d expected, but it wasn’t a dead fish either. He tucked his arms to his chest before I said anything, perhaps to mess with my head. Shock of shocks I proffered a bit of eloquence. I was too conscious of myself and I let Garry ponder my question. Less a question and more of an observation really. I had no idea what I said, but the vein above Garry’s temple twitched.

He offered a serious response and I nodded when he spoke. I was too excited. I was ready to jump out of my skin. And then a budinsky leaned into my comfort zone. I stayed quiet and Garry held his stoic pose. He offered his hand again. I was lulled by the fact that he’d taken his time to consider my political observation. I turned to leave the stage, my stomach already grumbling. And then I stopped short. A wild rush of words rolled to the tip of my tongue, what I imagined Tourette’s syndrome to be like. Gary’s eyes narrowed and I said it louder, what I thought I’d previously said.

“What if you played again?”

“No more.”

“You could use your political currency,” I said. “Like Bono.”

“I’m done.”

And he threw his arms out as if he were a spoiled brat refusing to play the game he was about to lose. I slipped off, dumbfounded, my head eight sizes too large and nowhere to hide it. I accidentally smacked into a piece of canapé. The cool greasy guck splotched onto my hand. I don’t know what made me do it, but I licked it off and kept walking. I waited a little while in the reception area but Garry never showed. I wondered how he left and if anybody else had flustered him or if he was so miffed by my remark that he stormed off stage. Probably not though. I’m sure one of the hosts would’ve had me escorted out.

I stood around, noshed. Really, I’d lost my appetite but I needed to keep my hands, my mind busy. I wished I’d never met him.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Hermit’s Story

Rick Bass sometimes gets billed as a writer of great landscapes, and an environmentalist to boot. He’s also been pigeonholed into the dirty category short story writer. That last one might have some truth, but his prose is stunning. His characters proudly wear their battle scars. In his collection “The Hermit’s Story”, survival is at stake, but the larger theme is fighting against the twofold nature: one’s surroundings and oneself. The natural environment lays the bones for this collection, but the characters’ interior landscape seems to be made up of the earth’s basic elements.

Bass limns the animal in us in “Swans”. Billy’s sense of smell seems primal, like a bear’s; he can smell Amy’s bread for miles. The narrator has seen people exert incredible strength, deep in the woods. Billy, the rugged outdoorsman, is fighting within himself to be as strong as he once was. Slowly, however, his inner fight whittles him down. Well-intentioned, he had been chopping down trees for years, putting aside money to buy his wife a piano. His good intentions are his Achilles Heel. Amy too is fighting nature trying to put music behind her, but it isn’t possible. She plays the piano and the swans huddle together, listening to her music as if attending a concert. The swans themselves, fighting nature, swim in tight circles to keep the lake from icing up.

The title piece “The Hermit’s Story”, is set on the Canadian tundra. It is the pinnacle of man against nature. Ann, a dog-trainer, sets out with Gray Owl to teach him how to work his huskies. It is grueling work, “sweat freezes on her like frozen skin,” but she is strong and determined. She could be a sculptor. She talks about the dogs “as if they are rough blocks of stone whose form exists waiting only to be chiseled free.” For six months, she had been training them to hunt and now she was about to hand them over to their rightful owner.

There is an accident. Searching for water Gray Owl falls beneath a sheet of ice. Ann is sorry for Gray Owl, for the dogs, but what bothers her most is that Gray Owl had the tent and the emergency food rations fastened to his backpack. With the blizzard approaching, she feared having to dive into the icy water after him, probably naked. She would freeze to death if she returned without him because all of the dry clothes and food was in his backpack. Turns out, he was below the dry lake, eight feet deep. They stayed down there for almost two whole days. The air was unlike any she had ever breathed before, a different essence. “It had a different density to it, so that smaller, shallower breaths were required; there was very much the feeling that if they breathed in too much of the strange, dense air, they would drown.” All eight of them slept atop one another for warmth, ice crackling above and around them. The next day Ann traveled underground with the dogs, lighting fires from time to time to keep warm. There was no true vantage point except for the fires that they left behind. Then she saw snipes. She hadn’t the faintest idea how they found their way in such a severe landscape— a great parallel between displaced animals and humans. Ann wonders if the snipes’ freedom is vertical rather than lateral as they all seemed trapped until it warms up which mirrors their own plight. This is what makes Bass such a compelling craftsman, the subtle, but poignant philosophical issues he grapples with are so vivid, alive, what a lesser writer would make strictly an adventure, Bass textures with acrylic depth.

In “Fireman,” Kirby plods through his flavorless office job only to come alive putting out fires. He is a volunteer, but is consumed by fire. He feels his shoes, his limbs blazing when he isn’t on a call. He longs to be inside burning buildings with his fellow volunteers their tunnel vision fixes on the helmets before them swinging their pikes around to feel each other, one giant heart ablaze. They push into burning buildings the way Kirby has seen bats dive down chimneys to save their babies.

The danger of fire is Kirby’s private miracle it keeps his marriage intact. “As long as the city keeps burning, they [he and his wife Mary Ann] can avoid being weary and numb.” His failed first marriage still troubles him. Sometimes he perches atop his ex-wife’s house wondering if he could have saved his marriage, he listens for her and his daughter’s breath. There is no such thing as a real rescuer. He knows fireman who have saved so many lives. All it takes is to lose one life, a child’s, and then one is ruined.

Kirby doesn’t think of himself as a hero, he has been trying to teach the raw recruits to fight fires with intelligence— bravery means nothing, it’s all biological to him now. The only way his wife can deal with all the scars on his back is envisioning them as stars in an elaborate constellation. All she sees are fires; she is just as consumed as her husband. When she goes to church and sees a baby being baptized she pictures the fireman hosing off a fire. She isn’t sure if there is greater power in setting a fire or putting one out. Her dreams blur, unsure whether Kirby is burning to death or being born, shooting flames like an iron being.

Bass’s stories are filled with that molten core.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Accelerated Reader

I’d like to comment on Susan Straight’s essay in this past Sunday’s The New York Times Book Review section. It made me realize what a reward-conscious society we are. We’re driven by metrics. And it starts in elementary school. I understand the importance of establishing percentiles for math and reading scores. Children need to acquire basic competency in order to move along in their nascent educational careers. Regent exams will gear them for advanced placement and the SATs, GREs, LSATs, MCATs will hopefully prep them for life. If only it was that easy.

I’ve heard of Accelerated Reader before, but didn’t really know its mechanics. They use a software program to rank books by complexity and page total and spit out a number. That number represents the point score kids will chase to outrank their peers. There are prizes to be won too. Kids obviously want to gobble up books with the highest points and I’m not blaming them. What troubles me is the attempt to quantify something which is supposed to be a visceral joy.

A quick peek into titles showed me that Harry Potter piled on the points. Reading “Goblet of Fire” earns 32 points, “Deathly Hallows” adds 34 points, and “Order of the Phoenix” rakes in 44 points. Now, “Prisoner of Azkaban” only garners 18 points, but s does “Huckleberry Finn”. Startling as this may seem, Stephen Meyer’s “Twilight” earns just as many points as Twain's magnum opus. Software that makes these computations needs to be revamped. If the goal is to get kids excited about literature they need to read classics. Especially, ones that are lively, voice-driven that have inspired generations of writers— and readers.

How can you quantify a book’s worth? It’s a task I wouldn’t leave to a number, a book report maybe and for the precocious young mind a thoughtful critique. Focusing solely on the number squeezes the ethereal joy from reading great works. It makes me think of Oscar Wilde’s apt quote describing cynics, “A man who knows price of everything and the value of nothing”. Is literature about quantification, page numbers, word count? How does one measure the poignancy of sentence or weigh the emotional resonance of an image? I think there might be a fear in today’s educational community that children will one day lose interest in reading with all of the distractions out there.

There’s a great Bernard Malamud short story called “A Summer’s Reading” about a teenage boy who wants to read his way through the library. His neighbor is impressed and says that one day he’d love to sit down with the boy to discuss the books. Well, the kid doesn’t read as he said he would, but feels terribly guilty every time he passes his neighbor. Late one night, while the kid is loping through the neighborhood he sees his neighbor who’s drunk. The man gives the kid some change to buy an ices. Not necessarily a transformative moment, but it is for the kid. The weight of his own worries and a grave need to take personal responsibility and better himself overcome him.

I identify with this story because I was never a big reader when I was a kid either, but when the day arrived that I was engrossed in books I couldn’t get enough. The words, the sentences, the emotions that erupted in me from reading challenged and changed me. In my mind, ratings would have made no difference for me. Maybe I'm being a cynic. I don’t know if this is the case for all kids, but I truly believe that reading for a literary experience should not be grounded in the metrics of scholastics, but should lean toward the sublime.