¬Ruminations of a Somewhat Literate Person

          I read a lot. Always have. This has been largely a solitary activity. Outside of an educational setting, I have seldom discussed books with anyone other than the spouse or a friend who shared similar knowledge and interests. Recently, however, I have participated in several book groups. I don’t always find the discussions thought-provoking. Only occasionally has the discussion given me a new or deeper insight into the book.

          Part of the reason for this is that often one book reminds me of another. My thoughts are diverted by that juxtaposition, and I would like to explore it. But, of course, in a book group neither can I expect that others will have read what I have nor can I assume that they would be interested in the comparisons. (Often the spouse and I have read the same book, and we do discuss how one book affects our appreciation of another.) And consequently, from my standpoint, the book group discussion is often wanting.

          For example, recently as I was reading Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, I had thoughts about Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague by Margaret O’Farrell, which I had read only a few weeks before. The novels are quite different. Hamnet is about William Shakespeare’s family, and O’Farrell, with her many striking images, creates a believable sixteenth century England. Gyasi’s novel is set in today’s world and gives us the portrait of a sort of woman who would not have existed in Shakespeare’s day. However, a plague—one ancient, one modern and continuing–is at the heart of each book, but neither author dives deeply into the nature of the plague. Instead, what the books share is a profound sense of grief. In each novel, that grief does not bring people together, as it might, but separates one person from another. Is that inevitable when a young person is lost? Transcendent Kingdom and O’Farrell’s novel are greatly different books, but each made me think about the nature of grief, whether it is shared more when the elderly die, and could it ever be transcended. Was that just my own quirkiness, or would I benefit by having the books discussed together?

          Hamnet, by the way, also had me thinking about another book. Shakespeare’s wife, who is not named Anne Hathaway in O’Farrell’s novel, has the touch of the magical or mystical about her and is closely identified with the woods. That character, who exudes a self-assured strength, reminded me of the wife/mother in a much different book, Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Follett’s character, too, captures a magical and mystical element grounded in her strength drawn from a forest. The spouse would add Green Mansions to this list, since Rema in that novel has some of the same preternatural qualities bequeathed by living in the wild.

          When I read a novel, I naturally think about other books I have read by the same author. Thus, in reading Phil Klay’s Missionaries, I thought about Redeployment. As with too much of my reading, I did not recall the details about that earlier prize-winner, I remember only that I found it exceptional. So did others, since it won America’s foremost literary award, the National Book Award. Missionaries, while worthy, did not strike me as outstanding as Klay’s debut work. That was because while I was reading about the militias and the cartels of Colombia with their atrocities and bloody revenges, I thought about The Cartel by Don Winslow, a novel about the Mexican drug gangs and their atrocities and revenges, which I read a few years ago. Winslow’s book amazed me. It also revolted me, but it impelled me to keep turning the pages, so I concluded that it had to be good. When I read Missionaries, I felt that I had already read much of it in Winslow’s book. Winslow gets labeled as a mystery and crime writer, a label that generally prevents an author from being thrown in the literary camp, but I wondered, if the two books were read side by side, whether Missionaries would be considered “better,” “more artistic,” “more literary” than The Cartel.

          I just finished reading The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett, which has been on the top of the bestsellers list for quite a while. Even so, I don’t tend to categorize it as a “bestseller.” To my mind that category is given to a “brand name author,” that is, somebody who publishes frequently with the book almost always making the bestseller list. The author’s name is nearly as recognizable as a highly advertised soap or soda. The name-brand-author’s book is usually a mystery, thriller, romance, or more recently something with a fantasy element and is often referred to by the author’s name. For example, I am reading an Agatha Christie, a John Sandford, or a Lee Child. I am not denigrating these books. It takes a rare talent to write them, and I enjoy many of them.

          Bennett’s book, however, does not neatly fall into a genre and is more “literary” than many of these bestsellers. It brought to my mind Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, published a few years ago, another bestseller considered more literary than many and that does not fall into one of the usual genres. I have been trying to figure out why one book triggered thoughts of the other. It is perhaps because in both a community becomes a character in the book; the stories concern generations of a family; and family secrets drive the narrative. In addition, they are good and quick reads. Yet in reading each of them I felt if I was reading something that did more than just pass the time but was somehow worthwhile or deeper or more insightful than others on the Sunday bestseller lists. Would others think the two could be usefully discussed together?

(concluded March 1)

Not TFG, But the HBG

President Biden recently referred to him as “the former guy.” The amusingly insightful columnist Gail Collins thought that this reference would get under his skin and has used the sobriquet “TFG” to needle him. I, however, have been mentally referring to him as the HBG–the “has been guy.” And because of his recent diatribe against Senator Mitch McConnell, I have been wondering whether the HBG has Jewish roots.

His McConnell statement followed the usual formula. First, the HBG praised himself with false claims (he “single-handedly saved at least 12 Senate seats” for the Republicans); whined about the performances of others to explain failures that might be ascribed to him (the Georgia Senate races were lost because of Georgians’ “anguish at their inept Governor, Brian Kemp, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and the Republican Party, for not doing its [sic] job on Election Integrity during the 2020 Presidential race”); and then launched into an ad hominem attack on McConnell (“a dour, unsmiling, political hack”). The HBG’s statement made me smile, but almost any attack on McConnell will do that. His statement was almost puckish, close to witty, but I had doubts about its source. Is “dour” in the HBG’s vocabulary? Luckily, we did not have to hear his stab at pronouncing it.

This is all the usual HBG stuff, but what really got my attention was another statement: “Likewise, McConnell has no credibility on China because of his family’s substantial Chinese business holdings. He does nothing on this tremendous economic and military threat.” Senator Mitch is married to Elaine Chao, whose family owns a shipping company that transports goods to and from China and has gotten much of its financing from Chinese financial institutions. The Chao family is, you might say, entangled with China and that might be reason to wonder whether McConnell can be objective when it comes to relationships between China and the United States.

So the HBG seems to have a point, but perhaps he is not the one to be making it. He failed to mention that Elaine Chao was Secretary of Transportation in the just-ousted HBG administration—in fact, she was the longest serving of any of last term’s Cabinet secretaries. Transportation. That’s the business her family is in! If McConnell has no credibility on China because he is married to Elaine Chao, surely the credibility of the person who appointed and retained her in his Cabinet in a position that affected our relations with China should, therefore, also be suspect. After all, the Senate majority leader has little control over our China policies while the HBG sought to set them.

The HBG’s statement also reminded me of the classic definition of the Jewish concept of “chutzpah.” The defendant who has killed his parents comes before the court and begs for mercy because he is an orphan. It takes a lot of chutzpah to criticize McConnell for his wife’s family when you yourself have placed that woman in a position of trust and power concerning China. That leads me to the next question: Can you have such brazen chutzpah if you don’t have Jewish roots?

But these thoughts also made me wonder about labeling him the HBG as I have been doing for a while. Apparently the HBG wants us to believe that he actually recognized the “tremendous economic and military threat” that China posed, but we now learn that on his watch China became the EU’s largest trading partner. Whether his concern was economically sound or not, HBG voiced much anguish over our trade deficits in general, but now we learn that those deficits are larger at the end of the term than when he fluked  into office. If there were any real plans to fix the trade deficits (doubtful), they did not work. But, of course, it was not just his trade policies that failed. His wall was neither built nor financed as he said it would be. His America First plan that was going to give us better infrastructure didn’t exist – witness the catastrophes of the snow and cold of the last few weeks. He promised something cheaper and better than Obamacare, but he never made a single health insurance proposal. And now we have learned that in the last year of his term, life expectancy in this country fell by a year. Covid-19 is only part of the reason for that. It is also because of a flawed healthcare system and the opioid crisis, which he said he would, but never did, address.

Welcome to the HBG’s America. As I thought about this, I realized he is not the Has Been Guy; he’s the Never Was Guy. He is the NWG.

Camping Was the Way to Travel (concluded)

On our first camping trip, the spouse and I drove to Nova Scotia, which is divided into two distinct pieces, a southern piece shaped like the figure 7 and a smaller, northern piece, Cape Breton Island. We headed to a campground that was at their conjunction, far away from any towns and up on some hills overlooking the Northumberland Strait (I think). For the first time in my life, there was no light pollution. I thought that I had seen a night sky before. I was wrong. The star-lit sky was breathtaking. I finally understood why it’s called the milky way.

Although we were there in August, it was not what I thought of as summer weather. It was cold. Everywhere we went, some Canadian would say, “This is really cold for this time of year.” After a while, it seemed as though the natives had constructed this narrative to appease us tourists. I began to think that even though the cold was actually not so unusual, they wanted the foreigners to think that so the American dollars would keep coming.

Those frigid nights taught us that picking our camp site mattered. Of course, one would like to have a good view of the water, and a picnic table was desirable. We had cleverly set up our tent away from the bathrooms so we would not  be disturbed by the people coming and going. However, the long walk to the facilities in the middle of the night even with the incredible sky made us realize the foolishness of our ways. Having to put on even more clothes for the midnight necessity than the many layers we had put on before getting into the sleeping bags woke us up too much, and no matter what we threw on, we came back shivering, making it hard to fall asleep. After that first night, we moved our tent closer to the bathrooms. Camping was teaching all sorts of practicalities.

I was also learning that I had trouble in a sleeping bag. If I turned over or just tried to adjust my position, I would get tangled up. Eventually the spouse and I found it better to unzip our bags completely and then zip them together, which allowed one to turn over while those “blankets” stayed in place as the partner slept. Not only was it warmer this way, it offered other potential benefits as well.

I was also learning the curse of the air mattress. They weren’t comfortable to begin with, and it was amazing how often they developed leaks. Go to sleep on a cushion of air but wake up on the uneven ground feeling a little rock pushing into the small of your back. Eventually we got camp mattresses made out of foam that rolled up into a tight package. We liked them very much and often used them at home to sleep on when guests came, or we took them with us when visiting friends who did not have a spare bedroom. One of the best purchases we ever made.

I don’t remember much of what we did while staying at this first Nova Scotia campground except that we climbed a fire tower for the view and learned a lot about keeping warm. Upon leaving, we circumnavigated Cape Breton Island where every little quaint fishing village looked as if it were posing for pictures. We made our way south to a campground outside the fishing town of Lunenberg where the incoming tide and waves crashed into caves and caverns making sounds like booms from a cannon. In Lunenberg, we treated ourselves to a restaurant meal in an oceanfront inn. It was quaint as all get out.

From Lunenberg we headed inland to a provincial park containing several lakes, each feeling more remote than the others. In this park I learned why “crazy as a loon” had become an expression. I heard a pair of the birds for the first time and caught a glimpse of one. Once heard, the sound stays with you forever.

By now we were getting pretty good at camping and cooking al fresco. We had stopped in a liquor store before turning inland, and it seemed fitting that in this maritime province the store had a wide array of rums but not too much else. We also bought there a bottle of wine, Canadian wine. Getting to our new campsite, the spouse decided to use the wine in making a beef stew. I don’t know what we thought we would get in a local Canadian wine, but we should have remembered the adage that if you use a wine in cooking, it should be a wine you would drink. We hadn’t drunk any of it. Cooking the stew over an open fire (no wimpy camp stove for us!), we patiently fed and stirred the fire for hours waiting for the stew to be done. In the end, the stew was…well, awful, putrid, uneatable. We had been told not to leave food about the campsite, but we were pretty confident that the racoons and bears would not have eaten it either. (It was a long time before we were willing to try a Canadian wine again, but, dear maple leaf friends, we have had good ones since then—ice and dessert wines from Ontario, and some almost excellent reds from British Columbia.)

We took a ferry leaving Nova Scotia. It went from Digby to St. Johns, New Brunswick, over the famous, picturesque Bay of Fundy. It was short and affordable and cut hours off the drive home. I remember little of that return trip. I think for a change of scenery we drove down the interior of Maine instead of the coast, and I saw that even in the highly settled Northeast, the country still has much inhabited territory. We must have stayed overnight somewhere before getting to Brooklyn, but I have no memory of it.

What I do remember is that we loved the trip, and after getting home and unpacking the car, we started planning our next camping trip. We had found a way for us to travel.

Our camping days are over. Too bad, too, since tents pop up with ease these days without the need of tent stakes, and sleeping bags can keep you warm in arctic winds. Someday soon I hope that we can again find a way to travel. Maybe a first-class boutique hotel in Paris, café au lait, croissants…….?

Camping Was the Way to Travel

          I had expected to travel regularly after retiring, but Covid-19 has laid waste to those plans. It is hard to think about future trips not knowing when or if I will feel comfortable traveling again, so I have started reminiscing about past trips. I think back to those times when the spouse and I had few funds beyond those for the necessaries, and travel seemed impossible. We had a car but trip expenses–hotels, motels, restaurants—were inconsistent with paying our rent. So, in the spirit of Judy and Mickey, even though we had not done so before, we said, “Let’s go camping.” If we didn’t pay for a motel but slept in a tent, if we didn’t eat in restaurants while traveling but cooked at a campsite, if we didn’t fly but drove, we could … well, travel.

          We had the Dodge Dart, but we needed other things. We had to forgo our few luxuries for a while and gave up occasional dinners at a Mideast restaurant, replaced bottled wines with jugs, and delayed the purchase of a new sweater and tie in order to buy a tent, sleeping bags, a camping stove, lantern, and air mattresses.

          We had two weeks for a trip, and there were so many places we had not been. I don’t remember how the decision was made, but we decided to go to Nova Scotia. It’s a long drive, and there was a car ferry from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, which would have cut hours, perhaps even a day, of driving off the trip, but the ferry’s cost put it out of our range. And, we enjoyed driving and had never seen Maine or New Brunswick. So, Nova Scotia the long way ‘round it was.

          On the first day of this first camping adventure, we drove from Brooklyn to Ogunquit, Maine, and pulled into a campground where we had reserved a spot, using in those primitive days a book (from Rand McNally?) that listed campgrounds around the country on the left side of the pages followed by all sort of symbols describing the place. Through the years we got quite good at scanning the symbolic trees, showers, and tables to find the sites that we might like, but this was a learning adventure for us.

We were camping, but we were not looking for a primitive backwoods experience. We were not backpackers. Our camping was a substitute for more expensive accommodations, and the campgrounds we mostly stayed in had a building with public toilets, sinks, and often showers, as this one did. Our tent was meant to substitute for a small motel room. It was not a WWII pup tent clone but about eight feet square and its center just high enough to stand up in. Luxurious, right?

You might think that we would have practiced putting up the tent before we had embarked, but no. This was our first time, and tents did not then simply pop open like an umbrella. We had to assemble poles and drive tent stakes, which took some effort because we had yet to learn that a three pound hammer was better than a regular one for the job. Although erecting the tent might have been a severe test of a marriage, we got it up, and through the years we developed a good, efficient routine for putting up and taking down the tent. Yeah, this camping idea was a good one.

Although we were not going to be backpackers off alone in the woods, we thought that our camping was going to keep us in touch with nature more than other travelers, but we immediately found “camping” meant different things to different people. A few sites over from ours a “camper” was parked with wires going into and out of it from all angles. A man in a lawn chair, beer in hand, was watching television (!). We did not get the point, but through the years, we saw the equivalent of this many times and always felt a self-righteous superiority to them, but of course, backpackers had a similar reaction to our camping.

We had stopped in Ogunquit because the spouse knew a colleague who had a family place there. It was my first visit to a seaside, summer resort, and I was seeing stuff I had never seen before. We all went out to dinner, and I had my first taste of lobster. Our camping was doing what I hoped that it would: giving us new experiences.

We continued up the beautiful Maine coast the next day into New Brunswick. Our gas station map was mostly blank showing few roads other than the waterfront one we were on. As far as we could tell, New Brunswick was mostly uninhabited forest land. We passed an elegant, old summer resort. We talked about how wonderful it would be to stay there someday, but we never really expected that we would ever be able to afford it.

Setting up the tent for the second time, we damaged a tent spike, and a significant portion of the next day was spent in search of a replacement. It wasn’t exactly a survival moment, but we learned that a large part of camping was coping with the contingencies that arose—where could we buy milk, hamburger rolls, insect repellent, ice, firewood, tent stakes? But this was a good thing because these quotidian matters happily displaced concerns about jobs, political news, and family problems. Nevertheless, tent stakes were a perennial problem. They were aluminum and seemed to break or bend easily. Finding places to buy spares was not a simple matter. Being quick studies, we soon learned to purchase extras in advance.

This was a time not only before podcasts but even before cassettes. At the campsite we blissfully did not have music or news or sports broadcasts, but in the car we sometimes searched for local radio stations. Close to the Nova Scotia border, we found a French one. It came from a little French-speaking town. I, of course, knew that French was spoken in Quebec, but I did not know that there were French-speaking pockets throughout New Brunswick, and I wondered what it was like to grow up in a town of a few thousand surrounded by those speaking another language. Travel, I learned, could free the imagination to consider such things.

(concluded February 22)

Snippets

Talk all you want about Tom Brady, LeBron James, or Mike Trout, but isn’t Mikaela Shiffrin the best American athlete competing today? Or is it Simone Biles?

With all the hospital mergers, institutions end up with strange and seemingly impossible names. Thus, not far from me is the New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital.

          On a diet, one is supposed to eat slowly. So, at the farmer’s market seafood stand, I bought my diet food—oysters. It takes me fifteen minutes to open each one.

          How often in the coming years do you think Ivanka and Jared will socialize with people who unironically wear MAGA hats?

Although I don’t like to be out in one, I like to hear the term because it sounds poetic: Wintry mix.

We had a winter storm, which raises the questions for boys of all ages: Can you write your name in the snow? Sometimes it is better to be Bob than Randolph.

“It was evening all afternoon/It was snowing/And it was going to snow./The blackbird sat/In the cedar-limbs.” Wallace Stevens.

I read online an article from The Federalist. At the bottom of the article, it said: “The Federalist, a wholly independent division of FDRLST Media.” Can it be “wholly independent” and a division of a larger company? Perhaps someone can explain to me what “wholly independent” means.

Sometimes I am surprised at a lacuna in the spouse’s knowledge. She does not know who Aaron Rodgers is. That prevented me from discussing with her the burning topic of whether he is overrated.

At my age, an aphorism that no longer applies: “A pessimist is a man who thinks all women are bad; an optimist hopes they are.”

Overheard on an elevator at the Whitney Museum, this truism and puzzler: one young man social distancing from another, said, “Taking care of your mother while she dies is an opportunity of a lifetime.”

I did not sleep well on the night before a stress test necessary for an important medical procedure. I had discomfort in my lower abdomen with an occasional sharp pain. As I lay in bed, I convinced myself that I had a kidney stone. My mind raced. Should I go to the emergency room? Maybe the stone would pass naturally with a bit of pain and blood. Did I know of a doctor to go to? Did the spouse? Could I postpone my scheduled stress test? Would this postpone my valve replacement? Surely, I had to deal with the kidney stone first. Finally, I fell asleep but fifty minutes later I was awake again with a racing mind. What should I do about the kidney stone? How do I cancel my heart procedure appointment? Finally, back to sleep again but awake an hour later. So it went all night long until I finally got up to go up to the hospital for the test, and the worries about the kidney stone dissipated. I came to the convincing, and loud, conclusion that it was only gas.

That Anthem Again (concluded)

Ordinary sporting events have ordinary displays of patriotism. However, the Super Bowl has had extraordinary expressions of patriotism. Trying to live up to my pledge to give up football, I did not watch the Super Bowl this year, but a few years ago I was paying only partial attention to the opening ceremonies of the game as I was preparing dinner for the wife and the NBP (I am a modern sort of guy). Listening with half an ear, I thought I heard portions of what seemed like a five minute narration by Johnny Cash about the flag, and there was a trio singing, I think, “America the Beautiful,” and then a sprightly version of the national anthem, followed by the flyover of military jets flying in close formation low over the stadium just as the National Anthem ended.

I have no idea when the flyover ritual started. I am always amazed by it. How can the timing be so precise? My most memorable flyover was combined with another patriotic display, the flight of Challenger. This Challenger is a bald eagle, and I have seen him in action several times at Yankee Stadium. My memory is that the bird was originally released outside the stadium during the National Anthem and would fly to the pitcher’s mound or home plate where he would land majestically on his handler’s wrist. As time went on, Challenger would be released from right in front of the center field fence for his flight to the infield. It is magnificent seeing an eagle fly in the wild, and I always found Challenger’s flight nearly as thrilling. The last time I saw him (I say “him,” but I don’t know whether the eagle is male or female), however, was different. It was a playoff or World Series game because the rosters of both teams had been announced and were lined up on the first and third baselines. Challenger was flying in from the outfield as the National Anthem was concluding, and then the flyover came. This time the planes flew really low. I was in the fourth row of the upper deck, and my knees buckled a bit from the vibrations. (How do the residents of the Bronx respond to this patriotic display? Many must not know it’s coming, and perhaps think New York City is under attack again.) Challenger was not prepared for the flyover. He had been about to land on his handler’s wrist, but the jets seemed to knock him out of the air. It was as if he hit an air pocket, and he dropped like a stone for about ten feet. He then seemed disoriented. He swooped around the lower deck and returned to the playing field where he had Derek Jeter and other players ducking out of his way. He did not land on his handler. He finally settled unceremoniously on the infield grass and appeared very sad and discombobulated. His handler had to walk over and collect him.

Is there truly a connection between such patriotic rituals and the sports events that follow? This question brings back a memory of Rocky Graziano, who won and lost the middleweight championship within a year during the heyday of boxing. After retiring he wrote an autobiography, Somebody Up There Likes Me, which appealed to my schoolboy fantasies and was made into a successful movie starring Paul Newman. Later, he did the talk show circuit telling amusing stories in heavy Brooklynese. On one of them he said that he hated “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Merv Griffiin or Mike Douglas or whoever it was looked at him incredulously and asked why. Graziano replied quite logically, “I knew that whenever the national anthem was over, someone was going to try to knock me unconscious.”Those of us who are sports fans have heard the National Anthem countless times at stadiums and arenas and on broadcasts, but last year there were months when we had no spectator sports, and we weren’t getting the usual doses of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Did we become less patriotic with its absence or is that ritualistic singing irrelevant in having a love of America? I had hoped that with the pandemic, we might reassess the connection between sports and patriotism. That seems to be what the Dallas Mavericks were doing, but just as there is “cancel culture,” there is also mandated culture. In this land of the free, you can apparently be required to act in a way some deem patriotic.be

Of course in the olden days when I first started going to sporting events, the venues did not have the fancy screens and scoreboards of today. Just imagine, you were expected to sing the national anthem from memory instead of reading it off a giant display. What does it say about the level of patriotism or the level of education of sports fans today that it now seems essential to provide the words to the spectators?

And I was taught back then not to applaud after the anthem to show it proper respect. That aspect of decorum is gone. If there is a connection between the singing and patriotism, then sports fans should love this country much more than those who do not know what a pick-off move is. Or at least sports spectators who are not golf fans should. I have heard it said that professional golfers are the most conservative of professional athletes and that golfers in general are more conservative than those who indulge in other pursuits. I do watch golf on television. Unlike every other televised sporting event I have seen (except maybe for tennis, another upper-class sport), I have never heard the national anthem as part of a golf telecast. May I assume that those at a golf event are less patriotic than those at a football game?  I wonder if our previous Golfer-in-Chief ever sang “The Star-Spangled Banner”—assuming he knows the words—before he plopped down in a golf cart for his frequent eighteen holes. Perhaps if he had sung the National Anthem more, he would have supported the Capitol Police.

That Anthem Again

The Dallas Mavericks stopped playing the National Anthem before their home games. When news outlets reported this, the National Basketball Association proclaimed that all its teams must play the patriotic music before each game. That got me to thinking back to something I posted in 2017 and some other things since then. In slightly modified form, this is the post from April 23, 2017.

The Nationalism Pastime

It is always moving when the audience stands before the opera begins and sings the National Anthem. My patriotism overflows when the movie is paused at the two-thirds mark to allow us to sing “God Bless America.” And it is thrilling that every outdoor bluegrass concert I have attended starts with an adrenaline-boosting flyover by Air Force jets.

Of course these things don’t happen, but why not when such patriotic performances and displays are routine occurrences at sporting events?  Why is it that nationalism is a part of baseball, football, and NASCAR, but not “cultural” performances? Is it thought that operagoers differ in patriotic fervor from a Minnesota Vikings crowd? If the cultural audience cares less about our country, isn’t that all the more reason to have “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Lohengrin in hopes of increasing national identity? And if the opera audience is already patriotic, surely they would want to sing along to the National Anthem.

I have never researched the history of the National Anthem at sporting events, but a law professor of mine, Harry Kalven, a devoted Chicago Cubs fan even during the decades when you had to be a bit meshugganah to be a Cubs follower, said that it started during World War II. That seems likely, and I guess that once a patriotic ritual starts, it seems unpatriotic for it to end. Thus, we continue to hear the Anthem before the first pitch and now at every sporting event. 

The National Anthem may have been played at sporting events since WWII, but its performance style has changed. Once we had only straightforward renditions that zipped right along. For example, for years “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by Robert Merrill at Yankee Stadium—sometimes live and sometimes on a recording (occasionally nowadays a Merrill recording is still used). It clocked in at under two minutes. Now we regularly have versions that seem to be in a contest to see how slowly and with what added emotion the anthem can be sung. Soulful interpretations of the song have been traced back to a particular moment—Marvin Gaye’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. Since then we have had many take-your-time idiosyncratic versions of it. (Gaye’s version was over two-and-a-half minutes long.) For me, however, it really started with Jose Feliciano at the fifth game of the 1968 World Series. I thought his version was moving and made me hear the song anew, but to many it was offensive because this dark-skinned, blind guy had the nerve to sing it with a fresh insight and in a non-standard style.

Feliciano’s version did not inspire copycats, however, because his career was damaged by it. For incomprehensible reasons, people labeled his rendition unpatriotic and disrespectful, and many radio stations refused to play any of his songs after that. (Question for your history discussion: Is there more division and hate in the country now, or was there more in 1968?) Feliciano’s version, while slower than Merrill’s, was faster than Gaye’s at a little over two minutes. (A joke my father told me which was not stale back then. A Latino boy new to the United States made his way to the stadium for a game. The only seat he could get was in the distant centerfield bleachers under the American flag. He knew no one and was feeling lonely, but he felt welcomed when everyone before the game began, stood, looked at him, and sang, “Jose, can you see?”) What was shocking and outrageous in 1968 is accepted or at least tolerated today, and now we have all sorts of “modern” arrangements of our patriotic hymn. (What does it mean about the connection between patriotism and sporting events that you can place bets on how long the national anthem will take at the Super Bowl? Perhaps to the surprise of many, the under has won the majority of times in the last ten years.)

And now at baseball games we also get “God Bless America.” This started in the aftermath of 9/11. I went with the NBP to a Yankee game not too long after the attacks, and that was the first time I heard it, in the recorded performance by Kate Smith, during the seventh inning. (I wonder how many there recognized her voice. You have to be my age to remember her fifteen-minute TV show.) That made perfect sense then, as did the delay of a different ball game that autumn to hear a speech by President Bush. And, as I said, once started, it is hard to stop a patriotic ritual.

I probably object more than most to “God Bless America.” Baseball games drag on long enough without the song, which does hamper the between-inning routines of the game. Of course, they could get rid of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” which comes right after the patriotic song, but since I go to the park for baseball rituals, I want to hear “Root, root, root for the home team.” (Never, never, never get rid of “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” which plays at a different time in the game. Love it.) Perhaps I would object less if I did not find “God Bless America” so insipid. The best I can say is that it is a step up from the Kars for Kids song, but not a big step. (Have you ever wondered why the Kars for Kids folks don’t tell us with any specificity what the money from the car sales goes for?) As a kid, well before I understood its left-wing political implications, I thought “This Land Is Your Land” was a much better song (still do), and I would be happier if at least some of the time, it were performed in the seventh inning, which I am told has happened at Baltimore Orioles games.

(concluded February 15)

First Sentences

“That Dodge City was the gateway to the Great American Desert probably does not seem to be much of a recommendation for it.” Tom Clavin, Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West.

“The day before Mrs. Starch vanished, her third-period biology students trudged silently, as always, into the classroom.” Carl Hiaasen, Scat.

“It was a foul autumn morning in Jaffa when the pilgrims came out of the church.” Dan Jones: The Templars: The Rise and Fall of God’s Holy Warriors.

“The Government still pays my wages but I no longer think of myself as a bureaucrat.” Gita Mehta, A River Sutra.

“Chief Tecumseh had every right to be vengeful.” Jared Cohen, Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America.

“They are watching me, thought Rupert Stonebird, as he saw the two women walking rather too slowly down the road.” Barbara Pym, An Unsuitable Attachment.

“Enough water, like enough time, can make anything disappear.” Casey Cep, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and Last Trial of Harper Lee.

“Peter Crowther’s book on the election was already in the shops.” Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty.

“The Great War had brought Paul Lewis into the navy in 1918 as a lieutenant commander, but he never seemed quite at ease when in his uniform.” John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.

“The ugliest truth, a friend once told Myron, is still better than the prettiest of lies.” Harlan Coben, Live Wire.

“When Michael Joyce of Los Angeles serves, when he tosses the ball and his face rises to track it, it looks like he’s smiling, but he’s not really smiling—his face’s circumoral muscles are straining with the rest of his body to reach the ball at the top of the toss’s rise.” David Foster Wallace, “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness,” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments.

“I was never so frightened.” Sarah Waters, Affinity.

“In 1957 legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite—lauded as the most trusted man in America—stared into the camera and told viewers that the ‘greatest engineering feat of our time’ was under way.” Dan Egan, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.

Snippets

Congress relieved Marjorie Taylor Greene from all her committee assignments. Is this a big deal? When was the last time that a congressional committee did something that was legislatively important?

What do you think MTG will do with all her extra time? Constituent services?

“Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Barry Goldwater said that, causing a controversy. Today conservatives say something different. Complete this sentence: “Defending extremism is . . . .”

Mitch McConnell, referring to Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, said, “Loony lies and conspiracy theories are cancer for the Republican Party and our country.” Before you start thinking warm thoughts about the Senate minority leader, remember that he is the person who concocted a reason why Merrick Garland would not get a hearing on his Supreme Court nomination and then concocted a reason why the Garland concoction did not apply to the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett. He’s also the person who told us that the tax cut would not increase the deficit. He has said things time and again that indicate not a belief in conspiracies but just a lack of integrity. I point you to the words of Robert G. Kaiser in his marvelous book Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works and How It Doesn’t about the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act. When the Kentucky Senator backtracked on various pledges, Senator Dodd tried “to shame McConnell and the Republicans who were supporting him—not an easy task.” “Loony lies” apparently depends on who is  singing the tune.

If you thought that the passive and claims of leadership are inconsistent, you have not been paying attention. Marjorie Taylor Greene, in disavowing prior beliefs before the House of Representatives, said, “I was allowed to believe things that weren’t true.”

A reason this is not a unified country: According to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, in a recent poll, about two-thirds of Dems had an opinion of Marjorie Taylor Greene, while only 44% of Repubs did. Perhaps this is the reason why: In January, Greene was in 472 fifteen-second clips on CNN; 393 such clips on MSNBC; and in 31 on Fox News. It isn’t one country.

A news report of a heated meeting a week before Christmas of Trump and his advisors said that the “entourage went upstairs to the Yellow Oval room, Trump’s living room. Staff set pigs in a blanket and little meatballs on toothpicks on the coffee table.” Two of the best foods every made. Pigs in a blanket! Tiny meatballs on tiny skewers! This could get me to rethink the Trump White House, especially if they got those items from Costco.

The headline: “More Than 760,000 Pounds of Hot Pockets Recalled.” Let the jokes begin.

“There is no such thing as a pretty good omelet.” French Proverb.

Is it true that when Marjorie Taylor Greene was told that the restaurant cut their pizzas into eight pieces, she replied, “Please cut mine into six—I couldn’t eat eight slices.”?

Sweet Home, Ashland, Alabama (concluded)

Ashland, Alabama, where the spouse’s grandmother lived, felt like the South for many reasons. One was its number of churches. There were a lot, but I am used to that. Wherever I am in Brooklyn, I am almost always within three or four blocks of a church, but in Ashland, as far as I could tell, they were all Protestant ones, and probably more than half were some sort of Baptist or Methodist. I don’t remember seeing a Catholic church, and the nearest synagogue was a county or two away. Mom’s house was literally surrounded by churches. Out her front door and across the street was her Southern Baptist church. (Mom was clearly pleased that I, although not a Southern Baptist, was raised in the Baptist tradition. (See post of June 22, 2020.)) Out her side door and across the street was the Methodist Church.

One Sunday when we were visiting Ashland, that Methodist Church was welcoming its new pastor. The spouse and I were out and about that afternoon and cutting through the Methodist parking lot on our way to somewhere when we realized we had been spotted by the new minister and his wife. The couple looked like a caricature out of certain kind of movie. Neither seemed old enough to drive. Both were thin, and I expected to see acne on him as he approached with what appeared to be a brave smile. His white shirt might have had some cotton in it, but it was too big and gapped at the neck. His suit was also too big and looked as if it had been bought two days before from the southern equivalent of whatever was two steps down from Robert Hall. And if the tie was not a clip-on, it sure fooled me. The wife was tiny and retiring, but also had a brave smile fixed in place. They looked like a newlywed couple dedicated to the new path on which they had embarked. As he approached, he started to introduce himself, but we interrupted saying with big smiles, “We are from out of town. You don’t need to spend time with us.” It was as if a wave passed over them both, and in an instant they looked more relaxed but also incredibly tired. They thanked us and told us that he had performed his first service as the new pastor and had been meeting people all day. After a few moments of pleasantries, we parted. I had wanted to tell them, “You look like you need a drink.” But this was neither the right town nor the right couple for such a suggestion.

Perhaps we would have chatted with the new couple in town longer if their church had been Mom’s church, but on Sundays Mom headed out her front door. I only remember one time that the spouse and I went with her to the Baptist church across the street. The spouse’s sister and her husband were also in Ashland at the time. The brother-in-law is Jewish, although not religious, but he looked quite nervous as we all got ready for the morning service. I told him to relax, no one was going to know about his religious heritage, explaining that probably they all thought Jews had horns, and they would not see them on his head. I added, however, that perhaps his quite luxurious head of hair was hiding them and perhaps I ought to give him a trim first. He did not see the humor in my tremendously clever wit.

I remember little of that service, not the sermon or the Bible readings, but I do remember the hymns, or really the introduction to them. As we got to the point where we were to rise and rejoice in song, the minister announced that the usual choir director was away and was being replaced by “Shotgun Miller.” I was only half paying attention and was not sure that I had heard it correctly, but “Shotgun” just seemed to hang in the air. What looked like a solid Ashland citizen stood up and led us in song. At the second hymn, the minister merely said, “Shotgun,” and I could not help smiling. At the third hymn, when he said, “Shotgun,” I had to restrain myself from chuckling out loud, and I thought to myself, “Are they just messing with this northern boy, bringing out the clichés, and giving a good show?” But I knew they weren’t.

I shouldn’t mock Mom’s church, however. She was a wonderful person—warm, caring, amusing, charming, tolerant, accepting. She seemed at peace, and part of the reason for that was her religion. When I think on some of the bad aspects of religion, I think of the spouse’s grandmother and what her religion and her church gave to her. From her, I know that for some people religion is meaningful and life-supporting.

I don’t want to seem as if I am mocking Ashland, the South, or small-town life in general. Mom lived until she was 97, and at least in the last twenty years of that time, she resided about half the year with the spouse’s mother in Florida and the rest of the time by herself in Ashland until her final illness, which was short. She could live by herself in her house because she was not really alone. Every day people from the town would look in on her, make sure that she was all right, and ask if she needed some lemons from the grocery or aspirin from the pharmacy. Many people cared about her enough to make efforts on her behalf in ways that I do not expect will happen for me in Brooklyn. She could remain where she wanted to be in a place that held memories.

The visits to Ashland, however, did not make me want to give up my big city life. On the first day of our first visit to Ashland, the spouse and I were heading off to the town square. Without thinking Mom said, “Now ya’ll be careful. It’s Saturday. It’s market day. There is a lot of traffic.” And then she stopped and smiled and said, “But you live in New York,” and laughed at herself.

After seeing the courthouse, we wandered around the square and went into a few shops. In each and every one, an owner or clerk said, “You aren’t from around here. Who are you visiting?” We would answer and explain our relationship to Ms. Herren. They would ask where we were from. Each one of them would comment on how far away, how big, and how foreign New York seemed, but how much they liked seeing it on the Today show. And when we were leaving, all of them said, “You all have a blessed day” or “You give Ms. Herren my best.” By the fourth or fifth exit, I started muttering expletives when I got to the sidewalk. Their sweetness, their niceness was getting under my skin. I knew I was a Big City boy. I was longing for some of New York City’s curt anonymity.