Wednesday, September 28, 2016

One of those guys

When I was a summer replacement in the United States Post Office I toiled with several other temporary workers. Most of the time I was on the parcel post belt. My job was to "trow" (nobody threw anything in the post office, we "trew" things) parcels into bins.

This is how it worked. Parcels would travel on a conveyor belt. I, and several others, were to pick up the moving parcels from the belt. We'd read the address, find the bin for that locale, and "trow" the parcel into that bin.  So, if I snagged a box that read Babylon, my task was to spot a bin beyond the belt and trow the box into a bin with all the other parcels heading to Babylon.

It was an interesting job, not because of the challenging nature of the tasks (though since the bins were arranged in alphabetical order it was sometimes challenging to trow a parcel into the Syosset bin since it was way in the back).  One aspect of the job that was interesting were the dynamics between the temporary workers and the regulars.  The regulars had short cuts for many of the tasks and a routine for their work. Some of the regulars were supervisors and, in that capacity, made suggestions to us about how to get things done swiftly.  There were several characters who had amusing ways of passing the time while trowing parcels or handling other responsibilities.

A couple of years after my stint at the post office, I went back to the location to visit with some of the people with whom I worked.   I ran into a fellow who had been a temporary that summer, but had stuck around and was now working full time in a supervisory role.  When we chatted he said, "Remember when we used to have to deal with the supervisors. Well guess what, now I am one of those guys." The way he said it was amusing and I can still see the expression on his face when he summarized his new status.

The other night we were watching the Monday Night football game after Hilary squared off against Trump. I had, despite my intentions to not watch the debate, viewed much of it.  But it ended, thankfully, at about 1030, so I turned my attention to the game.

I did not do so because of my interest in the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons.  I did this because in the fantasy football family league I reluctantly joined this year we "had" Drew Brees as our quarterback.  The Maroons, our team, had lost its first two contests and it looked bleak for this week's as well.  We were down by 60 points going into the game, so Brees would have to have a great night for us to have a chance.

The thing is that according to the rules of fantasy football, Brees was having a great night.  So good that by the time I tuned in we were close to overtaking my cousin's husband in our head to head battle.  The Saints and Brees had the ball and were driving which meant we were accruing points with every pass.

However, down by only three points the Saints had to relinquish the ball.  The Maroons chances therefore became slim.  All Atlanta had to do was get a first down or two and the game would be over.  Atlanta did get an initial first down so it looked as if the Maroons attempt to break into the win column would have to wait.  But then what happened was that a player from Atlanta broke into the open and was en route to the end zone.  This was good news for our fantasy football team.  If the Atlanta player scored, Brees could get back on the field and might complete a few passes before the game ended. If he did so, the Maroons would win.

So, because I am a participant in fantasy football, I started to shout for the Atlanta player to score a meaningless touchdown so that Drew Brees might throw some meaningless passes.  I barked "Go, Go, Go" at about 11 at night. Donna was ready to call the local asylum because this to any reasonable person made no sense.  Did not stop me. I kept saying Go, Go, Go.  Sadly, the runner was tackled, Brees did not get on the field, and the Maroons lost.

I am becoming one of those guys.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

All My Puny Sorrows

When I was reading this book I felt that it had to be autobiographical.  Then I finished it, googled the author and found that while this book is listed as a novel, it is very close to, or indeed, a memoir as events in the book are identical to events in the author's life.

The fact that the story is in large part real makes this book even more sad than it would be if it was pure fiction.  All My Puny Sorrows is beautifully and cleverly written.  But it is so sad that I am not sure I can recommend it.

The book is about two sisters who were brought up in a Mennonite community near Winnipeg.  One of the sisters is a brilliant pianist.  The narrator, the other sister, is an author. The story includes episodes from the sisters' early family life with their loving parents.  Much of the "novel" takes place when the sisters are in their forties, but there are reflections about childhood throughout.

All My Puny Sorrows is beyond sad.  A message in the book is that given the emotional blows that this family endures, most of the sorrows that weigh us down are relatively puny. I'm not sure it works that way and I will write more fully about this later in the blog.

If you think you might want to read the book despite how sad it will likely make you feel, then do not read the next paragraph.

One of the two sisters is a brilliant pianist.  The narrator, the other sister, is an author.  (Miriam Toews, the author, grew up with her sister in a Mennonite community near Winnipeg. Her sister was a concert pianist).  A central character in the novel is the sisters' father, a very good man.  He is also a depressed man who commits suicide by sitting on the train tracks one day.  (Miriam Toews's father killed himself by sitting on the train tracks).  The central character in the novel is the narrator's sister.  She, like her dad, is also very depressed and the novel focuses on  how the family, already bereft of a father because of his suicide, attempts to address the sister's suicidal tendencies.  It doesn't help. She, like her father, sits on the railroad tracks and commits suicide. (Miriam Toews's sister in real life committed suicide, like her father, by sitting on the railroad tracks).  Throw in an aunt--whose own daughter had previously committed suicide. The aunt comes to Winnipeg in an attempt to comfort her suicidal niece. During her visit, doctors discover that the aunt needs to have emergency open heart surgery.  She has the surgery. She dies after the surgery.  The book is just one barrel of laughs.

But, despite this, it is a valuable read.  The narrator describes the events vividly and includes her own missteps.  She, her children, her mother, her friends are fully drawn, very real, and earn the reader's sympathy.  Some scenes are brilliantly described, even if maybe a little heavy on the metaphors. It will be a while before I forget the part when the mother, sister, and sister's daughter try to put up a Christmas tree.

It is true that compared to this family all our sorrows are puny, but no matter how bad someone else has it, our relatively puny sorrows do not feel puny to us.  All of our sorrows will be a burden even if we know of others who have it worse.  My favorite character in the "novel" is the mother. She is a survivor.  She loses her husband, daughter, niece, and sister and still attempts to find the light.


Monday, September 26, 2016

Debate

I am attempting to unpack why I do not want to watch tonight's debate.

A number of things to point out.  In our history, ever since televised debates became common, the events have had dramatic effects on the elections. Kennedy's first debate with Nixon vaulted him to a national figure and made Nixon seem relatively apprehensive and incompetent.  The Reagan-Carter debate in 1980 was held on the final weekend of the campaign season.  When they went into the debate the polls had the contest neck and neck.  In the debate, as on the election two days later, Reagan won by a landslide.  When Dukakis ran against the elder George Bush, his response to a question about capital punishment torpedoed Dukakis's candidacy.   Ford misspoke in his debate with Carter in 1976 revealing ignorance or, one hopes more likely, just misunderstanding of the nature of the question. Ford's response was a pivot point in the election.  Gore's sighing and eyeball rolling could have been the tipping factor in the crazy 2000 election with the hanging chads.

So, the debates matter.

And the stakes here are very high.  I follow the election polls closely and as of this writing it seems likely that Clinton will win with 272 electoral votes.  Since a winner needs 270, this is a slim comfort margin. Any one state now in Clinton's column swinging to Trump means we have this Trump person in the white house.

It is frightening to me that in many states there are more people who think that Trump would be a viable president than those who recognize this egocentric goofball for who he is.  My favorite quip about Trump was one I heard in an interview. "This guy was born on third base, yet waves his arms and jumps up and down as if he hit a triple." No humility. No sense of how he is not fit for this office.

I think our economy and national safety are on the line.  If we get close to election day and it is still a close race, I will take whatever meagre sums I have in it, out of the stock market and put them in an insured account.  And who knows if that will matter if the person with knowledge of the nuclear codes is this person who always thinks that there is a safety net because for him daddy always provided one.

So, I don't want to watch because I am afraid that Clinton will stumble and, apparently, Trump can fall on his face and dirty his underwear and people in the Dakotas and Kansas and Utah and Oklahoma, and Idaho and Arkansas, and Mississippi and and and, will still vote for him.

I'll take a long walk and then hope someone will tell me that Trump showed his true self and Clinton held her own.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Bullets

There are a number of taverns near me within walking distance.  Not a real short walk, but places a person with a decent set of wheels can amble to without it being an ordeal.  The closest is a restaurant with a Cheers like bar attached.  Not a bad restaurant, but not much of a place to go to to watch a game with like minded fans.

There are three other establishments within 3/4 of a mile which have their distinctiveness. One is for folks who barely can remember 9/11.  Another for persons who probably know who the Beatles are.  And a third that is part of a very expensive restaurant. There used to be a fourth, Bullets.

I have parked myself at many an establishment to watch sporting events.  Some places are not written up in GQ and I don't really mind the dives.  There is a sports bar about three miles from me that I attended once and decided it was too depressing even with football games and fans populating the joints. But I will try most any place once to watch a game

However, I never walked into Bullets.  Bullets was a bar that sat right next to a Dunkin Doughnuts. What struck me about Bullets is that when I went in at 8 am to Dunkin Doughnuts to get a cup of coffee and a bagel, there were guys stumbling out of Bullets who looked like they had already knocked back several pints.   Bullets, go figure, went out of business a few months ago.

Who I wondered frequented that place? I found out about two weeks ago.

Beyond the Cheers-like restaurant in a different direction, there is a joint which is really nothing more than a living room.  It has a person's name on the door.  I once, curious, went in there and it was as spartan as any place I've ever been to.  Very small.  Really my living room is as big.  There is a long table top that serves as a bar. No beer on tap. Just bottles.  No credit cards accepted.  There's a dance floor with a karaoke mike that gets some traffic and two old tv sets that always have a sporting event on them.  I kind of like the spot.  It is often crowded--which doesn't take much--and people seem to be enjoying themselves despite the fact that it really is nothing more than an empty space with some tables you might find on the street on garbage day that former owners are tossing.

The other night I stopped into the room.  I was having a cold one watching the Red Sox when a fellow started chatting me up. He seemed like a reasonable guy to me and I will bet the only person in that joint who regularly knocks back Johnny Walker Black.  He knew many of the people in the crowd.  At one point he shook his head and told me, sadly, that someone he had just said "hi" to was one of the crew that had come over to this place after Bullets closed up.

Well, that killed me.  You could walk past a number of decent places on the way from where Bullets was to this nothing place.  What did the regulars at Bullets do? Did they convene and say what is a bar that is equal to the dumpiness of Bullets? And did someone say they knew just the place.

Coincidentally completely, I had read a review of a book called, Later, At the Bar, that highly recommended the read. So, I took it out of the library and read through the short novel--which is really just a series of loosely connected short stories.  Later, At the Bar is about the regulars at a bar called Lucy's which is in a fictitious town in upstate New York.  From various hints I think the fictitious town is based on areas near the Finger Lakes region, a rural part of central, western New York.

I did not think Later At the Bar was that special. Moreover I didn't recognize a soul there as someone I rubbed shoulders with at any of the sports bars where I have frequented. Of course, Lucy's is not a sports bar, but still I found nothing attractive about the characters.  I read the book after my encounter in the living room now populated by the erstwhile denizens of Bullets, so I thought about the characters in the book as those who might have been inhabitants of Bullets.  But I don't think they were.

Most of the characters in Later At the Bar went to the bar to get drunk. And maybe to hook up with another drunkard.  They often did hook up and I found myself contemplating the nature of engagement that could take place even among interested and enthusiastic parties who have had close to two six packs before messing around.   There did not seem to be anyone in the novel who (a) I'd like to befriend (b) had a full set of teeth and/or (c) was a real person.  

The living room establishment has more character and bona fide characters, but that the clientele selected it after the demise of Bullets, leaves me shaking my head about the draw of certain types of watering holes.



Thursday, September 15, 2016

Open 2

If you are a tennis fan, you oohed and aahed watching the finals on Sunday.  Wawrinka played like a computer figure whacking the ball with his backhand in a way that seemed impossible unless you were inanimate and stroked on the basis of a programmer's algorithm.

I was at the Open during the first week.  The high school boys met up for dinner on Tuesday night and then saw Beautiful which was just as its title suggests it could be. It was like going to a Carole King concert.  John, one of my cronies, had bought terrific seats which were worth the shekels and then some. Dead center, about eight rows back, we felt the earth move under our feet.

The tennis center has made renovations that resulted in a much more pleasurable experience for the spectators.  There is a new grandstand and, this year at least, the old grandstand was still in operation. This meant that there were four stadiums (five if you count court 17 which has plenty of seats as well) where you could park yourself to watch great tennis. The small courts on the periphery have also had some work so that there are more seats while still giving the spectator a terrific view of the action.  We saw most of an excellent women's match within a few feet from the combatants.  An interesting note about that match was that each player looked fantastic and yet the winner was shellacked by her next opponent.  And then that winner was shellacked two rounds later 6-0 6-2.  So, the woman who, to me, looked like a champion was soundly beaten by someone who was subsequently soundly beaten.  And that victor did not make it to the finals.

We did not leave the center until about 8 pm so we watched tennis from 11 am til 8--nine hours of oohing and aahing.  Caught a bit of seven or eight matches.  We did not eat a whole lot at the center but even with the water and ice cream and something else I cannot remember we almost paid as much for the refreshments as we did for the tickets.  The people who are selling bottled water are hysterical as they count their money.

I have become more attuned to the sounds that complement sports than I had been previously.  I noticed that during turnovers in the stadiums there is music played to, I'll guess, entertain the fans during the 90 second breaks.  Also the spectators themselves are not as mute as in prior years. Tennis players in the past have demanded silence during their play.  I can recall being embarrassed when one of our trio had used a cell phone during a point. This time there was chatter during play which did not seem to be offensive to the other fans or the players.  The Ashe stadium now has a roof which was used during the tournament even when there was not much more than a sprinkle. When I went into the Ashe the roof was open, but still it seemed a little noisy in there. I have been told that the sound was din-like when the roof was closed.  The grounds themselves had an ambient sound which made the experience more festive than it would otherwise have been. The ambient sound was a composite of conversation, music one could hear seeping from the various stadiums, and the whoosh of the fountains that are here and there at the tennis center.  We could see, but not really hear, the ESPN sportscasters interviewing John McEnroe and other commentators.  A studio is set up on the grounds near the Ashe stadium which is for post match interviews and pundit analyses.  The noise you hear there is more from the gawkers who shout at the broadcasters.

If you are a sports fan, and fond of tennis, it is a bucket list item to go to the US OPEN once before your last walk over.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Kaepernick--What goes around

There are three basic questions that surround the Colin Kaepernick et al's decision to kneel, instead of stand, for the national anthem before athletic contests.  It is interesting to me, someone who was in college during the height of the student activism of the late 60s and early 70s, that this precise issue--for related causes--was prominent then.

The questions:

Does he have a right to do this?

Does the action promote Kaepernick's cause?

Is there a legitimate cause that is worthy of this protest?

Does he have a right to do this?  Yes, of course. In this country one has a right to exercise free speech as long as the activity does not directly jeopardize others.  There is an irony of course in protesting a government that allows you to protest when such allowances are not granted in other countries that manufacture reasons to protest that are far more compelling. Nevertheless, the answer to the question is a strong yes.

Does the action promote the cause?  This is not as easy to answer.  There is already an awareness of injustice among many and for this population the action is more complementary than inherently persuasive.  However, protests like Kaepernick's may ignite embers that are relatively dormant. If this occurs the protests do promote the cause.  The protests may even sway some who have been made aware of the alleged injustices because of how the spotlight shines on the protestors.

However, the actions can also have a polarizing and counterproductive effect.  Instead of making all aware of injustices it may create or highlight tensions that exist between ethnic groups. The result is less kumbaya and more animosity.  The American flag is important to many so to not honor it is to inflame emotions of some people. They will become less likely to support those who have been victimized because of prejudices.

Is there a legitimate cause that is worthy of this protest?  Strong yes and strong no which is, admittedly equivocal.  Yet the answer makes sense.

Yes, there are government representatives who are prejudiced to the extent that they take actions against some populations when they would cut slack to others.  Absolutely, positively.  This is against every principle of an allegedly egalitarian society. It is reprehensible so shouting loud and clear about the offense is called for. So, the answer is a strong yes.

But the strong no is equally loud.  It is tough to be a cop.  And by gesturing as they have the protestors implicitly criticize all police officers who have an extremely difficult job. It is an insult to the hard workers who are working to protect us all.  When I grew up a guy on the first floor was a police officer.  His son was a good friend of mine.  The idea that Eddie, the dad, was anything other than a hard working person trying to do his job was absurd.  So, when I personalize the protests it does not sit well with me. I imagine Eddie watching Kaepernick kneeling and how this would anger him.  And how justified he would be to become angry.  It is absolutely wrong to stain the entire police force for the actions of some.  The next time you are burglarized or beaten, you are going to want a cop to track down the perpetrator.  How would you expect her or him to address your concerns if you had been sending the message that all cops were nogoodniks?

In the 60s it was common to hear the revolutionaries refer to police as pigs.  I remember my dad being furious at this.  Always telling me how unfair it must be to a guy like Eddie--a hardworking cop, a black cop in a white 1950s police force, in a city that was not Mayberry, who walked a beat daily-- to have to hear that nonsense.  Is it that much different now.  How would you feel if you were a hardworking cop?

In sum,

Does Kaepernick have the right. Absolutely positively.
Do I think he should have done it in the first place? you could make a good case. There have been prejudicial police behaviors.
Do I think he should continue to do this? I think at this point the negatives outweigh the positives as it has become a polarizing issue.
 Is his cause legitimate? Strong yes and strong no.

Monday, September 12, 2016

right here, right now

My recommendation to those who read Kate Atkinson is to try and read her books in a short period of time. The novels are complex with multiple characters some of whom are from prior books. Within a paragraph the reader finds allusions to Julia, Josie, and others who've had assorted relationships with Jackson Brodie--the main character.  The plot lines are complex. It is in one's best interests to not pick one of her novels up unless you can dedicate a day to it.  Otherwise you are forever re reading sections that you have already completed.

I have likened reading her novels to going on a roller coaster. After the one I just finished, When Will There Be Good News, it felt more like trying to stay on a bucking bronco--not that I have ever tried to do that.  It may be that I feel this metaphor is apt because--despite my recommendation--I was unable to read this one straight through. I read the first 100 pages in a gulp, but the next 150 I read in spurts during the course of a work week. I read the last 100 plus in a short period, but I probably did not get all the nuances, kept getting thrown off the Bronco.

One thing that a reader should definitely do is read the four Jackson Brodie novels in sequence.  I read the fourth one first, and then the first, second, and third.  Had my memory been better I would have known reading this third one, about what happened to a central character in it because she was mentioned in the fourth.  I only know this now because after I finished I checked out the fourth on Amazon. You can put in a word or name that might be in a book and find any place where that word or name is mentioned in the book.  I thought this one character might be familiar so I typed her name in and sure enough something that provided a surprising pivot in the third would not have been surprising at all had I had better recall.

All this is preface.

I highly recommend this book if for no other reason than its message at the end. And, I confess, I did not feel the impact of the novel until I finished it and read one of the many glowing excerpts from reviewers.  Laura Miller, a reviewer from Salon wrote "The novel satisfies the question in its own title. The answer is: Right here and right now."  This is likely cryptic to those who have not read the book, but when you complete it you will see why this is a walloping and accurate synopsis of the message.

It is tough to nutshell the novel without giving away much, but I will try. As always I'll warn that if you want to know nothing about the story, you might want to skip to the next paragraph.  In the Past (the title of the first section) a young family is walking home through a field from a trip to the market. A madman attacks the family in the field: killing the mother, infant child and daughter of 8. A six year old daughter is somehow able to escape.  This event happens right in the first ten pages.  When the book goes to the present (titled Today) we find out that the six year old has become a doctor and has married a shady fellow. She, Joanna (call me Jo), has a baby. Joanna hires a teenager to help care for the baby. The teenager became an orphan when her mother died in an accident. The teenager has a ne'er do well brother who is nothing but trouble with a capital T.  Enter another victim of a mass murder, the policewoman who is still trying to catch that perpetrator (the policewoman happens to be Jackson Brodie's love interest from the last book), a train wreck, switched identities, arson, and a disappearance.

In short, a whole lot of bad stuff goes on. At the end we readers learn the answer to the question posed in the title: Right here and right now is when there will be or could be good news.

When Will There Be Good News is wild. Atkinson can sometimes be exasperating, but I am glad I started reading her Jackson Brodie series.  This one will stay with me for a long time.