Saturday, August 31, 2013

Book Review: Beautiful Ruins

"The pieces of his broken life lay on the ground before him like a mirror that had always stared back, but which had now broken to reveal the life behind it."

There you have it. I have, with this excerpt from it, given the book away, at least as I see it. Yes there is a story--a complex one at that. But the point of this novel is, as the title suggests, that we are--after our time around the track-- like beautiful ruins.

While this book has received rave reviews, I thought "Land of the Blind"--another of Jess Walter's novels and the only other novel of his that I have read--was a better read.  There are a number of interesting stories in this book and some wonderful peripheral characters.  However, the story itself--tough to buy.  The presence of real people in a work of fiction seemed odd.  The plot linking the lives of the characters tough to believe.  Also, the confrontational all hands on deck scene in Northern Idaho just was too unlikely and convenient.

So, I did not think the story was so extra, but the point I believe is worth considering.  Not all lives are ruined and fractured.  But many are. And those of us (and I include myself) who do not try to close the gap between what they want and how they live suffer because of it.

dysfunctional family

When I heard President Obama's speech today I knew what the reaction would be.  If you were an Obama supporter, you would likely be inclined to comment that he is doing what a leader of a democracy should do--ask for the constituents' consent. If you were an Obama detractor, then you are likely to think that the president does not have the spine to make the tough decisions, or that fighting another war is wrong, or something else.

I am certain that had the president announced that we were going to attack Syria, then the supporters would have said making this strong decision from the executive office was the right thing to do and one should not ask the congress for its opinion (democracy be damned), and the detractors--the same people now who are calling Obama spineless for not making the decision unilaterally would be squawking about the absence of consultation.

 As Vonnegut was wont to say, "So it goes."

Later in the day, after I heard the reactions from congress and constituents, I thought of an incident that took place when I was in college after a particularly contentious intramural football game.  An aside here that intramural football at my school was no small potatoes. We did not have a football team at the time, and therefore the players who played in the top intramural league were often high school athletes that had some meat on them.  The rules were barbaric.  No equipment, and you could not tackle--two hand touch, but everything else was like a tackle football game. The line could rush the quarterback as soon as play began, all forms of blocking were legal, you could "two hand touch" a player by essentially plowing into them.  It was tackle without the pads.  The fraternities each had their teams and these games were often huge clashes with more fans watching KB play EEP, then those coming out to follow, for example, the wrestling, swimming, or volleyball teams.

KB had played EEP to a 6-6 tie.  Nobody wanted the tie.  KB had been ahead until near the end of the game when EEP scored.  EEP tried to throw a pass for what would have been the winning extra point, but it was unsuccessful.  Sore, bruised, and unhappy KBers and EEPers trudged back to the cafeteria for dinner.

I, a KB player, happened to sit with a bunch of EEP players for the post game meal. Lots of grousing despite my presence.  "The refs sucked", "Charlie was playing dirty", "Howie was holding on every single play", "You gotta admit, Zeke, Buster is a dirtbag"-- stuff like that was spewing from the EEPers.

At one point a fellow named Curt said, "Goddamn it. We should have tried to pass it in for the extra point instead of trying the damn kick."  Someone notified Curt that EEP did in fact try to pass it in and had not tried the kick. Without missing a beat, still scowling, and without any sense of the humor Curt barked, "Goddamn it. We should have tried to kick the extra point instead of trying the damn pass." (I'm cleaning this up by using the word "damn").

As any leader will tell you, if you recommend x, your detractors are going to scream for y.

Many posts on facebook were related to the president's speech. One was from someone I respect and like very much, but I could not agree with his sentiments.  He contended that what happens in Syria is Syria's business--not ours. Let Syria take care of Syria.  I heard a similar comment today from one of the Democratic congressmen who opposes Obama's position.

What happens in Syria is not just Syria's business.  Think of the world as one big dysfunctional family. Because that is what we are.  Syria is a political construction as is "The United States"  "Great Britain"  "Chad".  Yes, different governments have evolved and borders have been established (unless you slept through high school you know they change quite a bit), but these are arbitrary really, evolving constructions.  Syria is not really a different entity than say, Jordan. Its terrain might be different, leadership might be different, but because it is north and west of Jordan does not make it different. And we are all connected.  What happens in Syria is NOT just Syria's problem for the same reason that what happened in Germany in the 1930s was not just Germany's concern.

Like any family, there are some exasperating siblings.  In some families, some siblings are more than exasperating, they are destructive and can tear apart the relationships of the family.  Let's say your son is beating up his wife.  Do you say it is their problem, not yours. Of course, not. If you have a neighbor who is beating up his kids, should you say it is their problem.  Of course, not.

I've written about this before, but it is worth restating. THERE IS NO THEY.  We are all part of the same family of humans, a dysfunctional family, yes. But we exacerbate problems when we conceive of others as not part of us.

You may not agree that we should use force in Syria, but I think the reasoning behind that argument cannot be that it is their problem.  If Assad is killing little kids with chemical weapons, we cannot turn away commenting that we have our own headaches. This is one of our headaches.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Open and Shut

My excursion to the US OPEN had an unusual twist this year.  I did not get to see much tennis. We three high school friends who annually reconnect at the tournament spent much of the time waiting for rain to stop.  To avoid the long lines created by heightened security--a thank you to the miserable Boston Marathon bombers and all those lobotomized who believe there was some sort of rationale for that inhumanity--we arrived early and, for the first time in our fifteen year history of going to the event, got through the gates before a single match had begun.

It was, at the outset, bright and sunny.  Lots of great energy with people attired in summer and tennis garb. Straw hats, smiling faces, and mostly athletic looks.  There are three main stadiums at the OPEN plus dozens of side courts where matches take place. We found seats in the Armstrong, the second largest of the three main facilities, and my favorite.  A woman from Poland was dismantling a competitor from Spain.  She won the first set 6-0. The second was closer and I was again taken by how good the players are. The loser was pounding the ball such that the winner sometimes seemed to get knocked over in an attempt to retrieve the shots. Nevertheless the Spaniard lost the second set as well. We moved to the Grandstand, the third largest of the facilities, where two very tall thin men were whacking the ball and trying to behead their opponent should there be an attempt to come to the net. Within two games it started to drizzle.

Rain in tennis is not like rain in football or even in baseball. In football they'll play through anything. In baseball, a little drizzle is not going to stop a game.  But in tennis, the players' footing is key and slipping can be disastrous for a career.  So, the umpire suspended the match.  We, and all the rest, left the arenas.  Fortunately, because I and my cronies have some affiliation with Chase bank, we were able to go to the Chase hospitality suite and wait out the rain drinking ice tea, lemonade and a water concoction that I had never seen before--water with cucumbers.  This must be the drink of the elite.  We thought the hospitality was a good deal until we figured out the interest rate on our credit cards and the amount of money our savings are earning in our banks.

Four hours later we went back to watch tennis and it started to rain again. We returned to the Chase hospitality center.  When it stopped raining I had consumed more ice tea than anyone needs and, more significantly, had only two hours of tennis left to see before I had to catch a plane back to Boston.

So, was it worth it?  A pretty penny to get tickets to the OPEN.  Took an AMTRAK down the prior day, spent the night in Manhattan, then flew back after the event.  Nice couple of shekels to see a few sets of tennis.

Still the trip was worth it. I got to see my buds, spent some time in Manhattan with my brother, and had breakfast with a college friend with whom I have shared many philosophical discussions since we were in our early twenties--including musings about our "forever girl", that is, the woman we had met prior to the wizened age of 22 who, alas, had gotten away.  Also, at the OPEN I was part of a large congregation of people who shared the common interest in sport.  People travel from all over the world to come to the tournament. At the Chase Center I'll bet that five continents were represented.  Despite nationalities, ethnicities, political orientation, it was a day spent with those who enjoy tennis--and probably sports in general.  And it felt good to be immersed in the atmosphere created by the gathering.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Book Review--Men in Black

So, let's say you were trying to make it as an author and you were struggling.  Few were buying your books. Your family has to eat, so you start writing something using another name. A reason, if not the main reason, for using the other name is that what you were writing to make ends meet was nonsense and embarrassing. You did not want to associate the real you with a bogus message.

But what happens is that the book you wrote as someone other than you, sells like hotcakes. And the non-you becomes in great demand for interviews. You parade around the country as someone who is not you--continuously confronted with the fact that who you really are is a failure and who you are not is a success.

Do you reject who you are and become this person who you are not?  And if you do glom onto the lie, do you forever skid away from your emmess, your truth, and inevitably detour and suffer a series of accidents?

I've now read two books by Scott Spencer neither of which are those identified as his masterpieces, and I am hooked. And depressed. This second one, Men in Black, while having an ending just a bit too tidy for me, is hanging around like gum on my shoe.

Am I a liar?  Are we all liars who have traded in our emmess for what might sell.  And has this infected us if not irrevocably, inevitably.

I once heard a political speech live, and then overheard two listeners nod their heads at each other and say almost simultaneously, "Can he speak!"

Well, Spencer can write.  Excellent ability to describe and capture moments. Even minor characters are depicted in a way that makes them seem very real.  As I wrote above, I think the end for these characters might be different, as in quite a bit different, than the ending of Men in Black would lend you to believe.

Still an excellent read.  Of course, you might spend a day or two--or longer--after you finish the book wondering if you have skidded away from who you are and spent too much time as an imposter for the sake of what might be selling at the time.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Last year I blogged about a high school buddy who had been the best player on my JV basketball team. He, Phil, was the only player who eventually started on a college team.  And we had a lot of talent in our high school.  I'd written that he had passed shortly after his 60th birthday.

On that team I was the second or third leading scorer.  The year before I had also been on the team, but then I'd been the 14th man on a 15 man team. We had to be up 40 or down 40 for me to get into a game.  When I played with Phil, a fellow by the name of Fred Banta was who I had been the year before.   Way back on the bench.

The thing was that Fred was a terrific athlete.  He was a year behind me, but I'd played with him in pick up games throughout high school.  Very talented. Somehow he was way down on the bench. I think he became in his last years in high school a starter on the varsity. Regardless, more than a great athlete,  I remember Fred as a great guy, a gentleman even as a young man.  Smiling, friendly, smart, responsible and kind.  Always pleasant, considerate, and--apparently--happy.

Throughout high school he had dated the same woman, one of the cheerleaders.  I read a few years ago that they had married after college and saw some pictures from a reunion. The two of them were smiling like they had as teenagers.  Some gray around the ears, but still looking full of joy.

I received a forwarded note this evening. Fred succumbed to pancreatic cancer a few days ago.  Age 62.  I did not know Fred that well and may not have even seen him in person a single time since high school.  But I remember him well and can see that genuine smile.  I might not have said a word to Fred Banta in forty six years, but I know that this news means that there is a loss for everyone, as trite as that might sound.  Fred was a positive force in our universe.

Seize the day.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


In sports betting, the over-under refers to the anticipated sum of both teams' scores in a particular contest. So, for example, if the Patriots play the Jets the over-under could be 60.  A bettor who decides to bet the over, is betting that the two teams collectively will score more than 60.  A final of 31-30 makes the bettor a winner; 31-28 and she or he is a loser.

Over-under bets result in otherwise unexplainable cheering in casinos.  There can be a good deal of shouting for a team down 54-0 as they march for a meaningless touchdown in the closing seconds of a game.  A novice observes the shouting viewers and can't understand the commotion.  If you understand the over-under, and it is at this hypothetical 60, then a last minute "meaningless" touchdown in a 54-0 game can make someone richer or poorer.

What if there were over-under wagers in other aspects of life.  Your neighbor marries a ne'er do well and you cannot imagine what she possibly can see in him. You figure the over-under is 18 months before they seek out the lawyers.  A pal of yours who is notoriously late tells you that he will be at your house at 6 pm. The over under for how late he will be is 25 minutes.  Someone declares for the entire world to hear that he is going to go on a diet and lose the forty pounds he has gained by drinking malt beverages and opting for the fries over the vegetables every time he gets a burger.  The over under could be how much weight he actually loses, or how many days he lasts on his diet before he snorts a plate of onion rings.

Charlie, always an irritant, comes to a department meeting.  What is the over-under on the minutes it will take for him to aggravate a majority of attendees.  A big mouth at the session is recognized and you bet on the over-under regarding how many words the big mouth will utter to respond to the simple question:  Do you prefer plan A or plan B?

This type of wagering could spice up department meetings, conversations in your clubs, interpersonal friendships, and even your own relationships. What is the over-under on the number of times you will have to ask your spouse to make sure the towels are done before they are taken out of the drier?  What is the over under on how many items from the store will be forgotten after you send her or him out with a list?  How many times will you have to tell your spouse, in a given week, to shut the light off in the bathroom before you say, "shut the goddamn light off in the goddamn bathroom?" What is the over-under on the next time there will be physical intimacy.

Las Vegas is missing out on a real market here.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Book Review: The English Teacher

Is it possible to be held hostage by an event in your past?  And is it possible to become liberated if you confront and acknowledge the incident?

A while back in a blog I gushed about Lily King's book, Father of the Rain. It was so good that I went to the local library to take out another of her novels.  The second book, the English Teacher, is about--well an English teacher. She works at a private school, is a single parent, and against her instincts decides to marry a suitor.

I liked the book and enjoyed some sections particularly.  One that describes her behavior after a death is very well written and captures expertly, at least as I imagine, her interactions as they would have been.  However, while Father in the Rain was and is the kind of book that makes you want to grab a stranger and tell her or him to read it, I don't feel that way about The English Teacher.  The symbolism is a little heavy--it begins when the hostages are taken in 1979 and ends when the hostages are released.  And the message is not that profound and could be captured in a few pages.  We can be prisoners of our history and, unless we take steps and embrace the love around us, our sentences can be interminable.

This book, like Father in the Rain, deals more than a little bit, with the perils of drink.  I read an interview with the author and that--plus the centrality of drinking in the two novels--makes me wonder how bruised she may have been by people who used alcohol as an illusory balm.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Book Review: Land of the Blind

I can go through months and not read a book worth reviewing let alone recommending.  On this, sadly now finished vacation, I've read several that I think others would like. Land of the Blind by Jess Walter is one of them.

Started it late on Friday and read a few pages. Then picked it up on Saturday morning and it was off to the races finishing it on Sunday night.  A page turner, obviously, but the story and messages have stuck around for a few days and I suspect will take on greater weight as time goes on.

There are some negatives. The story revolves around a man in a police station who claims he wants to confess to a crime.  He asks to write down the confession. And then, on yellow pads, writes over half of what becomes this book in a few days.  Well, nobody can write so well and so much in a few days.  So that part is difficult to accept.  Also, the story while beautifully told is not especially different from other tales of this ilk.

But the positives are many.  Excellently written (and therefore preposterous that someone could write it in a couple of days on yellow pads).  Some sections belong in a hall of fame somewhere. The one that stands out to me occurs when the main character is contacted by a high school interest and he is very excited about the contact.  She suggests they meet for lunch and he is delighted. She shows up with her husband and the few pages that describe their conversation and his discomfort are special.  In addition to the writing, the character of the detective is nuanced and, to me at least, engaging. I understand she appears in another of Walter's books and is not the "lead" in this one, but when she appears I like how she is drawn and the insights the author attributes to her.

The story, while in some ways predictable, is so well told that I find myself today thinking about how he is going to fare and what she is going to do.  Can one see better in the land of the blind once they refocus their vision?  Can one be blind to love and be blinded by a desire to be perceived inconsistently with one's self-perceptions?  What does Eli mean by his insistence that Empire is not a game?

Even if none of these questions occur to you, you'll like the way the book reads and probably, as is the case with me, want to read his other books.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

century 21

I am perched at an outdoor table on the patio of Au Bon Pan in Harvard Square.  I sit here and see what must be as diverse a population as there is on this planet.  Right in front of the patio is a gray haired fellow with a guitar who must be collecting social security. He is crooning Dylan's, Just Like a Woman hoping that some of the pedestrians will drop a shekel or two in a basket that sits in front of him. Directly across from both me and him is Harvard Yard.  It is an absolutely gorgeous day in Cambridge.  Not too hot, sun shining, and everyone has come out.  It is nothing short of a miracle that I found a parking spot a very short walk from where I sit here and write.  More miraculous is that  because of what our ancestors would have found unbelievable I am, without any chord or wire, connected to the world as I type on something we know as an ipad.  When I am done, I will push a button and anyone in China, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, and anywhere else, if they were so inclined, could read what I am writing.

Promenading in front of me in both directions, at this instant, is an amalgam of humanity that could not be believed unless you were sitting here. A guy in a bowtie and straw hat just walked by looking for all the world as if he wants to be a stand-in for Dan Akroyd at some point. Another fellow in white shirt and black pants is looking at his hand-held as if trying to locate where the bar mitzvah is where he is supposed to be bussing dishes.  A crew of ice cream eating folks are talking and dribbling  onto their napkins. To my left is a guy who has decided it is high time to post an enormous sign that reads, "Vivisection: Wasted Money and Wasted Lives."  To my right, at this very instant is someone I know  to be a street person. He has found himself a couple of bagels which he is snorting as he gets out of the sun with his stroller which, sadly, has what I imagine are his entire belongings strung to the rolling device.  A group of protestors have just walked by chanting "Impeach Park" holding signs with the same message.  A tiny kid is doing jumping jacks in front of the singer.  A wise five year hold is dancing to the tunes.

Century 21 it is.  A device no heavier than a couple of pounds allows me to type while I watch this stream of humanity, a stream so heterogeneous in terms of age, race, and I imagine wealth and interests that this would be an antropologist's dream seat.  The chess players to my right, the yard in front of me,  the unicyclist in the pit outside the newstand.  I left my home in Waltham twenty five minutes ago and have seen more people since I have begun this entry than I do in an entire month walk up and down my street.

The protestors are back. Still want to impeach Park. A white bearded man who looks like old Bible books used to picture as God is knocking back some water.  It's worth it to come to Boston, just once, to get a look with your own peepers on this delightfully wild scene.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Book Review: Man in the Woods

So, let's say you killed someone.  And you did not mean to.

And let's say you are a good person and the person you killed was not. And what prompted the action that resulted in the killing was that the victim was doing something incontrovertibly reprehensible.

And let's say that you are involved with someone who is as kind and loving to you as you are to your lover.  And let's say because of nothing other than hard work and a good heart your partner has come into some big money.

And finally let's say you are likely never to get caught for killing the bad guy.

Are you out of the woods or in the woods?

This is an excellent book.  Very well written.  The characters--even the peripheral ones--are multidimensional and the subplots well developed.  The story is suspenseful and engaging on the plot level--that is--"what will they do" "will they give themselves up." "will they get caught."  Beyond the story line there are messages aplenty.  Are you ever out of the woods if you have, even inadvertently, killed someone?  Is God on your side (there is a well done, religious theme that is part of the novel) if you have killed someone who had it coming?  Is there anything more predictable than how seemingly insignificant events can have dramatic effects?  Is anything, anything at all, insignificant?

Had the day-off yesterday and was on a long plane ride the day before, so I read the book in a concentrated period of time.  It is going to hang around a while.  Powerful ending. I never heard of the author but I know now--thanks to Google--that he has written books that are supposedly better than this one and I look forward to reading them.

Worked at a camp once where my co-counselor was in charge of the pioneering program.  He was a character--cartoonish actually.  He was forever telling the campers, "In da woods dere aint no luxuries"
We would kid him and the refrain became a standard joke.  "In da woods dere aint no luxuries."  Not a joke here. Despite an abundance of apparent pluses--wonderful spouse, beautiful home, plenty of money--there are not going to be any luxuries for those with a conscience when we have done something so wrong and are, ineluctably, in the woods.

Highly recommended.