Music Monday: “People Are Crazy”

“People are Crazy,” by Billy Currington. The bones of Christian theology are contained in this song.

I have little time for most “sacred music” and absolutely no time whatsoever for that particularly awful stuff marketed as “Christian Music.” I do however enjoy the fusion of the sacred and secular that is at the heart of true country music – Willie Nelson following up “Whiskey River” and “Bloody Mary Morning” with “Uncloudy Day,” or Hank Sr. singing “I Saw the Light.” Here faith and life are real, not syrupy and trite. It is music with an authentic edge and voice.

I do not know much about Billy Currington,  but I do know I love this song. You could write a three volume systematic theology based on this song .

Volume one: “God is great”
Volume two: “Beer is good”
Volume three: “People are crazy”

Book Review: Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn

boysofsummerThe best baseball books are autobiographical. This is because baseball is the most measurable of games. We can look at a player’s statistics and the box scores of games and know the bones of the sport. The flesh of the sport is in autobiography.

The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn is two books. The first part is a memoir about growing up in Brooklyn, what the Dodgers meant to the writer and his father, and about what it was like to cover the Dodgers as a young reporter. The second part consists of chapters devoted to different players. Kahn, like Ritter in The Glory of Their Times, tracked down players to find our what their lives were like after the Brooklyn Dodgers. In Ritter’s case, he was meeting men he had only read and heard about. Kahn was reacquainting himself with men he already knew, or thought he knew. The two parts combine to create the most critically acclaimed baseball book ever written.

Kahn covered the Brooklyn Dodges for the New York Herald Tribune for two seasons, 1952-1953, as the beat writer. This was the Brooklyn Dodgers of Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, and Gil Hodges. This is the Dodger team that lost two World Series in the row to the Yankees. These are the Dodgers of baseball legend, when New York was the capital of baseball.

Kahn is a remarkable writer whether he is exploring his relationship with his father and their shared love of the Dodgers or is chronicling the after-baseball life of Dodger great Carl Furillo. He tells his stories with love and compassion. The result is literature that even a non-baseball fan could love. For a baseball fan, this is one of the top two or three books ever written about the game.

Of Movies and Imagination

I have always thought of movies as the laziest of arts. I do not mean their creation. I have seen movie sets. I know how many people it takes to create only a minute or two of film. There is nothing of laziness in that.

I am thinking of those of us who watch them. Where reading a book requires you to be actively engaged in the creation process, movies are handed to you in their finished form. The imagination part has been done for you. All you need to do is sit back and take it in.

When I pick up a novel and begin to read, I am really picking up a blueprint of sorts. The writer might describe a character but his or her final form is left up to my imagination. The Sherlock Holmes of my imagination never looks wholly like the Sherlock Holmes of yours. This is even more so when the writer is someone like Hemingway who often provides no description of the character at all. We create out of our imaginations everything that we see in our mind’s eye.

In a movie, the director takes care of such things for us. When Ethan Edwards comes out of the sun-baked desert toward the shaded house in The Searchers, he is John Wayne. John Ford imagined the scene for us one way and it happens just like that– for us and for anyone else who sees the movie. It is perfect, but requires nothing from us and we contribute nothing to it. For this reason, I am an impatient movie watcher, and generally speaking a reluctant one.

If it sounds like I am saying that film is a lesser art form, I do not mean that at all. The written word, ultimately, is limited. It is limited first to those who can read, then those who can read that particular language, and finally to issues of interpretation and meaning. Reading after all is always interpretation.

Film as a visual art can transcend the limitations of language. I could watch an Akira Kurosawa film in Japanese, understanding none of the words spoken, and still be haunted all my life by certain scenes. In this way, film is iconic like painting and universal like music.

Each art form has its limitations and its strengths. When we engage different arts we expand ourselves, open ourselves up unfettered to truth and beauty. Each art uses us in different ways. Poetry and prose primarily use our imagination then our ears. Movies primarily use our eyes and then our ears. When we live a life immersed in all the arts, we are constantly changed and challenged.



Spring on the Big Two-Hearted River

Fly fishing rod with polaroids pictures on wood backgroundEvery spring for more than 25 years now, I re-read Hemingway’s “The Big Two-Hearted River.” It is to my mind the best story about fishing ever written. It is also one of the 5 best short stories ever published.

In the early 1980‘s my friend Bob and I camped and fished the Escanaba River in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He was summering in Minnesota at that time and I was in Saginaw, Michigan. In honor of Hemingway and friendship we met and spent a week drinking, fishing and camping on the river. Where we camped, just below a bend in the river, there were wild raspberries. In the evening we ate trout and raspberries and drank Jim Beam.

Hemingway’s main character in “The Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick, was a bait fisherman. It is a personal failing I have always been able to overlook, but I know there are real fly-fisherman out there who cannot. I wish that I could be a purest about fishing, but I can’t. In fishing as well as in beer and bourbon, I am no snob.

I think I remember reading one time that Hemingway’s typewriter had a broken space bar so that he always had two spaces between words. Even if that were not true, it should be. Hemingway writes closer to poetry than almost any prose writer I know. Maybe it was having each word so isolated on a sheet of paper.

When you are standing in a stream fishing, you can look down and see the stony bottom. In the summer light each stone seems to glow with colors unlike any of its counterparts. When the light is right sometimes you see the smooth shadows of trout moving across the rocks. When you reach down to pick up a rock that especially catches your eye you always find that it is much deeper than your eye tells you it is. When you pull it up, it is a wet jewel that dazzles. But in the air it quickly dries and its color fades. When you toss it back in, it blinks and dances to the bottom. Resting again among its kind in a different place upon the bottom of the stream, it re-acquires most of its former glory.

I do not get to fish much these days. I know there will be a time when I will get to fish again. When I will be able to stand in a stream again and feel the tug of a trout on the end of my line.

I do not get to fish, but I can still read. So I re-read “The Big Two-Hearted River” every spring and I remember the rivers and streams I have fished from Montana to Michigan. I remember trout I have held wet and  trembling in my hand. I remember long summer afternoons and cool mountain mornings. I remember beauty and the way beauty can renew and recharge you. I read “The Big Two-Hearted River” and it is spring again.

Book Review: The Glory of Their Times, by Lawrence Ritter

GloryofTheirTimes2Anyone who loves baseball and knows how to write wants to write a baseball book. Baseball is the most literary of the sports. It’s long season, the un-timed nature of its games leads inevitably to stories– of past games and past players.

Lawrence S. Ritter was an economics professor at NYU and an editor and writer of economic books and journal articles. When baseball legend Ty Cobb died in 1961, Ritter realized what few others did: with each passing year, more of the early greats of the game would be gone… so would their stories and the stories of the deadball era game.

Between 1962 and 1966, Ritter travelled 75,000 miles to interview players from the early days of baseball, sitting for hours recording their tales with his tape recorder. The result, The Glory of Their Times, is the single best book every written about baseball.

The key to the book is the method Ritter used. He turned on the tape recorder and let the players reminisce: tell their stories without prompt or interruption. Only later did he edit. The result is magical.

Men who played just before World War I and after, who played in the first World Series, who played when baseball was truly the national pasttime, who played to escape deadly jobs in mines and slaughterhouses, who were hall-of-fame legends and were teammates and opponents of hall-of-fame legends, tell their stories in a way that can only be called lyrical and literary in the best sense of both those words. You are drawn in and carried along like the best novel, while the dozens of photographs Ritter includes from the men he talked to and other old sources illuminate and delight like the best non-fiction books.

Ritter invented a genre of sports books. Many people have done it since, but no one has done it as well. If I was starting a baseball library from scratch, I would start with this book.

Of Baseball and Books

baseballIn honor of the upcoming baseball season, I will be reviewing baseball books. There are good and even a few great books written about basketball, football, and hockey. But in baseball there are so many more.

Baseball is at its root a game of conversation. The long season, the timeless nature of the games themselves, leads inevitably to conversation. In the dugout, players and coaches tell stories about games and plays they have seen and players they have known. They talk about all the important and unimportant things in their lives in the way you can only talk to friends and people who share the very same histories, interests, passions, and skills. In the stands, fans do the same. Many of the stories are the same. On the radio and on television people are paid to talk about the game.

Over the last few years, with the strike, the steroid scandal, the proliferation of teams being able to literally buy a world series, my interest in the game has waned. But my love of baseball and of baseball books has not. Middle-aged men enjoy looking back at the glory of their youth. My youth and young adulthood coincided with some of the best baseball ever played. No doubt every generation has felt the same. You see it in the literature that surrounds the game. Men remembering their youth almost always feel that the best time has passed.

Over the next few weeks, I will be reviewing what I think are the best books about the game– non-fiction for the most part but a few fiction books all the same. 15 days to opening day. It is time to think of baseball again.

Utterances of the Heart

grecoIn the rabbinical tradition at times of calamity and great suffering, Jews are advised to read three books:

The fact that the most important passages of these books was written in poetry is no accident. For it is poetry, and poetry alone, that can truly give voice to the utterances of our hearts.

“How lonely sits the city
that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
She that was great among the nations!”
(Lamentations 1:1)

“The old men have quit the city gate,
the young men their music.
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to
(Lamentations 5:14-15)

Poetry operates in the realm of emotions and feelings. It is the language of love, and longing, and grief, and fear, and wonder. When someone says they do not “understand” poetry what they mean is that their way of approaching poetry is not letting them “feel” poems.

The way poetry is taught… that a poem is a puzzle to be riddled out… is part of the problem. The larger problem, though, is a spiritual one. As we become more secular as a culture, poetry becomes more and more difficult to approach and appreciate.

On Re-writing Poems

W.B. Yeats reading

W.B. Yeats reading

Years ago I remember reading that Yeats would constantly re-write and re-work even his most famous published poems. At the time I read that, it sounded like the most insane thing I had ever heard. Why go to all the work to make a poem, to get it right, have it set into type and published only to go back and shake it all up again? How could you progress, I thought, or grow, if you kept returning to earlier things and re-doing them?

That is what I thought at age 23 or 24. Now that I am more than 25 years further down the road I understand why he did it.

I have re-written and re-worked poems for years and decades. That is probably one of the many reasons that I have been so reluctant over the years to send out what I have written to be considered for publication. At the most basic level, I do not think of any of my poems as truly finished.

It would be easy I suppose to say that it is because none of my poems are really good enough to be considered finished. Often in my most melancholy of moments– and I have many of those– I have interpreted my compulsion to re-visit and re-work in just that way. But that does not explain why a poet as great as Yeats would do the same thing to poems that were already beautiful.

Yeats understood that each poem he wrote changed him as a poet. The new poet looked at his old poems and said: “now it will be what is should be.” We re-write and re-work because each thing we write changes us…. and being changed, we return to old poems with new perspectives and new ideas.

On Re-Reading Auden

Auden-collectedFor a couple of summers in my early 20s, I worked for the United States Forest Service. In the summer of 1983, I worked on a trail crew in the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness in southwestern Montana. At night, long after my fellow crew members were asleep, I would lie in my sleeping bag reading W.H. Auden’sSelected Poems by flashlight.

I still have the volume. It has browned with time and is as dog-eared as you would expect a volume to be that had been tied to a mule and hauled along the Continental Divide Trail.

Flipping through it now 27 years later (!), I read lines I underlined all those nights ago. Memories of the mountains and my youth mingle with Auden’s words.

Sometimes I will read a line I underlined or boldly starred and wonder, why did I think so much of that line? this other one is clearly the better?

That is the nature of art. Just as we can never step into the same river twice, we can never re-approach a work of art exactly the same. We are different each time we read a poem, stand in front of a painting, listen to a song. We are different because we have been changed by time, experience, and by the work of art itself, and all the other works of art we have encountered and been changed by.

I read Auden differently now because I have read Auden.